On Tuesday 25 July 2017, I had the immense pleasure of attending at The Field pub in Kilkenny where I joined Ronan Collins as a co-launcher of my friend Niall Power’s new book ‘Timing is Everything’. Three weeks later, the Irish Daily Mail published the following article which was, in effect, an extended version of the talk I gave on the launch night.
My first sighting of the man was at the Mount Wolseley swimming pool outside Tullow, County Carlow, in 2011. As I splashed my way up the pool, I couldn’t help but notice a gentleman striding back and forth up the swimming lane on the far side. He wasn’t swimming. He was striding. Big bold steps, with his hands criss-crossed over the back of his head and a look of fierce resolve in his eyes. I assumed he must be a boxer or a taekwondo expert perhaps.
Before long we got to talking in the changing room. I said I was a historian. He told me he was mad into his family history, that he was trying to track down a renegade grandfather who served in the Connaught Rangers during the First World War. He told me he’d grown up on the Curragh and that it was listening to the marching bands that inspired him to become a drummer. He introduced himself as Niall Power. Over subsequent mornings, I worked out that he was a professional drummer and that, over the years, he had performed alongside Johnny Logan, Westlife and, most regularly, the bauld Sir Bob Geldof.
My admiration for Niall has mushroomed in the ensuing years, not least when it became apparent that the entire reason why he showed up at the Mount Wolseley pool every morning was because he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and he was utterly determined to outfox the brute.
Niall’s morning ritual involves 30 minutes on a treadmill (4km), followed by some weights. He then hops up on one of those bicycle that don’t move for 5 minutes (2km) before rounding out with 45-minutes of walking up and down the pool, getting in 40 lengths a session.
He’s done that seven days a week for the past nine years and has only rarely missed a morning.
I am no mathematician but 40 lengths a day for nine years looks like 130,000 lengths to me. Alternatively, 6km a day on the treadmill-bicycle for nine years translates into nearly 20,000km. Dublin to Tokyo and back with a little to spare.
That’s how determined Niall has been to conquer the blasted Parky’s.
And in between it all he wrote his memoirs, ‘Timing is Everything’, which he launched recently at The Field pub in Kilkenny. The premises were ‘packed to suffocation’ for the occasion with old rockers and showband stars, including Johnny Logan, Rob Strong, Ronan Collins and the novelist Philip Davison. Also present was Niall’s wife Michelle, their entrepreneurial son Illann and their daughter Slaney.
Geldof was unable to attend but he penned the forward to the book in which he hailed Niall, the drummer with his band for the last quarter of a century, as ‘the vibemaster.’
‘He glued the band together,’ wrote Geldof. ‘He was the spirit of the thing.’
Niall was born at the Curragh Camp, County Kildare, in 1957, close to his mother’s hometown of Newbridge. His father was an Irish Army fireman from Kilmacthomas, County Waterford.
He enjoyed an active childhood from their home in the camp’s McDermott Barracks, cycling, playing football, camping with the scouts, swimming in the Curragh pool, fishing in the Grand Canal.
Watching the pipe bands and brass bands march past his front door during army parades was a particular joy and his eyes invariably fixed upon the drummers. His first hero was Micky Dolenz, the drummer with The Monkees, while a trip to see The Beatles movie ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ provided the incentive for a very bad self-cut mop top.
At the age of ten, he was confined to bed for nearly three months with a serious bout of pneumonia. His mum gave him a transistor radio which he pressed to his ear and listened to the crackling sounds of Radio Luxembourg and Radio Caroline.
By the age of fourteen, he was going to Thin Lizzy concerts and playing the accordion although he concluded ‘it wasn’t a very rock n’ roll instrument’. He switched tack, grew his hair long, Status Quo style, bought the makings of a drum-kit – a blue tom-tom, a bass drum, a silver snare – and formed a band with some pals called Broken Cobweb.
Niall was a left-handed drummer. It soon transpired that the denim-clad teen was also very gifted. As Geldof put it, ‘he’s a mighty thumper but his subtlety, his sense of groove, beat or dynamic was incomparable.’
In 1975, Niall was invited to join Just Four, a cabaret band, on a three-week tour of England. It proved to the start of an extraordinary career for this session drummer, or ‘the man of many bands’ as he became known. Niall has been the drummer to upwards of 140 acts, across an impressive range of musical spectrums, and he had also provided backing vocals along the way. ‘He’s a harmony master’, says Geldof.
Niall’s poignant, charming and humorous memoir is much enhanced by his incredible memory. ‘He remembered everything,’ recalls Geldof. ‘Songs we haven’t done for years would just spring fresh-green to his musical consciousness and he’d shout out the changes to us as he hammered along.’
Career highlights included a four-year stint with Johnny Logan, three weeks as David Bowie’s chauffeur (narrowly missing an opportunity to jam with the Thin White Duke), drumming on Westlife’s world tour in 2001 (‘not very challenging – but hey, that’s what a session drummer is employed for so I just got on with it’), performing ‘I Don’t Like Monday’s’ at the 25th Brit Awards with an entire orchestra behind him, and rattling his drumsticks to a global audience of 3.8 billion people when Bob Geldof’s band played at Live 8 in 2005. As part of Geldof’s inner circle, he also met people like Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.
He has also performed with musical maestros like Brendan Bowyer, Liam Clancy, Dickie Rock, Phil Coulter and Roger Whittaker, as well as wedding bands. However, darker forces were at play inside his body and in 2006 he began to notice that his foot was not performing properly when it came to pressing the drum bass pedal. His concern that he had strained some joints through over-playing was heightened when his left arm momentarily ceased working midway through a concert at Croke Park and his drumstick fell to the floor.
He pushed on into 2007 when the Geldof band played in Colombia and Libya (where Saif Gadaffi gave such a long-winded speech before they took to the stage that it prompted a riot). He also went to Las Vegas with Michelle to promote Boozeberries, a new berry liqueur she had devised, but the return journey was marred by cramp in his left arm. A niggling feeling in his left leg whenever he played drums led to an appointment with a neurologist. His worst fears were confirmed in June 2008 when he was diagnosed with idiopathic Parkinson’s disease, also known as Shaking Palsy.
It was a harsh fate for a drummer still very much in the full flow of his career but, with the support of his family, the Geldof band, fellow Parkinson’s veteran Shay Healy and his rigorous morning workout at Mount Wolseley, Niall has learned how to tackle it with verve.
Most of Niall’s book was written using the index finger of his right hand. Those gathered for its launch were unanimous in their respect for the brave and brilliant manner in which he has dealt with his ailment. Indeed, one of the highlights of the night was when Niall seated himself behind a drum-kit and hypnotically beat his way through a couple of blues numbers with Rob Strong. The evening reached a crescendo when Slaney Power, a rapidly rising actress, sang a song in honour of her remarkable father.
A man of many bands. A man of many fans.
‘Timing is Everything’ by Niall Power is available via Niall Power’s Facebook page.