This was one of my final two pieces for Hot Press after writing for them from 1993 to 2005 [I’ve been back just the once since]. This was for the Hot Press Annual at the end of 2005, beginning of 2006. I had been lucky enough to get the Whipping Boy cover story when Heartworm came out in 1995 – I’m still not sure why I got that gig but someone with more gravitas must have been unavailable – and this was a reunion for their reunion ten years later.
In October of 1995, Gerry McGovern ended his Hot Press review of the then-forthcoming Whipping Boy record with a simple, striking statement: “Heartworm is one of the best albums I’ve ever heard”.
Now rock writing is no stranger to hyperbole, but not here. Not even the slow, painful, implosion of the band over the following five years could deny Heartworm its place in the pantheon, and no-one reading this needs to be told: last year saw the hotpress.com membership vote it the seventh best Irish album of all time. Meanwhile, the newer wave of Irish bands, most publicly The Thrills, pay homage whenever possible. Whipping Boy have, on the strength of an impossibly great album and a disappearing act, become mythical.
Paul Page and Fergal McKee sit across from me, on the eve of their madly anticipated Cork, Dublin and Waterford reunion shows. We’re talking about Heartworm’s poll position, and they are both proud – “Heartworm could have been just another album by a band who were nearly the next big thing, and the album was then forgotten about; the history of Irish rock music is littered with that,” says Paul – and in two minds.
“It just keeps on getting in the way, you know, of other music,” says Fergal, who released a solo debut song, ‘What You Wanna Start’, on MP3 in February 2005. “The whole Whipping Boy thing – will it ever fuck off, you wonder,” he says. “Now, it’s Fergal McKee, you know what I mean, it’s not Whipping Boy. Whipping Boy is another thing. That’s what I thought at the time, you know. But what’s come out of it is kind of interesting,” he continues. “To be able to come back, and be able to play again. You do feel very humbled by it, or feel overwhelmed by it. You don’t expect that, so, it’s a joyful thing.”
Joy is a word you might not have associated with the Whipping Boy story until very recently. They split up in 1998, and in 2000 released Whipping Boy, a largely unheard album so titled because, by then, the band members could not speak civilly for long enough to come up with anything else. It was the worst sort of Let It Be nightmare.
Arguably, the nadir came in 2000 when Fergal and Colm Hassett booked a show in Cork using the Whipping Boy name, although Myles McDonnell and Paul Page were not involved. When asked, at the time, about his relationship with his ex-bandmate, Paul replied: “I have nothing to say about Fergal”. They did not speak for five years.
“The band as an entity had stopped communicating before that,” says Paul. “We recorded the third album, and at that stage, getting over the finish line with it was a major achievement. All semblance of normal band life had broken down. And I suppose, maybe it’s a bit like a marriage where the couple are heading for a divorce, and they think, maybe another child will keep them together. Maybe we thought going in to record that album, if we get through this album, we’ll stay together. It’ll do something for us. The reality was, the day we finished recording that album was the last day we spoke to each other.”
Then that was it, until, on the tenth anniversary of their finest hour, they made the decision to reform. Paul takes it up.
“Well, it wasn’t anything to do with the fact it was ten years. It was a bit of a coincidence. But, you know, we spent a long time totally adamant that we would never get back together. Then, as time goes by, you realise that you’re really only denying yourself something that you want to do. And it was just silly stuff that prevented it. This year it just seemed that everyone had softened in their attitudes. It was the right time.”
Paul is eloquent on the gap in your life that breaking up your band leaves. “It really hit me hard. It’s only when I look back on it now I can see what an impact it had on my life, even outside of music. I just wanted to stop. I stopped playing music for a long time. I hated going to gigs. When I went to gigs, all it did was remind me of the good days I had with Whipping Boy. I’d be there, and I’d be burning with envy. The few gigs I went to, I inevitably came away from them feeling depressed. The better the gig, the more depressed I felt.” Fergal is pragmatic about what you do with the leftover creative energy: “You join a trade union! You take on management,” he laughs. “You use it in another way. You cause shit for the people who cause shit for you.”
But still: the history of reunions in rock is woeful. Bands return, make repeated threats to do the right thing and record, and play tour after tired tour of 15-year old songs. (I’m thinking of The Pixies. Make it stop!) When Whipping Boy come back, will there be new work?
Fergal gets in first. “Well we can’t really say that for certain, can we? As such, yet.”
“No,” says Paul. “When we got together, there was no plan really beyond playing these few gigs. I think we’d all like to think that Whipping Boy could write and record a new record. If I didn’t think, at the time that we were asked, that there was that glimmer of hope, I probably wouldn’t have been as interested. Because I don’t really get the whole reunion thing, generally. Many of the bands that I’ve seen reunite have been very disappointing. House Of Love – really bad. I saw The Stranglers a few years ago, but they had a different singer. I think there has to be some vitality and point to a band’s existence. Just getting back to play three gigs, it has a nostalgia value, and maybe on a very selfish and personal level, that you want to get out there and play together again. I’d like to think we’d record. But come January, after the gigs, if we don’t feel a spark, we probably won’t do anything again.”
And that’s got to be the spark between the four of you. You’re going to get encouraged – the Olympia is going to erupt whatever you do.
Fergal nods. “We know in our own hearts and our own minds what works. There’s no point in trying to do something just for the sake of it. The most important thing is to come back, say hello and say goodbye, at these gigs, you know, and then see what happens. We can’t plan further ahead than that. We’ve all got lives, other dependent lives, and all that. And especially if we come back and do another Whipping Boy album, it has to be good for ourselves. There’s no point in us coming back just to make a few bob. We’re not going to do a fuckin’ – I won’t say an Aslan…”
You can say “an Aslan” if you like.
“I wouldn’t like to become a Devlins-type band, you know what I mean?”
“They’re an atrocious fucking band,” laughs Fergal. “At least Aslan have a bit of passion, you know? And a bit of belief in what they do. There’s no point in coming back just for the sake of coming back. It’s a musical journey. Where that stops, no-one knows. You can’t plan these things out, if you start planning things it all gets ruined. The karma goes.
“So you just take it step by step. That’s the way it should be. The magic will keep on going forward, anyway. That’s the whole point. Ideally, there’s lots of things I’d like to bring, and there’s lots of things that Paul would like to bring. If the four of us get that energy together again, then it’ll probably all come true. I can’t be selfish and say I’d love to lead a rebellion, or whatever, you know what I mean…”
Which you might have been guilty of in the past…
“Yeah,” smiles Fergal. “But let’s make music: that’s basically it. See what happens after that. Although I do think it’ll be nice when we’re auld boys, to be up on the stage at 66. Meet you in 30 years’ time. Once every 10 years’ll be enough.”