Dermot’s Alright: The Rooney Story

By Alain Chamois, music writer and composer.

I was scanning along my CD shelf a few weeks ago, and came across an EP by the band Rooney, called Got Up Late. It has a Binatone clock radio on its cover, exactly the same clock radio that John Peel has at his bedside (he said so once). It also has sleeve notes on the reverse by myself, a collection of reminiscences of my encounters with the band, and it’s many line up changes, over a seventeen-year history up to that point. The EP also has a crack on the top right corner of the plastic CD case, and the CD holder inside has two of it’s twelve teeth broken off, making it less efficient at keeping the CD in place. I was therefore pleased to be asked to write this radio programme celebrating the many ups and downs of Rooney. “Only you can speak for them, Alain,” the producer said, “only you heard their voice calling out in the desert.” She emailed me though, rather than phoning, and she used another person’s email address to email from, which was a bit confusing.

The moment of Got Up Late is the pivotal moment in the history of Rooney, their first intelligible utterance. I was there at that moment, being asked to write the sleevenotes as the record was being recorded in Newcastle-under-Lyme in the summer of 1997. I was working for The Sentinel newspaper in Stoke at the time, and in 1996 I had interviewed the guitarist Paul Rooney, singer Dermot Bucknall and bassist Kim Tunstall for my music column for The Sentinel. I interviewed them in Paul’s flat in Newcastle, while sitting on a red velvet-look sofa that converted to a sofa bed, though it did not look as if it was a convertible, so to speak, and I did not see it’s conversion to verify this. The sofa had two matching velvet-look cushions. The band sat on foldable wooden chairs. They had just watched a video of a Herzog film, The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, based on a true story, which the band enthusiastically explained to me. In 1828, an odd young man was found standing beside a Nuremberg street with a letter in his hand. Kaspar Hauser, as the Nuremberg inhabitants would later learn, had spent his entire life (he was believed to be 16 or 17 years old upon his ‘arrival’) in a dark little chamber without any human contact besides a black-cloaked man who would bring him bread and water. He was without language of course, apart from one sentence. Dermot repeated the sentence to me in hushed tones as he stared at the blank TV screen, “I want to be a rider like my father”.

The EP Got Up Late marked the first time Rooney received radio plays and reviews, but the record also bears the marks of their seventeen years in the wilderness. All of Paul’s songs on the EP describe particular experiences remembered from that time and even events remembered from before the band started in 1980, such as the song Went to Town, which is based on a diary entry that describes a visit to a pub in Liverpool in 1979:

Went to town and had a shandy in the new pub in Bold Street. I wanted to have a coffee but they didn’t serve them there.

The mild annoyance of having to drink shandy instead of coffee prefigures, and becomes a surrogate for, the pain of rejection, invisibility and creative restriction that the then 12 year old Paul was to suffer in the coming years. The drum machine’s bossanova rhythm on the chorus, however, offers a glimmer of the exotic, an escape from the quotidian. The line in the second verse about almost dropping some chips on the driveway, can be seen as symbolic of this period, a period of grasping on to whatever hope was available, refusing to let go. The video for the song, made in 1999, uses shots of the original diary entries from 1979. This was the period when Mervin Goodnight was the singer in the band (real name Zacharia Buttle), who would only sing songs that mentioned shandy or chips owing to a peculiar superstitious disposition. None of the other songs from this period, such as Lunchtime in the Woodcroft Pub and Rang the Takeaway, survive as more than memories.

That interview for the Sentinel was the first that Rooney had given with the new line up, and the band were happy to talk about their past as if to extricate it’s possession of them. Paul formed the band in 1980 when he was 13 years old, but never the less recruited the 32 year old Russian émigré Igor Tallinin as vocalist, along with 12 year old Kim Tunstall, who lived on the same estate as Paul, on sound effects and bass. Paul’s 13 year old school mate Paul Whickstead was recruited mainly because he had one of those ‘Simon’ seventies computer games, which was used in a few early performances. The music during this period mainly consisted of short wave radio noise, guitar feedback, Simon bleeps and Igor’s peculiar wailings. The band rehearsed in Paul’s bedroom, fuelled by tea and rich tea biscuits. Dunking was popular for a while, but after too many soggy biscuit accidents a non-dunking rule had to be enforced, and Nice or Garibaldi biscuits were encouraged. Paul’s mum worked at Jacob’s Biscuits in Aintree at the time and so mint flavour Clubs were also in plentiful supply. The first Rooney gig took place at the Cut Chaff Pub in Ormskirk, Lancashire, in October 1980. Kim tied her father’s Hibernian scarf to her bass as a good luck charm for that gig and for the future of the band, though it rarely brought her father any luck at Hibs matches.

A cassette tape of some of the early musical experiments, Distant Sense, was released (or two copies were made for friends) in June 1981. Tracks included Every Man for Himself and God Against All, Three and a Half Minutes, I Had a Psychosomatic Voice and One Time It Might Come Back, and Song for the Little Mermaid. These are the English translations of Igor’s Russian titles, less songs than collections of sound effects of smashed cups, crumpled polythene and acoustic guitar pick up distortion. The polythene bags used were more often than not bags from Lewis’s department store in Liverpool, as they always had the required crunchy sound, though some stalls in Kirkby market also used similarly good crunchy bags. The household goods and hardware stall in particular. I saw this line up at the Milk and Saucer pub in Stepney around 1983, shortly before Igor left the band. Though I was unable to properly comprehend the experience, I described the gig briefly in a review for the fanzine Fluff, which I also quote in the sleeve notes to Got Up Late:

…At the end of the gig Igor collapsed on the stage, falling back into his table full of vegetable instrument/props behind him, sending radishes and brocolli flowers cascading onto the stage. All present were glad to see this hasten the end of rodney’s (sic) performance, and there were audible sighs of relief from the small audience as the band left the stage.

Igor is currently in Kent working in a Marigold factory, the people who make the washing up gloves.

The Got Up Late EP features a song called Walked Round The Estate that retrospectively describes some events from around 1984, and the song’s melody comes from that period. It was used at that time on the track Shrubbery Conspiracy, on the 1984 cassette album Spreader on Pope in Chain Mail Records. The band released all of these recordings, during the seventeen years before 1997, on their own under various false label names, and rarely made more than one or two copies, mostly for themselves to listen to. During the particularly hot April of 1984, Paul stayed out in the sun too long, and wrote in his notebook:

Wet morning and then later was bright, the sun shone throughout the afternoon. Sat in the back yard. I got my skin burnt; it’s my fault for staying out too long. I never thought the April sun could be so hot, I’ll know the next time.

These lines later found their way onto Walked Round the Estate as the last verse. The chorus refrain, one that usually ended the Rooney gigs of the late nineties, describes just about every afternoon for the band during the eighties:

Went down the bottom shops,

Bought a magazine, read it all,

Then walked round the estate.

In 1986 Paul moved to Edinburgh to do a course in Drawing and Painting, but still kept the band going, with the Stiffed tape in 1987 and the odd gig. He chose Edinburgh because it had been mentioned in The Fall song The NWRA: “In Edinburgh I stayed on my own for a few days, wandering about in the, er, pissing rain, before the Queen Mother hit town”. However, the strain of travelling and the requirements of his course meant that the band split up, and Paul did not get a line up together again for another six years. The period in Scotland did eventually provide plenty of material for that rejuvenated Rooney though, including a song on the Got Up Late EP based on a trip to see The Wedding Present at Glasgow Barrowlands in 1992. Paul and his girlfriend stayed in a moth ridden hotel room, came across Scouse ticket touts at the gig and a secretary in the queue who was particularly pleased with her career trajectory: she worked for Strathclyde University, who had very good contracts for clerical staff at this time. The song is Touts, and it provided the line that was to become the Rooney motto, and the title for the band’s first distributed album on proper CDs in 1998: Time On Their Hands. The song goes:

Touts at the Barrowlands were selling tickets all night.

T-shirts as well.

They came from down south to flog all their tickets;

It was strange to see them up there.

I guess some of them live there, Glasgow’s full of English exiles

With spare time on their hands.

The song called Spot Fine, later to be released on the album On Fading Out in 1999, also reminisces on Paul’s experiences in Edinburgh, particularly at the town’s Waverley station and Central Library, along with memories of fare dodging in Kirkby and Milan, Italy.

Itching to make music again and keen to turn these experiences into songs, Paul resurrected Rooney in the summer of 1993. The advertisement for band members went up on the notice boards of Curly Music in Liverpool and the student’s union at Staffordshire University in Stoke, where Paul worked, and Paul also had a friend who was studying in the Fine Art department, Jack Kettlewell; the owner of the Binatone clock radio. It is always best to bring along some drawing pins when pinning information on notice boards like this, rather than assuming you can pinch drawing pins from older notices, or assuming you can use old Blue Tack from other notices that have used an excessive amount. You are risking having your notice fall off because of insufficient adhesion if you skimp in this way. The Stoke notice was the most productive, in that it provoked responses from Mollie Dresser, Dermot Bucknall and Sergio Briars, who, with Kim and Paul, made up the unchanged Rooney line up for the next four years. Mollie only stayed for three weeks, however, she left disillusioned with the melodic nature of the new songs: in her eyes they were therefore politically compromised. She was replaced as singer by Dermot soon afterwards. None of them were auditioned, beyond Paul meeting them for a cup of tea at the Staffordshire University students union Odyssey Bar and warning them of the dedication needed and the hardships ahead. Paul was particularly impressed by Dermot, who described how he had been making music since the age of six, but had only learnt to speak aged twelve after suffering the condition of ‘selective muteness’, during which the sufferer makes a conscious decision not to speak. He was only referred to a speech therapist after attending the accident and emergency department of a Macclesfield hospital when he was twelve, after falling off a garage roof.

One of the first songs written by Paul during this period was Throw Away, later to appear on the Time on Their Hands album, which opens with the verse:

I can spend hours staring at the carpet in my room,

Looking at the fluff and small bits of splintered wood,

And the carpet is stained in places with glue.

In one part it has a Stanley knife cut.

The lyrics had by this time become recognizably ‘Rooney’ lyrics, focussed to an obsessive extent on small, mundane moments and observations, necessitated by the band’s circumstances, and by their Northern punk ethos of honesty. The cut caused by a Stanley knife may have actually been caused by a paper knife used to cut card on the floor, and after having seen the cut it is too clean to be caused by anything like a chair leg, however hard the chair was dragged across the carpet. The carpet was cheap blue cord, which cuts very easily. The song also incorporates out of time and out of tune piano playing by Kim’s four-year-old daughter Ariel, recorded on Crosby beach.

The band would occasionally send tapes to record companies, and this quote comes from an unusually non-standard reply letter from this period by Dave Balfe, ex of the Teardrop Explodes and head of A and R for Columbia:

…By the way, to the best of my memory, I have never in my long career received demos from an act which includes material recorded over a 15-year period! So, congratulations – you have achieved a record of sorts.

When I was working briefly for The Scotland on Sunday Magazine in 2002, I asked Paul to do an Instant Karma column in the magazine, one of those regular question and answer columns. At this point I will read out some typically self-deprecating excerpts from it as an indicator of the reality of these years of touring and cassette releasing:

Question: Feel the burn or yogic breathing?

Answer: Neither. I have had a lifetime of abstention from exercise, touring the country crammed into a Fiat Panda with the other members of the band ‘Rooney’, balancing an amp on my knees. Unless you count scissor kicks and guitar-thrashing windmill arm movements of course.

Question: Push in or queue up?

Answer: No need to do either. At one Rooney gig in Oldham the landlord went out onto the streets offering free drinks to people who would come in and see us play. He felt quite paternal towards us I think.

Question: Grow your own or take-away?

Answer: Home made take-away. As with everything in my life, I approach food with a punk ethic. As do all of Rooney; ‘The Three Chords’ café in Dundee, opened briefly in 1988, was bass player Kim Tunstall’s bid to put the Sniffing Glue ‘learn three chords then form a band’ ethos into the world of catering. Chips, beans and cheese were the only constituent ingredients, tastefully presented. The customers could warm up the plates themselves on small camping stoves, if they did not like cool plates.

Question: Gospel or gangsta?

Answer: A previous drummer in the band, Pete Millerand, escaped from a Jesuit seminary, and he ended up running a garden centre in Port Sunlight after leaving the band. This period was the closest we have been to gospel music, as he persuaded me to get a choir in to sing on the song ‘I Hate That’ on the cassette album ‘Carpet Tile Shelf Bracket Scenario’ on Barbed Kitchen. The choir refused to do any gigs and have not been in touch since, sadly.

The Scotland on Sunday never published Paul’s Instant Karma column, finding the honesty of his responses ‘disconcerting’. The band briefly had a manager in the mid-nineties, Brian Silver, who looked after the band’s booking arrangements, part time, from 1994 to 1997, before going back to run his garden centre in Fazakerley on a full time basis. He would sometimes arrange gigs in places like Anstruther in Fife, in which case the band would get the train and store their equipment in the goods van, not ideal when trips meant changing trains at Preston, for instance. The Panda, rightly, was not trusted for journeys longer than 100 miles. The song Time of Day describes a small moment from just such a trip in 1995, involving a buffet trolley:

One of the trains I took today

Had a buffet trolley on.

I had to wait quite a while

For the trolley to reach me

And then when I needed to

Get to the toilet the aisle

Was blocked by the trolley.

I saw one of their gigs in Wigan in 1994, which was an improvement on the 1983 outing, and was marked by the singular approach of the new front man, Dermot. At one point in the gig the band finished a song and started one of those endless endings of guitar noise and crashing symbols. It was at that point that Dermot Bucknall started singing his own amended version of a KISS song over the top of the wall of feedback that the rest of Rooney were creating. Dermot was prone to launching into strange cover versions during performances, and the rest of the band barely flinched at this bizarre choice. The lyrics seemed appropriate however, as the venue, Wigan Miner’s Arms, was housed in a former Methodist chapel…

God gave rock and roll to you, gave rock and roll to you,

Put it in the soul of everyone.

Do you know what you want? You don’t know for sure.

You don’t feel right; you can’t find a cure,

And you’re gettin’ less than what you’re lookin’ for.

You don’t have money or a fancy car,

And you’re tired of wishin’ on a fallin’ star.

You gotta put your faith in a loud guitar.

Hear the screaming all round you, screaming they call silence,

Put it in the soul of everyone (oh yeah).*

Dermot could not remember any more of the lyrics than this chorus and first verse, but this was enough. The Wigan audience, for the first time during the set, stopped barracking the band and a respectful silence briefly descended on the room as the feedback subsided, the silence only broken when a half full plastic beer glass was thrown at Paul Rooney, covering his guitar in froth. It was one of those glasses made of really thin plastic, the type that crack really easily: and those types of glasses are very easy to squeeze, which can cause spillage when the glass is full. Dermot stayed on stage after this but refused to sing, not uttering a word for the rest of the night.

Paul moved to Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1996, I’m not sure why, I think in order to be nearer the rest of the band, and promptly set up The Halibut Recording Studios in his flat, which consisted of a four track mini-disc recording deck and a guitar practice amp. This flat, the very place that my Sentinel interview took place in 1996, became the catalyst for the emergence of Rooney from the years in the desert. That flat also became the subject of many of the songs that found their way onto the first two CD albums, such as Used to It, and it’s third verse about the bedroom walls:

The walls in my bedroom are painted greyish pink.

There are three shades that have been scumbled with a rag.

It must have been the tenant who lived there before me

Who had the bright idea to decorate in this way.

It’s dull and messy but I’ve got used to it.

The song Pale Yellow affectionately describes an old TV set, in the same bedroom, and it’s inability to pick up Central TV very well:

It is a black and white set.

It’s reception’s bad,

Especially ITV which

Keeps on fading out.

The EP Got Up Late was the first glimmer of light at the end of the Rooney tunnel, it was followed by another EP using lyrics based on descriptions of found photographs, and the 1998 LP Time On Their Hands. The line up changed once more in 1999, Ian Jackson and Colin Cromer taking over from Kim and Sergio who left to run a hardware stall in Newcastle market, and Paul taking over the vocal reigns from Dermot who was imprisoned. He failed to pay a fine for persistent noise pollution after his habit of late night busking with a PA. Dermot rejoined for a gig in Manchester in 2000, but after a strange turn on stage, involving a Norman Collier impersonation, left the band again, and has not been seen since. The comic Norman Collier used to have a part of his act that involved the mimicking of the effect of a faulty microphone, inserting short silences into his speech whilst keeping his mouth moving, leaving broken fragments of words. Halfway between muteness and speech, it was always the funniest part of his routine. The band stopped releasing CDs and playing live after the traumatic experience of that gig, but recently a new line up, including new bassist Paul Rafferty, has started gigging again, and there may be more Rooney material in the offing [this has still not materialised – Ed]. I certainly hope so. Low-fi and low-ambition they may be, but the new century needs a band like Rooney, and more than that, it needs their story of perseverance in the face of seemingly impossible challenges.

I recall a moment in that interview in 1996 when Dermot told of a woman he had met once, in 1987 I think he said, when he was walking around The National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. When Dermot was looking at a painting of Saint Cecilia, the woman came up to him and said: “Don’t you hear that horrible screaming all around you – that screaming men call silence?”

She started talking about Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music. “I know all the saints I do, and I never even learned about history. She loved music she did, played her organ every day.”

The woman had grey hair, a whisker on her leather chin, and seemed to be around 50 years old. As if Dermot was an old friend she went on to talk about her husband who, on hearing of her pregnancy a few years before, seemed to have been struck dumb; he could not or would not speak. After the birth, she insisted on calling the child Dermot, and asked what her husband thought of the choice.

“Dermot’s alright” he wrote on a piece of paper, and suddenly, amazingly, started speaking again, repeating the words; “Dermot’s alright, Dermot’s alright.”

“That’s incredible, my name’s Dermot,” Dermot said, but the woman did not respond.

“Excuse me, I must go up there,” she said, pointing to the staircase leading to the second floor, and off she went.

Dermot recounted the story staring out of the Newcastle flat window, and after finishing he stayed standing there, not saying another word for the rest of the interview, which was nearly over anyway. I was not able use any of it in my final piece for The Sentinel, of course.

The perfect song to close this story is on the third Rooney CD album On the Closed Circuit, and is called Noise Into Silence. It is about the library of cassette tapes of Rooney song releases (and songs taped off the radio) that Paul had accumulated over the previous twenty years, all deteriorating into hiss. It is these songs, these experiences, that have provided the background for the Rooney that we know, and this should not be forgotten: even though the tapes, and the memories, are fading out. The song’s first verse and chorus provide the fitting end to this installment of the tale, a story that goes from years of silence into noise, so to speak, and will eventually, though not too soon I hope, turn back into silence again.

When I play my old cassettes in my room, I get nostalgic.

Though it’s difficult to hear some of the songs above the hiss.

Over all the years the tapes have been degrading very slowly.

Eventually they will be far too brittle to even play.

My favourite songs

Are all on these old tapes that one day will

All perish to nothing.


Alain Chamois © 2002

* Lyrics by Stanley, Simmons, Ballard, Ezrin.