When a poll was taken late last year to mark the 50th anniversary of Ireland’s popular music charts, the song the public chose as its No. 1 of all time wasn’t by U2 or Sinead O’Connor or Thin Lizzy.
It was “I Useta Lover,” The Saw Doctors’ raucous and bawdy song about a former lover that topped the Emerald Isle’s charts for nine weeks in 1990 and became the country’s all-time best-selling single.
So why, after 25 years as a band and 14 top-10 Irish hits later, hasn’t The Saw Doctors become as big a band as U2, or even Thin Lizzy? Instead of stadiums, in the United States the Irish rock band plays small venues.
“The obvious thing would be that we never had a big record company push us, like U2 would have had,” Saw Doctors founder and guitarist Leo Moran said in a recent phone call from the band’s home base of Tuam, County Galway.
“So our audience really grew incrementally; people coming to the shows and coming to the next show and bringing their friends, and they bring their next friends to the next show. And while that’s a very, very solid way of building an audience, it’s never going to be the kind of wave building an audience without mass media that would bring it to, like, arena or stadium level.”
The Saw Doctors’ career has been big enough to warrant the release of “25:25,” a compilation of 25 of the bands best-loved songs from its 25 years, from “I Useta Lover” to a collaboration with Petula Clark on her 1964 hit “Downtown” that was a surprise hit on the Irish charts last year.
The album, released last year, isn’t a greatest hits. The band did that in 1997 with “Sing a Powerful Song.”
“This is just kind of like the second string of favorites, if you like,” Moran said. “Which is an interesting collection for me, because a lot of the songs on this one would be more of my favorites than the more obvious ones that made the first greatest-hits collection.
“The ones that were on the first album were all of the big, obvious hits that people were probably looking for. And there’s nothing wrong with them, but they’re quite obvious, if you like. It’s just that I very often like the road less traveled.”
As an example, he mentioned “Music I Love” from the 1992 album “Music From Taum.” The song, which kicks off the new album, “was always kind of a favorite of ours, and because it was on the ‘new’ album we started playing it at shows again, and it’s more popular than we would have realized.”
Another favorite, he said, is “Friday Town” from 2010’s “The Further Adventures of The Saw Doctors.” “I think it’s just kind of such a distinctive song. You won’t really get that song from any other band.”
Moran says “Downtown” came about because after the band sang it in its usual concert-ending catch-all, “Hay Wrap.”
“We insert songs relevant to the location or maybe relevant to the date or maybe whatever,” he said. “So if we’re in New York, we might do a verse and chorus of a Ramones song. In Boston, we’ve done The Cars.
“One of the songs we did over the years was ‘Downtown,’ and we just did the verse and chorus of it, and you could see that the whole crowd loved it. It’s one of those songs that’s fallen into the folk memory of people.”
He said the band got the idea of doing a cover for the new album that could be released as a special Christmastime single. The producer asked Petula Clark’s manager, who said the 80-year-old pop singer would be interested in making a guest appearance.
“She came in and did her bit,” he said. “She’s a very sprightly woman for 80 years old, and she’s a complete, complete star.”
Much to The Saw Doctors’ surprise, the song went to No. 2 on the Irish charts. “It’s a great song, and it’s kept us up in the public eye.”
He said the biggest hits, such as “I Useta Lover” and “N17” “feel like really old, great friends of mine.”
“They feel like friends that have brought us around the world and to interesting and exotic places that we never would have gotten to without them,” he said. “And they feel like friends that have made loads of other friends for us, and just made life easier for us.”
Moran said the band is happy with the level of popularity it achieved.
“Really, everybody can’t be U2 — arena or stadium level,” he said. “Even if we had made it, I’m not sure it would have been any more enjoyable. Smaller towns, smaller theaters, can be as much fun and as rewarding as the bigger shows.”