Whipping Boy soon disappeared off the radar. Paul Page wanted to hide away from all forms of live music such was the pain he suffered at the loss of his great love. Only when he met McKee for the first time since the end of recording the third album, in September 2005, could the duo and the band resolve to return to the stage.Now that the members have breathed new life into what was a dormant band, it's very much a case of proceeding with caution.“If we do decide to record again, we'll have to take it slowly”, says Paul. “I'm just happy that we got to the position where we could sit down as four individuals again, because when the band broke up it was pretty acrimonious. Some of the bitterness that was there is gone. You can't really carry it on; it has a detrimental effect on you as an individual.”
Paul Page is 37. The eldest of two children, he grew up in the centre of working class Dublin on Dominick Street and now has three children of his own. His eldest son saw the band perform at the Olympia Theatre before Christmas, though Paul admits that “he spent a lot of time before that saying how crap Whipping Boy are”.
As well as being his son's first time to see the band live, it was also his mam's first time, who thought Paul's love of music was only ever a phase. “Even up until she saw us for the first time when we played at Christmas I'd say she thought it was a phase!”, Paul laughs.
His father died young, at 41, and it was something that used to play on Paul's mind as he neared the same age in life but while he went through a period of obsessing about his health that reached “Woody Allen levels of paranoia”, he realised it was ultimately destructive.
The immediate effect of his father's death was to quell his enthusiasm for school and having accomplished a reasonably good junior cert, the leaving cert became an irrelevance. Music assaulted his senses and so began a great love affair.“I was very insular when I got to mid to late teens. I spent a lot of time listening to music and trying to write songs”, he explains. “The emphasis was very much to go out and get a job as soon as possible and that didn't sit very well with my ambitions to play music. That was a period that a lot of parents and their children go through, where they see you as going through a phase of some sort. I was just totally into music and had a strange haircut and all the rest – it was a big change for my mother to see that. A lot of people from my area wouldn't have a great deal of ambition beyond getting a job, and playing music was to have something that was almost an airy fairy ambition.”
The airy-fairy ambition burned brightly and the flames were fanned by the generosity of a nearby neighbour, Mark Donegan, who was similarly out of kilter with grounded notions of securing employment.“I had a neighbour who lived in the flats across the road from me”, explains Paul. “He wouldn't have been a good friend of mine, but I knew he liked a certain type of music and he just fed me music continuously. I'd go over to him and come back laden down with albums by Sonic Youth and the Smiths. Then he gave me the Velvet Underground's first album and I remember listening to it. Initially I didn't know if I liked it and then I fell in love with it. There wouldn't have been that many people around who would have been into that kind of music.It was like a secret club, there wouldn't have been anybody else I'd say that he would have considered giving these records to, and I think he was just happy to find someone of a like mind in the area.”
The logical step from listening and loving music was to play. Punk dominated Page's radar, bands like Joy Division and the Buzzcocks provided the inspiration to go and make “a noise”, as he puts it, despite not knowing how to play.Where barriers guarded the entry down most other avenues in life – Paul had been advised not to put his home address on letters when applying for jobs back then such were the social stigma of the time – there was nothing to hinder four lads making a noise that they liked.
So while he held down a job with Roma Foods out in Glasnevin for a couple of months after he finished school, it was only keeping him from what he loved and his hatred of the job prospered in the meantime.“I almost cracked up”, he says. “I remember the day I finished [with Roma] I went to see the House of Love that night and it was such a relief to get out of that environment, that I so despised, to go and see a band again.”
Whipping Boy began to take shape through Paul (guitar) and his cousin Myles McDonnell, who played the bass, both learning by playing with Colm Hasset, a friend of Myles, playing drums.The search for a singer ended when they saw a band called the Large Pink Devil one night, which consisted of about fifteen people on stage together with some large metal drums. Ferghal McKee completed the Whipping Boy line up.
“One of our first gigs was in a Goth disco at the Source, it's long gone now, but Ferghal managed to convince the owner that we'd bring 300 people along so he gave us the gig”, explains Paul. “We played to an empty dance floor with all these depressed Goths lining the walls. We were happy with that though, we'd caused a reaction and some people didn't like it at all and it was enough for us to continue on.
The Underground (now a lap dancing club!) on Dame Street was next. It was a fantastic venue to cut your teeth, to learn what it is to be playing in a band. It was all new and exciting. You'd stand at the top of the Underground stairs counting the people going in, saying “there's another two, great”. You'd play to maybe 80 or 90 people, but it seemed like you were playing to the whole world in that small room.”
Whipping Boy built up a cult following on the back of their live shows which they became renowned for.“At the beginning, all we really were was a ball of energy, we made this kind of unfocused, uncontrollable noise and Ferghal as the front man was kind of the conduit. It all went through him and he was similarly uncontrollable. People came to see us because it was different. It was about going out and wanting to be heard in some way.”
Dragging amps through the streets of Carlow town, depressing a bunch of Goths in the Source and cutting their teeth in the Underground, Whipping Boy were on the rise and released their first album, Submarine, in 1992. They received some sound advice along the way from a friend of the band, Gerry McGovern, who encouraged them to write about the things they knew. “I remember we had a song called Buffalo and Gerry said ‘you've never even seen a buffalo’ and he was right”, Paul recalls.
Writing about the things they knew led Whipping Boy to their second and best known album, Heartworm, as Ferghal McKee cast his eye over the world in which he lived, a place that seemed warped and frenzied at times. The lyrics were unflinching, an acerbic honesty coupled with music that was visceral, arresting the heart and the conscience at the same time. The music allowed them to cast light on their own dark places.
”In the morning I am a recluse, lost in memories Ideal situations and convulsions. I’m never in and I can’t remember. They built portholes for Bono, so he could gaze out across the bay and sing about mountains maybe”.
[We Don't Need Nobody Else]
“I always liked music where there was an honesty about it”, says Paul. “You can hear music that sounds like it came from the heart and you can hear music that sounds like it was pieced together on the latest computer software. I'd like to think all our records sounded like they came from somewhere with a bit of heart and it wasn't about just getting something together that sounded perfect.”
Backed by Sony, though Paul is quick to point out that they were never dictated to by the record company, Heartworm enjoyed critical acclaim, but eluded the kind of commercial success that would keep the financiers happy. Arguments over t-shirts occurred, and all the time the band were getting further and further from what it was that had them together in the first place.The volatile mix of people which combined to create the quality of their music was now at the heart of the band's destruction. “I suppose in a way it's like a marriage”, explains Paul, “in that you can be so close to someone and all of a sudden everything they do annoys you, infuriates you. They're alien to you. Towards the end of the band we only saw the bad in each other.”