INTERVIEW: CIARAN GRIBBIN ON INTERPRETING THE BEATLES FIRST FIVE (AND OTHER MUSICAL ADVENTURES)

Adelaide and Beatlemania have always gone hand in I wanna hold your hand. The pop fanatics of this city who turned out in their hundreds of thousands when the moptops first visited our city, are still fiercely loyal to all things Fab Four related.

Good crowds at Beatle themed shows in Adelaide are usually guaranteed, as are the hundreds of Adelaidean names surely now on the ‘bring Paul McCartney to Adelaide’ petition that was in the news just recently.

So, taking our long-established Beatles fervour into account, ‘The Beatles First Five’ show, which is scheduled to hit the stage of the Entertainment Centre on September 16, should be a high energy night of excitement, nostalgia and animated sing-alongs.

Irish singer, Ciaran Gribbin will certainly be doing his best to make sure that this celebratory tribute to most of the songs from the iconic albums Please Please Me, With The Beatles, Beatles For Sale, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! will be a memorable night for all who rock up.

The Upside News caught up with the Grammy nominated, sometime lead singer of INXS on a rare, but still busy, day off, and asked him about the show and his career in general…

 

The Upside News: Hi Ciaran, how are you going?

 Ciaran Gribbin: I’m good, but I’m pretty tired! It should have been a day off because I’ve been gigging these last few days, but I have been doing a bit of press and stuff today, and I’ve been doing a bit of recording with a mate. So on our day off we’re still doing stuff.

TUN: Sorry to take some more of your time away – you sound like you obviously need some beauty sleep!

CG: Oh, to be honest, man, it’s good because if you’re doing nothing on your day off (laughs) you’re looking for trouble!

 TUN: How is the preparation for the show ‘The Beatles First Five’ coming along?

 CG: Well, at the minute I’m sort of walking most mornings with my headphones on and letting many of these great songs sink in, before I actually learn [to play and sing them].

I know some of them because they’re already in our cultural DNA, but there are few in there that I had never even heard, which surprised me. Its their early stuff – but it’s great man!

It’s always great just to immerse yourself in The Beatles. I’ve done a few of these shows in the past, but this is a new show and one that I’m really excited about.

TUN: So is the song-list simply supplied to you? Or do you have some input into the songs you are going to do?

 CG: Well, the good man, Lindsey Field, who has been around for a long time, he’s the sort of musical director with regards to the choices of songs. So all the singers work with Lindsey on what songs work best for them and talk about all of that stuff, so everybody has input as well. So that means that you can put your stamp on some of these great numbers because they are the ones that were attractive to you. We’ve all figured out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it, so its all great.

It’s good to work with someone like Lindsey, who is such an experienced guy and an amazing singer…

TUN: Yes, he’s certainly worked with some of the greats in our music industry, that’s for sure.

CG: Yeah, and he’s a gentleman.

TUN: Are you the only one of the featured performers who has actually met and worked with a Beatle?

CG: I think so. (laughs) When you say ‘worked with’, well I was blessed just to share the stage. No, not share the stage, but be on the same bill as McCartney. He was headlining a festival in London a few years ago. I was on the bottom of the bill. There was me and a few other artists down there, and then you sort of got onto the big names…there was Elvis Costello, and Crosby Stills & Nash. Crowded House were on the bill as well, which was awesome. And McCartney headlined at Hyde Park.

So to be on that bill was a great honour for me at that time of my career. It doesn’t come much nicer than playing London, Hyde Park, and seeing your name on a poster with Paul McCartney!

Ciaran-Gribbin

TUN: It must have been an amazing experience.

 OK, so even though that experience only represents working with Paul ‘slightly removed’, did that give you the right to pull rank and say you are going to do all the McCartney lead vocals yourself?

CG: Not at all! (laughs) Not at all! I’m pretty easy going anyway, man, with regards to how it all goes.

There has to be somebody at the top who runs it, and Lindsey’s definitely the man who gives us guidance on the songs – especially because he’s such a Beatles nut as well. But I think that is the beautiful thing for everyone who is working on this. I mean, Paul Gray (ex-Wa Wa Nee), as the musical director on stage looking after the band, and we’ve got Rex Goh (ex-Air Supply / Eurogliders), all these legendary guys…Paul Burton, Hamish Stuart – who’ve been around for bloody ever, and played with the who’s who for years in the Aussie music industry.

And all of those guys are not just great musicians and good people, but they are all Beatles nuts as well. So they know the songs inside out. It’s a pretty special bunch of musos who are all into it, so that’s always a good sign, you know…

TUN: And you all feed off each others’ passion for the music, so it seems…

CG: Yeah, yeah…and it’s not like we are trying to imitate The Beatles.

Some songs can be done with two singers on stage, some can be sung with us all, and on some of them there is just one of us on stage with the band, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

You’re getting a different flavour on some of these songs. You know, the arrangements may be very similar, but we’ve definitely got our own slant on them.

There are guys, like Paul, who is just another complete Beatles nut, and it’s good because those guys are so passionate about the show, and you get such guidance from their passion, that you don’t want to let anybody down. It’s a good, healthy culture amongst everybody. It’s brilliant.

TUN: And there’s a lovely mix of voices within the group of performers. Has Lindsey chosen songs for you according to the specific vocal qualities of each of the five who will be singing?

CG: Yeah. I think he’s smart that way. He knows everyone’s range and what song would suit this guy and that guy.

And it’s not until you try and sing some of these songs…and I have to be honest with you, there are some where I thought I wasn’t sure if I could pull that one off, or give it the justice it deserves…but then again, it’s not about trying to imitate the original singer, it’s about giving it your own voice, but obviously singing the same melody.

TUN: There’s a perception about those early Beatles albums that the band were sort of still learning their craft, and therefore, perhaps erroneously, that these records were more basic and simplistic, musically and thematically, than the albums that came later and that have featured in earlier shows of this type. Is that a fair comment, and does the seeming simplicity of the material make it easier or harder to bring them alive on a large stage?

CG: Some of these early songs, yes, may be a little bit less complicated than the arrangements in the latter day songs. But a lot of the early songs…for me immersing myself into them again…what I have learnt about them is that you can hear their influences in these songs. You can hear all these Buddy Holly references in the feel of the songs.

I heard McCartney say in an interview once that there wouldn’t be a Beatles if they hadn’t heard Buddy Holly.

And you can also hear that there was a raw band in the performances that they captured on the records. Those years that they spent, in places like Hamburg, where they were gigging seven days a week, for four hours a gig, that was captured on record.

And there’s a lot of  different styles because they were a gigging band, an entertaining band, so you can hear them playing a lot of different styles from that era when they were trying to get people up on the dance floor as a band in Hamburg.

It’s brilliant. There’s like old English folk in there, the flavour of that sort of cheeky English folk from the fifties, and the obvious influence of rock and roll from America…

TUN: Do you think that’s the secret to it? It’s amazing how Beatles music seems so fresh and vital when much of what came after it, in other eras, seems to have dated pretty quickly, but their music still hasn’t. Why do you think this is?

CG: Well there’s many elements to it all. I think, one, you have a writing partnership in that band that was just freakily good – and that’s at the heart of it all.

Then you had a unique drummer. You know, so many so-called ‘amazing’ drummers in the world laugh at Ringo, but he has his own unique style and that’s rare in a drummer.

And then you ‘ve got George Harrison. He had these gems of songs every now and then.

As songwriters, the blend was unbelievable.

And then they were from an era, man, where they were plugging into…you know, Britain was changing, the world was changing greatly, coming out of conservatism into the new rock and roll. And they were at the pinnacle of it, so they were riding this wave and they were inspiring society just as society was inspiring them. It’s brilliant!

TUN: And, as someone who was born…I think you were born in the mid seventies…well after Beatlemania had abated, and now being a songwriter yourself, how has the Beatles music infiltrated into your own songwriting approach, as someone who came to their music much later?

CG: I think the biggest thing from Beatles music that had an influence on me was the melodies. I am literally a sucker for a good melody. And from a young age, and on first picking up a guitar, you’d be trying to learn this Beatles track or that Beatles track.

I remember us gigging for the first time, and we had a couple of Beatles songs even then, and we were just fifteen.

For our first paid gig in a pub in Belfast, my mates and I, we were learning Beatles songs because we knew that everybody knew the songs and they’d stood the test of time. And we also knew that the songs still worked and would get people up and on the floor.

The melodies were the thing that caught me with The Beatles every time, there was no getting away from a hook, line and sinker, every melody that they sang. And the messages, as well, within those songs…

Fantastic.

TUN: Yeah, we’re probably never going to see that again are we? I mean, is there too much music around these days for any band to ever again have a chance of grabbing the imagination of so many people that simultaneously?

 CG: I think it was a special era, man. I think there is a lot of great, fantastic music around, and great singers and songwriters, I just don’t think we’ll ever see anything like it again.

It was kind of the perfect moment that the world had been waiting for and there wasn’t the same amount of distraction in the world.

Nowadays, as a musician looking at everything and trying to find a way through…if you are an artist trying to find a way through and trying to connect with your audience…most people are distracted by their iPhones, or modern day technology.

So it’s just a different era, but who’s to say? We might be at the start of a new revolution where another band comes along? I hope it happens, and they, like The Beatles, change the face of music and take it off on a tangent.

Realistically, I don’t think we’ve seen a band do that…in fact, it was Nirvana who were the last band to have changed society, you know, in as much as they had loyal fans just in the same way that The Beatles had those loyal fans in numbers that were just freaky.

TUN: Yes, they grabbed their moment and connected simultaneously and so broadly.

 So tell us about the combination of Jack, Paul, Wes, Kevin and yourself (Jack Jones –ex Southern Sons; Paul Gray ex-Wa Wa Nee; Wes Carr – Australian Idol winner; Kevin Mitchell – Jebediah / Bob Evans). Was it management string-pulling that brought you all together, or was it a coming together of peers with a similar passion? Had you worked with them before?

CG: Yeah, well I think that all of us within the band, and the singers, have worked with some of the others on various projects. So everybody knows each other and, whilst there may be times where I might not know that guy, or he doesn’t know me or whatever, there’s a long thread where everyone on that stage has worked with each other at some level. So there is a bit of a thread of something within the whole group of people.

But the key thing, as I said earlier, is a love, particularly with Paul Gray and Lindsey, of The Beatles’ music. They literally are ‘nut’ fans, like, crazy fans. So that’s amazing to see. It’s amazing to be a part of something like that.

Ciaran-Gribbin

 

TUN: Can I ask you a few questions about your career, separate to the show, because you have had some quite amazing achievements that people may not have recognised?

 We mentioned your songwriting before, and you have had some pretty significant achievements in that area working with some pretty amazing people. Tell us just how your collaboration with Madonna came about.

CG: Well, it came about whilst I was thirty-two years of age. I’d been involved for a long time with a young band – right through my entire twenties – and I just decided to focus more on my songwriting at that time.

I was in London working with a DJ who was producing a lot of pop and dance stuff for people like Paul Oakenfold, the DJ, and various other sort of pop / dance people, and it was a case of being in the right place at the right time – which has been a thread throughout my career.

You know, you go out there with no plans like, ‘Today I’m going to write a song for Madonna’. It just doesn’t work that way.

So we wrote a song, and Oakenfold loved what we were doing, so he played it to Madonna and before I know it she’s singing the vocals on it in New York and it’s released as the title track of her greatest hits record, and then Grammy nominations and all that sort of stuff followed.

The knock-on effect of being associated with that kind of artist is just crazy because she’s just such a phenomenon of an artist. There’s very few women in music like Madonna. I don’t think anyone…maybe in the old era of music…but in the modern era of music as a lady, who has certainly ploughed such a long furrow through music.

TUN: You talked about the ‘knock on effect’, so what was the flow on from that? Did it open up some doors for you?

CG: Yes, that was a massive turning point for me as a writer / music producer, and I use all those sort of terms loosely!

I just sort of do music. I’m a performer as well, and I’m a writer. I do a bit of production, so I gained a lot of skills at that time, and experience, from the Madonna thing.

Opportunities just started to come writing for other artists, for movies.

I did a movie soundtrack for a movie called Killing Bono that featured early music of U2 and the U2 story.

You know, people start to recognise you as ‘the guy that did that song’, and one thing leads to another – there’s always a sort of snowball effect. You start to pick up a bit of momentum. And from that point on it has been a bit of an interesting thing for me because prior to that I always felt like I was on the outside looking in through the door, but now I seem to have had so much exposure from just that one thing, just that one little bit of success.

TUN: You mentioned the movie, Killing Bono. Now, that was a movie that was based on Neil McCormick’s memoir about a band that watched with some envy as U2 rose to stardom, if I’m correct. I was in Dublin a couple of years ago talking to some locals about Irish bands like Thin Lizzy, and they were waxing lyrical about Phil Lynott and what a giant of music he was – as he was – and then I mentioned U2 and the conversation dried up a bit. There was that sense that people don’t really warm to U2 in their homeland. What’s behind all that?

CG: Oh man, that’s a big one! (laughs)

I think U2 will always have a place in the hearts of the Irish. I think they always will because they were the first great supergroup of Ireland, on a world scale. So a lot of Irish people were very proud when they were first doing their thing in America.

And I think any career that lasts that length of time, it can’t always be at the top. It can’t always be rosy and sweet.

I have to say, you are either a U2 fan or you are really not a U2 fan.

I think you can’t argue with the fact that they have produced some of the greatest music in that category of epic classic rock music, and there are still bands to this day [who follow the U2 template] – I mean, to me, Coldplay have based a lot of their ‘epicness’, albeit in their own style and it’s more piano driven, to me, to sound like a different form of U2, and obviously have been heavily inspired by U2.

TUN: They were the blueprint for them…

CG: Yeah.

TUN: But that polarisation of opinion just seemed so extreme. When you say that you’re either a fan or not, there are usually some people in the grey area in the middle, but there just don’t seem to be many fence-sitters in my discussions and in things you read on the phenomenon in the press…

CG: Well, Bono is obviously outspoken as a character. And when you’re outspoken there are going to be people who believe what you are saying, and then there are other guys who are going to say, ‘Who gives him the right to get up there and say what he has to say?’, that type of thing.

I suppose there’s that sort of tall poppy syndrome that the Aussies have here. I think you might have inherited that from the Irish!

I’m a proud Irishman, but we’re good at keeping everyone’s feet on the ground and our heads out of the clouds. But, at the same time, it is a beautiful place to grow up and the Irish love of the culture and their love of the music in Ireland is so steeped in the history of the place.

You know, it’s in every family and it’s in every community and has been for centuries. I can hear – going back to U2 – a lot of those epic, big, beautiful melodies that have been inspired by those early Celtic folk songs, the real heartfelt songs of Ireland – the wailing ballads, you know…

TUN: Particularly on their first few albums, where that was very evident wasn’t it?

CG: Yes.

TUN: Moving on from U2 to another giant band – INXS. Tell us how you came to be fronting such an iconic Australian band.

CG: Well, again, no plan.

I met Andrew Farriss at a party and over the period of a few nights we socialised, and the inevitable happened when, at two in the morning, the acoustic guitar comes out and we sing a few songs. And you know…we’re mates!

I went back to Ireland thinking it was wonderful to meet a great guy from such an iconic Aussie band – INXS – who I had loved growing up as a kid.

Whatever happened that night when we sang a few songs together, there was obviously a bit of something there, and then Andrew phoned me up a few months later and said: ‘Why don’t you come down? There’s nothing set in stone, but why don’t you try and come down and we’ll try and write a few songs and you can meet the boys in the band and we’ll sing a few songs and see how we go?’

To me it was like, you know, completely out of the blue. I was completely shocked. I got on a plane for four days and went to Australia, and the rest is history as they say! (laughs)

So we sang a few songs, and before I knew it I was standing on a stage in front of INXS singing these great songs and trying to give those great songs the justice they deserve, with, obviously, a healthy tip of the hat to Michael, who was obviously the singer.

It was very hard for me, an obviously pretty hard place to be, in that position, because Michael was such an iconic rock star in every aspect of what you think a rock star can be. That guy literally had everything and sadly is no longer with us.

So it was a great honour, and that’s about the best way I can describe it. For me, it was just so much fun to stand and sing those songs. I mean, these guys in INXS were the guys I used to watch live at Wembley when I was 14 or 15, with my mates, in my mother’s living room.

So it genuinely is a great honour to now call them mates, you know?

TUN: Is the band still a going concern? Is it likely you will be fronting them again in the future?

CG: Well, who knows what’s around the corner? I don’t know if the band will ever do anything again. You’d have to ask those guys! (laughs) I would hope they would do something again because I think they are, as a unit, as a band together…I had never experienced witnessing that level of intensity of a band that locked, that tight. I mean, those guys had put the hard yards in over many, many years of touring on the pub circuit of Australia and you could tell. They were fused together as a unit. It was wonderful to see that, so I hope that they can do that again.

TUN: So that experience obviously brought you to Australia on a four day plane flight, but then you stayed. Is that how it worked?

 CG: Yeah, I stayed, with my wife and my son and we live down near Wollongong now, and we’ve been in Sydney for the last five or six years, settled in there now, and we love life in Australia. I just think it’s a wonderful place.

I’m obviously still proud of my Irish heritage, but as a place to live, quality of life, and somewhere to raise a family, this is a wonderful place. I get the Aussie humour. I get the old school Aussie way of doing things, the directness of it all. I love it!

I don’t want to be going anywhere else for a long time.

TUN: And the music scene? Is it as vibrant? Are you fulfilled musically here? I mean you were speaking before of that deep musical culture in Ireland…

CG: Yeah, well I think just in the last year or so I have discovered a new-found love, particularly, for the Irish music, and I have recently just started an ‘Irish’ band, where they’re all Aussies on stage with me, all guys who are from around Sydney who are all players, some of the greatest musicians I have ever seen.

We’ve only done about half a dozen shows, but it’s everything I love about Irish music. You’ve got a fiddle, and an accordion and an electric guitar on stage, and a bass. We jam. We don’t rehearse. I just call the songs, and these guys back me up and we go into a pretty organic sort of gig. And we are playing to Aussie audiences, you know, small groups of a hundred and fifty, two hundred people.

So it’s early days of where that can go, but I genuinely love that.

That’s it, at the moment, as far as performance goes. I’m still releasing original music. That fills a need, I have to do that. For me, releasing my own stuff was never about having a massive career, as in being a rock star going out under my own stuff. I just feel I’m a songwriter and think: why write these songs if I’m not going to put them out there? And that’s my attitude at the minute.

I have no desire to tour with the original stuff I do. That might change in the future. But I feel just as a writer, [songwriting] is a way of expression, and you need to let it go, so even if it just goes out as a song on your website, or a YouTube video, well, it’s out there, you know?

TUN: Yes. Your Irish band sounds like it must be great fun, so are you likely to ever bring this band over to Adelaide? And, if so, what’s the name of the band that we should be looking out for?

CG: At the minute it’s just running under my own name. I don’t want to push anything too hard at the moment, but I do know that I have managed to find a really great group of guys who have an immense amount of experience, and the band is really gelling.

I think it needs to do the hard yards, like any good band. We need to get out there and gig and see peoples’ faces. and get the hours up on the clock. Then we’ll see what happens.

At this stage, for me, it’s just great to sing those songs and be in a vibrant band like that, playing songs that I grew up with in Ireland. You know, we do everything from The Dubliners and The Pogues, to old classic songs that are two hundred years old, to U2, Van Morrison, Snow Patrol, The Cranberries, The Undertones from Derry… It’s a real mixed bag, from punk to folk ballads, you know what I mean?

TUN: You are making me want to jump on a plane and come to your next gig!

CG: (laughs) You mentioned Thin Lizzy earlier. We do three Lizzy numbers. We do Dancing In The Moonlight, Whiskey In The Jar and The Boys Are Back In Town.

TUN: All great songs!

 So, Ciaran, I really appreciate you giving me some time on your day off, so perhaps If I could ask just one last question?

 It may be a bit twee I suppose, but if there is one thing about your upcoming show, The Beatles First Five, that you would use to convince anyone who may be equivocating over whether to buy a ticket or not, what would it be?

 CG: Well, I don’t want to single out any of the guys, but every one of the guys who will be singing will be bringing a unique flavour from their own experience of years of performing to these great songs.

It is being done from a place of total respect for these great songs and, in this great band, every one of the musicians who is on stage feels that way. We all want to give it our all, but I think the most important thing is that people are going to turn up and they are going to hear those songs and it’s going to be a lot of fun! It’s going to be a really entertaining night.

And that, for me, is what this show should really be about – celebrating these great songs, played well by a bunch of guys who really want to make the show as good as possible. So that’s it. That’s the message!

 

The Beatles First Five will be performed at The Adelaide Entertainment Centre, on September 16.

 

Tickets are available from Ticketek.

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