Various Artists – Shellshock Rock
3CD + 1DVD
Released 31 July 2020
New boxset based around John T Davies’ 1979 film of the NI Punk scene Shellshock Rock. The CD element of the set features big names Rudi, Stiff Little Fingers, the Outcasts and the Undertones, plus a host of vital lesser-known acts…..LTW’s Ian Canty hears the London punk rhetoric lived out for real in Ulster….
“When it comes to punk, New York had the haircuts, London had the trousers, but Belfast had the reason”. That’s the famous Terri Hooley quote that is one of the first things you see upon entering Shellshock Rock’s book-format, but you could easily say instead that while New York and London played at punk, Belfast lived it. Yes punks in the US and UK had their own problems and violence to confront, but they never had troops on the street to deal with, or the IRA or UDA a constant presence at their back. The rhetoric of “sten guns in Knightsbridge” was alright if you didn’t actually have to put up with a real battleground on the street on a daily basis. Punks in NI did and built their scene as much as an escape from their environment as anything else.
As it forms the centrepiece of this new collection, it seems only fair to examine John T Davies’ film Shellshock Rock first. It caught the scene at the tail-end of 1978 and shows that two years on from Year Zero, punk was still thriving across the Irish sea from a London gone cold. A rough and ready 50 minute snapshot at least the equal of any geographically-based flick of 70s/80s punk, this is a fast-moving mix of bands live and in the studio, interviews and a tour of key sites like the Good Vibrations record shop and the Harp Bar. Arriving just at the time as the Undertones and SLF in particular were taking off, the film captures a scene really jumping, often literally.
Memorable moments include Terri Hooley dancing wildly to Big Time by Rudi in his shop while the band shred it onstage, lively vox pops with ordinary Belfast folk and some great performances. Rhesus Negative, caught at the Harp in November 1978, contribute a stunning and intense Lies In Vain and Strange Obsessions by Protex (also on the first CD here) is full of youthful energy and promise. After a touching interview with their front man, the Parasites play Society at Andersonstown Youth Club, the real spirit of “dustbin punk” in the best possible way. The Undertones of course feature with fuzzy vision on Teenage Kicks (no digital remastering here!), but return in better clarity near the end for a spirited Here Comes The Summer. The Idiots provide the theme tune Shellshock Rock and their own version of the Belmonts’ Teenager In Love, which crops up now and again during the running time.
Though obviously the state of occupation by the British Army and the paramilitaries in Northern Island at the time isn’t ignored, it’s not overplayed either. Stiff Little Fingers thunder through a convincing Alternative Ulster on stage, but this is undercut straight afterwards by punks disagreeing with the band’s stances on The Troubles. Mostly the film is about kids from all backgrounds coming together and having fun, something the rest of the UK took for granted but was unprecedented in North Ireland then. Larking around on the streets, shops and in the venues, they seem the most normal and healthy part of the country. Though by the time of recording London fashionistas had no doubt moved on and would sneer haughtily at Shellshock Rock, NI punks had taken what they required from that original outburst and made something truly of their own, something of lasting value. Shellshock Rock is a vital document that captures the energy and fun of Northern Ireland in 1978. That it ends with a soggy Rudi in Glenmachen, neatly soundtracked by the Cascades’ Rhythm In The Rain, is oddly poignant too.
Moving on, the three CDs included here document the years 1977 to 1982, going from punk through new wave pop and onto post punk. Though Hooley’s Good Vibrations label and shop deservedly became the focus for NI Punk, others that have been forgotten played a part too. Cliff Moore’s IT Record Company issued five singles during 1977/78 including the Outcasts’ debut Frustration (not included here). The pop/pub/punk of Midnite Cruiser’s Rich Bitch/Striker single emerged in November 1977, pre-dating Good Vibrations debut waxing Big Time by Rudi (in the film but not included here, which is a shame as it was undeniably a landmark release) by a good few months. Late on the scene, Reekus Records caught some of the post punk wave. Rip Off, overseen by Pretty Boy Floyd And The Gems’ manager George Doherty, also put out some valuable material like the Belfast Rock compilation LP, the very first new wave album from NI. Though admittedly they generally scooped up the more pub rock/new wave bands that didn’t come under Good Vibes’ radar, but valid nonetheless.
Pretty Boy Floyd were interesting as well with their links to Ireland’s showband circuit (they began life as the Candy showband and played under both guises in the late 70s). Rip Off’s dabble in punk inevitably brought the kind of novelty cash-ins that were rife all over the UK at the time, which now have enough period appeal to vie with the real thing. The first disc deals with these early forays. On Punk Rockin’ Granny the Duggie Briggs Band sound far more like hard rockers giving punk a not too serious shot than the real thing, but that’s part of its charm heard at 43 years distance away. With Pretty Boy Floyd (their Rough, Tough And Pretty Too is like a power pop Stranglers), Jumpers’ pure rhythm and blues Baby C’mon and No Sweat (who also had a Showband back story), there’s a lot of stuff here that borders more on old style rock and roll than anything new. No Sweat’s leader Clive Culbertson features again later in a solo guise with the punchy new wave sound of Busy Signal and as part of the similarly named the Sweat on disc 2.
Both Xdreamysts and the Starjets hark back to older styles, with former in real power pop mode on Dance Away Love and the latter coming over a little like a punk answer to the Rollers on their near hit War Stories. But there are authentic examples of punk rock from NI here, starting with the Undertones’ True Confessions from their first EP. One forgets due to their subsequent success that they put this record out on the verge of splitting up, as merely a document to say “we were here”. The tough buzzsaw sound of Tinopeners on the very catchy I’m Not Your Type impresses and the lo-fi efforts of the Doubt from Bangor hit the spot too. The Androids two songs are highly enjoyable, a New York Dolls tribute in Lipstick Heroes and Nine To Five, which has a hint of the Adverts and even early Black Flag circa Nervous Breakdown about it. Overall disc one acts as a handy portrayal of NI punk’s embryonic stage.
Moving onto disc 2, we’re right in the thick of when Shellshock Rock was filmed, with Stiff Little Fingers Suspect Device single and the mighty Outcasts’ Self-Conscious Over You. Ruefrex were another excellent outfit, their One By One single on Good Vibrations seems to be almost forgotten, but it’s a work of real drive and imagination. Victim, later to decamp to Manchester and enlist a young Mike Joyce as drummer, are represented by the riffy flip of their Why Are Fire Engines Red? waxing I Need You and the later and very meaty single for Illuminated The Teen Age (produced by Rat Scabies).
The Moondogs seemed at the time like they couldn’t miss, even scooping their own ITV tea-time telly show. They really hit the sweet spot midway between the pop of the Undertones and the solid punk mania of the Outcasts on their single She’s Nineteen/Ya Don’t Do Ya? single, which is included here. Sadly record company machinations that included dalliances with ex-Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham and Todd Rundgren, twinned with over-exposure, did for the trio’s chances of fame. Away from the more punk recordings is the odd electropop of Rod Vey’s Metal Love and Stage B share the same kind of area as Punishment Of Luxury on their epic Light On The Hillside. Reflex Action’s Spies was a feisty Clash-style reggae number which endeared itself to Sheila Ravenscroft, netting airplay from her husband John Peel as a result. Their surf-instrumental Recession is another good ‘un and it takes a neat diversion halfway through into Magazine territory.
With links to the bands Speed, Cobra and the Detonators (all featured on disc one of this set), The Tearjerkers were punk pop hopefuls who landed a deal with major label Phonogram’s Back Door imprint. The b side to their only release for the label, Heart On The Line, shows real pop potential, but for some reason they fell through the cracks. Mixed Up Kid, by the Male Caucasians, is a real zinger and this disc ends on a high with the manic MC5-style drive of the Rattling Throntons’ The Whistle Song. Formerly called The Arms Of Venus De Milo, they financed this recording by moonlighting as a country and western band.
The long time scene leaders Rudi make their belated entrance at the start of Shellshock Rock’s third disc. The first punk band from Northern Ireland to make waves on mainland UK, their aforementioned Big Time single really gave the whole scene a massive boost. That they never met with the same success as SLF or the Undertones is a real shame, proved here by the ultra-tough and infectious 14 Steps and their great final single issued on the Jamming! imprint When I Was Dead. When Paul Weller folded that label (soon to be relaunched as Respond), it spelt the end for a band who really deserved to make it.
The Defects, the best of the second wave of Belfast punk bands, are here with their fine Dance (Until You Drop) 7 inch and they still cook up a live storm to this day too. Both Strike and the Singles struck out towards a mod direction, with the former best represented by Teenage Rebel, which has a touch of early Cock Sparrer about it. The Singles, more wholeheartedly modernist, provide some explosive fun with TV Deceives and Minor Classics show how the early Outcasts sound and lyrical stance could have developed in a pop sphere on I Don’t Like Girls. Shock Treatment merge elements of post punk and pop well on Mr Mystery Man and Big Self show why they were highly rated at the time on Surprise, Surprise and Jagged Edges. They utilised reggae rhythms as the jumping off point for some fine post punk noise.
The late Marty Lundy had a performing history that predated punk, but Katmandu, despite a name which might make you think of prog rock, manage a great mix of glam and futurism on Get My Act Together. Somehow Control Zone found themselves on the ultra-dodgy United Skins compilation, but their two offerings here are mostly just tuneful punk rock and all the better for it. Electro-Motive Force offer a nicely fuzzy Bloody Bouncers and the rough chant of Spiderman, but what is lacking on Shellshock Rock are female voices. This is something that is partially addressed by the inclusion of the excellent Dogmatic Element. Their 1982 single Strange Passions/Just Friends taps into the post punk sound of the Raincoats/Au Pairs, but in a very accessible way and invigorating way.
Shellshock Rock is a pleasingly thorough look through Ulster’s punk scene and beyond, drawing on a few different sources to make a richer survey. The film in itself is a good enough reason for interest, plus you also get three discs of important and diverting material (along with the odd clunker). It comes in a hardback book format that has a detailed sleeve note from Stuart Ballie and ton of info on the film as well as the each band’s pen pictures. Though Good Vibrations is rightly lauded, it wasn’t the be-all and end-all and this compilation helps put things more into context. If you weren’t there like me, this should give you as good an idea as any as to what exactly did go on and why the NI punk scene is still revered to this day. The movie, the sounds and the information included combine admirably to provide a vivid picture of punk and its aftershocks in Northern Ireland, put together by people in the know.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here