In early 1977, a band of brothers became just that: a band. Sick of not being allowed into clubs – and getting barred from five in one week – because of the way they looked, three brothers and a few friends became a clique known as The Outcasts. Within months, they were one of the hottest bands on the emerging Belfast punk scene…
The Outcasts were made up of Greg Cowan on bass, Colin Cowan on drums and Martin Cowan on guitar. They were also joined by school friends Blair Hamilton on vocals and Colin ‘Getty’ Getgood on lead guitar, but once Hamilton left the band, Greg took over lead vocals.
The band played their first gig in May 1977, a mixture of their own songs and covers of tracks by the likes of the Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and The Ramones. Exactly a year later, they released their first single, ‘Frustration’ on the It label.
A deal with Terri Hooley’s fledgling Good Vibrations followed and the single ‘Justa Nother Teenage Rebel’ was released in November 1978. The Outcasts went on to release their first full album Self Conscious Over You on the Good Vibes label.
Bad luck seemed to follow the band from early in their career, however. Shortly before the album was released, Greg was involved in a serious car crash that left him in traction for 14 weeks and unable to play bass. Rudi’s Gordy Blair stepped in for live gigs, while Raymond Falls took over from Colin on drums.
The band were then sacked from Good Vibrations, leading them to release their next single, 1981’s ‘Magnum Force’ on their own GBH label. Finally, in what should have been their finest hour with their version of The Glitter Band’s ‘Angel Face’ spending two months in the indie chart, tragedy struck again when Colin Cowan was killed in a car crash.
The two surviving brothers and their band mates soldiered on. They recorded a second Peel session and released the Blood and Thunder album on Abstract Records, reaching number 20 in the indie album chart. A few more singles and the Seven Deadly Sins mini-album (on The Damned’s New Rose label) followed, but the band split up in early 1985.
The wilderness years were long and uneventful, but in 2012 The Outcasts finally returned, and this week they commemorate 35 years in the business with a one-off Belfast headline show at Voodoo on July 28 and the release of a new live DVD, Live in Dublin.
What better time to head along to a rehearsal to and catch up with the two brothers that have been Outcasts from the very beginning? What inspired the then teenage brothers to form a band?
'Everybody has their personal reasons, but for me it was the release of Anarchy In The UK,' states Greg. 'That was the first punk record I’d ever heard. I’d been a fan of Bowie and Alice Cooper, but the first time I heard Anarchy… everything changed. We’d all played in school bands, pretend bands, but after we heard that album we knew we wanted to form a punk band.
'We were all outcasts together. Our brother Colin came up with that name, and the band came slightly after that. We were a proper punk band in that we couldn’t play that well at the beginning, but we just decided to make a go of it.'
The young Cowan brothers didn't give much thought to the long-term viability of the band – as punks, they lived for the moment and played like every show was their last. The realisation that they are celebrating their 35th anniversary finds Greg and Martin speechless.
'The thing about punk was that it was all so there and then,' recalls Greg. 'That was the whole point of punk. You formed a band and wanted to do a gig immediately, and you learned to play afterwards. Everything was about next week, or the week after that – it was never about any long term plan.
'We were really around for only about seven or eight years, from our first gig in 1977 until about 1984. It was over by 1983 – our record company had dumped us and our manager had left us – but we hung on and did another couple of gigs before finally agreeing that that was it. So, no, it was never a long term plan. It was just something that we wanted to do.'
The Outcasts recently featured in Good Vibrations, the biopic about the godfather of the Belfast punk scene Terri Hooley. Greg describes the experience as 'the weirdest thing ever, seeing other people play you on stage'. He is, of course, referring to the recreation of the band’s first ever Ulster Hall headline gig – an almost unheard-of achievement for a local band back in the latter half of the 1970s.
'At the time, you didn’t realise the significance. It was just another gig. But you have to remember that at that time the Ulster Hall was strictly for English or foreign bands – nobody local headlined there. If you were lucky, you got a support slot, and when we supported The Clash there we thought it was our biggest gig ever – and then a year later we were headlining it. Looking back now, that was a helluva big thing.'
Hooley, of course, was instrumental in bringing the nascent Belfast punk scene to life – and to national audiences. Without Hooley as figurehead – without his passion and will to succeed – the Northern Irish punk scene may never have blossomed outside of a few pubs and clubs. Without Hooley, would The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers and others still be remembered today?
'I don’t think so,' admits Martin, 'because he was the one who brought it to a wider audience by sending the records to John Peel.'
'Every scene needs a fulcrum,' adds Greg. 'The bands were going before Terri – we were all playing individually – and that is probably the way it would have continued, but Terri brought it all together, gave it a label… even as far as starting the Harp Bar (Belfast’s first punk club).
'Terri was instrumental in it all. Without him, there wouldn’t have been a Belfast scene. That’s just the way it is. And it wasn’t about the money. He was, and is, an anarchist, and that’s what he loved about it – the whole scene, the atmosphere.'
With The Outcasts having run their course in the early to mid-80s, the brothers dabbled in electronic music for a short period, with Greg Martin and Getty forming a short-lived act named Time To Pray – 'we bought all these keyboards but soon realised we had to be able to play them'. The various others members made the slow and painful transition to ‘normal life’.
The catalyst that lead to The Outcasts re-emerging came in 2003, with the publication of It Wants To make You Spit!, a history of the Belfast scene, and a performance by Greg with members of Rudi and Stalag 17 at the launch of the book. The project was not supposed to be a longterm thing, but that initial performance went down so well that the band continued gigging under the banner of Shame Academy.
When Greg turned 50 in 2010, The Outcasts came fully out of retirement to play at his birthday party – and the spark was lit.
'It was more than about playing a few songs together. It was about being an Outcast again. And, of course there is this whole retro interest. With the internet, all your songs and videos are available for the kids to see and listen to. There is this whole ‘has been punk scene’ right across Europe.
'Then, we were asked to play the Rebellion punk festival in Blackpool in August 2011, and that’s what really got us going again. It surprised us how much interest there still is.'
Now, the ‘return’ of The Outcasts is being marked by the release of the band’s first ever DVD, Live In Dublin.
'If you had told us back in 1977 that we would be recording a concert on a little silver disc that people would play on their TVs, we would have just laughed – it would have been like science fiction to us,' laughs Greg. 'But, like most of our career, it happened by accident: a guy contacted us and asked us if he could film our Dublin gig last year. We didn’t realise that he was going to come down with a proper film crew.
'He also happened to pick a brilliant night, because it was our first gig in Dublin since we were there with The Clash in 1983, and we had a brilliant crowd in a brilliant venue with brilliant sound, so it all came together by accident. And it’s come out great – we’re really pleased with it.
So, is punk still relevant? 'Who cares?' offers Greg. 'To us, yes, it is. We’re playing strictly because it’s fun. Even when we practice, it’s just about being together and playing. And all the crowds have been fantastic.
'Ironically, we’re sort of embracing everything that we were against. When we were 17/18, we hated all bands over the age of 30, and now we’re 50-year old men playing songs like ‘Justa Nother Teenage Rebel’. But, if people want to hear them, then we’ll carry on playing them.'
'The songs definitely stand up as pop punk songs,' concludes Martin. 'They’re not hardcore punk: there’s melodies and tunes in them.'
So, throw away your Green Day CDs – the original pop punks are back in town. And it looks like they’re hanging around for a wee while yet. The Outcasts play Voodoo this coming Saturday (July 28). Doors are 9pm and admission is £10 (no advance tickets).