Reminiscences of Irish Punk Rock (and other genres) in Northern Ireland in the ’70s
by Hugh Vaughan
The Undertones – a seminal punk rock band from Derry, Northern Ireland will perform in mid-July in Melbourne this year. Four decades after my teenage kicks –– I will hear them live again. I heard them first in the late 1970s, in a notorious grungy bar – The Casbah. Indeed, Casbah Rock was written about it.
Their music, as exemplified by their stunning Teenage Kicks,
did not reflect the violence all around them but the teenage angst of pimples, girlfriends and having a good time with their mates.
As one young Casbah patron quipped; ‘Five pints of Smithwicks, ten Embassy Regal, The Undertones at the Casbah and no girlfriend – heaven’.
Before the Undertones, looking for my teenage kicks, I ventured out to socialize with my mates and the other gender in pubs and dancehalls. Borderland was the dancehall where I heard my first live showbands, but it was at home where I first heard them on the record player.
My earliest musical favourite on the turntable was the Ballad of the Green Berets.
It was part of my mother’s record collection. I could recognise the records by sight, before I could read, playing her requests on our Philips record player.
This cover of Irish Rebel Songs album is scratched into my memory, as are the Clancy Brothers and Jim Reeves. Amongst the collection was an Irish Showband LP, as the album was known as, in those days.
The Clipper Carlton showband was from Strabane, my home town, and are credited with starting the whole showband craze in the 1950’s. Up until that point all “orchestras,” including the Clippers, sat behind music stands and read their music, playing the dance hits of the day and a wide range of musical styles.
It was in 1954 that the band stood up, breaking tradition with the orchestras and big bands from England and the States. Relying on memory to play the hits, they moved around the stage and took to wearing snappy suits rather than tuxedos, which was the norm at the time. In the mid-fifties, the showbands started touring England during Ireland’s “off season” – Lent. In September, 1958, the band made their first trip to the United States, becoming one of the biggest acts in Ireland. Trialling various formats the band produced a show and ventured into cabaret, dressing up and impersonating the stars of the day.
The history of the showband era – 30 years from the late ’40s to the early ’70s with most acts travelling across Ireland playing in the hundreds of ballrooms and parochial halls in most parishes in the country, many of these ballrooms of romance in the middle of nowhere, often at a crossroads.
People could dance 7 nights, if they wished. The film, the Ballroom of Romance, based on a short story by William Trevor, charts the life of a girl in stultifying 1950s Ireland trying to find love in the local dancehall.
The rise of the showband genre was taken over by younger, more charismatic performers like Dickie Rock and Brendan Bowyer
During the 1960s my uncle owned the Orchid dancehall in Lifford, County Donegal and my father sometimes went there at the weekend to help him out. I remember going on a Saturday morning, helping to tidy it up and being rewarded by getting a bottle of orange pop.
In the early 1950s and before, the scene was dominated by ceili bands, orchestras and ballad singers. There is also the rich history of the Irish tenors like Derry born Josef Lock but the Ceili influence is undeniable.
With thanks to the website Irish Showband, the diagram below shows the development of Irish music from 1950s to the 1970s.
My first ‘dance’, a hop, as it was known then, was at the local ‘Legion of Mary’, organised by a fellow teenager, Bernard McAnaney, my future brother-in-law, together with his brother Sammy, who was in my class at school. Those names we will get back to later. My hop days progressed to the Borderland dance hall in Muff, County Donegal. Crossing the border between Northern Ireland and Donegal in the Republic of Ireland, was, what is known today as a hard border, with lots of corrugated iron, concrete teeth, and lookout towers and armed soldiers. The notion of a hard border is much debated today, since Brexit.
The soldiers searched the Derry bus that took us to our dance hall, often, a mini riot was averted by the army simply withdrawing, the rear of their flak jackets covered in gob.
We went to see Big Tom and the Mainliners, The Freshmen, Miami, The Memories. I remember The Indians well, their distinctive outfits! The Plattermen and Dickie Rock and amongst others, usually on a Friday night, the bus left us back in Derry in the early hours of Sunday.
According to the Irish-Showbands website, as of 29 March 2017 there have been 991 showbands in Ireland. A prime minister of Ireland made his money owning dance halls. Albert Reynold, ‘the dancehall king’, whose brother Jim, after returning from Australia led him into the dance band scene. He served as Taoiseach in the early 90’s and was instrumental in the negotiations for an IRA ceasefire, resulting in a complete ceasefire in August 1994. He wisely invested his money into other businesses, getting into politics in his mid-40’s, with the reputation of being a successful businessman.
By co-incidence, last Good Friday, the RTE flagship programme, The Late Late Show presented a celebration of country music. Many of the Kings and Queens of Irish Country Music performed, telling their stories from the 1960s. Country and Irish, was a unique Irish take on country music and the Irish showbands provided that crossover, with migration and the sentimental symbol motherhood often featuring. When the presenter asked Margo, a Queen of Irish Country music, how they coped in a male dominated world, she mentioned the absence of changing facilities and toilets, especially at marquees. She asked at one of the marquees, where the toilets were, an elderly gentleman advised her to ‘stick your bum to the wind’. My mother’s love for Irish country music matched her enjoyment of The Late Late Show. As a child, a highlight at Christmas, like children across Ireland, were watching the Christmas special, for the famed ‘Toy Show’.
Big Tom said many of the showband performers started in the ceili bands but also through the Irish form of socialising, ‘ceiling’, where neighbours and friends went to visit each other’s homes, and someone sang, or someone had an instrument and an impromptu party evolved. Many of the guests supported this view point.
On Sunday evenings during the 70’s, my friends and I went to the other side of the Inishowen Peninsula to Buncrana to hear Irish Folk music in the form of Plantxy, Clannad, The Bothy Band, Aleagh Folk and various other traditional musicians and singers. It helped that the ‘Free State’, as we used to call the Republic of Ireland, in our younger days allowed the purchase of alcohol, in contrast to the closure of pubs in the North.
While I attended many discos during that period, I loved rock music, and went to see the local rock bands like King Rat and Toe Jam who often played at the ‘dive’, The Casbah. I first dated my wife-to-be at a Toe Jam session in a Donegal hotel. Incidentally, a member of Toe Jam, Gerry Anderson, became a well-known radio presenter. Prior to 1986, my wife and I were planning to move to Manchester from Northern Ireland. Gerry, in his imitable way, suggested a few reasons not to move to England, but advised to go further afield. I took him at his word and emigrated to New Zealand. Gerry coined the term ‘stroke-city’ to overcome the sectarian issue of calling the north-western city, Derry or Londonderry. Australian resident, Irish born comedian Jimeoin can be seen in this link ‘stroke-city’.
At the Casbah I heard The Undertones for the first time and knew immediately they had a power and energy that was worth listening to.
However, my focus during that decade, was firmly on the band, Horslips, a celtic-rock supergroup, the fusion of rock and traditional Irish was inspirational to me. They formed in 1970 and ‘retired’ in 1980 for an extended period. By another co-incidence, they re-formed first in Derry at an exhibition of their early memorabilia. The name originated from a spoonerism on The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse which became ‘The Four Poxmen of The Horslypse’.
When I lived in Belfast in the early ’90s, English guests asked me to take them to a seisiun, I couldn’t find one on that particular night. That can’t be said for Melbourne, the
Irish music seisiun is alive and well. This year, I had American guests during St Patrick’s day. Although I was working I planned to meet them for a few Guinness in Irish pubs.
In the last edition of this esteemed online magazine it was told by Eoin Henessey that he too was out for a Guinness with John Clarke on St. Patrick’s Day, Australia’s brilliant satirist, sadly now passed away. ‘Michael, they shot them’ is a film directed by Henessey about the Irish revolution and its influence on Australia. Clarke was involved with it. His relative’s painting of Constance Markievicz’s arrest in Dublin would have been a suitable attribute to my same piece, I wrote in the same edition about Martin Mc Guinness.
After a couple of Guinnesses in the city, accompanied by varying qualities of Irish music, we sojourned to The Brother’s Public House. It’s owner and resident balladeer Pat Mc Kerman provided a rattling and powerful rendition of many of the traditional and contemporary Irish standards. My guests, Roger and his wife, Beth, enjoyed the County Cavan man so much we decided to stay.
We missed a ceili provided by a sterling group of dancers and musicians at Comhalatas. For decades they have provided a venue, currently in Hoddle Street, for Irish music and dance and good craic.
I attended the ‘wake’ for the Corkman Irish pub after its disgraceful demolition in the gardens at University Square. Paddy Fitzgerald led a group of musicians, as he did most Wednesday nights in the Corkman.
He is recognised as world class accordion player, his brother used to lead the sesiun in the Quietman Irish Pub. On radio the music continues on Saturday and Sunday with anchor man Eugene O’Rourke OAM providing a community based Irish program of events, music and chat. Aine McAlister provides her weekly Irish music show on 3CR. There have been many groups and societies maintaining cultural and musical connections with Ireland.
As I have said the country music evolved into a distinctly Irish country flavour with the Irish show bands and individual performers. Has the cultural and musical Irish input evolved into a distinctly Irish Australian flavour?
Val Noone, in his notable Hidden Ireland in Victoria demonstrates ‘the existing traces of Gaelic Culture’ in his in-depth review of Irish language and culture in Victoria and Melbourne. He talks about the fragments that remain of the Irish, the ghosts of Irish Australian connections.
Psychogeography Melbourne is the writing of stories about walks around the city. It would be intriguing to have such walks relating to Irish Australia around the suburbs of Melbourne, as Val Noone did around the state of Victoria. He sees the traces in place, street and buildings names but also in out-of-the ways places such as the sad death of Dubliner, Nicholas McNulty in 1997, as he cycled along the Merri Creek. A small memorial exists where he was killed.
Val surveys Irish music as part of his journey meeting sean-nos singer and fellow language enthusiast Maurice Scanlon, the instigation of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann in the early 1970s, still promoting the central role of music and dance in the Irish-Australian community, that existed in many facets like pipe bands, ceili dances from the earliest immigration to the 1950s ceili bands, to the modern day where fiddler Martin Hayes from the world-class group The Gloaming gave a workshop to the local Comhaltas group, which my daughter attended. Of course, world-class players live and play in Melbourne – The Fitzgerald family, Billy Moran and Kathleen Harte. The Fitzgerald brothers, being recognised by the BBC production – Bring it all Back Home.
In 1976 I kissed my first girl outside a ceili in Tuam, Co Galway. We were taken there in a 1950s bus, owned by CBS Derry. Br Young drove a group of us there for a weekend away. The ceili seemed something from the 1950s and the Comhaltas seisuns I attended, 10 and more years ago, in an old parish hall on Hoddle Street, had that nostalgic feel of yesteryear.
It was also in the year 1976, the month was February, and the venue was a cubs’ hall in Creggan, Derry when a group of five nervous teenagers got up on a small stage in that hall. 40 years later and The Undertones, Derry’s most successful ever band is still going strong. Four of the original members, Mickey Bradley, Billy Doherty and brothers Damian and John O’Neill, now perform with singer Paul McCloone who has replaced original front-man Fergal Sharkey. Another O’Neill brother, Vinnie spent a few years in Sydney and my family and I spent many a Derry weekend in 1990 with his family and members of the Derry expatriate community in Western Sydney. Vinnie did play with the original group, The Hot Rods but never thought it was good career move so left to return to school. Damian, replaced Vinnie, much to the annoyance of Michael Bradley who was Vinnie’s best mate at the time. The showband scene was all around them, playing covers, but The Undertones, looked to the band Them, with Van Morrison and early 50’s musicians like Eddie Cochranes before seeing The Ramones as a model for their songs.
Terri Hooley, ran a music store in Belfast during the 1970s, at the height of the troubles. He was interested in The Undertones, having been sent a tape by Bernard, my wife’s brother. According to the Story of the Undertones, Bernard was in the Terri’s store and told him if he didn’t help them to cut a disc for their record ‘Teenage Kicks’, they may disband.
He cut the record and it was sent to an influential DJ on BBC radio, John Peel who famously loved it so much, he played it twice. Sire Records came over to Derry and signed the group, and a few weeks later they were on the pivotal Top of the Pops on BBC TV. Good Vibrations, the film, tells this story of Hooley’s music store in ’70s Belfast.
Peel had written that, apart from his name, all he wanted on his gravestone were the words, ‘Teenage dreams, so hard to beat’, from the lyrics of Teenage Kicks. A headstone featuring the lyrics was placed at his grave in 2008.
Sharkey worked with Rosemary’s brother, Sammy and Bernard and they both became roadies for the developing band. Sharkey, became involved in music management in the UK, working with Tony Blair and received honorary Doctorates for services to the music industry.
Recent Undertones footage, with introduction and recording by John Peel
Dear Undertones, I am worried. I look forward to your show in Melbourne and while I like to dance, the only way to dance, to react to the noisy infection sound your band is to Pogo. Now, in my late teens, my knees were capable violent jumping up and now. In the link above, we are advised how to pogo, even have ‘light aggression’ with your fellow dancers. No doubt, it will be a standing affair, that, in itself will be a vertical challenge. Anyone any ideas how to prepare my knees for this event?
Hugh McMahon Vaughan was born in Strabane, and raised in Derry, Northern Ireland, and currently lives in Melbourne, lecturing in Information Systems. He has written two books: A Bump on the Road and Cillefoyle Park, both creative memoirs, focusing on living in the North West of Ireland during the Troubles. Hughmvaughan.com
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