Never Mind the Politics – Here’s an Alternative Ulster
By Graeme Mullan
Northern Ireland 2011 – News headlines harking back the dark and troubled days of Ulster’s past flash out from the TV screen – “Policeman Murdered in Omagh”. Further indication that the recent dissident Republican threat has become a reality, as a young Catholic member of the Police Service for Northern Ireland was killed as a bomb, planted under his car, exploded in the driveway as he started the vehicle to leave home. A few weeks earlier in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, the re-formed Stiff Little Fingers (ably supported by The Defects, a local band also once more re-treading the punky floorboards) finish off their latest gig with a rendition of ÃÂ the anthemic ‘Alternative Ulster’. Another Punkasaurus Rex from back in the day – The Outcasts – have also just announced they too are to reform for a few ‘select’ gigs, culminating in a spot at Rebellion Punk Fest and have recently had a live CD released. The young policeman whose life was so cruelly extinguished on Saturday last wasn’t even born when all three aforementioned bands initially called it a day, after lighting and carrying the punk torch – leading a new family of disenfranchised youths.
Thirty odd years have elapsed, a new generation of kids have grown up in a ‘peaceful’ Northern Ireland – but how close are we to an Alternative Ulster?
Northern Ireland 1977 – The True Confessions of Justa Nother Teenage Rebel. The country was in a state of turmoil, stuck in the middle of a raging civil war – two communities divided by bigotry and sectarian hatred – which in typical self-depricating ‘Irish’ humour became known simply as ‘The Troubles’. Terrorist shootings, car-bombs, running riots, a gun-toting Police Force supplemented by an Army presence on the streets, P-checks (names and addresses taken randomly and often, by both security forces), a city-centre barricaded by the famous ‘ring of steel’ with security checks at every shop entrance and 2000 people dead. Troubles – yeah, right!! – this was ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’. To compound the problem, the country had the worst unemployment figures and the poorest housing in the whole of the United Kingdom. Everyone lived with the threat of violence hanging over their heads, many actually taking matters into their own hands and ‘fighting for the cause’ – joining one of the various Paramilitary organisations. Not particularly an ideal place for a hormonally-charged teenager to be growing up – ‘No Fun’ and ‘No Future’ – but, the perfect melting pot for the punk revolution to blossom.
“State Of Emergency” – SLF
Pre-punk, Belfast city-centre was a ghost town after 6.00 p.m. Shops pulled down their bomb-proof metal shutters and the security gates at the top of Donegall Place and Royal Avenue were locked – the infamous ‘Ring of Steel’ – not only sealing off the town from potential attack, but also sealing off any chance of a nightlife. The only city centre in Britain that was totally deserted when most others were just coming to life. People did not leave the relative safety off their own communities once darkness fell – nobody dared venture out incase they were caught up in a security incident. I lived in the south of the city where the streets were ‘run’ by numerous gangs, or ‘Tartans’ – nurseries for the Paramilitaries – a ‘boover-boy’ culture of long-hair, skinner high-boy parallel trousers, harrington jackets and tipped Oxford brogues. Within a mile radius of my mid-terrace two-up, two-down house there were three such gangs – the Finaghy Tong, Lisburn Road Spartan and the (in)famous TTR – the notoriously vicious Taughmonagh Tartan Rule. Although sometimes clashing amongst themselves, the real enemy were Catholics and occassionally pitched battles flared up at Finaghy Road North railway bridge – the borderline between Protestant and Catholic South Belfast – as a barrage of bottles and bricks rained across the divide.
“Smarter Than U” – The Undertones
I was considered too young to be worthy of joining any such gang and, to be honest, that particular vocation did not interest me in the slightest. I was content to spend whatever daylight hours were left after returning from school, to hone my football skills and spent many an hour or two happily kicking the ball against a gable end-wall. The small gaggle of friends I did hang around with were a varied bunch, too young and too wrapped up in our own particular problems to worry about the grander scheme of sectarianism, and we ‘ran’ our street – meaning, whenever any members of the TTR came through, we ran!!
“Listenin’ In” – Protex
Musically, we were treated either by the Glam/Heavy Rock tunes from our peers, talked about in the schoolyard and the playground, or Country & Western ballads from our parents. I remember my father, sitting in his armchair with the headphones on, singing out-of-tune yodellings to Jim Reeves, Charley Pride or Slim Whitman, but when I got my first transistor radio for Christmas ’73, I was escounced in my bedroom listening to the Top Forty chart run-down on a Sunday evening – Slade, Sweet and T.Rex blasting out of one tiny speaker. We were of course all avid watchers of Top Of The Pops on a Thursday evening – after all, no band was brave enough to tour Northern Ireland. To be fair, a few bands did make the effort – The Bay City Rollers played in ’75 – but lets be honest, would you want to go and see them? Rory Gallagher with Taste played annually, but he was from Donegal so doesn’t really count – but also, it was a heavy blues sound which did not really appeal to people my age. Not only was it incredibly foolhardy to play Belfast at the height of The Troubles, but it was also financially draining, as the equipment had to be ferried across the Irish Sea, high insurance premiums were required due to potential hi-jackings, bombs or both and there were very few venues deemed worth playing. Many were too small for a major act to consider performing in and many had ‘bitten the dust’ as the conflict effectively killed off the entertainment business.
“The Cops Are Coming” – The Outcasts
What we needed was an ‘Alternative Ulster’. Through the pages of NME and Sounds, plus the late night broadcasts of John Peel on Radio 1 and Dave Fanning on RTE Radio 2, a new music was emerging – something fresh and exciting. This was a musical backdrop, a soundscape that perfectly complemented the life and times of a disillusioned misfit struggling to come to terms with the hostile environment I was growing up in. It reflected the emotions and frustrations I felt living in the teenage wasteland of battlefield Belfast. Although too young to be allowed to attend any of the gigs, Eddie and The Hot Rods and Dr. Feelgood played Belfast – but soon the real force of Punk was to reach our shores, as, in 1977 The Clash announced they were to perform. This has been deemed a seminal moment in Ulster Punk History as like-minded souls from across the city gathered outside the Ulster Hall, meeting other punks from outside their own group of friends for the first time – included in the crowd that night were most of the key characters from either the already formed or the soon to be formed bands making up the Ulster punk scene. The actual concert was ‘banned’ by the City Council resulting in a ‘punk rock riot’ as reported in the local media – although compared to Ulster’s usual riots, it was all very tame. The Police were still called, but it was all blown out of proportion. Unfortunately, I was not in attendance this time – as a school kid I had only just managed to persuade my parents to allow me to buy tickets for the imminent Stranglers concert – although this was also banned and it would be another year before my first ‘real’ punk gig – when The Stranglers returned for their first concert in Belfast.
“Big Time” – Rudi
I had already been introduced to The Stranglers through one of my best mates at school, spending the majority of ’77 and ’78 in his attic room, playing ‘Rattus Norvegicus’ and the various other seminal punk records practically non-stop. The walls of this room were decorated with cuttings from the NME, displaying all the main punk (anti) heroes – Rotten, Strummer and our own personal favourite JJ Burnel. At school there were a number of similarly minded miscreants who displayed their punk credentials – we all were sporting drainpipe trousers compared to the flares worn by the ‘in crowd’ of ‘jocks’ and straight ties (just like The Heartbreakers) rather than the then popular ‘big-knot’ styled ties. Doc Marten eight-hole boots replaced the more acceptable brogue footwear as we were both mocked and (perhaps) secretly respected in equal measure. The attic room became our punk HQ as we hung out listening to our favourite records and discovering the delights of Tennents lager. Through mutual friends and contacts we were expanding our small circle – soon heading into town on a Saturday afternoon to meet up with others at Good Vibrations Record Shop. It was here we found out about the local scene and I first heard the thrilling opening bars to Rudi’s ‘Big Time’ – Belfast’s first punk band and the first release on Good Vibes – sheer bliss. The record shop itself was a tiny first floor room over a healthfood shop, with a print shop installed upstairs, where all the fanzines, gig posters and even record sleeves were produced. John Peel visited the shop at one stage, describing it as “a dinky toy phonebooth” – it really was that small. It was also, however, probably the most important punk institution in Northern Ireland. But vitally for the burgeoning scene in the Province, it also began releasing local bands on it’s own record label. I can still recall the first time I climbed the narrow staircase up to the shop, after being directed by the life-size cut-out Elvis pointing the way, suffering the heady smell of spices and god knows what from Sassafras downstairs and walking in through the door. Up the narrow stairs and after squeezing through the doorway, I was awestruck – confronted by a wall of punk picture sleeve singles and the one-eyed visionary himself, Terri Hooley.
Terri was instrumental to punk in Ulster, especially in those early days. Not only forming the Good Vibrations label and releasing the debut singles of many punk combos – Rudi, Victim, The Undertones, Ruefrex et al, but by allowing the young punksters to hang out – to chat, listen to the myriad of singles and albums crammed into the shop – but also later on organising punk events. The highlight undoubtedly the Punk and New Wave Festival in the Ulster Hall, featuring a crop of local bands (Rudi, Protex, The Outcasts and Starjets) but also The Saints from Australia and The Stimulators from New York. Terri possessed an ex-hippy heart and an anarchist soul – the perfect combination to embark upon influencing and encouaging the initial handful of local punk bands. This was exactly what he had been looking for – a new buzz, an excitement reminiscent of his youth and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Through the contacts he had made and the enthusiasm of the kids, the debut single on Good Vibrations Records was manufactured and released – the local punk scene had taken a massive step forward.
“Gangland Warfare” – The Outcasts
Meantime, as punk rock fever took hold, some other major acts decided to pencil Belfast into their tour itinery. Some absolutely memorable gigs from the likes of The Stranglers, The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Ramones and Siouxsie and the Banshees, to namecheck just a few, took place between 1978-79 and started to re-kindle an entertainment scene in Belfast. These concerts were amazing to a musically starved audience – there was little or no aggression seen at these events, as everyone was there to see the band, listen to the music and enjoy the occassion – a gathering of punk-loving individuals already disassociated from ‘normal’ society. Punk music was still frowned on by many and punks were deemed an ‘easy’ target by the local ‘spides’. Spides (a.k.a. spidermen – I don’t know where the moniker came from, but similar to the Chavs of today) hanging around in groups harassing and sometimes attacking punks as they made their way to and from their homes or the gigs. Of course, the Paramilitaries also took a dislike to this new scene, no doubt because we were deemed ‘different’, but also because we were upsetting the status quo – punks from both sides of the religious divide were mixing socially and not caring if your newly made friend was a Protestant or a Catholic. The Friendly Society were an alleged off-shoot of one of the loyalist terror groups made a point of ‘punishing’ youths who were seduced by punk. It was understandable to anyone living in Northern Ireland why the ‘idea’ of punk was considered such a threat. It de-stabilised the bigotry that had been passed down from the older generation and the ‘reign of terror’ that the paramilitaries relied on to keep the struggle ‘on track’, as kids from both communities took on the new ‘punk religion’. Throw into the melting pot the Sex Pistols’ track ‘God Save The Queen’ – not only the seditious title but Mr Rotten’s pronounciation when likening ‘Er Madge to an “H-bomb” (a very telling religious marker in Ulster) and Joe Strummer’s (ill-advised) stance on Irish politics – by choosing to wear a ‘Smash the H-Block’ T-shirt. Immediately a completely new ‘party politic’ dimension was thrust upon punks in Ulster. Were you pro- or anti-monarchy?, a Republican sympathiser? – just because you listened to a particular band. Nothing was ever straightforward in this fucked-up country.
“Teenage Kicks” – The Undertones
Local bands were putting on more of their own concerts too. Originally, when the punk scene started off, bands could not find venues that would allow them to play their brand of fast and furious zeitgeist Rock’n’Roll. To get around this minor detail, bands like Rudi or The Outcasts would book the upstairs room of a bar or a hotel for a private party, some false birthday celebration, informing the management there would be some live music. They would then be seen selling tickets to the event outside in the car-park!! Through time, local venues began to allow the new breed access – but it was The Harp Bar that became the ‘Belfast Roxy’ and was the regular hang-out for punk rockers in the city. Situated in Hill Street, down a series of dark back-streets, it was enclosed in a steel mesh security cage held in place by concrete-filled oil drums plus a CCTV and intercom security system – apparently it had been bombed previously by the IRA and the owner had no intentions of letting that occur again. Opening it’s doors to punk in ’78, the bar was a real dive – by the time I had ventured through it’s portal, I recall a red and black upstair room with a small stage and toilets that made the ones in Trainspotting look hygienic!! There were also strippers plying their trade before the Saturday night event, although I personally never had the dubious pleasure of meeting one. Although there was a membership scheme in place, I never subscribed, but did attend a few of the gigs and punk discos organised there – it was daunting enough gaining access being under the legal age, nevermind approaching someone for an application form. Initially, it was quite an intimidating place to enter, as we made our way through to the inner sanctum – sitting or standing around were a number of regulars, some of the faces we recognised from around town. Most of the seminal Ulster punk movie ‘Shellshock Rock’ was filmed there and anyone who was anyone either played or pogo-ed there at some stage. Punks were safe there, and everyone – be they Protestant, Catholic, working class, middle class or the rich set from the Malone Road – could all mix down at The Harp without the worry or fear of intimidation.
“Strange Thing By Night” – Victim
The Banshees’ gig in ’79, was held up due to the bands’ equipment not making it across by ferry – the doors eventually opening at 11:00 (usually the Belfast curfew, as all buses stopped running around this time and taxis were non-existant or at least reluctant to journey into certain areas). Many of the young punkster punters had made their way home before the concert actually started. A mate and I stayed on (even though it was a school night) and whenever we were eventually allowed in, it was decided the running order should be reversed, so that Siouxsie would perform first, followed by The Cure and last but not least, The Outcasts. They were not meant to be on the bill, but had lent their PA system so the show could go on. Siouxsie and the boys played a blinding set and The Cure were still just three imaginary boys dressed in army surplus gear, however, by the time The Outcasts were taking the stage it was after 01:00. Obviously I knew my Mum would be going up the wall with worry, not forgetting this was a pre-mobile phone age, so rather than remain to see the local heroes, I decided to depart. My mate however, wanted to hang on leaving me to make my own way home alone. As I wandered along Bedford Street, which was totally devoid of traffic, I noticed two figures walking along the opposite side of the street. Head down, I quickened my pace – this wasn’t the time or place for any confrontation – but out of the corner of my eye, I saw the two men begin to cross over and approach me. Fuck. Without waiting to see what they wanted, I took to my heels, managing to evade them as they tried to cut off my escape route and I ran as fast as my DMs would carry me. I didn’t dare look back until I had reached the corner of Bradbury Place and the junction of the Lisburn Road – a good half-mile sprint. No-one was in view, so as I re-caught my breath, I began the further mile or so walk to my mate’s house where my moped was parked. Still gulping down lungfuls of air I heard the dreaded thud of footfalls behind and looking back, there they were – two figures charging round the corner!! Oh shit, here we go again. Somehow, probably due to the adrenaline rush, I managed to make my legs work and forced them to pump as hard as they could – lactic acid build-up causing me to stumble, but no way was I going to let myself fall – the alternative was not an option. Those two bastards chased me the whole way back to my friend’s house and I only just managed to get through the front door before they ceased their pursuit. Needless to say I still received a good bashing that night (one of the ‘ear’ variety) when I eventually reached home – to find my Mum, sitting in her dressing gown, awaiting my return!!
“Defective Breakdown” – The Defects
Just like everything though, all good things must come to an end – or evolve and change. Some local bands were either snapped up by major labels or decided that London’s streets of gold would be where they would find their fortune – however, some still limped back with their tails between their legs. The blank generation were growing up too. By 1981 I was heading off to University, leaving many of my friends behind, not to return until three years later to a very different scene. Good Vibrations had bitten the dust – forced into bankruptcy by mainland record stores not paying their ‘dues’ and other poor management decisions. Punk in Belfast had adapted and morphed into the ‘anarcho’ hard-core scene – mohawks, studded leather jackets and jeans tucked into DM boots that had far too many eye-holes, was the new dress-code. Not really my cup of tea, thank you very much – but at least better than being a New Romantic!! The security gates surrounding the city had started to be removed and although there was still the threat of terrorist activity – bombings and shootings were still rife – the city centre didn’t seem as desolate as a few years prior.
“Cross The Line” – Ruefrex
It may have taken a while to properly take off, but Punk burned brighter and lasted longer in Northern Ireland than any other area of Britain – probably out of pure necessity. It was also closer to the real ideology of punk. In Ulster all the bands and fans really were teenagers – there were no bands jumping on the bandwagon and turning punk (except SLF!!) – most were picking up their instruments for the first time. There were no svengali figures manipulating the scene nor punk-chic shopkeepers producing over-priced gear. The D.I.Y. ethos of putting on gigs and releasing records was very much to the fore. It provided an outlet for disillusioned youth who were tired of the same old rhetoric that had been rammed down the throat – allowing the blinkers to be removed – seeing that anything was possible, things could change and that we could achieve our dreams. Preconceptions were challenged and history re-written. It has certainly influenced me – more than I probably realise – it has affected the decisions I have made, the choices I have taken and, more often than not, forced me to question, rather than accept, that which is put in front off me. As the purveyors of the bullet turned to the protocol of the ballot, the scene was set for a democratic agreement – listening to the voice of the majority. Unfortunately, you can’t please all the people all the time and the silent minority still can make their ‘explosive’ point.
Thirty plus years on and Belfast has changed beyond all recognition – a buzzing city centre with an equally vibrant nightlife. Was this due to punk? Not entirely, but I do believe that it was the early punks who cracked open the closed door, broke down the barricades and allowed a trickle to become a flood. The Harp Bar may have long gone and Hill Street has become part of the new sophisticated Cathedral Quarter, but, a bar called The Black Box – standing practically in the footprint of the old Harp – continues the ‘punk’ tradition – putting on gigs and events, allowing this old punk-rocker to once again become ‘a teenage rebel’. There is still a lot of opinions that need to be challenged, ingrained ideologies than require questioning and a lot of injustices that need redress. We may not have an Alternative Ulster just yet, but the cross-community reaction of the politicians, of men, women and children to the latest murder on our streets could yet prove – we may just be getting there.
“I’m an individual, its a time to be proud,
I don’t care what you think, its a time to be proud,
I am not a number, its a time to be proud,
I don’t give a damn,
Its a time to be proud”
”Time To Be Proud” – Rudi