WHEN Tony Allen left technical school in his home town of Moate, County Westmeath in 1967, he could not possibly have envisaged the incredible music career that was to follow.
His story of success is the subject of a new autobiography with his cohort Mick Foster, entitled After All These Years: Our Story. Tony first met Mick Foster when they both played in the same local band, The Nightrunners, and were both in and out of the Irish Midlands’ trad scene.
So how did they eventually get from playing in local bands to performing on TV and the world’s concert stages – selling millions of records along the way? And how did he and Mick end up working as a duo in 1975?
Tony takes up the story: “We had done some gigs in London with the band and Paddy Callaghan had taken over The Prince of Wales pub in Kilburn,” he says. “He asked myself and Mick to do a week there so the rest of the band went home and we stayed on”.
“That was really the start of the duo. Mick had been on to me to leave the band [The Nightrunners]. He had seen the Alexander Brothers from Scotland when they came over to Ireland and he thought there should be an Irish version.
“He eventually persuaded me to leave the band and go on the road – just the two of us. I was playing organ and keyboards at the time and Mick was on the accordion so we went down the road as Foster & Allen doing the local pubs and traveling all over the country playing pubs and GAA halls.
“At that stage the ballad scene had developed into a sort of cabaret scene. A lot of the bands had broken up and formed smaller groups and the cabaret scene was going great. In 1978 we signed a record deal with Donie Cassidy. We had just released The Blacksmith and then Bunch of Thyme which went to number one in the Irish charts.
“Donie took that off to London with Mick Clerkin and it went into the British record charts. We got on Top of the Pops and that really started the whole thing going outside Ireland. It then went from strength to strength and we are still kicking around at it”.
In such a long career there must have been many highlights? “I think for us it would have to be our appearance on Top of the Pops in 1982,” says Tony.
“That changed the whole thing for us. If you think about it, we went from playing the likes of The Prince of Wales in Kilburn or the Irish Club in Birmingham, to doing a concert tour of England – the big theatres. Our records were being played on all the regional stations. That was a big change”.
“Then in 1983 Maggie came out and Mick McDonagh, the man who put the Green Velvet albums together, sent the song to Ken Harding in Australia. Ken released it as a single and it went to number one in Australia and New Zealand for five weeks so that established us over there”.
Tony was anxious to acknowledge the importance of the Green Velvet compilation albums that did so well in the British charts.
“Because they were backed by a TV advertising campaign they brought Irish folk music into the mainstream. Apart from Foster & Allen tracks they featured De Dannan with Mary Black, The Fureys, Irish Mist and Brendan Grace, who was huge at the time.
“It meant people who might not have been too familiar with Irish folk music were now being exposed to it at peak viewing times and they latched on to it.”
The importance of national TV advertising cannot be overstated in the success of Foster & Allen.
In relation to the way that daytime television has changed Tony said: “In the old days you could do something like Pebble Mill at One and the whole country would see it. You could be on all day now and hardly anyone would see it because there are so many stations but it’s great to be still performing.
“We have the book out now which tells our own individual stories and the story of the band. A new single is also due out shortly plus of course the UK tour coming up. It’s good to be still at it after all these years, which by coincidence just happens to be the title of the book”.
Foster & Allen begin their British tour at the end in Tunbridge Wells on October 29 and tour throughout November.
After All These Years: Our Story is published by Random House.