A History of NI Rock & Acoustic Music: 2
The second article from a two-part series
The Punk movement in Belfast was - possibly surprisingly - curiously apolitical. There were bands who sang political songs (such as Rudi’s We Hate The Cops with its refrain of SS RUC) but they didn’t release them because of Stiff Little Fingers’ popularity. Stiff Little Fingers were in fact rejected by Northern Irish Punks because of their political lyrics, and it is frequently heard amongst Punks that the Northern Irish Punk scene was about escaping the Troubles and singing about daily life; rather than constantly dragging the conflict up.
A movement similar to Rock Against Racism called Rock Against Sectarianism foundered because bands refused to get properly involved. Protex’s drummer said, in a 1978 NME interview:
'We’re against sectarianism but don’t want to become trapped by politics.'
Punk however began to founder after Good Vibrations went bankrupt in 1982, and the scene began to realise that while money was tight with Good Vibrations in operation, it was non-existent without the philanthropy of Terri Hooley. The bands who had gone to London such as Rudi and Protex eventually returned and Terri’s friends opened a new record shop for him called the Vintage Record Co, just round the corner from Good Vibrations.
Throughout the 1980s, music in Northern Ireland never really cohered into a strong visible scene as with the R&B and Punk scenes. A metal scene developed in the Rosetta bar in South Belfast, and produced some strong heavy metal acts such as Sweet Savage. The Adventures produced songs in a similar vein to those of Glasgow’s Simple Minds and had a huge hit with ‘Broken Land’, as did Feargal Sharkey.
Jive Bunny and Baltimora supplied the charts with novelty hits such as the Jive Bunny Master Mix and Tarzan Boy. Singer songwriters such as Andy White and Brian Kennedy took inspiration from the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, and the the home grown heritage of Tommy Makem, Paul Brady and Christy Moore; and it continued to be in acoustic music where it was most common to find writing which comments on the Troubles. In the early years of the 1980s it was singer-songwriters who were most prolific, although no ‘scene’ developed around their work of any note.
Towards the end of the 1980s, John and Damien O’Neill from the Undertones brought the focus back to rock when they put together a new band, That Petrol Emotion, who had much in common musically with ‘Madchester’ bands such as the Stone Roses, although That Petrol Emotion pre-dated the Stone Roses by a little way. Following from this, there was something of an explosion in ‘indie’ rock, and the beginnings of a scene developed around venues such as The Limelight in Belfast’s city centre. Following this, in the 1990s, Therapy? were enormously successful with a blend of hardcore rock and Punk, which proved critically popular as well. One album Screamager was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 1994.
Emerging at a similar time was the band Ash. They became successful just as they were finishing their A-Levels, and wrote pop punk songs that saw them compared to the Undertones. As Therapy? and Ash became successful, the local music scene also began to develop again in earnest, with gigs becoming eclectic mixes of a variety of genres such as hip hop, indie rock, lo-fi rock, punk, metal and instrumental post-punk. Various other acts emerged and threatened to achieve some success, such as the Desert Hearts, Cuckoo, Joyrider and The Minnows, but this was never sustained.
Later in the 1990s, the quirky, intelligent, orchestral stylings of Enniskillen born Neil Hannon began to filter into public recognition under the name The Divine Comedy, primarily because one of Hannon’s songs, Songs of Love, was used as the theme tune to the sit-com Father Ted.
Northern Ireland’s most recent high profile successes are in the genres of indie-rock and film soundtracks. Snow Patrol are based in Glasgow these days, but are originally from Bangor County Down, and their most recent album Final Straw was one of the top selling albums of 2004 in the UK. In the film world, David Holmes has struck an extremely successful partnership with the director Stephen Soderburgh, scoring Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, and Out of Sight, as well as films such as Buffalo Soldiers and Resurrection Man. Holmes’ background is primarily as a dance DJ, but projects such as his work with the band The Free Association, and his focus on sixties and seventies soul and funk mean that he has proved a hero to rock musicians too.