Punk rock and other four letter words.
What was it like in Belfast when punk broke in the second half of the 70s? Well, have a read and find out. Hopefully, you'll find this an interesting tale and maybe it'll inspire you to check out the records and judge for yourself, because like all the other NI punk participants, I fondly remember those far off punk days like it was yesterday and I love any excuse to reminisce.
Belfast in the 70s was a grey, rundown and very dangerous place - but it was all we knew, it was were we grew up - and it was home. Violence and destruction were an everyday occurrence so a bunch of fashion victims in 1976 preaching art school anarchy from the cosy confines of a London clothes shop didn't really cut it. Their rantings weren't taken seriously and were ignored. The quasi political rhetoric from the London glitterati really didn't influence any of the proto punk kids here - but the energy of the music, the style and the rebellious attitude certainly did. Let’s be honest, they didn't know what they were talking about, and in reality (with the benefit of hindsight), it was all spin and verbals with no substance designed to cause a bit of outrage and to sell those innovative and risqué t.shirts/bondage trousers - and maybe shift a few records. The NI punk story is less myth and more truth - with a unique environment all of its own.
At the beginning, most of the original punk converts were fed up glam fans. Glam was our boot-boy soundtrack to growing up in a troubled city. The Dolls had self-imploded & Bolan's best days were behind him (though he was an early champion of the punk rock cause on his no budget tv show). The bands behind those classic glam 45s that had dominated the pop charts for the previous five years - like Sweet and Slade amongst others - had grown up musically speaking (or so they said - big mistake) and were putting out their version of adult orientated Yank rock - or worse - with little success. Pop music was in a pretty dire state. Bowie and Roxy Music seemed to be trying a different arty approach with varying degrees of success, but the time was right for something new.
Now, personally speaking, I was too young to understand the political climate or the mass unemployment of the time - I was only 13 in 76 - so music and football were my main priorities - not economics. I was an avid reader of the music press from a very early age - so I was aware of the emerging punk rock cult and its first screams from the dirty strip clubs and dives of Soho in London and the Bowery in New York city. I was already a fan of the finest cutthroat hooker chic tranny band of all time, the New York Dolls, having read about them and witnessing their ‘mock rock’ TV appearance on the hippy programme the Old Grey Whistle Test. I had picked up both their LPs pre-punk in a second-hand shop and they were being name-checked left right and centre in the dubious company of Iggy and the Stooges by the new punk bands and fans, so I was curious and wanted to know more. I watched from a distance fascinated by the rare snippets of punk music broadcast on the late night radio shows, the confrontational clothes and the outrage in the daily press this outrageous youth cult was causing. Through time, as more and more bands formed and the music became generally available in every record shop, I was buying singles in eye-catching pic sleeves and picking up new fanzines weekly. As for the clothes - that was more difficult - as there was nowhere in Belfast to buy authentic punk garments (which I couldn't afford anyway on a schoolboy’s pocket money). There weren't even any pirated versions of the designs to be had - so by employing every punk cliché known to man - we customised what we had in the true punk DIY fashion. Badges, chains, safety pins, zips, stencils the lot. Anyone who says they wore exclusively punk clothes in those early days is telling porkies - you just mixed and matched what you had until you could persuade your mum to buy you a pair of drainpipes or something else that could stop traffic and have passers by pointing and giving you abuse. These items usually came from women’s clothes stores, that’s were I bought my first pair of PVC trousers - before you could buy them mail order from the back of the NME or Sounds. The complete punk wardrobe took over gradually.
I remember one day - must have been the summer of 77 - going through the ring of steel security barrier that stretched completely around Belfast City Centre’s shopping area - and being stopped by a British soldier. I was wearing a white shirt that I'd covered in various punk band names and punk graffiti - so I thought to myself: here we go again - as it was a regular inconvenience to be stopped in those days for everyone. After the usual p check he started to read the writing on my shirt and he said to me, "I like The Clash and The Jam myself, I've got the records at home". This threw me a bit as I wasn't expecting to hear it, normally it would have been some sort of snide remark or attempted put-down. The Clash came to town in Oct ‘77 for a gig at the Ulster hall - NI punk’s first major gathering - the story of which is well documented. I was there with a mate for my first exposure to live punk rock. To cut a long story short, the gig was cancelled at the last minute as the insurance was pulled because the insurance company thought that punk rock in NI was more dangerous than anywhere else in Britain. There was a minor sit down protest and a bit of disorder when a few bottles and other missiles were thrown at the SSRUC by the assembled punks (later immortalised in the Rudi song “Cops”). The Clash sang about white riots well, they got a mini cross-community riot of their own that night. It was nothing on the NI scale of things, a minor skirmish compared to the riots that we had all seen over the years, but its the stuff of legend now.
After another couple of disappointing gig cancellations, finally, on the 2/2/78, aged 15, I at last got to attend my first live punk rock show. It was the Adverts - fresh from Top Of The Pops - supported by Stiff Little Fingers and Rudi at Queens Uni. SLF were first on - this was during their v-neck jumper K-tel punk covers band days - as they call it themselves - and very good they were too. The next band up were Rudi and it was a revelation to me, they were fantastic. Sporting heavy make up - a nod to their glam roots - and DIY punk bondage boiler suits covered in graffiti - they just blew me away. I never knew there was a band like this in Belfast. I got so carried away during their energetic set that I slipped on the greasy floor and broke my wrist in two places. The Adverts were next but there was no way they would better Rudi's performance - and they didn't. Between Gaye huffing and refusing to face the audience and just being a pretty average band who got lucky with an admittedly great hit record - they were poor. After the gig I was in the toilets soaking my painful now twice the size wrist in the wash basin when a mate said to me he thought SLF were the best band of the night. I replied, “no fucking way. Rudi were great.” I looked to my right and Henry Cluney (SLF guitarist) was standing next to me with a pissed off look on his face. I didn't care - I didn't know him personally anyway. I've often cited this as a defining moment in my time as a punk - the night I discovered Rudi - and I'm still a fan now - a scary 27 years later.
Me and a mate John went over to London a couple of weeks later for a Sweet gig. We did the whole punk tourist thing: visited the Kings Rd, went to Seditionaries to buy a few items and maybe meet the Pistols - which we didn't - but we met the Damned at the gig. From here on in I was attending punk gigs regularly - I got battered by spidermen after a Pretty Boy Floyd gig in 78 when I got jumped making my way home. When I woke up the next morning part of my top lip was missing. Other notable gigs included the first local punk festival on 14/6/78 which saw the debut Belfast appearance of the Undertones who were fourth on the bill. We thought Fergal Sharkey was a guy called Kyle who worked in the Caroline Music record shop were we bought our 45s - they looked so alike. Sharkey was dressed in a leather/PVC jacket and trousers and there wasn't a regulation parka in sight. The Undertones had a strained relationship with the Belfast punks - even though they were a great band - which reached a conclusion when they appeared on the BBC youth programme, Something Else, in Dec ‘79 along with Rudi - but more of that later. After the festival we were walking along Great Victoria St and we met Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy who were in town for a couple of gigs. He was leaning on a pillar outside of the Europa hotel looking cool and necking a bottle of wine. We exchanged a few words - he was a really nice guy. Thin Lizzy were one of the rock bands it was OK to like in the punk days which rubbishes another myth that punks threw away all their old records when year zero came along and listened to nothing else - absolute nonsense.
Inspired by Rudi and all the local and worldwide punk activity in the summer of ’78 - my mates and me decided to have a go at starting a band of our own. Having no real musical ability to speak of - we probably knew two of the required three chords - but empowered with youthful rebellious attitude, enthusiasm and cheap guitars - we had a go anyway. After a number of false starts under various crap names I won't reveal here - we finally made it onto a stage at a variety show attended by a bishop. How did we get the gig? I don't know - but here we were - Blitz - my one and only time as a front-man in front of an audience - wearing my recently purchased seditionaries Destroy t-shirt. We butchered a couple of Pistols songs, smashed the stage up while destroying my old guitar - and got some other punk mates to throw stuff at us. It was a great laugh - we left the stage to deafening silence. We weren't very good but were not discouraged - the first step had been taken. This line up fell apart but a couple of us got some other pals in and formed the Producers again, musically, we were amateur - but we were better than Blitz - another step forward. We rehearsed and managed to get a short set of rough and ready covers together: Ramones, Clash - the Cars!!! The usual. We managed to get a gig in a local community hall during a country and western band’s break again, I don't know how we got the gig. Some mates of ours managed to get hold of 70s version of a camcorder - which consisted of a big camera, a reel to reel tape machine and a big battery pack - and they filmed the Producers first gig. We watched it back the next day on a small b/w monitor - it was brilliant. Pity none of us thought of buying the tape and keeping it for posterity - but we probably couldn't have afforded it anyway - and home video equipment wasn't readily available yet - so the tape was reused and a bit of NI punk history was gone forever.
Also in ’78, Good Vibrations was launched by local businessman Terri Hooley after he witnessed a Rudi/ Outcasts double header at the Pound - at last we could buy our favourite songs by our favourite local bands in those trade mark folded paper sleeves - made in a print shop above his record store of the same name as the label. In April “Big Time” by Rudi was the label’s debut release - and what a song to start off with. Good Vibes kept up the momentum for a while - releasing a steady stream of great 45s - but eventually ran out of steam as the better bands moved on to pastures new. ‘78 was the big year for Belfast punk - and it found its home in a poorly attended strip club on the wrong side of the city centre security barrier. The famous Harp bar opened its doors to the punks when no one else would - and quickly established itself over the next few years as one of the most famous punk landmark venues in the world - on a par with the Roxy, Vortex, CBGBs or Max's. The Harp was a bit of a dump - but it was our dump - we were regular visitors two or three times a week - sometimes more, depending on the entertainment. Once through the metal security cage you were amongst like minded individuals all out to have a good time - some of us having an underage pint (sometimes free) from Eamo behind the bar - and listening to great music. And maybe - with a bit of luck - a quick knee trembler on the way home. All sectarianism was left outside the door. Now, I'm not saying it was all peace and love yeah - there were disagreements over silly things and the odd fight - but without any religious bigotry attached - and any strong opinions someone may have had were kept to themselves as the punks in the Harp didn't want to know. There was enough problems with the spidermen outside - getting to the club - and especially going home - as all the bars closed at the same time.
There’s no denying that NI had a magnificent crop of bands headlined by my favourite local band, Rudi - plus the Outcasts, SLF & the Undertones - followed by the likes of other of personal favourites: Protex, the Starjets, Victim, Andriods, Ruefrex, Pretty Boy Floyd and the Gems - amongst a host of others. I had left the Producers in early ‘79 and they became the better known Ex Producers - who in the long run proved to be a pretty good band. All the bands mentioned were gigging relentlessly - I saw them all on numerous occasions - in local venues like the Harp, the Pound, Oueen’s Uni, the art college - as well as supporting any visiting name bands like the Clash, Raped, Radio Stars, XTC, Lurkers and the Doomed to name but six. It was a very exciting time. The Pistols never had the balls to make the journey over - though they are not the only guilty party - Generation X also promised to visit but never delivered. Saturday afternoons were spent buying records and hanging out around the fountain in Corn Market - showing off your best bondage gear t-shirts, blue suede buckled brothel creepers - and freaking out the ordinary people with your bleached out and multi coloured spikey hair. There was no point trying to go for a drink as most of the bars in the city centre wouldn't serve you. In later years teaming up with the Rockabillys and having a punch up with the Mods was also another Saturday afternoon pursuit. I made a few more attempts at getting a band off the ground but they never made it out of the bedroom - like millions of others - though some very rough tapes of original material did survive intact and parts have turned up on bootleg comps.
The BBC filmed an edition of their youth programme, Something Else, in Dec 79 at the Balmoral studios. A bunch of the Harp regulars, me included, were invited to attend as part of the audience. The bands on the bill were Rudi and the Undertones. Rudi fired off two great performances of their intended next single, “Who You?”/ “The Pressure’s On”, in front of an energetic mob of hometown supporters. The intended next release on Good Vibes never actually saw the light off day till 20 odd years later on Bad Vibrations - it was one of the reasons the band left the GV label. The Undertones came on and there was a bit of friendly banter - nothing malicious - between the Belfast punks and the band. Anyway, they did good versions of their two songs, “My Perfect Cousin”/ “There Goes Norman”, and left the stage none too pleased at the rowdy reception. When the show was actually broadcast (in Jan ’80) - the prima donna Undertone’s two songs had been rerecorded in an empty studio!! I've read that Fergal Sharkey allegedly said that Rudi set them up for abuse - but that’s crap - it was only a bit of jokey messing around. I think the real reason may have been Rudi were a hard act to follow as they grabbed their moment in the TV spotlight with both hands.
In the very early 80s, a lot of the original 1st generation punks had stopped going to the Harp. Punk had gone through a few changes and they were getting into other types of music. The next generation of mohawked foot soldiers of the GBH and the Exploited barmy army were the new majority - and they were establishing a scene in their own venue - the Anarchy Centre. This new generation had their own local bands like the great Defects and Stalag 17. Although this was not my style - I felt no connection with this Anarcho/Oi version of punk - and the likes of Crass, etc, were not the punk I loved (I didn't have any real interest anymore) - I've never lost my passion for all the great bands and music from my day. I set up a club night with a mate that we called Future Legend (after the Bowie track) in a local bar which Stage B and the Exps played on the first night - and I helped secure a venue for possibly the last punk club of this era in Belfast called the Manhattan with a pal of mine, Facer McVeigh, who was part of the Anarchy centre scene. The manager, Bongo, was a mate of ours and let us use the lounge bar - though I must confess - I wasn't very hands on. I only checked it out a couple of times - but it was well attended and a success. If punk taught you anything it was to have a go and don't be afraid of the consequences.
There were no svengalis waiting in the wings to finance and dictate everything here in Ulster - when Terri Hooley appeared on the scene it was already up and running - though he put his heart into helping the bands when he got involved - and he did create Good Vibrations and became a sort of older punk father figure. The kids here did it all themselves - this is why the punk scene here was so strong - it wasn't based on a shakey foundation of this year’s fashion - this was a lifestyle - and we all dived in head first. It was very creative - not negative at all (regardless of the press overreaction) - and we had some of the finest bands in the world. The rest were pretty damn good as well.
Without the influence of the Belfast punk scene - which was very empowering - I probably would never have picked up a guitar with any serious intent - or been in bands, written songs, customised clothes, written articles for the web and fanzines, designed posters, t-shirts and flyers, been on TV, helped the researchers for the punk years documentary series (I supplied what little NI punk stuff they used out off a large amount I sent), set up clubs and more. I made some good mates along the way too - so if it hadn’t been for punk rock - God knows what would have happened.
There’s been a strong retro punk scene here in Belfast for the last few years - post publication of "It Makes You Want To Spit" - and bands like our own punk supergroup, $hame Academy, made up of ex members of Rudi, Outcasts and Stalag 17. Other bands from our punk past like the Defects, Exps and Ruefrex have re-emerged - with others like Stage B due to follow in the near future. The gigs are great fun as you don't know who you’re gonna bump into - you often meet up with old faces you may not have seen for over 20 years.
Punk has a lot to answer for - thank God I was there to experience it all.
Joe Donnelly (Belfast) tMx 19 04/05