A History of NI Rock & Acoustic Music: 1
The first article from a two-part series
In 1963, Elvis was out of the army again and in the cinema and the recording studio. He had singles in the UK chart in every month of that year, and an Elvis single, ‘Kiss Me Quick’, was at number 1 in the Irish chart. Except that the number 1 wasn’t the original – it had been covered by The Royal Showband.
The history of Northern Irish rock and acoustic music really has its roots in the era of the showbands; an Ireland-wide phenomenon from the 1950s through to the 1970s. Ruby Murray, the Belfast singer, had had UK chart success with a string of hits through the 1950s, but it was the Showbands that were the phenomenon in Northern Ireland, offering opportunities to perform for many local musicians. Showbands were dancehall bands who played covers of popular songs, but who differed from their 1940s predecessors in that they were keen to put on a ‘show’ for the dancers, rather than just playing the music. Strabane’s Clipper Carlton Showband are widely believed to be the first band to do away with seats and formal tuxedos, preferring lightweight suits to move around the stage freely and playing songs from memory.
Showbands could play up to 5 nights a week, and often played incredibly long hours, perhaps playing sets in two or three different venues in one evening to audiences of up to 1500 people. The work was regular and well paid, and in Ireland and parts of the UK in the early 1960s the bands were seen as superstars - the singles they recorded inevitably reached number 1 in the Irish charts, and on occasions charted higher than the original version. However, the work was not creatively stimulating for some musicians and they began to look elsewhere to work on more original material.
The boom in the R’n’B scene of the early sixties proved to be a way out for many of these players. In an effort to match the burgeoning scene in the UK, ‘the three Js’ (Gerry McKervey, Jerry McKeever and Jimmy Conlon) booked a room in the Maritime Hotel on College Square North in Belfast to run an R’n’B club. One of the first bands to perform had previously been a rock and roll band but who now included a saxophonist from The Monarch showband in their new line-up. The new band was called Them, and the saxophonist was Van Morrison. Them were one of the hugest sensations to take to the stage in the Maritime, and Morrison moved quickly became the charismatic performer who would go on to record such legendary albums as ‘Astral Weeks’. Other Northern Irish bands followed in the wake of Them’s success and had shortlived recording careers and chart success in the UK, but as the R’n’B scene dwindled towards the end of the sixties, so too did these bands’ success.
Other musicians opted to refuse to work in showbands at all, and instead started their careers from different traditions in Northern Irish music. Tommy Makem had travelled to New York with his eye on a film career, but instead fell in with the Clancy Brothers and their influence on the Greenwich Village folk scene inspired Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Makem’s work, plus that of Dylan, influenced Paul Brady to steer away from a career in the showbands and into work with the Johnston sisters in the folk tradition. From this he developed a long and successful solo career.
By the mid-sixties, Them had split up and Van Morrison released Astral Weeks in 1968. This seminal album launched an unparalleled solo career for Van, and the album continues to be rated as one of the most important albums ever recorded. It documents Morrison’s thoughts as he moved from Belfast to America and is a hazy, ethereal depiction of both Belfast and the USA. It is also one of the last albums to document Belfast in peace time.
The early 1970s was something of a low point for live music in Northern Ireland. The civil unrest in Northern Ireland at this time saw a dramatic decline in the numbers of bands travelling to Northern Ireland on tour, as well as a huge decrease in opportunities for bands based in Northern Ireland to play; mainly because everything shut down at the close of trading at 5.30pm. Some Northern Irish musicians did become successful at this time, most notably several guitarists: Eric Bell (Thin Lizzy), Gary Moore and Henry McCullough (Joe Cocker and the Grease Band, Wings); but primarily this was because they had moved away from the North. It was also something of a good time for vocalists, as David McWilliams had a hit with The Days of Pearly Spencer, and the Eurovision Song Contest produced singles from Dana in 1970 and Clodagh Rodgers in 1971. Finally the pianist and composer Phil Coulter was successful as a pop writer and saw Elvis Presley cover his song My Boy.
By 1976 Northern Irish nightlife was virtually non-existent, but by this time, Punk rock had launched in London, and with its emphasis on ‘Doing It Yourself’ was adopted by a new generation of music fans in Northern Ireland. Those in the know started wearing clothes from Malcolm MacLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop Sex, to the Trident Club in Bangor, and waited patiently for the music to catch up with the clothes. On the 22nd October 1977, The Clash were due to play in Belfast, but the gig was cancelled and a mini-riot ensued (providing The Clash with some handy publicity shots). From here dozens of local bands formed, and started playing places like The Trident in Bangor, The Casbah in Derry and The Harp and The Pound in Belfast’s docklands.
In the early 70s, a hippie called Terri Hooley had opened an Apple-style business in a derelict building on Great Victoria Street in Belfast that had a print-shop on the ground floor, an anarchist print-works on the top floor and an extension to his mail-order record business on the middle floor. This was Good Vibrations, and this shop became the centre of the Northern Irish punk scene. Terri went to the Harp one evening and heard two bands, Rudi and The Outcasts. He was instantly smitten with them and offered to record Rudi. They put out a single Big Time and the Good Vibrations record label was born. Terri recorded Victim, Protex, The Outcasts and The Undertones - a band who Terri confesses he was very wary about taking on.
“I wasn’t sure about them because nobody liked them. People crossed the road just to spit at Feargal Sharkey. Eventually I signed them...They went into the studio and recorded Teenage Kicks for £100 plus £8 VAT. I hustled it around every record company in London and they all hated it. I came back to Belfast and cried my eyes out. That night John Peel played it on the radio and said ‘wasn’t that the most wonderful record you’ve heard in you life?’, and played it again.”
The Undertones effectively made Good Vibrations’ global reputation, and the Teenage Kicks EP was feted as one of the most important recordings of the Punk era. Terri managed to get all the Good Vibrations bands deals, and Good Vibrations put on concerts round the Province by hiring hotel function rooms, Church halls, youth clubs and anywhere else that would take them. However, of all the Northern Irish bands who signed contracts with major labels, only The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers managed to achieve any degree of success. A strong fanzine culture sprang up, and the founders of one of the first, Alternative Ulster were offered jobs by the UK publications NME and Sounds to cover Northern Ireland for those publications. A film was made of the scene called Shellshock Rock, which featured both performances from local bands and many testimonies from excited fans, delighted to be a part of something which, for them, was totally empowering.
Belfast at this point in its history had a great deal of credibility; for more than just musical reasons. It was supposed to be the most dangerous city in Europe at this time, so a lot of English Punk bands came over to have their photographs taken outside The Harp Bar (which was surrounded by barbed wire) or on one of the notorious streets such as the Shankill or Falls Roads. Good Vibrations also proved a draw to Northern Ireland because many listeners respected its 'do-it-yourself' independence, Terri’s combination of defiant anarchy, a genuine passionate desire to see Northern Irish bands recognised at a national level and an excitement about the whole Punk movement which inspired involvement.