All Our Lives Spent Underground: Dublin’s finest music venue remembered

The first time: I bottled it.

Standing at the top of the narrow staircase, I peered into the darkness, looking for some sign of welcome. I recall a blur of flashing lights, the ground beneath my feet literally shaking. A whoosh of noise and heat came rushing up the stairs, spilling out onto the street, and I walked away, too intimidated to make the descent into the unknown. It would be another two years before I plucked up the courage to return.

The prism of nostalgia may convince us of an alternative view, but Dublin in the mid eighties was a grim place to grow up in. Mass unemployment, a thriving heroin problem and the shadow of forced emigration hung over every kid as they progressed through the education system. Hope was in short supply. In times of despair, we often turn to music – to escape and to dream. Dublin didn’t have much back then, but it did have music.

The Celibate Rifles, The Underground 1987

The Celibate Rifles, The Underground 1987. Photo: George Curran

We were awash with it. The live music scene in Dublin during the eighties was at its most vibrant. Punk and its aftershock, provided kids with an escape route. Punk introduced the idea that anyone could make music, that it was no longer the preserve of the technically gifted ‘musician’. By the mid eighties, there was an explosion of new bands following in the footsteps of U2 – new venues were springing up across the city.

The Underground Bar on Dame Street was one such venue. Situated on one of the busiest intersections in the city centre, a passer-by would easily miss it if it wasn’t for the iconic London Underground rail symbol that marked the narrow doorway leading down to its subterranean location.

A tricky, tight staircase (perilous if inebriated) brought you down to a long, narrow bar – immediately to the right and just behind you at the foot of the stairs stood the tiny stage. When the band were playing, a trip to the toilets was fraught with the risk of decapitation. That trip usually involved a well timed duck under the neck of a guitar to make it through.

A particularly animated guitarist or bass player and you might decide to live with the discomfort and hold on until the gig was over. A left handed player on that side of the stage, and you were in business.

Safe passage.

The bar itself wasn’t anything special – it wasn’t plastered with posters or rock memorabilia. It wasn’t a hang out for Dublin celebrities.  It was a place for genuine music fans, there was no bullshit VIP area (incredibly, such a thing existed in Dublin nightclubs, even in the grim 80s) or welcome mat laid out for Dublin scene-sters.

Much of what made the Underground unique was down to the venue manager Jeff Brennan, the man who pulled the pints and booked the bands. Jeff was a straight talking, no nonsense Dubliner who didn’t suffer fools gladly. What you saw was what you got with Jeff and together with his father Noel he gave musicians a chance to grow and develop, treating all the bands he booked fairly while patiently tolerating prima donnas, clueless know-alls and a motley crew of inner city characters that regularly dropped in during the day when the place was at its quietest.

Something Happens

Something Happens

As a new band, securing a headline gig in Dublin was nigh on impossible during that period – the Underground put on bands that no other venue would touch. Bands with no profile, no obvious crowd pulling appeal. That policy ensured that some of the finest Irish acts of that era took their early tentative steps on the cramped Underground stage – bands like Something Happens, The Stars of Heaven, A House, Engine Alley, the Slowest Clock, The Power of Dreams, The Fountainhead,  Into Paradise, Guernica, the Gorehounds, Therapy?, The Fat Lady Sings, the Would Bes – the list is endless.

Acts that achieved varying degrees of success on the national and international stage and influenced a generation of musicians that came after them. On a good night, the place would be heaving, 150 souls crammed into this small space, free from the harsh realities of the city outside.

After last orders were called, the crowd would surface, up the stairs and back out into the real world. But for regulars, the night was far from over – the Underground lock-ins were legendary.  Once that door was slammed shut, nobody got in, and nobody got out – the real magic of the Underground was about to happen. Over more pints, plans for world domination were forged, dreams of sold out stadium tours took shape and a brighter future always seemed within touching distance.

A House

A House

It was here that life long friendships formed, romances blossomed and by the time we stumbled out bleary eyed into pre-dawn Dublin, plans were already being hatched for the next gig, the next night out – very often it would be that very next evening.

When the doors of the Underground closed for the last time in the early nineties, it felt like the end of something truly special, the end of an era. Dublin was changing, the nineties ushered in a period when we started to get notions about ourselves, and places like the Underground seemed like a quaint relic of the not too distant past.

The final night was like something from the film Cinema Paradiso – grown men cried, mementoes were ripped from the walls – someone even laid claim to the toilet bowl; everyone wanted a small piece of a place that had been a big part of our lives as young adults.

Engine Alley

Engine Alley

We knew we would not see the likes of that special place again, and by God, we were right. Dublin was in the early stages of being yuppified and by the time the Celtic Tiger started to roar, the city had become unrecognisable in so many ways.

It is still there, the same doorway, the same spot. It is now a lap dancing bar providing cheap thrills to a different beat. I pass it occasionally, the door invariably closed, a lock-in of a different kind.

The second time: we were just kids, couldn’t get a gig to save our lives. The mantra was always the same: ‘have you got a demo tape? ‘ Of course we didn’t; young and impoverished, we barely had our own instruments. Buoyed only by enthusiasm we concocted a cunning plan. We would try to pass off someone else’s music as our own, choosing an obscure early Pop Will Eat Itself E.P. that we reckoned nobody would have heard of. It was a fool-proof plan – and Jeff was to be our first victim.

We descended the stairs, trying not to betray any sign of nervous trepidation. Seated at the end of the bar, Jeff eyed us with curiosity as we made the long walk towards him, another bunch of greenhorns with stupid haircuts and stars in their eyes.

‘We are looking for a gig – here’s our demo’ we blurted.

‘Yeah, when do you want to play?’ was the reply.

We were not expecting that.

‘Eh, four weeks time?”

‘I will put you down for a Thursday night’ he said, ignoring the cassette on offer. No questions  about who we had supported. No demo tape required. Our first proper headline gig.

That was Jeff. That was the Underground.

Words by Paul Page