As When Under Ether, another Irish TV music show, sets out to provide the viewing audience with a domestic alternative to the MTVs of this world, the influence of No Disco is stronger than ever. Far more than a mere musical footnote, for the decade between 1993 and 2003, the show was required viewing for Ireland’s quality-starved music fans and manna from heaven for local acts.
In more ways than one, No Disco began and ended with a -Cannonball’. As the familiar bass-line of The Breeders’ track of the same name kick-started the programme’s first episode in 1993, little did viewers realise that they were at the mouth of a quiet storm for both Irish broadcasting and the country’s music scene. In the years since the show’s demise in 2003, it has been canonised for its audacious and impassioned music programming, its lo-fi production values imbued with a laissez-faire charm. But scratch the surface of No Disco’s tale, and you’ll find that its journey was much less romantic and more turbulent than first meets the eye.
Contrary to current consensus, No Disco appeared on Irish screens after what had actually been a rather fertile time for Irish music video programming. From 1984-’87, MT USA – fronted by the late Vincent Hanley – was broadcast on RTE, showcasing rock videos from across the US. Although something of an anomaly in the Sunday morning schedule, The Beatbox (later 2TV) was another well-liked series that championed local contenders among more established international acts. Although the show’s singular contribution to Irish music is roundly recognised, it appears that its origins were a little less idealistic than many would like to believe.
‘It was a strategic decision on RTE’s part – a political one more than a financial one – to base more productions outside Dublin,’ recalls Colm O’Callaghan, a one-time music journalist who originally devised the show. ‘Someone thought that the best way to test the waters was to do a music show as it was the cheapest sort of show to do.’ Upon landing the gig as producer/director for the first season, O’Callaghan’s first port of call was to sound out Donal Dineen, an old colleague from DCU’s Bullsheet paper, to present the show.
‘Peter Collins, who was then on The Beatbox, was one of the names bandied about at the time,’ recalls O’Callaghan. ‘But I liked that Donal had a terrific breadth of knowledge.’ Still, many were initially thrown by Dineen’s trademark reticent presenting style. By his own admission, Donal’s smoothly cold on-screen demeanour belied his inward terror.
‘I did a screen test, but I still think there was a palpable sense of panic in every link I ever did,’ he admits. ‘I’d started developing breathing difficulties and found it hard to get the words out on occasion. I didn’t ever -own’ them half the time: I did get better as time went on but that unease never really went away. Knowing what I know now, doing No Disco would have been a lot of fun but I was constantly living in fear of being taken aside or being laughed at.’
In time, his uncompromising and soft-spoken ways would become central to No Disco‘s winning formula. ‘I think it gave him an air of mystique and cut him apart from the pack,’ notes O’Callaghan. ‘When RTE management saw No Disco, they really did not know what to make of it. About four weeks in, people were like, -get this guy off the air, he’s patently not suited to TV’ but I was batting for Donal and there was an unspoken thing that if he goes, we all go. Seven or eight weeks in, the show received a great write-up in The Irish Times, which is the sole critical barometer used by RTE management. It ended up becoming its saving grace.’
With No Disco promptly nailing its colours to the mast, audiences immediately warmed to its mesmeric and enticing stew of little-known indie videos. Referring to itss output, O’Callaghan admits: ‘It was all total subjectivity. Donal liked one thing and I liked another.’ ‘It was an exciting time,’ adds Dineen. ‘It was feasible to produce videos outside of a production suite and it was a great time for music videos aesthetically, as stuff from Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham was coming in to us. My own creativity got ignited after seeing these videos myself.’