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How John Reynolds changed the club and festival scenes - and Ireland along the way

The death of the promoter has sent a wave of shock through the Irish music and festival scenes.

“Even as he was in the midst of an incredibly complex concert, getting everything ready, he was still talking about the next five years. The moment he had something done he was moving onto the next thing.”

PastedImage-33352 Leonard Cohen meets Edward Walsh, Constance Cassidy and John Reynolds (far right) at Lissadell House. Source: Lissadell Collection

A PERFECTIONIST. A person who took risks. A visionary who changed the Irish clubbing and festival scenes. A man who died too soon.

That’s how friends and colleagues alike have described promoter John Reynolds, the Longford native behind Electric Picnic who died aged just 52 at home in Dublin on Thursday.

That his death has sent waves of shock through the Irish music and festival scenes is testament to the job that Reynolds did in shaking up these parts of Irish culture. Add in the fact he was a former manager of Boyzone and came from showband stock and you have a picture of him as a unique wealthy entrepreneur who dared to try things others wouldn’t. 

In 1993, John Reynolds opened POD nightclub on Harcourt St in Dublin. Today, the site and its nextdoor Tripod venue lie empty, with only the ghosts of great nights out dancing between its walls.

But when it was opened, POD was something entirely new for Ireland’s clubbers. Reynolds (a nephew of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds) came from a family steeped in the showband scene, so organising gigs was nothing new to him. But talking to friends and colleagues of his, it becomes clear that he was not someone who just wanted to organise the ordinary.

In 2010, John Reynolds put on two Leonard Cohen gigs at Lissadell House in Co Sligo, which is owned by Edward Walsh and his wife Constance Cassidy. Cohen had been experiencing financial issues, and the gigs helped him come back from this. The weekend was an unforgettable one for Walsh and Cassidy.

“I think everybody who knew John is devastated,” says Walsh of his friend’s death. “He was a very, very special person. You do business with different people – with John he was a friend, he was just a guy who had so much ability, so much talent, so much creativity.”

Naoise Nunn was one of those whose career in the arts Reynolds nurtured, enabling him to grow his political cabaret and chat event Leviathan, which was set up in 2003. John Reynolds saw a live Leviathan show and invited the organisers to bring it to Crawdaddy, a small venue that was part of the POD complex.

In 2006 he asked them to bring it to Electric Picnic, which was then a two-year-old boutique festival, originally set up as a one-day event. “It was just one show. We went into a tent that was just on the edge of the Body and Soul area in 2006 and filled in loads of other programming around Leviathan,” says Nunn. This became two tents, then the Mindfield arena. 

“The big thing about John was he took risks himself, but he also gave people the opportunity. Where he saw interesting ideas he took risks to give people a bit of a leg up,” says Nunn. The spaces he invited Leviathan into gave it space to develop further.

This week, Reynolds would have been gearing up for the Metropolis festival, one of his recent projects. Angela Dorgan of First Music Contact says that Reynolds’ passing on the eve of the event makes her think of what he is missing out on.

“I’m devastated. Knowing John, he would have been in the middle of the last bits and he was such a perfectionist in the best, most positive way,” she says. “He would have been making sure these last days that everything was in place for Metropolis .”

Outsider and insider

Electric Picnic Music Festivals Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

Reynolds “had a bit of divilment about him and a bit of subversion and a bit of cheekiness”, says Nunn. He was an independent promoter in a tiny but notable pond where he swam alongside businesses like MCD and Aiken. 

“It was tough,” says Nunn. “For somebody who was from an insider political family, the Reynolds family, he was an outsider to some extent when it came to entertainment and he ploughed a very individual furrow.

I think he had a healthy scepticism of authority and rules and he wasn’t content for people to say ‘that can’t be done’. He was an oppositional character – if he came up against barriers he really wanted to overcome them. They really spurred him on.

As testament to this, Nunn says that during the financial crisis Reynolds had been prepared to back a new political party or movement which Nunn had been hoping to set up. Though the idea never took off, he was impressed by Reynolds’ willingness to “put his money where mouth is”.

But by 2012, there were cracks in the relationship between Reynolds and Festival Republic, which had a majority stake in Electric Picnic, culminating in a court case in 2014. A settlement was eventually reached after legal action was taken, and Reynolds’ POD Music divested its stake to Festival Republic.

After Reynolds moved on from Electric Picnic, the next phase in his career seemed set to be particularly interesting. He created the electronic musical festival Metropolis at the RDS, and this summer held the very first All Together Now festival in Waterford. It looked like Reynolds was returning to the boutique event that Electric Picnic was in its early days, but putting everything he’d learned along the way into it.

For Cork-based DJ and promoter Stevie Grainger, who DJ’d at many of Reynolds’ events, the big loss now is that the promoter won’t get to fulfil the next phase in his career. “John has had this amazing career and he was still young, and I think he was starting the next phase. So that’s one of the regrets with his death,” says Grainger.

He says that Reynolds was “oldschool” in his booking approach, always ringing him to book him for events. 

“One of my abiding memories from being at festivals over the last 20 years was seeing John out – he was always mucking in, always in with the walkie-talkie,” he says. After a festival-goer died at the 2007 Electric Picnic, Reynolds drove to Cork to give the family his sympathies in person. 

Electric Picnic has grown over the years, and is a different beast to those initial dreams that Reynolds had (it’s also incredibly successful, selling out before the line-up is even finalised). “I do feel All Together Now, he was almost mirroring [Electric Picnic] and trying to create that again,” says Grainger. “All Together Now wasn’t a huge corporate thing. He obviously had an itch.”

Everybody TheJournal.ie spoke to mentioned John Reynolds’ attention to detail when promoting events. “I can only imagine the stress of running a festival,” says Grainger. “I run events to this day and I’ve helped run venues, and with a festival there’s just so many things that can go wrong.”

He says that in the music and festival scene, “you need these mavericks to do these things and these crazy things”, like John Reynolds. The people who will have an idea someone else would think ‘nah, it’ll never happen’ about. Reynolds had the resources and the gumption to make it happen.

Grainger says that Electric Picnic set a new level for Irish festivals. “You can’t just serve crappy food anymore; you have to bring the arts element to it.” 

It’s totally changed everything. It’s changed the whole game.

00000485_485 Inside the POD in 1993

The superclub era

The opening of the POD and Chocolate Bar in an old train station on Harcourt St in the mid-1990s paved the way for the superpubs and superclubs of the 2000s, says Grainger. These clubs weren’t DIY efforts, and there was a sense of exclusivity to them. They were said to have been influenced by John Reynolds’ time in London, which had huge club and rave scenes.

“I was going from Sir Henry’s [nightclub in Cork] into the Chocolate Bar and it actually blew me away – I felt a little uncomfortable because it was so swish,” says Grainger. 

“But I will say this much, that walking into the POD and the Chocolate Bar in 1995 was an absolutely mind-blowing experience for me, to see that this was totally different to everywhere else in Ireland,” he adds. He tracks the opening of Cork nightclubs like the Isobar and Bodega to being directly influenced by Reynolds’ Dublin clubs. 

He says the events were inclusive, with people like Panti – who at the time didn’t have the profile she does now – hosting some of them. Later, events like the Alternative Miss Ireland festival were held there.

Grainger says that the venues played their part in Ireland’s social evolution. “Ireland has changed an awful lot in the last 20-25 years, but people like John would have been instrumental in the background – or the foreground, really.”

POD and the Chocolate Bar “elevated things”, says Grainger. They also helped to break down assumptions about clubbers. “And people started taking DJs and artists and musicians a bit more seriously.”

Like Grainger, Angela Dorgan emphasises how Reynolds helped young Irish acts with their career. “There are so many Irish DJs at the minute who John gave their first start to in the POD and Red Box,” she says. 

He created the DJ landscape and the dance scene and all of that with his nights there. He put Dublin on the international stage and Ireland on the international stage for bands and DJs and others. And there are other festivals of course, but there is something unique about what John brought to bear.

“He was an innovator, he was independent and he never stopped trying stuff. I didn’t know him personally but I get the feeling John was never bored. He was always moving, always doing something. His ideas were wonderful, and his execution sensational.”

Leonard at Lissadell

john r 1 Leonard Cohen meets Edward Walsh, Constance Cassidy and John Reynolds (far left) Source: Lissadell Collection

As well as the venues and festivals (he brought the UK festival Homelands to Ireland and was also involved in the Garden Party and the Midlands festival), there were the one-off events too.

Back in 2010, Edward Walsh says that “no money was spared to make sure that it was a special occasion, a special event” when the legendary Leonard Cohen played at Lissadell House. 

Walsh describes John Reynolds as always having a smile and “such incredible energy”. During the Leonard Cohen weekend of gigs, he got just a handful of hours’ sleep, having practically lived at the house for the previous week.

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“When he was plugged in, when there was an event happening, that’s all he wanted,” says Walsh. “He wanted to make sure every single detail was covered. He was quite inspirational as well. He went around and he would keep improving.”

Constance Cassidy and John’s relationship went back years, and he rang her one day with the idea for gigs at her family home. She and Walsh met Reynolds at the Morrison Hotel in Dublin city centre.

“We were sitting down and I said ‘look John, it’s not really part of what I see as the future of Lissadell at the moment’,” says Walsh. “He said: Let me talk you through it – I’m going to get Leonard Cohen…’ I said OK John, we’re done, it’s fine’.”

John Reynolds and Leonard Cohen had “enormous respect for each other”, says Walsh. “It was John who reinvented Leonard Cohen, particularly in Ireland.”

There were even plans for a ‘Legends at Lissadell’ series, but these were disrupted by a court case over public access to the land. John Reynolds envisaged people like Elton John and Neil Young playing at Lissadell, says Walsh.

“Even as he was in the midst of an incredibly complex concert, getting everything ready, he was still talking about the next five years. The moment he had something done he was moving onto the next thing.”

90250433_90250433 The now-closed Tripod venue. Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Talking to those who knew Reynolds, there’s a sadness that they won’t get to see what he would have planned next. Like Grainger, Dorgan says All Together Now was the promoter building on his legacy from the Electric Picnic days.

With Electric Picnic, she says he managed to do what a lot of gig promoters want to do: bring non gig-goers to gigs.

Dorgan says that the fact he was an independent offered inspiration to others in the independent space. “He was always willing to take a chance and that is very encouraging when you are in the trenches taking chances – it is always great to see someone is doing that too.”

“It’s devastating for family and friends. All I can say is it is so sad that he is standing still for the very last time.”

Walsh says that John Reynolds pursued excellence at the cost of commercial gain. He wanted to make money, but he wanted to put on brilliant events too. 

One of the things I think he did, he strove for excellence. I think that’s the one tribute everyone should give him.

“I think he will be sorely missed. He did so much good work for younger people, he encouraged younger people, and younger DJs and younger musicians. He had time for everyone – he was a very special man and a huge loss.”

Adds Grainger: “Everyone has been affected by these [his work] – we’ve all gone there, or played there or worked or partied at his clubs or festivals.”

That’s true for many of us – the thousands upon thousands who’ve gone to Electric Picnic over the last 14 years, those who partied and kissed and danced at the POD, who gigged at Tripod, Crawdaddy and Red Box, and dance with their family at All Together Now.

For this reporter, thinking of the Red Box will remind her of the year 2000, when as a teenager in Cork she wasn’t able to get to Reynolds’ venue to see her favourite musician play there.

So she stuck the ad on her diary as a reminder of what was possible when she was finally grown up:

elliott smith Source: Aoife Barry

That’s the thing about music promotion – there are major risks to take, but when things work out there will be strangers who’ll always remember what you helped make happen. Even if they didn’t make the gig in the end.

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