Justice Tonight : Belfast
Backstage at a Justice Tonight gig is not your normal affair.
Tonight in Belfast is no different. I’m pinned to the wall by the fast talking Terri Hooley- the legend who ran Good Vibrations record shop and record label and can talk. And tal. And talk. I’ve not seen Terri for a long time and it’s great to hear his fast and crazy stories from a life lived. After terri finally moves around the room a slight figure comes up and introduces himself as Gerry, he is a massive fan of the Clash and loves the Louder The War website and also my band Goldblade. He is a music head and is totally into what’s going on tonight and is quite emotional about the whole thing. Finally I find out who he is – it’s Gerry Conlon who was wrongly convicted over Guildford pub bombings in UK in 1974- the famous Guildford 4 – in one of the biggest miscarriages of British Justice. He is not a bitter man despite his treatment and only wants positive things and we agree to keep in touch.
When I was writing for the Melody Maker in the early nineties I had a bit of a culture shock.
The previous five years I had been at Sounds, where the music mattered and there was an open policy to music coverage which meant I could do stuff like the first ever interview with Nirvana and cover the Manchester scene with no argument.
A freelancer was given a free hand and was trusted.
At Melody Maker there was a different atmosphere and a fractured team. There wa some great people there but also a clutch of others who were out of touch with what was going on.
A band like the Farm really got it from the journalists there with the favourite put down being that the The Farm looked like plumbers.
What they meant is that the band were not togged in glam rock rags and must have been, you know, stupid because they were plumbers. This was a car crash idea on a lot of levels. Firstly, at which point did music writing became so snobby! Was there some sort of assumption going on here that a plumber was not capable of making great music? There was also this idea that the Farm were dressing down and not like how pop stars should- now I’ve never been a wearer of casual clothes myself and had my fair share of gyp from casual clothes wearers but I have always recognised the intricacies of youth culture and always thoroughly enjoyed reading Farm frontman Peter Hooton’s The End fanzine in the eighties. It was funny and sharp and a brilliant observer of terrace culture which, in reality, was another spin off from punk rock.
Peter Hooton is one of the most articulate music culture writers and The End was a massive influence of UK pop culture from the Loaded to the football fanzines to mainstream music and sport writing in current times. One day we will force him to write the Englands Dreaming equivalent of terrace culture- a pop culture trip about a pop culture that no-one writs about properly.
The irony is that those people that sneered at the Farm and their joining of the dots between football, fashion and music are all tripping over themselves now to wear the same sort of clothes and write about football and music!
The Farm themselves had several last laughs and instead of ending up as plumbers they are a group of university lecturers, film makers and cultural movers and shakers, they also plan to tour as themselves in May for the pure joy of playing their music.
Mick Jones recognises the truth in the Farm and is more than happy to have the band up here playing the Clash classics with him. There are countless bands who could take this job but Mick recognises something in the Farm and remembers being touched by their passion for the Clash the first time he met them years ago. He also recognises their pop cultural nous and their understanding of football/clothes/music which is a big deal for him with his love for QPR and rock n roll and his collection of football autographs and pop memorabilia and passion for British pop culture.
This shared and ingrained passion for the minutia of our great pop and football heritage makes this a perfect match. Playing Clash songs is far more than learning the chords, there has to be an understanding of the culture of where all this came from, an understanding that big Clash fan Boris Johnson just can’t have.
The Clash may have been the band that built punk back up again after the Sex Pistols necessary cultural assassin raid, they may have never dressed down casual but they had an innate understanding of terrace culture. When Mick wrote and arranged those early songs they were built on terrace anthems- those terrace anthems that the clutch of snooty Melody Maker writers would never understand. Terrace anthems that were like folk music and could easily be assimilated by anyone who wanted to join in.
That was the beauty of the Clash and watching the audience in Belfast tonight intensely singing along to the songs with their eyes shut you understand the song’s power to transcend the years. That’s was the beauty of the Clash and watching the audience in Belfast tonight intensely singing along to the songs with their eyes shut you understand the songs power to transcend the years.
Last night, post Dublin show, the night was long and great- as poetic and romantic as the city itself . There had been an attempt to find the club where Don Letts was Djing and enjoy the great sounds that Don plays- one of the best DJs in the UK, he always plays a great set of Jamaican fused music from Mento to dubstep, ‘anything to get the ladies dancing’ he smiles before he leaves to play.
Before that I take in a couple of local punk bands at Sweenys and hang out with the Dublin punk set at the night run on by local punk heros Paranoid Visions. Dublin has a great punk scene, very friendly and with loads of old heads who have an encyclopedic knowledge of the form, its also a little loose and crazy round the edges which gives it a unique energy of its own.
Walking back through the streets at 4 in the morning I’m struck by how friendly people are- several have been to the gig and come up to say hello, some are just randoms- the atmosphere is party like and there is not the violent undertow that you sometimes feel in the UK.
Surprisingly the usual crew are not in the hotel bar when I get back and it seems like the band have gone to bed apart from Peter Hooton who’s hanging with the gig promoters and few other assorted heads. We keep it rocking until about 5 and bail out remembering that there is plenty of action to get through tomorrow on the drive up to Belfast.
I get up at 9 and go for a great run along the River Liffey meeting more people who were at the show last night- does everyone in the centre of Dublin go to gigs!? I keep running and end up in Phoenix Park where the Justice Tonight Tour will return to Dublin in July to play with the Stone Roses which is brilliant news. The Roses- another set of pop culture heads- totally getting the concept of this tour and allowing it an even bigger platform to state its case.
If you haven’t quite grasped the concept yet, it’s a rolling review with the Farm going on stage playing their hits, then becoming the house band for Pete Wylie for 4/5 songs before Mick and his Clash set sung by assorted vocalists Mick, Pete Wylie and Peter Hooton- it all sounds great and it’s about spreading awareness of the Justice for Hillsborough campaign and the Don’t Buy the Sun campaign as well. Sometimes there are guest speakers from the Hillsborough Justice Campaign or MPs like Tom Watson, sometimes there are legendary guests, sometimes a great band you should have heard of.
The road to Belfast is taken slowly and we stop off in a great pub that looks like something out of a junk shop- with massive collection of artifacts of an irish theme filling the bar. Of course Mick is wide eyed at this- it’s like his rock n roll library but with an Irish feel. Speaking of the rock n roll library Mick talks of trying to find a permanent space for it. I went to check it out a couple of years ago in Notting Hill and it was an evening lost in artifacts that pepper pop culture from music papers to Mick’s Clash shirts to set lists to books and annuals- it tells you the history of the seventies and eighties but cuts a sliver across the collected culture of the times and would make a great museum style display.
The football has kicked off in the pub and QPR are beating Arsenal and the QPR supporting Mick is grinning his Cheshire Cat grin.
The Irish love their sport- they seem to like about 5 sports simultaneously with Rugby union, Gaelic football getting a national attention and they even have enough tike to feverishly support English football teams and a clutch of their own local and national sides.
2-1 to QPR and we get to Belfast and the spirits are high.
The band soundcheck and the room fills up. There are lots of older punks here tonight, Belfast was always a key punk city and its punk music history is one of the pillars of the form. It was here that there were several legendary Clash moments- the 1977 cancelled gig, the near riot and the photos taken by the barbed wire and the barricades of a country that was shocking to look at at the time.
The band were crticised by some in the media for those photos but surely the whole point of the Clash was to reflect the culture and the street back at everyone and if it wasn’t by song it was by photos or interviews. This was a multi media operation with great songs and their understanding of the frame of reference they were working in was appreciated most by the people who really mattered- their audience and the Clash were loved in Belfast and the gig tonight reflects this with an an instant mosh pit and some really intense singalongs.
All the bands get a great welcome tonight, there is the terrace arm in the air celebration of the Farm and a really emotional rush to Pete Wylie when he does his mini set, Pete is now going to record an album using the Justice Tonight band and maybe Mick. It would make sense- this is the perfect line up for him to use to get some new stuff our there. The band and Mick have a total understanding of the live wire maverick Wylie and couch his songs perfectly. When he sings his voice is pure silver and a recorded set of new songs would be perfect timing now. What we need in the UK is more elder statesman making records that still mean something, records that are still in touch with real life and the big swell of emotion that that involves and Wylie is perfect for the task. Rock n roll should never be scared of growing up and getting older- it doesn’t mean it has to lose any of its power and beauty and when Wylie sings that you feel this electricity.
Mick understands that as well. He has grown perfectly into the elder statesman role, the wise veteran from the punk rock wars who looks impossibly cool in his pin stripe suit and slicked back hair. Backstage, pre show, Mick is unflappable- sat regal in the chaos of the tiny dressing room, he could have put together any band and taken these songs out for the big bucks tour like everyone else does with their back catalogue. It would have been easy and comfortable but he is here and he is not getting paid playing the Clash songs for the Hillsborough 96- he doesn’t want praise or a pat on the back. It’s a jot to play these songs and feel the rush of emotion off the crowd and the cause is everything. This is what the Clash were for.
Hillsborough was desperately sad and frustrating and a very political issue- Roy and Peter from the Farm were there that day and they have a fistful of stories of the way the police and eventually the media treated them. When they talk about what happened that fateful days you can feel the claustrophobia and the suffocation as the mixture of greed and incompetence from the authorities conspired to kill the young fans. All anyone wants is justice and an explanation. It’s what anyone deserves in these sort of situations and what they would have got if the rot hadn’t gone so high up in our society.
This is a rock n roll tour and it doesn’t claim that it can bring the justice by singing songs but it can raise awareness, connect people together, invigorate people involved in the campaign and join together musicians, people from the street, academics, media people, renegades and thinkers and create that strange brew of energy that can effect change. And change will come.
Mick looks great tonight, a pink tie, a three piece suit, a white Les Paul- the classic get up. He joins the Justice Tonight set for the Wylie songs and their buddy buddy relationship is the fulcrum on which the tour hangs on- the easy going camaraderie, like a Hollywood feel good movie. Mick takes the back seat and grins at Wylie, egging him on. They then switch to the Clash set and open with Train in Vain, it only takes two beats of the drum for everyone to know what song is coming and there is a surge of energy as the long awaited Clash setcome to life.
The great thing about this tour is its ad hoc nature. No-one is ever quite sure of the set list or what’s exactly happening but these old gun slingers also have a sense of purpose and there are no fuck ups. The last minute nature of things keeps the edge on, that constant culture rush just like the Clash hopping from stage to hotel to car- from gig to gig, from cause to cause- drinking up as much of life as they possibly could. The rock n roll roller-coaster is still turning and Mick is still there rocking the frontline. SJM, who promoted the last tour and are the biggest concert promoters in the UK voted Justice Tonight their favourite tour last year and there are plenty of people agreeing with them.
For far too long we have been told that rock n roll is dead/ doesn’t mean anything/ has nothing to say…the Clash were none of those things and their spirit is resurrected here for one hour, the songs that had a meaning then have a new meaning now and are setting up a sonic barricade to get your voice heard and protest- not an arab spring but a high decibel spring.
This is the way Mick wants it, this is not about rock stars and egos- this is about great songs infused with a new life and power and meaning. There are so many high points that it’s tricky to nail them down. Bankrobber sounds amazing- its warm voodoo filling the room , White WAn In Hammersmith Palais is emotive switchblade guitar power, Armagideon Time is a great dub groove and potent message- as Mick says this is a tour that is about Justice for everybody with a rock n roll band that thinks about the 96 and the Arab Spring and the clampdown- which is apt because they play a killer version of Clampdown. They end with Should I Stay Or Should I Go- pure rock n roll with that great riff that is grinding the neo Stones lick copped from the Sharks and given the Mick treatment.
The Clash played so many styles of music, they were hungry for culture and confident enough to put their stamp on whatever they played but for pure rock n roll they always won hands down, they could have been the biggest band in the world, a Stones for their time but settled for mass influence instead and this unexpected epitaph in their career has suddenly given everything a powerful new twist.
There are no special guests tonight and they end with Janie Jones where I get a run out and dive into the crowd with the mic for a mass singaolong and then finally end with a great version of BAD’s Rush with Don Letts,who’s been Djing tonight, onstage to add some proper cool.
Post show it’s one of those amazing dressing rooms, packed the with locals, musicians, players and thinkers- Gerry Conlon from the Guilford four is there and greets me like a long lost friend even though I have never met him before. Gerry is a most charming man who spent 15 years behind bars in the UK, arrested in 1974 for the Guildford bombing that he didn’t do. He has zero bitterness towards the judicial system and the cops, a Clash fan, there is something fitting about him being here under the Justice Tonight umbrella.
Also in the room is the legendary Terri Hooley- the biggest character in Belfast and the man who launched the Good Vibrations record label who released the Undertones Teenage Kicks amongst a whole raft of great Belfast punk rock like Rudi, the Outcasts and many others.
I’ve known Terri since 12981 when he brought the Membranes over to play in Belfast- the city has changed beyond recognition since then. In those days it was soldiers and guns and shopping streets where you had be searched before going through metal doors to get in. Now the Belfast city centre is booming, full of tourists for the Titanic exhibition and has the feel of an up and coming European mini city. Perhaps Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label was part of this- it was a non political label dealing in rushes of really uplifting punk rock and a rare good news story coming out of the city at the time. Terri likes to talk and tells me about the upcoming film a bit his life and it first showing at the Ulster Hall, it’s great to see him again, I can’t believe it’s 31 years since that first trip, my first gig outside England and how he looked after us and his great Good Vibrations record shop with the Elvis outside. The gigs was at Mayfield Leisure centre which I run past the next day and is now all boarded up and looks set for demolition as the new Belfast rises up to replace the old run down city.
The post show party goes on late, the talk is wild and free and celebratory, as grown men talk of being in tears at hearing the Clash songs and Mick sits there serene in the middle of the madness with nothing being too much for him- like the night before in Dublin when lifelong fans wanted stuff signed and I went to get him. It was straight after the set and it was time to rest but he was straight out there shaking hands signing stuff, defusing any star bullshit and appreciating the enthusiasm of the fans. It was a telling moment and one that sums up the whole operation- I’ve seen far less known people treat so called fans like shit- footballers who pretend to be on mobiles and push fans aside, musicians who would rather get stoned but there was Mick, a lone figure giving some of the love back when he should have been chilling out after the gig.
Where does Justice Tonight go from here? Most bands would be looking for a top ten album or something but a hit for this ad hoc grouping would Justice for the 96. There is talk of more gigs, the Roses have been offering stuff and there maybe more UK shows…it can only get bigger.