Gary Fahy's Not Dead
‘The new Terri Hooley’ on Dragon Records and Belfast punk in the 21st century
The deaths of the record shop and the record label have been greatly exaggerated. That is, as far as Clogh Mills man Gary Fahy is concerned.
These might be challenging times, but the erstwhile firefighter, tattooist and gig promoter has seized the opportunity to commandeer Dragon Records in Belfast city centre and launch Punkerama Records. a DIY label offering releases by Northern Ireland punk bands old and new.
Dubbed ‘the new Terri Hooley’ by none other than the one-eyed godfather of Ulster punk himself, it’s an epithet Fahy is comfortable with.
‘I think Terri is proud of me,’ he says. ‘After I made my first release, he met me outside The John Hewitt and said, "People say they are going to do it and don’t – but you did", and gave me a hug. Coming from Terri that was a real compliment. I don’t think he gives out many of those!’
If it seems a treacherous moment to be embracing the world of compact discs and vinyl, well, let’s face it – it is. But at 46, and with a past Pete Doherty might balk at, Fahy is beyond caring.
‘I know I’m twenty years too late with this, but I have to keep it going as long as I can,’ he says. ‘Has it been a good move financially? No. But I do it for love not profits. I’m having a real blast – people coming in and talking music is heaven to me.’
Prior to embarking on his career as Belfast’s latest music mogul, Fahy was medically retired from his post with the Northern Ireland Fire Service after twelve years.
‘I thought I was indestructible,’ he laments, ‘but it takes very little to destroy someone mentally and physically.’ He was similarly forced to abandon a subsequent career as a tattooist and body-piercer: ‘My eyes went downhill very fast, and that put an end to that.’
The father of three has also survived alcoholism, two divorces and, perhaps most miserable of all, being intimidated from his Belfast home by sectarian thugs.
‘It happened about twelve years ago,’ Fahy explains. ‘It was a shock at the time, but I had my kids to think about and couldn’t put up a fight. If no kids had been involved then we would be singing a very different tune. I wish I could have my payback day on those scumbags.’
The punk attitude is alive and well with Fahy, who has never lost his passion for rock ‘n’ roll in all its forms. ‘I can’t get enough of music,’ he enthuses. ‘I can get a high off anything from the Ramones to Adele.’
To illustrate his keenness, he rattles off a list of current favourite Northern Ireland acts: ‘War Iron, Sons of Robert Mitchum, Gacys Threads, Comply or Die, Runnin’ Riot, Pocket Billiards… They all need cheered on for having the guts to get on a stage and play their hearts out. I wish I had the talent these people have.’
As well as promoting new acts, Fahy, like many of his era, has a fondness for the vintage performers. Punkerama has worked with the likes of 1970s Belfast punks The Outcasts and The Defects. He notes that this may be the last chance for many of his generation to relive their youth.
‘I love to see the old bands play again,’ he says. ‘You get people who say it should stay in the past – why? Every other day you hear of someone from an old band who has dropped dead. If the band think they still have something to offer, then they do.’
This gung-ho approach has seen Fahy become the go-to guy for local bands looking to release their music on CD. Also, increasingly, on record. ‘Vinyl is better in all aspects,’ he reckons. ‘A CD feels like nothing – cheap to make and 1,000 per cent profit. Vinyl is outselling CD in the shop twenty to one.’
It has been a long journey for Fahy. He took over the ailing Backbeat Records in Haymarket Arcade in the late 2000s. Then last year, he moved on to Dragon Records.
‘I was very close to staying in the “drink” mode,’ he rues. ‘I was in a real mess. Even after help from my wife, drink was still a huge problem. But I got there in the end, even though I know I won’t ever have the sales that the old days had – Good Vibes was selling 3,000 copies to my 200.’
The Punkerama label – or ‘the endless money pit’, as Fahy affectionately brands it – came about in 2010 almost by accident. ‘I didn’t put any thought into what I was about to do,’ he explains. ‘But I had said I was going to do it, and I never quit.
'So, I did my first release – The Defects 79-84. It had all the things I loved, coloured vinyl, a 24-page book, amazing tracks, and it was a Belfast band, a band that I really loved from the old days.’
The imprint is now onto its seventh release.
Meanwhile, Dragon Records has become one of Belfast’s last independent record stores – heck, one of Belfast’s last record stores full stop. ‘The major players destroyed the small, indie shops,’ grumbles Fahy.
‘They didn’t care who they wiped out. Dr Robert hung on, but I think Dragon and Good Vibes are the only two left now. As always, big-money players wipe out all in their path. I have no pity for HMV now they’re in trouble. It’s payback day.’
Fahy is equally scathing about the local music media, lambasting the fact that until now no one has displayed an interest in covering his exploits. ‘You are the only person who has asked to do an interview,’ he reveals.
He is positive about the potential of the upcoming Good Vibrations film to shine a light on the scene, however. ‘When I was told about the movie I thought, “What?” But now I see it can work. I hope Terri gets a good cheque out of it – his John Hewitt tab needs paying!’
Fahy’s passion for the power chord remains undimmed, and he is eager to share that passion with Dragon Records (it’s at 58 Wellington Place, in the same building as Dark Angel Tattoo) customers. ‘That’s the important thing about Dragon,’ he smiles. ‘It has a personal touch.
'We have two record decks, and CD and DVD players – you could spend all day in our shop and find a little gem of a song you never heard before. The added bonus is there isn’t much about punk and rock that I don’t know about. I’m a walking, talking music library – with some bullsh*t on the side!’