Reluctant Troubadour

Gerry Anderson gives his account of the showband era in second book, Heads

‘Same thing, same bitchiness, same jealousy, same egos, same thing. People who want people to know them.’ Gerry Anderson plays down the difference between his first career in showbands and his 20 year stint as one of Northern Ireland’s best-known broadcasters, in his usual understated way.

We’re here to talk about Gerry’s second book, Heads, a warts-and-all story of his time in showbands.

Heads, basically, encapsulates one day in 1972 - when I was in a band in Dublin on the point of breaking up – which is a far better place to be than in a happy band. Actually, I’ve never been in a happy band,’ he smiles.

The book has been greeted with equal parts shock and glee in the Irish media, given that Anderson doesn’t hold back – even when recollecting his impressions of some of the bastions of Irish entertainment, including Gay Byrne. For this he is unrepentant: 

‘Gaybo used to treat the bands like shite. He treated us like shite and you never forget that, because that’s the real guy - he doesn’t think the band is important.

‘The wonderful thing about being in a band is the lessons you learn from that. I did a talk show for three years and I was always careful to be nice to the guys in the band. They are invariably smart and they know if you’re an asshole,’ he explains.

‘Showbands were very odd things. People look at them through rose-tinted glasses and regard it as being a wonderfully happy time and it was – for the dancers. They imagined the boys in the bands were the same as them because they looked just as happy, but there was all kinds of friction and fighting, nobody ever talks about that. I thought it was time. To be honest I didn’t think I’d be the one to write this book – I thought someone else would have done it by now. As the years went on, every once in a while I’d say to myself “No one’s written that bloody book yet.” Then I realised that most of the boys writing the books are still in the business, still squeezing out the last few quid you see, so they’re not going to rock the boat.’

When I ask Anderson about his literary heroes he doesn’t hesitate: ‘James Joyce, without a doubt,’ he says. The influence is immediately obvious in Heads, which takes place over 24 hours. Anderson explains: ‘It’s a useful literary device for me. It gave me somewhere to come back to all the time. I tend to wander!’ Literary devices in a celebrity memoir? ‘I call it a memoir because it’s all true but I realise it’s a difficult term to apply here.

‘Essentially, as with any memoir, you’re recalling a lot of dialogue and you can’t recall dialogue exactly so you’re reconstructing it as best you can. Here of course, because it’s a 24 hour timeframe, there are episodes in there that happened 10 years apart or with different bands. I had to telescope stuff. It’s all true, but I’ve taken liberties with the timescale and I’ve got some people doing things that were done by other people. There’s nothing in there that didn’t happen and I was careful to make sure the people I talk about weren’t going to be upset by it, so I’m happy enough with that,’ he says.

It’s an ambitious departure from the first book that Anderson wrote, Surviving in Stroke City, which was published in 1999 by Random House. ‘Surviving Stroke City had no general narrative, it wasn’t about anything in particular. A section in the middle ‘Drugs and on the Dole’ dealt with some of that part of my life, there’s a lot more in this. It was very much a trial run, in hindsight.’

That first book was released in the wake of Anderson’s departure from Radio 4. His Anderson Country had become the focus of a shockingly vitriolic campaign to get it (and him) off air – a campaign which fans put down to a dramatic shift in tone and content from usual, rather staid, Radio 4 fare. ‘I was infamous after a torrid time in England and so the book was written for an English market. I had to write generally. In many ways it was good for me, not least for the fact that I never thought I could write a book, but after one you’re not afraid of the second,’ he says.

The seed for Heads was sown when Anderson turned his hand to fiction: ‘I originally wrote this as a novel with the same title, it was a thriller, based around the showband thing and it only took me three months. Unfortunately, when I’d finished it I realised it was useless. I showed it to some people and they said ‘That’s terrible.’ So I put it in a drawer.’

That could have been the end of it, until Anderson was reminded of an old obligation. ‘I owed Gill and Macmillan a book from years ago. I’d promised them a coffee table book about showbands, in a weak moment, and then never bothered to write it and I always felt a bit guilty about that. They gave me a tiny wee advance and everything. Of course I spent it.

‘When they came back to me recently they suggested I do something on this period and I told them I already had, but it was no good. They then suggested I take the bits I liked out of the novel and start again. It was a good idea. I took it out of the drawer and read over it and I came up with a direction for it. They seem to like it, so it can’t be too bad! I worked very hard at it and I wouldn’t change a word of it – it’s the book I wanted to write,’ he says.

So are we looking at another new career for Derry’s favourite broadcaster? 

‘I’d love nothing more. This is one of two books, this is the half of the story set in Ireland, it ends as I’m heading off to America with a rock band and that story is the second book. I’m hoping this is going to do well.’

It’s obvious Anderson isn’t fond of the kind of ‘people who want people to know them’ that gravitate toward the entertainment industry - the ‘show-offs’. However, given the choices he’s made and the path his career has taken, couldn’t it be argued he’s one of them? Anderson disagrees. He puts his showband career down to sheer serendipity: ‘I never asked to do anything connected to showbusiness. I started off interested in music, I just loved it. The first time I played on stage - filling in for another guitarist, I hated it. You were always playing shite songs too. I never enjoyed it, but they would give you money. At first I thought I’d be better off working. But then I realised you could run after women and drink. Eventually I realised I was only doing it to run after women and drink and get money easy. I never enjoyed being on stage’.

His start in radio was to come about in an equally providential fashion. Anderson ‘dropped out of rock and roll and went to university’ on his return from America and after a spell teaching, subsequently ended up editing a community magazine. His first radio interview, as a magazine editor, was to open some doors for him.

‘Someone from Radio Foyle rang me on my first day in the Community Mirror and asked me to do an interview. I’d just started and knew nothing about it and I explained that to them. So I agreed to go down and do a general interview on the proviso they didn’t ask me about circulation or editorial policy and so on. Of course they did. In that situation you have two choices, you can shut up or you can just talk. So I made it all up. Afterwards the producer said to me “you just made all that up, didn’t you?” and I said, very indignantly, that I’d warned them. And he said “You might be good at this”.’

Anderson went from doing bits and pieces for Radio Foyle to being one of the best-loved and most listened to presenters on Radio Ulster. ‘I never had any ambition in that direction, honestly I didn’t, I never wanted to be on the radio, I never wanted to be on TV – I’m not saying I regret being asked to do those things, but honestly, I was never a pro-active show-off.’ I almost believe him too… 

Reproduced with the kind permission of Verbal Magazine

Book tickets to see Gerry Anderson (with Sean Donnelly), in a reading and music session in the Linen Hall Library on February 27, as part of the Belfast Book Festival.