Liam Reilly : A Life
Liam Reilly was a once-off. An Irish entertainer with a career that lasted almost seven decades - that was dictated by pure original music from start to finish. As a quarter of that beloved Irish institution, Bagatelle, he achieved unrivalled homeland success with the Bray/Dundalk connection. Number 1 singles, platinum albums, sold out concerts and music that connected with the Irish diaspora worldwide.
His uncanny knack of writing material for that disenfranchised youth in a dark period of a decade when thousands where scattered to the four corners of the globe due to crippling unemployment, rising dole queues and little hope at home still resonates to this day.
I was privileged to get to know him through my book "That Summer in Dublin!" for the last five years. I'd normally phone him for five minutes of information about some song, lyric or past event and end up on the phone for two hours! Now, he could be narky at the best of times! He often say "Jesus Christ, hold on Brian, you're asking me about something in 1979 that I didn't know even happened!" Yes there where times I'd walk on eggshells but his dry wit, candor and honesty always kept me riveted.
Born January 29, 1955 and living in a council estate in Fatima, Dundalk, Liam had early contact with the piano as a small kid, stretching himself up to tinkle the ivories of his father’s piano in the house. He quickly learned harmonica, took up accordion which his father played while Liam’s mum sang with a choir which she still does as a youthful 88-year-old!
In 1967 he won his first award on accordion in a Ceoltas Ceoltoiri Eireann event at the age of 14 in Enniscorthy. When he was 17, he won the senior piano event in Buncrana. This boy was going places! He would play in a local David Bowie tribute band called Changes before joining Bagatelle.
Reilly was a piano player who knew his way around the Elton John songbook, a comparison he would often afford himself a wry smile when being told countless times. Bagatelle would earn their crust the hard way. Back in 1978 Ireland was practically a third world country. Economically depressed with bank, rail and electricity strikes the norm, with an endless dole queue. Gigs to a handful of people in smoked filled bars, earning just enough petrol money and eating gherkin sandwiches to save money was the order of the day. Liam had left a well-paid job as Shipping Manager with BP Chemicals for this.
Regrets? He’s had a few as the song goes.
But not this one.
Of course one afternoon of daydreaming in the capital changed the pathway for Bagatelle. From bars to the bigtime. Lounges to Limelight. "Summer in Dublin" was more than a song. It was an anthem. A song of stunning originality. Where else could you hear about the humble 46a to Dun Laoghaire, an odious stinking Liffey, the vitality of Grafton Street, a Bob Seger tune and an infamous drunk on a bus in a five minute song? Everyone could relate to the picture Liam was painting. And when it hit the airwaves the nation embraced this ration of instant nostalgia like pilgrims clasping a sacred relic.
Success was inevitable after that. Again, relying on the gut instinct of many of his songs. The huge success of their first album bore heavy on the introverted Reilly, never being one to big as big as his songs where. In Ken Doyle, Wally McConville and the father figure nurturing of John O'Brien, he had a trio willing to help. Liam just let his lyrics do the talking.
Liam would excel as a writer. Not content with penning hits like “Second Violin” “Trump Card” and “Love is the Reason”, the Dundalk man gave The Wolfe Tones their biggest ever hit with the colossal “Streets of New York”, a song Liam wrote on the request of Tommy Byrne from the Tones. That tune (which topped the Irish charts for 4 weeks) was the first in a trilogy of "emigration" songs he wrote. "The Flight of Earls" and "Boston Rose" followed in the same vain. It immediately connected with a generation of Irish kids that left our shores, hopeful of work and a life abroad. There are 33 million Irish in America. you can be sure most know about "Benji being shot-down in an uptown parade" in the "Streets of New York" lyrics.
Despite their singles never translating across the water, Reilly achieved huge success on a European platform when his song “Somewhere in Europe” won the national song contest and controversially robbed by a questionable Italian jury in the 1990 Eurovision in front of 600 million viewers that year in Yugoslavia.
"It came about after I was messing about on a piano in Tommy Mangan's house. I had this tune in my head and this wonderful lyrics came out.
Meet me in Paris on a Champs Elysees night
We could be in Rome again, neath the Trevi fountain light
. We should be together, and maybe we just might
If you could only meet me somewhere in Europe tonight
And Tommy was like; Hold it one fucking minute there!” He went out of the room then came back with one of those old reel to reel recorders, stuck it on top of the piano and said “Now sing exactly like you did just there.” I did not see what the fuss was about at the time, but Tommy was persistent. A few weeks later I was told my song, which I called “Somewhere in Europe” had made the final of the National Song Contest. Little did I know Tommy entered it.
Longevity in the music business is about being able to reinvent yourself or invent the future. When Reilly was away from Bagatelle sporadically, he would produce and arrange music for others adding another string to his bow. He was happy out of the limelight.
Bagatelle's place in history by then had long been cemented on this island. When they signed for Polydor in a three-album deal (almost unheard of for a new group) four likely lads called U2 where playing the Dandelion Market every Saturday for 50p a pop. History will recall Larry Mullen confidently predicting to Polydor boss John Woods that "If you sign us we will be bigger than Bagatelle!" Like it our not Bagatelle had been an early influence on one of the biggest rock groups the globe has ever seen.
Line-ups changed. Wally would depart in 1993 and John O'Brien, whom there would never have been a Bagatelle without, retired. Sadly John passed away aged 77 in 2019.
The founder member, elder statesman and the driving force behind Bagatelle went to the great gig in the sky. The fact that he had left the group years before meant nothing. It was still a crushing blow. Without John there would have been no tiny house at Sugarloaf Crescent to pile into and practice. No name. No record contracts. No-one of his knowledge and motivation for the band to succeed at all costs.
A large crowd filled the Victorian Chapel at Mount Jerome Cemetery to commemorate John’s life. Bray’s brother shall be missed. A younger generation of musicians had given the band a youthful edge as they continued to gig relentlessly. Be it Vicar Street in Dublin or an Irish Embassy in Dubai, Bagatelle where in demand. Sadly one of them, Gavin Ralston passed away, just a short few months later that September, losing a brave battle with bowel cancer at the age of 49.
Sadly, just a day into this new year of hope that our lives could change from the turmoil of 2020 we have lost a musical icon. A song-writer pianist of superb ability. A musician who inspired others and never sought fame or recognition. A star that weighed heavily on the shoulders of a man that just wanted to play his piano and spread joy to those who listened to it. The world is a sadder place without him.
I will miss Liam. On many of our late night phone calls he would say "Look I'm tired of talking bollocks about music, money and Bagatelle to the writer Brian Kennedy. I now want to just chat to my friend Brian." That will always stick with me.
A bed of heaven to you old friend.
To leave on an upbeat note I will include (like I did in the beginning of the book) the story of how I first met and almost killed Liam Reilly in a drunken haze one night in Waterford.
There’s a good chance Bagatelle might not have made it to celebrate their 40th anniversary in 2018. I’m pretty certain the band would have to call it quits after Liam Reilly had his life flash before him at a gig in the South East of Ireland as they celebrated bringing in the New Year. And that’s all down to yours truly. The Olympia Ballroom. Waterford. December 31st, 1997. Bagatelle are playing a New Year’s Eve gig in the soon to be destroyed ballroom of yesteryear. Bagatelle had been part of my life’s timeline. I met my wife on a blind date at one of their gigs. Broke up with her several years later, and too much Jack Daniels, at one of their gigs. I then found my partner Samantha after I won two tickets to one of their gigs, plucking up the courage to ask her out after a year of awkward shyness. We love Bagatelle and have no plans to break up, Jack Daniels related or not. Back to the scene of my crime. I was ushering in the New Year with a group of friends. By this stage the band where about to enter 1998, the 20th anniversary of a Bray/Dundalk connection which had broken onto the Irish scene scoring a huge hit with a now iconic song that would embed the innocent 46A bus to Dun Laoghaire, and any drunk that rode it, into the hearts of an entire nation. Whilst my friends struggled with some of the set-list, opting safely for a couple of old favourites like “Trump Card” and “Second Violin,” I was howling out every word of every song in a tone that sounded like a bag of cats being strangled. With 30 seconds of 1997 left I decided I had to be the first person to welcome the group into 1998 so I quickly barged my way through the crowd, taking out four pints of Harp on a small table, which I’m sure was also filled with glasses of assorted whiskey, before I reached my target – Liam Reilly. With a beaming smile in a drunken haze I reached out to shake his hand. I muttered something along the lines of “Happy New Year, Christ your f****** brilliant!” and proceeded to pull Bagatelle’s frontman to the precipice of the stage. Now this would have been a hefty drop for the Dundalk man, ten feet at least, so fearing for his health I let go, sending me hurtling backwards onto a strangers table and covering myself, and the angry occupants, in what tasted like Guinness, but I could also vaguely make out a Rum & Black on my shirt as well. 6 I offered a thousand apologies and a round of drinks as Mr. Reilly emerged unscathed in time to launch into “Rock & Roll Fantasy.” The band continued to rock the house as my friend Damien, who was not a massive fan, but knew they were popular, asked why they hadn’t “made it” in English or international waters. It was a fair question, one to which I have scratched my head at least a thousand times. You see Bagatelle have always been something of a wonderful mystery. A sort of enigma with a stigma. Success on a national scale, gold and platinum albums and a dedicated fan base who have worshipped at the altar of the group, some for almost five decades now, yet critical acclaim eluded them, having to content themselves with begrudging comments in some music magazines and tabloids that were happy to promote other artists, some without an ounce of originality. It was the steadfast , stick to your guns, originality that ran through the spine of the group as they emerged from cover version dancehall days and a decaying showband scene to huge success at the turn of an economically depressed eighties, in turn producing a colossal hit in “Summer in Dublin” that has not only stood the test of time over 40 years later but became an anthem for the Irish diaspora all across the globe. Their radio friendly sound seemed distinctively American. You could close your eyes during “Love is the Reason”, “Trump Card” or “Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy” and think it was Bob Seger, or the Steve Miller Band singing it back to you. In Liam Reilly the group had a storyteller. A musician whose song-writing capabilities, often outstripping his achievements with Bagatelle, writing songs of emigration like “The Streets of New York” and “The Flight of Earls” and imbedding those tunes in the minds of a generation. A man who almost had Europe in the palm of his hands as international stardom beckoned only to be denied in front of an audience of 600 million watching the Eurovision Song Contest. Bagatelle were and remain a group of superb originality. A band that U2 wanted to be when they were still playing the Dandelion Market in Dublin for free and trying to coax Polydor Records to sign them like they had Bagatelle. A group whose songs had been covered and often referenced in the annals of Irish music. Those songs are still relevant to many Irish artists that came after Bagatelle. There would be no new school without the old school. Back to the Olympia, as I’d ushered in the New Year by almost taking a life and paying a hefty £52.98 for a round of drinks that I had utterly decimated, my crime hadn’t gone unnoticed. From nowhere two hefty bouncers, who looked like they’d been lured down a mountain for a piece of meat, caught a hold of me and carried me 7 through the exit door by using my head as a battering ram. Left alone outside on the pavement with the remains of a cold taco chip and the sting of what should be severe brain damage kicking in, I was left to lament what an utter clown I had been. As the third encore of “Summer in Dublin” is struck up and sung with vigour back into the night I was left licking my wounds outside but safe in the knowledge that I would never have to regale my story of almost killing Liam Reilly to his face. That was until I started to write this book!