They were later portrayed as a
mod band, but the Blades were formed in the cauldron of the punk era
in 1977, in the south Dublin neighbourhood of Ringsend. With Cleary
on bass, his older brother Lar on guitar and Pat Larkin on drums, they
made their name with a series of raucous gigs at the nearby Magnet bar.
|"Playing the Magnet in 1978, you
felt like you were part of some movement. It was a time for non-musicians
to express themselves, and working-class kids as well. We weren't privileged,
but you make your own room. We were proud that we made space for ourselves."
A short-lived singles deal with the Energy label followed before Larkin and then Lar departed, allowing Cleary to switch to guitar, bring in drummer Jake Reilly and bassist Brian Foley and add a brass section in homage to Stax, Motown and Dexy's Midnight Runners.
It was this line-up that produced Downmarket, arguably Cleary's finest moment. With its mournfully defiant tone, it captured 1980s-era Dublin in all its gloomy, fatalistic solidarity.
Political without being preachy, stirring without being trite, the Blades had by the mid-1980s built up a fanatical live following. They signed a $100,000 deal with the American label Elektra after Andrew Loog Oldham, the A&R man and one-time Rolling Stones manager, saw the band at the Lisdoonvarna festival. Their debut album, The Last Man in Europe, was recorded in 1984 with John Porter, the Smiths' producer.
In a climate that had made stars out of the clunkier Paul Weller and Billy Bragg, Cleary seemed poised for fame, but the band ended up in limbo. Elektra sat on the album after it was recorded; it was given an Ireland-only release on Reekus. Having built up the Blades as an alternative to Dublin's bloated rock scene, Cleary suffered the same record-company indifference that stifled the U2 wannabes.
"That was stomach-churning, the way it happened," he says. "I think the deal itself was rum. Andrew Loog Oldham was contracted to sign five bands worldwide a year and he signed us with alacrity. It was a bit too easy.
"But when we made the record it dawned on me that there was little or no interest from Elektra. We kept hearing about personnel shake-ups in the company, and once that happens you're in trouble. The biggest regret was losing that record contract: the whole thing dissipated like candy floss. I was partly responsible for that because I should have called it a day then, but I said we'd have another go."
The band soldiered on until 1986, releasing the diverse and satisfying retrospective compilation Raytown Revisited; they made one last grand gesture, shunning 1986's backslapping Self-Aid concert. Though Cleary was blasted at the time for his stance, Christy Moore, a Self-Aid headliner, has since backed him.
Cleary's subsequent band, the Partisans, produced some decent material, but he knew his chance at success had passed. Even after the advance, Cleary says he wasn't left with much money after paying for the recording; by the end the grind of touring for cash got him down. At the same time, even his local fame was making him uneasy. "I thought maybe anonymity wasn't such a bad thing," he says.
In 1989, Cleary packed in the rock game altogether, and found himself writing questions for quiz shows and composing signature tunes. After 12 years of songwriting, he turned his back on his talent.
"I was very negative," he says. "I listen to other songwriters who have failed, in inverted commas; there's a cycle where you don't listen to contemporary music at all and you feel bitter. You feel you've given 15 years of your life for nothing. I shut the door and said that's it.
"But gradually your real self comes through. You stop blaming people, the record companies, agents, and the blame game finishes. You realise that for every hundred bands only one makes it. It's like being a footballer. For every David Beckham there will be 99 Paul Clearys who got their shot but didn't work out."
Now, though, Cleary says his interest in songwriting has been reawakened by the forthcoming CD release. Though he remains on good terms with Foley and Reilly, there is no question of a Blades reunion or even any solo shows. "I'm reluctant to spit out my fortysomething angst," he explains.
It's a typical Cleary statement. For all the empathy and spirit of his music, he has always steered clear of sentimental nostalgia. But even he admits that his past is worth revisiting.
"I have mixed emotions about the whole thing. Of course I would have loved to have been more successful, but God knows how I would have ended up. Sometimes I look back and I regret I ever did it. Other times, I feel quite good about it. There's a body of work there, songs that I'll stand over. At least I left my smudge."