The Saw Doctors
by Steve Winick
It was New York City, but the band on stage seemed not to notice. Their songs were full of unfamiliar characters called "shams," "smokies" and "dead feek presentation boarders." They sang about sugar beets, hay and the scandal of dancing during Lent. Every other song had a reference to nuns, priests, Gaelic football matches... or all of the above. And this was no audience of homesick Irish immigrants, this was a mixed New York crowd. No way would they go for this.
Wrong. They ate it up. People threw their heads back and sang along with "N 17," an anthem about a minor highway that traverses western Ireland. They jumped up and down for "Broke My Heart," which is about losing at football. They clapped, roared and shouted along with "Hay Wrap," an imagined conversation (about football, of course) that takes place during the hay harvest. How had a band managed to take such rural Irish concerns and whip a bunch of cynical New Yorkers into a frenzy?
Leo Moran, the band's lead guitarist and one of its main songwriters, wasn't sure. In an interview during their 1997 tour of the U.S., Moran said that the band had simply never had a problem with audiences not understanding or connecting. The Saw Doctors have a wide appeal, he said, because their music borrows from everywhere, "from country to punk to pop music, rock and roll. We stole all our favorite bits out of that."
And it's true; in the Saw Doctors, you can hear echoes of Hank Williams, Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, the Pogues, the Undertones, Duane Eddy, The Sex Pistols, and many other groundbreaking acts. You also hear strong echoes of traditional Irish music, especially on their albums, where whistle, fiddle, accordion, mandolin, flute and other folk instruments are brought into the mix.
In a tour program, the Saw Doctors advanced this description of their approach: "Born into a repressed, Catholic, conservative, small-town, agrarian, angst-ridden and showband infested society, we're trying to preserve the positive elements of our backgrounds and marry them to the sounds which have culturally invaded our milieu through TV, radio, 45s, fast food restaurants, 24 hour petrol stations and electric blankets." Quite a mouthful, but it sums up the group's attitude and demonstrates their wit.
In keeping with this philosophy of celebrating the local as well as the global, Moran doesn't believe there is such a thing as being "too local" in his songwriting. Esoteric references to the rural working class abound in the Saw Doctors' repertoire. Even their name is an example; as Moran explained, saw doctors are "people who fix saws. It used to be an itinerant craftsman who would travel around the country and be very well respected and very well paid. He would go from sawmill to sawmill, fixing them or setting them. It's a very particular skill."
Such oblique cultural references somehow don't narrow their appeal one bit. "N 17," for example, was their big hit in the U.K. "People did say originally, 'You're going to sing that to English people, and they're not going to know what the N 17 is,'" Moran recounted. "But there are equivalents of the N 17 everywhere in the world, and there are equivalents of all the local things that we put in the songs."
"When I think back on all my favorite music," he continued, "there were always references to things that I didn't fully understand, but you get a sense that they're real and authentic." Perhaps it's this sense of authenticity, a sense of honest, natural language and of stories that really matter to the teller, that has brought the Saw Doctors so far. An important component of this honesty, Moran pointed out, was "using our own language for the words to the songs, the dialect and the accent."
The dialect in question is very particular. The band's history begins in Tuam, a small town in county Galway, where Moran grew up. Tuam has three distinct communities: country people, town dwellers, and a sizable community of settled travelers, people whose ancestors lived in caravans traversing the roads of Ireland like gypsies. The interaction of all three, particularly the traveling community, "brings a certain color and flavor and language to the town that other towns wouldn't have," Moran said. Many of the unusual words, like "sham," which Moran glosses as "a fella from Tuam," come from cant, the secret language of the travelers.
If the band's ultimate roots lie in Tuam's history, their direct roots are in another Galway rock band, Blaze X, which featured future Saw Doctors singer (and bona fide sham) Davy Carton during its brief existence from 1979 to 1981. "We played a heavy kind of music, like the Undertones did, and thought we were cool punks," Carton later commented. When the band broke up, Carton's prolific songwriting left him with "a rake of songs left over."
Five years later, Moran and another chum, Mary O'Connor, were playing as a duo. They began to use some of Carton's leftover songs, and soon had enlisted the man himself, who by then was married and working in a textile factory. The trio christened themselves The Saw Doctors. Asked about the band's name, Moran laughed. "I don't know why we picked it, really. You know, you do one gig, and you think, 'I'll probably change the name after that.' But you don't change the name after one gig. And if you don't change it after four gigs, you have it forever."
By 1987, they had added two more members, and O'Connor had moved to England, but the Saw Doctors continued to gig and to record demos. Nineteen eighty-eight was the year everything changed. In the first place, as Moran explained, "We stumbled upon this 'being ourselves on the stage' thing. The idea was that the Saw Doctors were going to be a pop rock and roll band with a west of Ireland accent and vocabulary." Also in 1988, they added bass player Pearse Doherty, a Donegal man, to the band.
Doherty, who counts works by the Bothy Band and Altan among his favorite albums, added a component of traditional music to the Saw Doctors, doubling on tin whistle. Working with John "Turps" Burke, who played mandolin with the Saw Doctors at the time, Doherty was able to incorporate jig-and-reel energy into the group's rock-and-roll riffs. Finally, and most importantly from a logistical standpoint, 1988 was the year they met the Waterboys.
The Waterboys were already a world-famous pop outfit, but had decided to cultivate a more Irish sound. They had established themselves in Spiddal, Co. Galway, were jamming with the traditional band De Dannan, and went visiting a lot of local bars for music and socializing. At the Quay bar in Galway, they encountered the Saw Doctors, who had already achieved one of the Waterboys' goals: to play rock with a rural Irish feeling. The Waterboys were impressed enough to ask the Saw Doctors to support them on a 1988 tour of Ireland and a 1989 tour of the U.K. For the latter, they were joined by a new drummer, John Donnelly, whose precise but spontaneous rhythms continue to drive the band's music today. Soon, Waterboys frontman Mike Scott had the five-piece in the studio, producing their first single. The Saw Doctors were on their way.
The single, "N 17," was not an immediate hit, but it paved the way for their second release, "I Useta Lover." Based on an old Blaze X song, the latter is an energetic ditty about falling out of love, with brilliantly quirky lyrics that mix sex and Catholicism wedded to a catchy chorus that could have been written by the Ramones. As Moran commented, the song "just captured people's imagination. Lord knows why." It shot to number one on the Irish charts, where it remained for nine weeks.
"I Useta Lover" also pulled "N17" into the charts on its coattails, and Irish people discovered a song that they could all relate to. "Anybody who's left Ireland or whose family has left Ireland, it connects with what they're thinking about," Moran explained. "Besides," he continued, "It's a great chorus, an uplifting chorus. Simple pop music. Can't beat it." Then he laughed at the irony, "Boring old road, really..."
Boring or not, "N17" and "I Useta Lover" stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the charts, numbers two and three, for Christmas 1990. Soon after that their first album, If This is Rock and Roll I Want My Old Job Back, followed suit, entering the Irish charts at number one. Its songs are mostly of the "Baby I love you" variety, although some deal with serious issues of concern to Tuam, like unemployment, emigration and homesickness. Religion is also an important theme in their songs, which contain numerous references to nuns, priests, mass, communion, and Christian Brothers. "The first time we went to Belfast, going through all the songs, there was priests and mass and presentation boarders, and nuns," Moran remembered with amusement, "and we were just looking around at each other saying, 'Well, they know what religion we are, anyway!' It was a funny realization that the songs are full of religious references. We didn't notice them before that!"
As the 80s became the 90s, Carton and Moran began exploring a wider range of themes and issues in their songs. Particularly striking in the songs of this period is a tendency to sing about places. Songs like "All the Way from Tuam" and "The Green and Red of Mayo" betray a deep feeling for the landscape and local history of western Ireland. Both songs are mostly catalogues of the beautiful features and towering accomplishments of the places they chronicle. More than anything else, they resemble the myriad traditional songs of purely local origin, songs like "Faughanville," "Glenelly" and "The Cliffs of Dooneen." "When I look at the records I was listening to as a young kid," Moran confessed, "the Clancy Brothers are in there. 'All The Way From Tuam,'" he said, is "a traditional kind of a song, like 'The Boys From the County Armagh.' In some ways I think it's a little bit too academic," he went on, "but then I was thinking about it lately, and I read down through the lyrics and I couldn't exactly see what I would change..."
While similar to "All the Way From Tuam," "The Green and Red of Mayo" is based more on an appreciation of natural wonders than of town history. Moran dates its composition to a boat trip he took: "The sea was flat calm, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, it was an incredible day. We were looking at the coast of Mayo, up by Croagh Patrick there, and it was summertime and the heather was on the hills. Everywhere you looked was green and red. It never struck me until that point why the football team wore green and red, the Mayo football team, but it's so obvious now...the County is green and red!"
In 1992 the second Saw Doctors album was released: All the Way From Tuam, which featured these songs, among many others. Making this album was very different from making their first, as Moran explained. "The first album was a blaze of activity. It was probably hyperactivity, very exciting. We were just having so much fun. You never have that same energy again towards any other album that you have towards your first one."
More specifically, Moran pointed out that "the first album had probably ten years of writing songs behind it. Whereas the second album had two years." Still, they were selective about what songs to include. During the two years between the albums, the Saw Doctors wrote, rehearsed and performed about twice as many songs as made it to the disc. "I like Springsteen albums," Moran explained. "I like the way he works toward them. I read that he usually creates three albums worth of material to make one album. You know, if people are spending their money on something, you want it to be the best you can."
Following this philosophy, the Saw Doctors are careful with their time. They take time off and recharge, both to avoid burnout and to fuel their creative fires. Home, with their families and friends, is "where we're most comfortable, and where we're actually more creative. We're not creative at all when we're out on the road."
It took three years of gigging, writing and touring to hone the material for the next CD, 1995's Same Oul' Town, which reveals that the band has a more serious side. "Now that we're old men," Moran joked, "we're getting self-conscious and mature!" The most palpable change in Moran and Carton's songs is the representation of their hometown. While All The Way From Tuam presents in an idyllic light, some of the rough edges are explored on Same Oul' Town. The opening song, "All The One," is a reflective look at Tuam's three communities, their prejudices and animosities. Its conclusion is that people are more the same than different, and that the prejudices of the past need to be confronted in Ireland just as they do elsewhere. As Moran put it, "Everybody wants something to eat, something to drink, somewhere to live, someone to hug...we're not very different at all no matter what color we are. We don't have different colors in Tuam, but we have different communities." In making its point, the song reveals some less friendly aspects of Tuam's history, especially the marginalization of the traveling people who give Tuam so much of its spice.
The title track paints an even bleaker picture of Tuam, including the line, "I'm sick and tired of the same oul' town." The song, Moran said, "comes from walking home on a wet cold night in the middle of winter with nobody around, being a bit lonely, wondering if there's something better you could be doing. Living in a small town in the West of Ireland is wonderful most of the time," he concluded, "but it's not always wonderful!"
The Saw Doctors are currently touring to support Same Oul' Town, living in a big bus "like yuppie gypsies," as Moran put it. They have no specific future plans, but they do have some long-term goals. "I don't think we've made a complete album yet," Moran said. "My favorite albums are albums that you put on and you're never gonna hit the skip button. And that'd be an ambition, I suppose. It wouldn't surprise me if we never got to make a complete album; I don't think a lot of people do." In any case, Moran believes he's in it for the long haul. "I never thought it would last this long," he said, "but I'd hate to see it stopping now. You come to an age and you build up a certain skill at what you're doing, and you think, God, what else could I do?"
Of course, there's always the priesthood. Or professional football. But for the time being at least, The Saw Doctors are happy with their music. With luck, they'll remain happy for a long, long time.