Pete Cunnah of D:Ream told David Hennessy why he was so glad to see their famous track Things Can Only Get Better come back into the zeitgeist during the pandemic, why he thought its assocations with Blair’s ‘lies’ killed it, why Northern Ireland must not return to ‘the old ways’ and the traumas and harms caused by the mother and baby homes.
Everyone knows Things Can Only Get Better by D:Ream. The dance track was a UK No. 1 hit in 1994 and later adopted as a political anthem for Tony Blair’s successful Prime Ministerial campaign of 1997. the uplifting tune returned to the public consciousness during the pandemic when it became an anthem for Nottingham’s residents as they blasted it when clapping for key workers each week.
D:Ream frontman Pete Cunnah, from Derry, The Irish World: “I got shivers. I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. You do your thing and make a record for all the clubbers in the early 90s to dance to, and the next thing everyone’s hanging out of windows singing it during a crisis. I was in tears.”
It all came as an unexpected delight to Pete.
“The Labour party thing and the Iraq war kind of tarnished it and I thought that was pretty much the end of it but there during the clap for carers some bright spark played our song. It was really touching. It’s taken on a life of its own.”
Pete would find himself performing the tracks alongside Tony at various rallies. Looking back on this now, he says: “I really wanted to walk away from that. I wasn’t happy with how it happened or how it turned out. Very pleased about the Good Friday Agreement. With one hand we were given that and with the other we were in Iraq. We all knew it was lies. The track was associated with their lies. I thought that would be it for many years. It just won’t go away.
“I played the song at one or two rallies and I realised none of the people in the room had any sense of timing. I mean they couldn’t even clap in time. Then the thought dawned on me, ‘Maybe instead of selecting these people at the ballot poll we should have dance offs, the ones with the best rhythm should get elected. It might be better. More entertaining.
“I have a love-hate relationship with the song. We do it live and that’s great and I love that we’ve got that calling card but we’re still making new music that is what we’ve always been about.”
The band are about to return with their first album in over a decade with the lead single Meet Me At Midnight arriving at the end of this month.
“For us it’s a real return to form. The album is called Open Hearts, Open Minds and I don’t think it could describe us better. There’s some celebratory stuff on there, some stuff that’s going to bring hope. Meet Me at Midnight is basically a post-Covid wish to meet someone in real life.”
When asked if it is good to be back, Pete is quick to point out the band have never really left in some ways.
“We’re back in so far as we’re telling people about it but we’ve been on the festival circuit for the last 20 years off and on.
“I’ve had a life outside of D:Ream. I got married, I had kids. I raised them. I had every first with those kids and I’m privileged to be able to do that but at the same time I can not let it define me. I can come back into it. There’s always a song sitting there.
“Some of my songs take years. Things Can Only Get Better took three years from conception to realisation. Some of them can take longer than that. We had time in lockdown to write and record and we’re desperate as musicians. We were the last out and it seems like we’re the last in. If you think of how streaming has really killed musicians’ livelihoods because of the woeful rates that musicians get, when corona hit our only last source of income was taken away as well.
“If it hadn’t been for me writing my own stuff, I would have been living on air so we’re just chumping at the bit. It’s not the same without people. It’s an energy between the artist and crowd. We get high on it and they get high on it.”
Formed with DJ Alan Mckenzie and singer-songwriter Pete Cunnah in early 1990, D:Ream had eight top 40 hits aside from Things Can Only Get Better. The band would be invited to tour with Take That.
Things Can Only Get Better stayed at number one for weeks in a time when people were still buying physical records and a number one record was a coveted thing.
“I had fans sitting on the wall outside my house one summer. I can’t remember what plane I had just got off but I got home at stupid o’clock in the morning and they were sitting outside.
“I said, ‘Are you alright, girls?’ They said, ‘We’re waiting to see you’. I said, ‘You must be mad’.
“I was a 24-year-old man and these girls must have been 16. They said, ‘We saw you on the Take That tour and we wanted to come and meet you, can we come in?’
“I said, ‘Absolutely not’. As a 24-year-old man, I just found it that bit uncomfortable. You had mad things like that happen.
“Within two weeks of being on tour with Take That, our office was inundated with cuddly toys. I had never seen anything like it. We had gone from playing to 40,000 clubbers and the next thing we know we’re like teen heart throbs.
“We had to take three or four bin liners of cuddy toys a day to the local charity shop that these wee girls were sending. Get your head around that one.
“I was talking to a couple of kids and I was saying, ‘What’s number one at the minute?’ They said, ‘I don’t know’. With the loss of Top of the Pops and The Chart Show, it’s all blowing in the wind. With something like Top of the Pops, dads would know what their kids were listening to and vice versa. Parents would always say, ‘In my day it was better…’ and what have you but at least we were all looking at the same thing whereas now you can be in the same room as people all looking at different things on their phones.
“It’s a sign of the times and I’m probably just showing my age but of course I’m going to show my age, I’m an old fart.”
Pete remembers the time Terry Wogan came to his family home.
“At the height of our fame Terry Wogan came to the house and when my mum found out Terry Wogan was coming to the house, she just went into overload. You know the way a bride becomes Bridezilla? She went Mumzilla.
“She bought up all these home improvement magazines to get the house knocked into shape. She concentrated on the oldest bathroom in the house. On the day we were in the yard and Terry leans into me and says, ‘Is there a loo around here anywhere?’ I said, ‘Right behind you’.
“He goes in and it was this old crapper. You know the ones with the pull chains? They’re trendy now but not back then. He comes out with a big smile on his face, ‘I haven’t seen one of them since I was a wee ‘un’. All I felt was my mum slapping me across the back of the neck and she was just mortified that I had forgotten to send him to the right toilet.
“It’s just madness like that. Thinking back on it, he was royalty. He was Irish royalty. He was in my house.”
It was with a different band that Pete first came to London. Entitled Tie the Boy, Pete’s first band had done well enough to impress U2 and get signed to their Mother Records label. Although they came to London to pursue the dream, it was not to be.
“Larry Mullen and their manager Paul McGuinness came to see us. We had been on the circuit for a good few years so at this stage we were tight and they really liked what we had done so Mother Records gave us a wee grant and a leg up to go and mix this record. It didn’t work out but it got us to London and I stayed when they wanted to go back to Ireland. That was the making of me because I was sleeping on people’s floors for some considerable time. It was two years before I found my feet and I started learning about production. That was the turnaround for me. I wouldn’t rely on a band, I could just make records the way I wanted to. One thing led to another.
“That was it. It was the beginning of that lovely moment in time when the wave of house music was just taking over England and we were right there and that was the making of us.”
Pete describes his home city as, “Derry, Londonderry. So good they named it twice is my new phrase.”
He says the Northern Ireland he left in the early 90s is much different to the one he returned home to in recent years.
“Growing up in the Troubles was tough. I only realised being in London for thirty years how oppressive it felt. There were tensions of course. A lot of people were murdered and hurt and all the rest of it but when I came back you could really feel the difference. You could see what the peace dividend had brought to everyone.
“Now this whole Brexit thing has kicked it off again and it’s really sad to see basically children who wouldn’t have any memory of any of that stuff just causing wanton destruction. I can only think that that’s a form of child abuse because children learn how to do this sort of thing and it’s just unacceptable on any level. The only place to solve these things is at the ballot box surely.
“When I was their age, I remember kids used to say, ‘We’re going to throw stones at the police’. And I was going, ‘Why would I want to do that? I want to stay at home and practice my guitar’. And they were like, ‘No, it’s really good’. And they were talking about how exciting it was.
“You lock up these eight, nine, ten-year-olds for a year, two years. What do you think they’re going to do when it comes to the nice weather? They’re going to go out there and cause mayhem. There’s no youth clubs. You have to understand where this stuff is coming from.
“Open up the society. Don’t put walls up, put schools up and get them into youth clubs. Get them into sport and all the stuff that takes that youthful energy and ploughs it into something positive. That’s where the future is.
“Filling their heads with negative dreams of independence or unification- The time for that’s over. We have both. We have a deal there that keeps everyone happy. It’s just down to the British government now, especially Boris Johnson, to get up off his arse and put his presence on the streets of Northern Ireland to help this process happen and stop lying to people in Northern Ireland. That’s why I think the parents are upset. These kids couldn’t tell you what Brexit is, they probably couldn’t even spell it.
“Having tasted freedom, having tasted peace, why on God’s earth would you want to return to the old ways?”
Pete has been moved by much of the coverage of the recent report on the mother and baby homes because he was one of these children himself, adopted from Nazareth House in 1966.
“My natural mother was forced to give me up and that caused a real trauma for her and for me. I was only two or three years old when my mum told me that I was adopted. I grew up in the knowledge unlike some of my friends who were quite shocked when they hit their teens.
“I was watching some shows about the mother and baby homes and I can just see how much hurt and trauma has been caused to these children and these parents. These kids are looking for answers. I’ve had a lot of my questions answered and I have to feel for them because I had the opposite experience to what they had in that I had a loving adopted home that nurtured that creativity. A lot of these kids still haven’t met their real parents.
“Parents who turn their backs on children they have put up for adoption, that must be one of the worst aspects. They must be afraid. They must be embarrassed. They must have blocked it. It needs to be unpicked and talked about and put in the open. The process of healing can only start from a position of openness and willingness to talk.
“My sister has seven siblings that she has never met because her real parents wouldn’t meet her. They don’t know that she exists. I can’t tell you how much that gets to me.
“The difference between the hurt and the harms that have been done in the old time when religion ran things and society was ashamed of sex and where we are now is wonderful. People are supported. It’s understood. You can be any sexual persuasion you like. It’s proper progress but these harms from the past, some people need resolutions and they need answers and they need to understand why it is they hurt. Maybe it will bring closure, maybe it will bring some wellbeing to them.”
Pete was lucky to have a loving home. He was also lucky to later get to meet his birth mother.
“The first thing she said to me was, ‘My door will always be open to you’. I said, ‘That’s great, Mam. Put the kettle on’. We went inside, we had a cup of tea and I just realised who I was.
“I found out she was a musician in the Marine Showband and my father was the musical director. For me, it was like, ‘Wow, I’ve got some sort of validation’. I understand why it is I want to do what I do and I do naturally.
“I found out that my family on my mum’s side are all chippies so it explains why I’m not afraid of rolling my sleeves up and getting a drill out.
“I’ve met her and I have three brothers and a half sister that I didn’t know about and I’ve now become Godfather to some of their children.
“It’s such a good luck story. I don’t want to rub it in people’s faces because it must make them feel bad if they see what I’ve got and they want the same. I can’t fix that I’ve had the other experience but what i can do is talk about the harms and the trauma that we all experience that will make people understand what it is they’ve been through. And it makes them understand if they turn to alcohol, if they’re addicted like I’ve been addicted in the past, this is something that needs to be talked about as well. It might help them understand, give them some closure.”
As he alludes to there, Pete has had his struggles with addiction.
“The amount of cocaine and ecstasy and alcohol was just so prevalent in the 90s and it’s easy to fall into that trap. I think Sting said, ‘It’s God’s way of telling you you have got too much money’. In my case that was exactly the case.
“Are we ever recovered? I’ve battled with my demons in my own way and I’m doing good now. I’m in a good place and the place is good enough to feel confident about going out and being around people who are- Because everyone is doing various things. You know they say six degrees of separation? I think you can’t have even one degree of separation between people who are doing drugs or alcohol or whatever, it’s just so prevalent in life. Everyone keeps it under the carpet but as Noel Gallagher said, it’s becoming as common as having a cup of tea these days.”
Pete thinks it is also time for another approach regarding illegal drugs.
“The thing about this war on drugs is it hasn’t been won and I’m more of the mind now that it would probably be better if we legalised these things and controlled these things and taxed these things. You wouldn’t have all these events where there would be stuff that was cut so badly that it would be harmful so people would understand.
“Like you do when you’re having a measure of alcohol, you have to know the strength of things and the purity of things. This prohibition has gone on for too long. The propaganda on the war on drugs has gone on for too long.
“We would be in a better place in this world if we just let people be people but obviously just make sure the stuff’s good, it’s right and it will stop that whole chain of corruption from the jungle to the gangs to the black market and it will stop deaths for sure.”
He may now be a well known television physicist but Brian Cox was first seen on television playing keyboards with D:Ream. Pete speaks with obvious pride about his friend’s success.
“Brian and I have a strong relationship. I have very fond memories of coming on the tour coach with a book. It was just Greek to me. Inside out or upside, it read the same. We take credit for his ease explaining very complicated things to very stupid people like me. I was interviewing him two weeks ago about that and he said, ‘I’ll go along with that’.
“We couldn’t be prouder of him. He’s the poster boy for modern science and you could not hope to meet a nicer man.
He couldn’t even make a cup of tea when I met him. Now he’s playing to 12,000 people. He doesn’t have that kind of brain to put a kettle on and co-ordinate it with the toast. That’s why you love him. He’s just like that.
“He is as genuine in the flesh as he is on TV and that’s how he’s so successful.
“I went to see him on the last tour three years ago. He invited me down to his show in Belfast so I went down and he really looked after us. We had a great night.
“We were in this hall watching Brian’s show and it’s massive. He’s basically bringing the whole universe onto the stage with him and he walks you through all of these concepts. I’m halfway through the show and he loses me. Then I looked around the room.
“I said, ‘There’s 12,000 people here. There’s surely 5,000 of them at least couldn’t be smarter than me’. It was at that point I realised, ‘They’re just here to spend time in his company because he’s a good looking boy’. That’s my theory anyway.”
John Prescott once turned to Pete and said he was sick of hearing Things Can Only Get Better. Pete, who was sick of it himself told him not to start that one.
How does he feel about it now? “I’m 55 now and it’s like the prodigal son and I welcome him with open arms. I’m going to kill the fattest calf.”
Meet Me at Midnight is out now.
Open Hearts, Open Minds is out on 23 July.
For more information, click here.
Pete also curates Beats for Better Days on BBC Radio Ulster.