For Clannad, luck is even better second time around

June 09, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

There's nothing unusual about Madison Avenue co-opting a pop song as part of an ad campaign -- having Michael Jackson pitch Pepsi or using a Bob Seger song to sell Chevys. But who ever heard of a car ad selling albums?

Clannad has. Because ever since Volkswagen started playing the dreamy strains of "Harry's Game" in the background of a Passat ad, the Irish group's album sales have shot through the roof. In fact, since VW started running the ad last November, Clannad has moved more than a quarter-million copies of "Anam," the album featuring "Harry's Game."

Sounds like a stroke of marketing genius, doesn't it? But as singer Maire Brennan explains, it was more a matter of luck than anything.

"We never thought, 'Let's get it in an ad,' " she says, speaking over the phone from a record company office in Los Angeles. "The song was in a movie. Somebody heard it, and they asked could they use it for an ad. We were selling 30,000 albums at most in America, so we weren't going to turn around and say no to something like that.

"But nobody at all expected the reaction from the general public. Obviously there are a lot of people out there wanting to hear this kind of music. Volkswagen gave us the opportunity, and I certainly wouldn't have any qualms about being associated with the ad at all."

This wasn't the first time "Harry's Game" had made a splash, though. In fact, it made it all the way to No. 5 on the British charts -- in 1982. And Clannad wasn't expecting it then, either.

"You must remember that when we wrote it, if we had thought it was going to be a hit, we wouldn't have been writing it in Gaelic," Brennan says, laughing. "Because nothing like that ever entered the British charts before. So that took us aback.

"Then people started asking, 'Where did this sound come from?' And we were sort of standing back ourselves, wondering, 'Have we got a sound?' To our surprise and to our delight, we discovered we did."

Why surprise? Because although Clannad -- which includes Maire (pronounced "Moyra"), brother Cairan ("Keeron") Brennan, and uncles Padraig ("Poric") and Noel Duggan -- started out playing traditional Irish fare, the group never had much use for the fiddle-and-pipes approach favored by most Irish folk acts.

"If you look at the likes of Planxty and Moving Hearts and that, their sound was very much orientated to the instrumentation that they had," she says.

"That never existed in our family. My father had a show band, so we had guitars and saxes and double basses around."

Clannad also had quite a flair for group singing. "Because we were a family, I think we discovered that we had a great band vocally," says Brennan. "We were really into harmonies. We used to listen to stuff like the Beach Boys and Beatles and things. So my brothers were really into trying out this kind of harmony on the old traditional songs.

"People in Ireland thought we were mad," she adds. "They said we'd never get anything anywhere singing Gaelic songs. Nobody would understand what we were singing about.

"Well, you can kind of explain a bit of what a song's about, but sometimes you don't even have to. Look at the amount of people who listen to 'Harry's Game.' They don't really care what it's about -- they just love the sound of it."

Clannad has made some concessions to its non-Irish audience. They Anglicized the spelling of the members' last names, and they now sing some of their songs in English.

Still, Brennan prefers the old language. "Gaelic's our first language," she says. "I feel really comfortable singing in Gaelic. And we still like to name the albums with Gaelic words -- something that means something to us, but isn't hard to pronounce."

At the moment, the group is touring behind two albums: "Anam," which was released last fall, and "Banba," which will be released next week.

Brennan admits the tour is something of a rush job but says that can't be helped. "Because I'm five months pregnant, we wouldn't have been able to do it in the autumn. We wanted to get something in, and then by next year, when people are maybe familiar with this new album, we hope to come back and do an extended tour in America."

In any case, Brennan says her band will be happy to ride the Volkswagen ad buzz as far as it will take them.

"There are a lot of great bands and great musicians out there that don't even get a first chance, let alone a second chance," she says. "So this is us getting a second chance."

CLANNAD

When: Tomorrow at 8 p.m.

Where: Lisner Auditorium, George Washington University, 21st and H streets Northwest, Washington

Tickets: $22.50

Call: (202) 994-6800 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets

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