Don’t pay the Ferryman

by Maria on September 11, 2009

Chris de Burgh, you are a legend. Yes, you are completely MOR and haven’t changed your music or hairstyle in 30+ years. And yes, many people who are too cool for school are probably embarrassed to admit how much they like you. Not me.

Kids, Chris de Burgh was never the hippest cat, but he has sold a gazillion records in a bucketload of countries. And he makes people happy – crazy happy, in fact, jumping up and down dancing and singing on a Monday night in Dublin where the economy has gone down the toilet, flushed away by a wet and dreary summer. The Irish Times critic was emphatically not happy, however, and wrote a sharp, witty and just a tad ungenerous review of the gig.

In return, the singer/songwriter of Lady in Red (I liked his earlier stuff much better) wrote a letter to the editor with the most good-temperedly vitriolic comeback to a critic I’ve seen in a long old time. It has all the essential elements.

First off, de Burgh gets in a dig against the Irish Times’ former music critic (Joe Breen, who’s actually pretty good – you just wouldn’t want to be Chris de Burgh, is all I’m saying). Then humorously points out how shitty it must have been for the critic to be the only person at a knickerstastically cult-like gig who by definition DOESN’T WANT TO BE THERE.

It’s all very parochial and petty, with the current and previous Irish Times music critics getting the classic small-country put down: ‘my friends know you and they say you’re crap’. But then de Burgh bangs this on the head, asking the critic if his career plan is to continue “to be an occasional critic in a country with the population of Greater Manchester”.

He closes with the classic rejoinder to critics everywhere, fake sympathy for a professional life spent “in the shadows, riffling through the garbage bins of despair and avoiding those who think that you are an irrelevance, an irritation to be ignored and laughed about.”

As fans of Chris de Burgh might agree, the good stuff never gets old.



ogmb 09.11.09 at 3:26 pm

(I liked his earlier stuff much better)



P O'Neill 09.11.09 at 3:49 pm

The de Burgh response is actually pretty good. Whereas the review is essentially just the find/replace version of the review that every rock critic writes for their visit to a concert by Neil Diamond/Johnny Hallyday/Barry Manilow.


Hidari 09.11.09 at 4:29 pm

I dunno bout Johnny Hallyday but I do think it’s slightly blasphemous to compare Neil Diamond to de Burgh. Forever in Blue Jeans is a great song, goddammit! And even Manilow has some kitschy classics, surely? Whereas The Lady in Red ought to be banned under strictures against cruel and unusual punishment.

Talking about ‘I prefer the early stuff’ in the context of Chris de Burgh reminds me of a friend of mine who used to argue, unironically, that Mr Blobby was good until he ‘sold out’, and that, therefore, he was only a fan of ‘early Blobby’.

(Actually, Mr Blobby looks quite like de Burgh doesn’t he? Perhaps they are related).


P O'Neill 09.11.09 at 4:36 pm

Fair enough. For one thing, Neil Diamond does sell outs at Aviva Field at Lansdowne Road (as it now will be) whereas Christy sells out the Gaiety.


Harry 09.11.09 at 4:55 pm

I’m reading this while listening to Cliff (“wired for sound”). Brilliant.
Someone had to one-up you, Maria.


nick s 09.11.09 at 4:59 pm

I feel obliged to link to Frisky and Mannish’s version of “A Spaceman Came Travelling”.

Chris de Burgh: big in Norway, which is how my dad got introduced to his stuff in the mid-80s from someone who worked on the rigs. And the early stuff really wasn’t that bad. In context. Sort of.

Joe Queenan wrote a fairly ungenerous book on the worst bits of American culture, but he reserved praise for Barry Manilow, who has always been a bit of a trouper, and pretty resistant to fashion; the revival of interest in Manilow (first student-ironic, then more genuine) is well earned. I suppose you could say the same about Bruce Forsyth. I’m not quite sure if de Burgh is going to get that second wave, but my parents like him, and that’s fine by me.


Stuart 09.11.09 at 5:38 pm

You wonder what the value is of sending a critic to this sort of concert – it isn’t as if the artist is likely to take a radical new musical direction (and risk losing all the long term fanbase they have), and pretty much everyone will have long ago decided whether the like/dislike the artist, so the article created has pretty much no value to anyone (unless to be deliberately controversial to try and make a name for the author).


margarita 09.11.09 at 6:35 pm

Shorter de Burgh: Apparently Crawley didn’t attend the same concert. Creepy Crawley lol.

Kind of weak stuff, actually.


Ceri B. 09.11.09 at 7:07 pm

Stuart: It may not be likely (and in fact it isn’t), but I keep remembering that mid-’80s teen pop singer Tiffany reemerged in the late ’90s working with folks like Fear Factory and doing music that, while it isn’t what you’d rush to call sophisticated or deep, is really pretty good.


Tom 09.11.09 at 7:16 pm

Life is short and there’s a ton of amazing music to listen to out there. I am struggling to fathom out why anyone, ever, would chose to spend their time listening to Chris de Burgh. I mean, really. There’s whole genres of awesome music out there that take a life time to explore. Why waste it on such a dreadful crooner?

There is no way on God’s earth de Brugh does “knickerstastically cult-like gig(s)”, you’re deluding yourself if you genuinely think that’s true, or you don’t really like music.


sarah 09.11.09 at 8:23 pm

hey! Spanish Train is my party piece!,Spanish-Train.html

A classic :)


David 09.11.09 at 9:13 pm

Wow. Must say that I’ve never even heard of the chap and I’ve been around a long time, with fairly catholic tastes. Can’t say as I’m going to expend any effort looking for him, either.


harry b 09.11.09 at 9:46 pm

Tiffany was pretty good. Even at the time she was obviously a little different from the other girl singers.

Is someone going to say that Tom Jones is no good?


sharon 09.11.09 at 9:54 pm

I’d throw my knickers at Tom Jones any day.


sharon 09.11.09 at 9:54 pm

Whereas Chris de Burgh makes me throw up slightly.


paul 09.11.09 at 11:28 pm

Chris may be a legend, but he is evil:


hidflect 09.12.09 at 2:38 am

The review was misunderstood I think. It had a lot of back-handed compliments to Chris.


Michael Drake 09.12.09 at 3:02 am

I have found I don’t need to rifle through any garbage bins to catch a whiff of de Burgh. That shit carries.

Still, I’m glad he makes people happy. Being happy is important.


Hidari 09.12.09 at 10:19 am

‘I’d throw my knickers at Tom Jones any day.’

I’d throw my knickers at Chris de Burgh any day. Whether he would be happy when he saw my smelly, oversized y-fronts heading towards him is another issue.


Keith M Ellis 09.12.09 at 12:00 pm

Once a musician’s music becomes more an exercise in nostalgia than anything else, all discussions of artistic merit are irrelevant. Well, for those who enjoy the nostalgia.

I live in Albuquerque, NM, which is surrounded by dozens of reservations and their attendant casinos/resorts. Not a week goes by without concerts by 60s, 70s, and 80s bands and people attend them. Could you pay me money to see any of these acts performing here in the next couple of weeks: Lynyrd Skynyrd, or Bonnie Raitt, or Huey Lewis and the News, or .38 Special? No. And I’m very, very poor.

I was wondering the other day if it must be the case that the rise of reservation casinos hasn’t completely altered the prospects of over-the-hill musicians. I suppose that’s a good thing for strictly humanitarian reasons.


mollymooly 09.12.09 at 1:56 pm

Why waste it on such a dreadful crooner?

Thing is, he wasn’t a crooner till his crossover hit, Lady in Red. Before that he made albums which sounded like power-pop covers of prog-rock concept albums, except they were original compositions. The portentous lyrics of Spanish Train or Don’t Pay the Ferryman thrilled many a tweeny mind c.1982 in Ireland.


sg 09.12.09 at 2:19 pm

I don’t like him generally but I really like Transmission Ends.

I think more artists should stick it to stupid reviewers when they do things like this. The reviewer knew he was going to a concert by a crooner, but couldn’t be bothered engaging with it on its own terms.

I once read a review of the movie Troy that complained there were “too many big battle scenes”. One doesn’t pay reviewers to be this stupid, surely?


ejh 09.12.09 at 4:21 pm

Have you seen it? That’s pretty much on the money, though it’s not the only thing there’s too much of.


Steve 09.12.09 at 7:57 pm

The review sounds pretty nice and the response much harsher. In fact, I’m not sure where the meme of a (moderately) famous musician “standing up” to a small-time reviewer comes from, and it seems rather backwards. Art criticism plays an important role – none of us have the time to try all the music, movies, theatre, games, and books in the world!


David 09.12.09 at 9:28 pm

I like Tom Jones and you could pay me to see Bonnie Raitt. And probably Huey Lewis since friends of mine went to high school with him.


rea 09.12.09 at 9:45 pm

Could you pay me money to see any of these acts performing here in the next couple of weeks . . . Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt is pretty good, actually–not exactly a nsotalgia act. Go!


Matt 09.13.09 at 3:20 pm

He was very popular in Russia when I lived there, though more with women in their early to mid 30s than with the kids. People claimed to be shocked when I didn’t know who he was, since he was this clearly famous “western” singer, but Lady in Red was the only song I’d ever heard and I don’t think I’d ever known his name.


nick s 09.13.09 at 4:34 pm

if it must be the case that the rise of reservation casinos hasn’t completely altered the prospects of over-the-hill musicians.

Oh, Butlins has kept 60s bands — usually Merseybeat and soul groups — in work for a long time. You’d get four different incarnations of The Four Tops, each with one original Top, or five different varieties of The Drifters. (The Merseybeat bands seemed a bit more stable in that regard.)


novakant 09.13.09 at 10:06 pm

For some reason 1982 in Ireland will always remind me of Charlene – heavy rotation does things to you…


Keith M Ellis 09.14.09 at 2:40 am

Bonnie Raitt is pretty good, actually—not exactly a nostalgia act. Go!

I can see that. There is, of course, a continuum and there are a few of these kinds of performers who are worth seeing at one end of it.

It seems to me, though, that the relevant distinction here is the point at which performers stop evolving and being relevant within their genre in an ongoing sense. A good test is whether, at a typical show, they can get away with performing mostly new music, or whether their fans demand mostly or entirely their favorites from yesteryear. If it’s the latter, then they’re a nostalgia act. Personally, I can’t think of any popular music act I’d like to see in that context, up to and including (as a counterfactual) the Beatles.

I recognize that I’m snobbish about this and so I’m wiling to accept as reasonable seeing nostalgia acts who are widely regarded to have been very good and important. (Grudgingly.) But .38 Special? Van Halen? I graduated from high school in 1982 and my friends and I were crazy for Van Halen. I’m sorry to say that some of them still are. I find this, well, pathetic. And these concerts tickets aren’t cheap.


Harry 09.14.09 at 3:04 am

Perhaps Keith’s criteria exempt TJ, who keeps on keeping on (Vegas pop’s Dylan perhaps). I can’t imagine he gets away without doing Delilah and Kiss, but he does seem, determinedly, to have kept on doing new things and being permitted to by his fans. Cliff too, really.


toby 09.14.09 at 12:41 pm

Chris de Burgh ain’t half bad since Johnny Logan came along.


PGD 09.14.09 at 5:13 pm

A good test is whether, at a typical show, they can get away with performing mostly new music, or whether their fans demand mostly or entirely their favorites from yesteryear. If it’s the latter, then they’re a nostalgia act.

Bach, Mozart, Beethoven…all nostalgia acts!

Originality and contemporary relevance can come in performing previously written music, not just writing new stuff. Especially since most modern music styles allow for significant improvisation.


Substance McGravitas 09.14.09 at 5:29 pm

Bach, Mozart, Beethoven…all nostalgia acts!

Where I live the folks in the orchestra call the crowds that turn out for this stuff “bluehairs”.


Keith M Ellis 09.14.09 at 9:24 pm

Where I live the folks in the orchestra call the crowds that turn out for this stuff “bluehairs”.

Right. I do, however, think this isn’t quite comparable in ways that have everything to do with the previous discussion about rock music and authenticity and all that. If it were comparable, then people would be happy to fill stadiums to watch an accomplished band do covers of the Rolling Stones.

Nevertheless, to some degree it is comparable. And you can see this in theater and opera, too. There’s a large constituency who wants to see the standards and can’t stand anything new and they greatly intersect with the group that is relatively very uninformed about music (or theater, or opera) and is attending these shows primarily for a number of reasons which are entirely independent of aesthetics.


Keir 09.14.09 at 10:26 pm

But why is wanting to see New Order perform Blue Monday nostalgia? New Order playing Blue Monday is one of the greatest achievements of western civ; it isn’t that I want to see New Order play Blue Monday for nostalgic reasons, for, after all, if they were to write Blue Monday tomorrow, it would still be a Good Thing.


Substance McGravitas 09.14.09 at 10:52 pm

But why is wanting to see New Order perform Blue Monday nostalgia?

They’re old. Why is going to see some new band just teen ritual? They’re new. Somewhere out there people actually want to see stuff but they’re snobs.

Feeling nostalgic for the Nation of Ulysses:

I’m not talking about a Beatles song
Written 100 years before I was born
They’re all talking about the round and round
But who’s got the real anti-parent culture sound?


Kieran Healy 09.14.09 at 11:44 pm

Nation of Ulysses

That shit is like 20 years old, man.


Substance McGravitas 09.14.09 at 11:57 pm

I owned up to it!


Chris Dornan 09.15.09 at 1:00 am

Hmn and nobody has commented on the ethics of writing reviews that are a ‘tad ungenerous’, or whether perhaps selling a gazillion records to people that believe they will be made ‘crazily happy’ by them might not reinforce the case for writing such ungenerous reviews.

Though, in all fairness, it took me a while to get round to addressing these points myself in The Ethics of Criticism.


weaver 09.15.09 at 2:49 am

I always confuse him with Chris Rea.


Xanthippas 09.15.09 at 4:32 am

(I liked his earlier stuff much better)

People say this about even Chris de Burgh??


Maria 09.15.09 at 3:15 pm

Um, yes, when they’re taking the mickey….

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