Eamon McCann: 'Bliss It Was...'

Read the full chapter from Guildhall Presses City of Music: Derry's Music Heritage

Eamon McCann vividly remembers the phenomenon that was rock’n’roll in Derry in the 1950s...

Rock’n’roll erupted onto the streets of Derry right outside our house on Rossville Street, facing Eden Place, directly opposite Maggie Friel’s fish shop. It had been some time coming. 

Frankie Roddy, a champion Irish dancer, and Teresa Shiels, daughter of Paddy Shiels, the doyen of Derry Republicans, who had been out in 1916, were at the centre of it. And there were a couple of American soldiers on the fringe. 

The fringe role of Americans and their music in fomenting rebellion in Derry is often overlooked. It doesn’t fit into any national or communal narrative. It’s in the interests of no existing faction to lend it emphasis. But Derry would have been a slightly different place had it not been for the Yanks, and the generation which grew into adolescence in the ’50s would have been slightly different people had it not been for the music the Yanks brought with them. 

US soldiers and sailors en route for war in Europe made a stop-off in Derry in the early 1940s. Some stayed well into the ’60s. The Yankee Base in the Waterside was a courting and musical arena, as well as a place of employment. Here, as everywhere that the Yanks hit town with chewing gum and record players, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, etc provided the theme music of their enclave. 

The Big Band theory of the origins of Derry’s musical pre-eminence would have been sustainable anyway, through the influence of radio shows and newspaper tales of New World excitement. But the presence of the soldiers and sailors – Rossville Street’s twenty-nine pubs would be thronged with them – meant that America was actually among us. 

The music I remember most from the early ’50s wasn’t Josef Locke or diddly-di or Brit music hall. True, The White Horse Inn was well-enough known, Charlie Kelly’s Céilí Band drew decent audiences, the feis was a big local deal every Easter, and pantomimes and parish concerts showcased local renditions of the music of the mainstream and provided occasion for wry social comment:

There’s a Christmas tree down in the Guildhall,
All covered with lights and with toys,
But the gift that we’d all like better,
Is work for the men and the boys.

We nearly lifted the rafters off St Columb’s Hall at that one. 

But it was music from America that sent flurries of excitement through the young and urgent. Brilliant singers abounded in the Bogside. Bobby Brady and a crowd from Hamilton Street in the Brandywell used to walk home along Rossville Street late at night and, under the lamp outside Friel’s, treat the neighbourhood to harmonies on 'Lover', 'Come Back', 'Red Sails In The Sunset', 'Stardust' and 'Deep Purple'. 

I used to ponder what an exotic, classy repertoire they had as I lay in the attic of number ten with the skylight propped open with a stick, the better to access the sounds from the street. Occasionally, somebody would open a door or a window and roar that there were wains trying to sleep and people that needed to get up in the morning, which even then seemed poor excuses for shooshing good music. 

Irish big bands emerged to meet the market: Mick Delahunty from Clonmel, Tipperary; Maurice Mulcahy from Mitchelstown, Cork, with twelve, fourteen musicians on stage and a couple of alternating vocalists. They styled their bands ‘orchestras’, as in Miller and Dorsey. Swing was their thing and they were no slouches at swaying a whole hall. They’d sometimes venture North to play the Guildhall. 

The Lakewood Swingtette, with Mick McWilliams on main vocals, was the top Derry orchestra, resident in the Corinthian on Bishop Street, performing twice, maybe three times a week. The intro to their signature tune, 'Begin The Beguine', invariably signalled the last dance – your last chance – a song Artie Shaw had rescued from a failed and forgotten Cole Porter musical, now the standard means for the Derry lovelorn to snog in hope at the end of the night. 

As the pace of life quickened, rationing eased and colour grew more vivid. Orchestras morphed into showbands that stood up and moved to the music – the singer out front throwing shapes, rather than a band leader with a grin keeping time – clad in glittery suits and with an extended set drawn not from established standards but from the hits of the day. The Royal (Waterford), the Capitol (Dublin), the Drifters (with Joe Dolan) came through regularly, playing the Guildhall, the Corinthian, the Plaza (Buncrana) and Borderland (Muff). 

Borderland was the dance hall which starred in Father Robert Nash SJ’s seminal The Devil at Dances (or so we believed), which warned that the showband sound was the din of iniquity and that young Catholic girls who ventured into such occasions of sin had little chance of emerging with their morals or aught else intact – a propaganda pitch which did wonders for Borderland’s appeal, but which, in the frustrated experience of some of us, turned out to be a fraudulent, false prospectus. 

There was nowhere in Ireland the equal of Derry for showbands. Johnny Quigley’s was orchestra, jazz band and rock group all in one, with driving guitar and full-blaring brass. The Imperial All Stars featured the sensational Don McGilloway out front. The Woodchoppers, the Olympic All Stars, the Mexicans, the Barristers, the Magnificent Seven. And from just down the road in Strabane came the nonpareil Clipper Carlton, the first outfit ever to throw off the tuxedos, don primary-colour suits and essay sassy moves. Plus they were brilliant musicians. 

It’s become fashionable since to look back in disdain upon showbands. But the best of them were a musical match for anything in these islands at the time. To an extent at least, in Derry anyway, they were drawing from the storehouse of sound brought in and shared out by the Yanks. Some of the brass players who gave showbands their cool had finessed their flair on the Yankee Base. 

US forces in Europe had something to do, too, with the next and decisive lurch forward in Derry’s musical development. Not that the history, in this or in anything, can be sliced neatly up. Eras interpenetrated, overlapped. Bobby Brady was still harmonising Jimmy Kennedy numbers in the street as rock’n’roll proper came to town. Rock’n’roll’s arrival was the moment the thought first touched some of us that Derry might not be a small town holed up in the provinces after all or forever, but was fleetingly even now abreast of the world. 

Dullards charting history trace Derry’s rioting record from the 1920s to the ’51 St Patrick’s Day tricolour disturbances (‘Some Irishmen they raised the flag of orange, white and green/Brook’s RUC would not agree to let the flag be seen’) and thence in one bound to civil rights and Duke Street 1968, deleting rock’n’roll, cheating the town of an episode of its glory. 

The most exciting radio station on the Derry dial was AFN. Radio Luxembourg on 208 on the medium wave was a thrill when compared to the BBC Light Programme, with its staple diet of Anne Shelton, David Whitfield and Joe Loss. Or Raidió Éireann, where we were constantly urged, under pain of apostasy, ‘If you want to sing a song, do sing an Irish song. And now here’s Charlie McGee and his guitar with Ignatius The Leprechaun.’ 

But AFN was the real thing, the American Forces’ Network, blasting out from Frankfurt on what was reputedly the most powerful transmitter on earth, to service the needs of hundreds of thousands of GIs still scattered all over western Europe, hankering after home and for the solace of sounds they’d grown up with. A disproportionate number were black. 

So, over the radio, wavering across Europe to Rossville Street, came Fats Domino, Joe Turner, LaVern Baker, Lloyd Price and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose I' Put A Spell On You' was a screeching, snarling, grunting, groaning, panting, ranting, raving number, full of frantic threat and trembling danger, dripping with sweet and viscous sex, swathed in an atmosphere of voodoo. The first time I heard it I knew exactly what it meant but could hardly make it out, with all the talk around me. I used to stand on a chair in the kitchen with my ear against the speaker to hear AFN or Luxembourg on a Saturday night, because our radio was on a shelf about six feet up and the kitchen on Saturday was always full of trade-union friends of my father and aunts and uncles creating a hubbub. 

Eventually, my father and Jim Sharkey (Feargal’s da) from across the street rigged me up a contraption from a gramophone speaker and a roll of wire so I could listen to the music in the attic, even though the radio downstairs in the kitchen was turned off. This was amazing. I was wired up to a secret world, the sound snaking its way silently up the stairs bringing the voices of black people roaring out about sex and announcing it was OK to feel free. 

It was around this time that 'Rock Around the Clock' arrived. Word had come ahead that everywhere it was shown, teenagers (now there’s a word when you’re eleven going on twelve!) were going berserk, ripping up cinema seats, breaking windows, indulging all manner of raucous rascality. It was reported many were being driven insane by the beat. 

There was stern discussion on the Corporation, where Orange and Green conservatives held sway (no change there, then), about the risks of allowing such intoxication loose on our vulnerable town. In the end, the film was passed for showing at the City Cinema on William Street on the grounds that at least it wasn’t ‘dirty’. 

The opening day passed off peacefully enough. But serious jiving erupted in the street just before the crowds came out the next night. Cynics suggested that this proved that the street-jivers couldn’t have been driven mad by the music since they hadn’t been in to see the film in the first place. Pedantry of this sort cut no ice with those sensitive to the cultural cusp upon which we were positioned. 

A heaving, jumping, joyous compression came around Con Bradley’s corner from William Street, Aggro Corner as it was later to be dubbed: ‘One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock ROCK! Five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock ROCK!’ The fact that Frankie Roddy and Teresa Shiels were ring-leaders and role-meisters gave the pulsating assembly a certain authenticity, even as they danced and twirled like in the Pathé newsreels of untamed scenes across the water, the amazing scene magically strobe-lit by the flickers of Maggie Friel’s street-lamp. The whole neighbourhood congregated to spectate, frowning or frolicking, whingeing or whooping according to age and taste while close supporters of the principal dancers jumped and clapped in wild excitement and hollered it out: ‘One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock ROCK! Five, six, seven o’clock, eight o’clock ROCK!’ 

Then the cops came to break it up, greeted by a flurry of brickbats and bottles – short lived, nothing vicious by the standards of later years, but enough to establish that we had had our own, credible rock’n’roll riot, and could go to bed, content that we hadn’t let ourselves down. 

Just a little bit later, there was a priest called Flanagan standing stiffly on the altar of the chapel of St Columb’s College telling us that this rock’n’roll music might be all very well for the ragamuffins and scruffs who infested the Bogside but that we here assembled were destined for better things, St Columb’s being a class of a ‘junior seminary’ and such. It was particularly important that boys who came from the Bogside, and who were therefore ourselves at close risk of ragamuffinry, should take the lesson to heart. Elvis Presley was especially to be avoided, the veritable epitome of evil, gyrating his body and throbbing his voice for one reason only. Uh huh, we responded. 

I butted in from a back pew that he shouldn’t be saying these things when Elvis wasn’t here to defend himself, which was the best I could come up with on the instant. I had to say something, being known as an Elvis supporter, but was thrown out of the chapel for impudence and have had the sense to steer clear of chapels since. 

Future Freshmen vocalist Derek McMenamin (‘Derek Dean’, as he was to call himself, a most implausible name for a man from Strabane) was thrown off the stage by Father Farren during the French class’ annual concert. Farren had stormed up the steps to stop the performance, denouncing Le Jazz Americane, on account of Derek waggling his bum too vigorously during a rendition of C’est Si Bon ornamented by the suggestive clarinet of Joe Quigley from Nelson Street. 

But it was Elvis who did their heads in. To be an Elvis fan was to associate with the wrong crowd. Boarders who were into Elvis would have been expelled (no joke) if they’d been caught somehow listening to him. I used to bring the NME to school every Monday – had it on order at Melican’s newsagent, 6d a time. I’d pass it on in the bogs, then we’d walk back to class, swaggering our secret and agreeing that Pat Boone was shite. 

From its debut, in Derry as everywhere, rock’n’roll was outlaw music. That was the point. It invited an identity that opened us out to the world, that didn’t depend on history tunnelling through mists of time but on being hot-wired to a new world. 

I sometimes hear people who are not yet fifty talking of rock’n’roll and I smile and indulge them, but they haven’t a clue. It was never ever as good again as it was in the epoch of Frankie Roddy, Teresa Shiels and Elvis Presley. 

Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, and Rossville Street was very heaven.

This chapter from the book City of Music: Derry's Music Heritage, is reproduced with the kind permission of the author, Eamon McCann, and Guildhall Press.

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