It’s one of the most iconic images in rock: a colony of feral, naked, golden-haired children scrambling across an eerie, apocalyptic landscape, climbing towards the breaking light of a new day.
Local mythology contends that the imposing volcanic landscape of the Giant’s Causeway was created by Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool) building a path across the Irish Sea to accept a challenge of combat with the Scottish giant Benandonner. But for music fans the 60-million-year-old matrix of interlocking, largely hexagonal basalt columns will forever be associated with the artwork for the cover of Led Zeppelin’s 1973 album Houses Of The Holy.
On a preternaturally beautiful mid-September afternoon, the striking North Antrim coastline is once again teeming with feral children – although on this occasion it’s excitable school parties from Asia and central Europe visiting the UNESCO-approved World Heritage Site on geology trips, snapping selfies in the sunshine as they pick their way carefully across the slippery stones. In their midst, posing rather more self-consciously for Classic Rock’s camera, stand The Answer – vocalist Cormac Neeson, guitarist Paul Mahon, bassist Micky Waters and drummer James Heatley – arguably Northern Ireland’s second-best-known rock formation.
“Aren’t they handsome?” coos a 60-something female English tourist, squinting into the sunshine. “Are they a band?”
Informed that the four young men are indeed a band, the nice lady concedes that she is unfamiliar with The Answer. “I expect my daughter knows them, though,” she concludes brightly.
That The Answer are not yet household names, even in their own country, is perplexing. A decade ago the quartet from Downpatrick, County Down released their brilliant debut album Rise and embarked on an adventure that Neeson readily admits saw them swiftly tick off a bucket list of “all the things you dream about as a kid picking up a guitar and writing songs”. Acclaimed as the world’s Best New Band at the inaugural Classic Rock Awards in 2005, the group were hand-picked to open shows for the Rolling Stones, The Who, Aerosmith and Deep Purple, received plaudits from Jimmy Page, Paul Rodgers and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, and saw Rise rack up a coolly impressive 100,000 sales worldwide, including 10,000 in Japan in a single week. As the album cycle drew to its conclusion, it was announced that the band had been chosen as the sole support for AC/DC’s Black Ice world tour, an astonishing opportunity that would place their gritty, soulful blues rock in front of a global audience just shy of five million. Their rapid ascension into rock’s premier league seemed assured.
It was, says Neeson, “an exhilarating time”. Guitarist Paul Mahon describes the period as a “roller-coaster”, recalling “a lot of childhood dreams coming true”. By any measure, this was one hell of an introduction. But although no one could have predicted it at the time, it would also prove to be the peak of The Answer’s career.
Initially, signs were overwhelmingly positive. Everyday Demons, the 2009 follow-up to The Answer’s raucous debut, gave them their first UK Top 30 album (peaking at No.25), and their 118-date stint with AC/DC, documented memorably on the live album/DVD 412 Days Of Rock ’N’ Roll, drew positive comments from Long Beach to Long Island. Yet, inexplicably, the group failed to really catch fire, and by the time 2011’s excellent Revival album scraped into the UK Top 40, the rock media – and indeed rock fans in general – began to sideline The Answer, turning their gaze instead upon emerging US talent such as Black Stone Cherry and Rival Sons. Issues with management and label changes further stalled The Answer’s momentum. And while 2013’s New Horizon and 2015’s Raise A Little Hell were both solid albums flecked with flashes of brilliance and consolidated the band’s growing popularity in mainland Europe, prospects for the group breaking through into the mainstream slowly ebbed away.
Neeson, Mahon, Waters and Heatley aren’t stupid people. Grounded, mature, self-aware guys from proud working-class backgrounds, they’re fully aware that in 2016, The Answer are no longer touted as a ‘buzz’ act, no longer anyone’s idea of rock’s Next Big Thing. They’re neither bitter nor delusional about their current standing in the music industry, and are even-handed and honest when weighing up the impact they’ve made during the past decade.
“You need the stars to align, and sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t,” Neeson says with a wry smile. “We’re not yet at the stage where we’re sitting in our armchairs drinking Guinness and reminiscing about the good old days – we’re still very much part of an evolving project.”
For Neeson, The Answer’s recent business travails were cast into perspective sharply by traumatic events in his personal life. In November 2014, his son Dabhog was born three months prematurely, with multiple health issues. The infant had to go to London for open-heart surgery, and spent the first four months of his life in hospital, dangerously ill, as his anxious parents looked on fearfully.
“It was pretty damn dark, nightmarish,” Neeson admits. “My wife Louise and I took an apartment five minutes away from the hospital and we were in there every day, twelve hours a day, watching our wee lad dice with death. Nobody gets from the start to the end of life without having almighty challenges thrown at them, and for us at that time, it was hour by hour, not even day by day. All this notion of ‘everything happens for a reason, and everything will work out okay’ falls by the wayside in a situation like that. It challenges you right to your core.
“I remember thinking: ‘What is happening to my life here?’ Six months ago we were happy, full of the joys of the world, and now I can’t see beyond the fog.’
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“I was asked recently if there were times when I thought about giving up the band during that time. But I didn’t, because I didn’t even think of the band. I didn’t think of anything beyond the front door of the hospital.”
In June 2015, with Dabhog’s health beginning to improve, The Answer were able to resume operations, and undertook their first full US tour in six years, mixing headline shows with support dates with Whitesnake. Temporarily removed from domestic stresses, the band recall those five weeks on the road as one of their happiest ever tours, with fans who had been introduced to their music on the AC/DC tour welcoming them back with open arms.
The quartet returned home in high spirits. Then they were promptly dealt a hammer blow by the realisation that their bank accounts were empty.
“You expect that when you’re away for five weeks, working your ass off every night, you’re going to come home and have a fortune in your bank account. But there was nothing,” says Heatley. “It’s hard enough being away from your family [both Heatley and Waters also have young children], and then we came home and it was like: ‘Right, there’s no money, how are we going to get through the next months?’ Normally when we come home from tour we might not see each other for a week, and then the texts start, to arrange meeting up again. But this time a week passed, and then two weeks passed, and no one was really getting in contact with one another. I think we were all feeling a bit of frustration, like, ‘Okay, maybe we can’t do this any more.’”
“It wasn’t just coming back off a tour that didn’t make any money,” says Neeson. “We realised we’d come to the end of a decade of making what we would regard as high-quality rock’n’roll records and we had to weigh up what should happen next. We’d reached the crossroads that a lot of bands reach where you might sit down and say: ‘We’ve had a good run, but…’ We had to ask ourselves some tough questions.”
For the first time in a decade, the band sat down and coldly and calmly assessed their situation. Their discussions went to the core of what it means to be in a rock band in the modern age: what defines success for this band? Why are we doing this? What’s our reason to continue? For each question, they arrived at one basic answer, and that was the same motivation that first brought them together: the music.
“We came to the conclusion that we weren’t prepared to let all this go, after all that hard work and all the trials and tribulations and stresses that come with now having to provide for a family as well as just being in this game for the love of it,” says Neeson. “At this point we weren’t just making a decision about a new record, it was making a decision that this is what we do, this is what we were born to do, and we’re going to fight for it. And once we made that call, it was fucking liberating.”
The four men determined that they should go back to basics, shut out the industry noise and redefine the boundaries of what their band could be. Locking themselves away in their Downpatrick rehearsal room, they began to write and record with a new openness, drawing influence not only from the giants of hard rock but also from their roots in Irish traditional music, soundtracks, electronic music and progressive rock. The result was Solas (the Gaelic word for ‘light’). Recorded in the band’s own studio from January to June this year, with Rise producers Andy Bradfield and Avril Mackintosh, it’s the most striking, diverse and experimental album The Answer have ever made. It’s also unquestionably the best album they’ve ever made, from the menacing, trip-hop-inspired title track (co-written with Massive Attack collaborator Neil Davidge), via stirring Celtic rock to the punchy, Thin Lizzy-esque Left Me Standing. With Neeson’s lyrics, perhaps unsurprisingly, displaying a darker, more reflective perspective on life, it’s a bold, brave and genuinely thrilling reinvention for the band. And this afternoon, as they nurse pints of Guinness in the beer garden of a village pub, they’re visibly excited to be sharing the album with the world.
“Maybe for the first time since the first record we were free from expectations,” says Mahon. “In a way we’re past anyone waiting for a hit song from us, so we were liberated and free to explore.”
Neeson adds: “It meant we were literally going into the studio with the attitude that no one is going to tell us how to make this record, and we’re not going to make an album to try to please everyone. We knew we might even piss off some of our fans, but we had to be courageous and throw off this straitjacket of being defined as just a blues-rock band. It’s not like anyone has ever said to us we have to make this sort of record or write this sort of song, but subtly it filters in to what you do. And you can become further influenced by that the more you become part of this big music industry machine. The further you get away from your first record, the further you can get away from that initial freedom and excitement. Hopefully by freshening things up in that regard, and taking a leap of faith, we can open up another ten years of making records.”
If there remains a feeling – one that is in truth shared by the band themselves – that The Answer have yet to fully realise their true potential, then Solas is a huge step in the right direction. And as level-headed and pragmatic as the band are, it would be unwise to mistake their laid-back nature as denoting any lack of ambition. With a renewed sense of purpose, a reinvigorated confidence in their own abilities and a clear vision of the road ahead, like the children on the cover of Houses Of The Holy The Answer are climbing towards the light once more.
“There have been bands we started with who’ve gone on to do really great things, and good luck to them. But there’s also a hell of a lot of bands we played with who just don’t exist any more, who didn’t have the passion to keep going,” says Neeson. “The people that we rely on to further our career – from the label to management to our agent – still very much believe in what we do, and as long as we have those tools and our own sense of self-belief, I think we’ll continue and build. Right now I’d go to my grave with a copy of this record under my arm because I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved. As a band, we’re genuinely excited about the future again, and it’s amazing already what this album has done for our general well-being. I can’t wait to see what will happen next.”
The story behind Houses Of The Holy’s creepy artwork
Conceived by Hipgnosis co-founder Aubrey Powell, the distinctive artwork on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy was inspired by British author Arthur C Clarke’s 1953 sci‑fi novel Childhood’s End, the climax of which sees Earth’s children gathering at the edge of the world to be taken into space. Powell warned Zeppelin manager Peter Grant that pulling off the visuals might be expensive, and got the response: “We don’t fucking care about money, just fucking do it.”
The designer hired just two children for the shoot – seven year old model/actress Samantha Gates and her five-year-old brother Stefan
– and spent 10 days in Northern Ireland, photographing the children at first light at the Giant’s Causeway (and later in the day at nearby Dunluce Castle for the album’s inner sleeve). Near-constant rain hampered Powell’s efforts, and although he envisaged the child models being coloured silver and gold, the images captured on his black-and-white film under grey skies turned out pure white.
Back in London, the airbrush artist working on the images accidentally imparted a purplish tinge to the children’s bodies, but the Hipgnosis team liked the other-worldly effect it produced, and presented it to Zeppelin in that form. Cue thousands of late-night, stoned conversations across the world about what it could all possibly mean, maaaan.
Stefan Gates, now a BBC TV cookery show presenter and writer, later admitted: “I personally have no idea”.