Colin H on The Presleys
‘Embrace’ is the first album by the Presleys. It’s a 35-minute barnstorming, blistering urban garage blues-rock behemoth – and it benefits homeless people. It’s an album that requires no previous knowledge of those involved: Ned Alexander (drums, backing vocals) and Brian Houston (guitars, vocals, piano, banjo). The tracking engineer, Ben Loughran, adds bass and Moog on some tracks. It was recorded and mixed at Brian’s studio in Belfast.
It’s tempting to leave it there as an intro – because I’ve just said that one needs no other information to crank up this album and enjoy it. But… okay, let me tell you just a little about Brian Houston before we hear what he has to say…
Thirty years ago, around 1990, Brian’s band the Mighty Fall caused a sensation on the Belfast bar scene. Not least, they opened up a major covers-only venue to original music with a weekly residency at the Empire Bar. The Empire became one of Belfast’s key handful of original music venues in the mid-90s, along with the Warehouse (1994–96), the Front Page, the Duke of York and a couple of others. The Empire is still a key venue to this day – covers and originals – and Ken Haddock, the sax player in the Mighty Fall (based loosely on Springsteen’s E-Street Band), but also a fabulous singer, guitarist, songwriter and song interpreter himself, has held court there with a Sunday night supper club residency for the past 20 years. The ripples from Houston’s Mighty Fall have also been felt in the international careers of Johnny Quinn (Mighty Fall drummer, then Snow Patrol drummer/publisher) and Iain Archer (award-winning co-writer of hits for Snow Patrol, Liam Gallagher, Jake Bugg, James Bay et al.).
Closer to home, the Mighty Fall can now be seen in a way as the end of one era (their sole single ‘Kick it in the Head’ being one of the last releases on Terri Hooley’s legendary Good Vibrations label, on vinyl) and the foreshadowing of another, the mid-90s boom in Belfast’s bar music scene with a host of now fondly-remembered artists releasing one or more self-funded CD albums and EPs in a glorious golden age that lasted maybe three years.
Brian himself went back to carpentry for a living after the fall of the Mighty Fall for a couple of years, but emerged by stealth in 1994 with a mini-album on new-fangled CD called ‘Crush’, recorded with a £100 loan from his new pianist/collaborator Jules Maxwell (himself still in music, co-writer of songs on the recent ‘Mystere de Voix Bulgares’ album no less) and a song called ‘Daddy’s Getting into Jesus Again’, drawn from the experience of a difficult working-class upbringing.
What happened with ‘Jesus Again’ is the stuff of film scripts. A local radio presenter played it at 4am one night and the phones started ringing. It wasn’t a million miles away from what had happened to Elvis – Brian’s hero, then and now – when his first single was played in Memphis. Brian became known as ‘the Belfast Elvis’ not because he did Elvis covers (well, okay, sometimes he did ‘That’s Alright’ onstage in the early days… and when he headlined the Waterfront Hall in 1999 he encored with a seemingly endless version of ‘Suspicious Minds’; we were caught in a trap, we couldn’t get out…) but because of his huge charisma as a performer. He was a big personality on the scene and was often talked about. It seemed only a matter of time before he made it ‘out of Belfast’.
Strangely, despite this or that opportunity in Dublin and with English producers during the 90s, that breakthrough never happened. By the end of the decade, I had moved on from chronicling the local scene for the ‘Irish News’ (aside from writing for national journals on non-local music) and was working on my first book, ‘Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British folk and blues revival’ (Bloomsbury, 2000), before moving into a public sector job for 10 years. That last decision was a mistake on my part, but the upshot of all this was that, having watched his remarkable progress from bar sensation to Waterfront headliner over five-odd years of intense activity and adventure, I only periodically kept in touch with what Brian was up to in the 2000s and 2010s.
Each of his first three albums was a big deal at the time, but as far as I could see they tumbled out very regularly with less local fanfare thereafter – although I’ve no doubt that each one was a big deal for Brian and his immediate circle. I think he’s released around 25 albums now, although recent years have been a bit blurry with digital-only comps and special-edition versions of albums with bonus discs etc. One album, ‘Sugar Queen’ (2006), seemed to rise from the routine and get coverage in Britain (I was aware that America had been his major focus in the early 2000s). It was a period when he was getting a lot of airplay from Bob Harris on Radio 2. More recently, his 2016 album ‘Songs From My Father’ – an exploration of Irish folk songs and a reappraisal of that difficult upbringing – caught my attention. (I see there’s now a 5CD deluxe edition on his website!) 2018’s ‘Hank’ was a fabulous homage to Hank Williams, with Brian bringing exciting new life and fresh arrangements to familiar songs, with the authenticity of 1950s valve amps and guitars and pristine ‘vocal group’ harmonies featuring only himself with the wonders of being, by now, a studio owner at a premises in the centre of Belfast. To my mind, that one is a great standalone release. If you like the Presleys ‘Embrace’, maybe try that one next.
I see from Googling that in between ‘Hank’ (which seems like something I received hot off the press only a couple of months ago) and this new band project as the Presleys, Brian somehow managed to fit in another album, ‘Reckless Love’ (2019). That’s the trouble with Brian, he’s insanely prolific – you blink and you miss whole albums. Indeed, that’s largely what prompted me to seek him out for this interview.
This album as the Presleys is the first time since the Mighty Fall that Brian has released work as part of a band (not counting the Hudson Taylors, a gospel music trio he worked with on US tours in the early 2000s). It deserves a bit of a spotlight – for people to notice it. And it helps that it is a wholly distinct product, a wholly distinct identity, and a ‘sound’ that Brian hasn’t captured on record before – though I’ve long been aware that he can play barnstorming electric guitar onstage. As Brian says in the interview, the new name is a real blessing on platforms like Spotify – the casual browser will have no need to wade through hundreds of ‘Brian Houston’ recordings (including recording by ‘the other Brian Houston’, see below), in often diverse styles. The Presleys rock. There’s no folk, no gospel, no county, no finely crafted lyrics – just blues-drenched rock, high-volume field hollers about the lives of the poor in America.
There’s a bit of nostalgia in this too, in that Brian will very kindly be playing a charity concert I’m putting on in Belfast in March: ‘Warehouse Remembered #2’. We did it with reunions of five acts associated with that golden age mid-90s scene in Belfast last September, raising £900+ for Fauna & Flora International. This time, it’s four other great acts and artists from that era in reunions and one-off new groupings, with funds going to a Foetal Alcohol Syndrome support group, with Brian headlining in a one-off trio with punk legend Petesy Burns (The Outcasts) and burbling bass maestro Ali MacKenzie (Bush Turkeys) – where he’ll certainly be debuting some of this Presleys album. The Belfast Elvis is returning as the Presleys. I’m sure there must be a moral there somewhere. Elvis is back in the building.
We met at a diner outside Belfast where the food was cheap, the coffee was great and the background music volume tolerable. Here is 70 minutes of digitally taped wisdom and biography from the man behind the Presleys. It may even have been the first time I’d interviewed him 20 years. Time flies.
(Interview in the comments below)