Sonic re­sis­tance

For his book about the music that sound­tracked the Trou­bles, Belfast jour­nal­ist Stu­art Bailie fol­lowed punk’s DIY aes­thetic to tell a story of bloody-minded re­sis­tance and re­silience

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - CONTENTS - WORDS BY PE­TER MUR­PHY

Stu­art Bailie on the music that sound­tracked the Trou­bles

DS­tu­art Bailie’s Trou­ble Songs is based on a premise so sim­ple yet per­sua­sive it feels like a book that should have al­ways ex­isted. A com­pre­hen­sive his­tory of the music that sound­tracked the Trou­bles, the project pri­mar­ily fo­cuses on the 30-year pe­riod of tur­bu­lence be­tween the late 1960s and the Good Fri­day Agree­ment, a time when rock and pop artists – es­pe­cially North­ern Ir­ish ones – were at their most so­cially and po­lit­i­cally en­gaged. For Bailie, a Belfast-born jour­nal­ist and broad­caster, for­mer NME ed­i­tor and of­fi­cial Thin Lizzy bi­og­ra­pher, and founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Oh Yeah music cen­tre in Belfast, it was a long-term labour of love.

“It’s been like an itch I’ve wanted to scratch for a while,” he con­cedes. “It’s my life, you know. I went to the Harp Bar and had my head com­pletely spun around by what I saw there. And once you’re won over to the light side, sec­tar­i­an­ism looks so hor­ri­ble. Hav­ing been wit­ness to cer­tain piv­otal mo­ments, I’m try­ing

Ge­orge Jones was play­ing a gig up­stairs at the Aber­corn, and lit­er­ally the ceil­ing went and he was perched on two beams ring­ing his wife from a phone box and look­ing at the bod­ies down­stairs – my God! And a lot of them kept play­ing. It was an in­cred­i­ble act of de­fi­ance

to put all that in the book. Even all the pre-punk stuff, where it was just bru­tal, I re­lived it all.”

Trou­ble Songs’ pub­li­ca­tion co­in­cides with the 20-year an­niver­sary of the Good Fri­day Agree­ment. De­spite Brexit-re­lated Bor­der anx­i­eties, the time elapsed has af­forded dis­tance and per­spec­tive. But the book’s ges­ta­tion be­gan, Bailie says, as long as a decade ago.

“I did a thing for the Arts Coun­cil about 2007, 2008. They started their Trou­bles archive, so in con­junc­tion with them I wrote 5,000 words on music and con­flict. And I got to the end and went, ‘Je­sus, I haven’t scratched the edges of it, re­ally.’ And then, when I was com­ing to the end of 10 years at the Oh Yeah music cen­tre, com­pletely blud­geoned by stress and ev­ery­thing else, I thought: ‘I want to do some­thing beau­ti­ful and pure’.”

Bailie had a lit­er­ary agent on board, but de­spite the scope and po­tency of the ma­te­rial, none of the ma­jor Lon­don pub­lish­ers took the bait. With the help of the Bri­tish Coun­cil North­ern Ire­land, among other of­fi­cial bod­ies, he opted for the cross-fund­ing/kick­starter op­tion. Apt, given that so many of the fig­ures cel­e­brated in the text were such in­de­pen­dent and re­source­ful char­ac­ters.

“There’s this suc­ces­sion of ob­sti­nate peo­ple who wouldn’t ac­cept what was pro­posed to them,” Bailie con­curs, “and near the end of the writ­ing of the book I was go­ing, ‘Why should I do it the ortho­dox way? Why should I ac­cept a pit­tance from a small pub­lisher or what­ever, when I can kinda rock’n’roll it?’ So, the whole process is al­most like a Good Vi­bra­tions record re­lease. I’m up to my ears in jiffy bags and Sel­lotape, but that’s kind of great: as soon as you take it on your­self, you get amaz­ing en­ergy.”


For all the re­counted horrors – sec­tar­ian

killings, car bomb­ings, kneecap­pings and atroc­i­ties such as The Mi­ami Show­band mas­sacre – Trou­ble Songs is in many ways a story of bloody-minded re­sis­tance and re­silience.

“Peo­ple like Billy McBur­ney who ran Out­let Records,” Bailie con­sid­ers. “I in­her­ited his build­ing for Oh Yeah, and I al­ways thought he was a bit of a mar­ket trader. He did all th­ese dodgy kick-the-pope and up-the-’Ra records, and then you find out that he wrote Up Went

Nel­son (an Ir­ish chart-topper for the Go Lucky Four) and put out this in­cred­i­ble folk music. He and Terri Hoo­ley and var­i­ous other peo­ple are carved out of that same res­o­lute gran­ite.

“And then you talk to some­one like Ge­orge Jones, who was play­ing a gig up­stairs at the Aber­corn, and lit­er­ally the ceil­ing went and he was perched on two beams ring­ing his wife from a phone box and look­ing at the bod­ies down­stairs – my God! And a lot of them kept play­ing. It was an in­cred­i­ble act of de­fi­ance. Rory Gal­lagher is still re­garded like a saint in Belfast be­cause he played those Ul­ster Hall gigs every year and didn’t make a big deal out of it. He was a hum­ble guy.” Tech­ni­colour mo­ment Read­ing Bailie’s book, it be­comes clear that the punk ex­plo­sion was a ma­jor monochrome­to-tech­ni­colour mo­ment, with acts such as Stiff Lit­tle Fin­gers, Rudi and The Out­casts oblit­er­at­ing the cul­tural cringe of par­ti­san dog­gerel songs from the early 1970s. But al­though punk gigs were a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in de­fus­ing sec­tar­i­an­ism, there was a dark side to the music too: for every Crass-like an­ar­chist col­lec­tive, there was a Skrew­driver-style jack­boot mob.

“I re­mem­ber Johnny Adair be­ing on the fringes of the punk thing, and there was this strange en­ergy when him and his mates ap­peared in places. Even bands like The Out­casts were touched by that, and Greg Cowan pro­duced the first Johnny Adair demo,

Of­fen­sive Weapon. But Petesy Burns and Sta­lag 17 and Crass laid down a model for how to be a strangely moral hu­man be­ing out­side of cap­i­tal­ism, and places like Giro’s be­came th­ese small havens. A lot of those peo­ple carry that with them the rest of their lives, you can nearly spot one com­ing down the street. You go, ‘That was some­body who was saved.’ There’s a walk and a look about them, the way they see the world. Whereas the whole Oi/fas­cist thing kinda clicked too eas­ily in cer­tain parts of North­ern Ir­ish so­ci­ety.” An­other im­pres­sion the reader gleans from

Trou­ble Songs is how politi­cised pop mu­si­cians were in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was the golden era of agit-pop, from Al­ter­na­tive Ul­ster to Oliver’s Army. “A lot of mu­si­cians al­most re­garded it as their duty,” Bailie re­calls. “I think part of that was the music press – you were ex­pected to talk elo­quently about where you stood on the spec­trum and why and how that im­pacted on your music. Back in the day the Labour Party was more vo­cal and more con­sciously aligned with the Left. You also had Thatcher and Rea­gan go­ing off. The an­ar­chist cen­tre in Belfast was called Giro’s be­cause peo­ple lived off their ben­e­fit cheques. Third-level ed­u­ca­tion was a sim­i­lar thing: art col­leges, where you had a lit­tle bit of time to think about where you stood and how you re­lated to the world be­fore you moved for­ward.

“My chil­dren now are go­ing di­rectly into debt in the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and are be­ing mon­i­tored from the get-go,” Bailie con­tin­ues. “If there’s an­other rev­o­lu­tion, it’s go­ing to have to be very canny, in a lot of ways, to move peo­ple. Or there could just be a com­plete peas­ants’ re­volt, I don’t know. I was at the NME dur­ing the poll tax ri­ots and it was in­cred­i­ble, that some­thing could semi-spon­ta­neously shake the sys­tem. Why isn’t there more of that now? I miss it, I re­ally yearn for it, al­though North­ern Ire­land’s in­ter­est in the whole LGBT thing is a colos­sal cause, much as Re­peal the Eighth is a cause in Dublin and be­yond. And there’s some­thing mag­i­cal that comes out of Derry. They still have that with Wood Burn­ing Sav­ages and Touts and Susie-Blue, they’re all rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in a way, it’s bril­liant. So you push where there’s room to push.

“But cer­tainly, when I was a kid and you heard Sus­pect De­vice on John Peel, it was like, ‘What? They’re say­ing that?’ That was so ex­cit­ing. And that line in Al­ter­na­tive Ul­ster: ‘Take a look at where you’re liv­ing’ – it was just such a bril­liant throw-down. So, we live in hope.” Trou­ble Songs is out now, pub­lished by Bloom­field


Above: Jim Reilly, Jake Burns and Ali McMordie of Stiff Lit­tle Fin­gers. Left: Terri Hoo­ley in his Belfast record shop Good Vi­bra­tions. Be­low: Bri­tish sol­diers at the scene of the Mi­ami Show­band killings at Buskhill in Co Down, July 31st, 1975.

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