They may not have been very hip, but I'd still runaway with the Corrs
Among the grungy melancholy of the Nineties, the Corrs sweet-sounding music stood out. Ahead of their Belfast gig next Friday, Siobhan Norton on what it was like being a teenager in love with a not so cool band.
It should never have worked, really. A fiddle-playing family gigging at the local pub isn't usually the recipe for global stardom. But the folksy, diddley-eye charms of The Corrs secured them just that. The band went from playing in their aunt's pub, McManus's in Dundalk, Co Louth, to packing out venues around the world, with global platinum-selling albums.
In 1998, their album Talk on Corners was the best-selling LP in the UK, and the most successful Irish album in UK history, outselling U2 and Westlife. Their third album, the poppier In Blue, went to number one in 17 countries. As sweet little Irish bands go, they were pretty huge.
Naturally, being Irish, I may have had an album or two in my collection.
Okay, I may have had them all. By the time Talk on Corners was released, I was enough of a fan to make the rare 70-mile round trip to Cork city to buy the album. Virgin Megastore had just opened and was packed with trendy teenagers crowding at the newfangled listening stations, lending an ear to friends when a particularly good song came on. I lingered shyly at one station for as long as I could, transfixed by the hypnotic melodies, all the while aware that my neighbours were listening to something infinitely cooler.
Because The Corrs were many things, but not exactly cool.
But then again, neither was I. I was vaguely aware in my teens that Nirvana were a big deal, but until I discovered their unplugged album they left me cold. Blur vs Oasis? I claimed to be in camp Blur, but I would have struggled to name a song beyond Country House.
And I sat puce-faced in the college bar in my first year of university as everyone else wailed along to Radiohead's Creep - I was the only one who didn't know the words.
In among the grungy melancholy of the Nineties, The Corrs sang not about misery, drugs and dejection, but songs of a far sweeter nature - mostly about dreamy love and bittersweet loss. Never in their lyrics did they turn to the bottom of a vodka bottle to ease their pain. But for a sheltered north Cork girl, The Corrs had all the angst I needed. Sure, I listened to Skunk Anansie and The Fugees with the volume cranked up, but I found it hard to relate to the tales of hedonism and homelessness. The Corrs were relatable, honest and, well, safe. Runaway and Only When I Sleep were my anthems, with I Never Really Loved You Anyway for my feistier moments. Was I just a more well-balanced, emotionally stable teenager? Was I heck. I was angsting all over the place - my baffled parents can attest to that.
Still, I wasn't the only uncool teenager out there listening, and their reach extended far beyond rural Ireland. Perhaps the reason for The Corrs' success was timing. Riverdance-fever was still going strong in 1996, and Enya, still Ireland's best-selling solo artist, was riding high in the Nineties. I didn't care for anything "trad" at the time - eight years of Irish dancing had dampened any love of it I had.
I still wince when an accordion grates to life. But The Corrs managed to take trad and make it sexy and modern.
It doesn't hurt, I guess, that they're all incredibly beautiful (the girls at least, sorry Jim). They wore gorgeous satiny slip things that were all the rage in the Nineties, designed by Ghost and Calvin Klein, and with their smoky eyes and pale skin, looking like an altogether more wholesome version of Kate Moss. Andrea in particular regularly featured on Most Beautiful Woman in the World lists. That, coupled with an easy-listening timelessness made for some very agreeable music.
Then, around 2005, they disappeared. Apart from Jim's appearances on RTE's Late Late Show to discuss his varied conspiracy theories (9/11, swine flu, Bin Laden - all of which have been stripped from his website since September) and the occasional tabloid pap shot of "raven-haired stunner" Andrea, it all seemed quiet. What were they doing in the past 10 years? Well, having babies, eight between them, and working on solo projects, with varying degrees of success. Andrea took a different musical direction with two solo albums produced by Nellee Hooper, who has worked with Bjork and Gwen Stefani, but it got a rather lukewarm reception.
Sharon also wrote two albums, and starred as a coach on talent show The Voice of Ireland. All four said they were reluctant to reunite before now and go back on the road because they wanted to dedicate time to their families and children, who now range in age from one to 12 years old. They most certainly didn't go down the route of so many "bands on a break" - no getting fat or developing addictions problems, or falling out of nightclubs. No dubious toyboy relationships. No paparazzi flare-ups or fender benders. No nip slips. They're a classy lot, The Corrs. Parents everywhere must have been thrilled that their teenagers had grown up with the nicest band in pop.
Ten years on, I may be older, more cynical and less sheltered (the angst levels are debatable), but as The Corrs return it looks as if no time has passed at all. Scroll through YouTube, and it's hard to decipher which clips are 10 years old and which are from their Hyde Park appearance last summer. But none of it seems dated - it turns out the smoky-eye, strappy-dress look is timeless, and compared to the scores of reunited rockers out there today, the 40-something-year-old sisters no way look like oldies trying to "dress up" as their former selves. This is no mean feat: imagine the Spice Girls today, stumbling around in their platform trainers, or East 17 straightening their backwards baseball caps over thinning hairlines. The music has also aged gracefully - their new album, White Light, is still sweet (but not sickly), pure and melodic. Perhaps the lyrics are a little wiser, a bit more mature - less of the head-in-the-clouds feel of Runaway. And it appears that their fanbase is very much still intact - the album entered the charts at number 11.
Jim is the only member of the Corrs who still lives here in Crawfordsburn, Co Down, so that he can be close to his son, Brandon (9) from a previous relationship with former Miss Northern Ireland and Miss UK Gayle Williamson.
Although the couple split six months after their son's birth, they are understood to be good friends; while Sharon now lives in Spain with her husband, Belfast barrister Gavin Bonner. The couple previously lived in Stranmillis. Meanwhile, Andrea and Caroline both live in Britain.
But their roots aren't forgotten in their new tour - they are using background imagery of scenery from their native Louth and White Light is still unmistakably Irish. Their instrumental stuff - always a brave addition to a pop album - is still as rousing as ever, and at their 2015 Hyde Park gig, normally non-chalant revellers jigged (well, reeled) along merrily to "Toss the Feathers". And perhaps it's expat nostalgia (we are notorious for getting misty-eyed for the homeland even on a week-long break in Majorca), but the squeal of a tin whistle doesn't jar as much with me as it used to, and the bodhran is one of the most exciting, unmistakeable instruments you'll ever hear played. Gerry's Reel, from the new album, is as good as Irish trad music gets.
Maybe they've got their timing right, yet again. The success of bands like Mumford & Sons and Ed Sheeran have seen a swing back to the folksy - with fans craving an alternative to manufactured boy bands and samey synth-pop. And there's no denying that White Light smacks of authenticity - no dance remixes or grime undertones here. Strip out some of the folksier instruments and I could imagine Little Mix doing a version of some of their later hits. Okay, perhaps not Rihanna or Iggy Azalea (can you see Sharon breaking into rap?), but still.
The return of The Corrs led me, somewhat sheepishly, with a little self-conscious eye-roll, to dig out the back catalogue. For research, of course - I'm far too cool now for such tweeness. Or not. Halfway through Forgiven, Not Forgotten, I was back to being a 14-year-old, dipping my toes into matters of life and love. I may as well have been standing in Virgin Megastore again.
The Corrs may never be eulogised as Bowie was last week, or credited with shaping a generation, but I can't help but think they helped to shape me.
The Corrs play The SSE Arena next Friday. Visit www.thecorrswebsite.com for more details. Tickets from www.getmein.com