Fuelled by three decades of three-chord fury…
from Newsletter 19 0ctoberThe virgin history of Northern Irish punk has been slavishly documented over the years. Films such as John T Davis’s Shell Shock Rock (1979) and Teenage Kicks:The Undertones (2001) by Tom Collins and Vinny Cunningham have ingrained the whos, wheres and whys onto our collective cultural consciousness, while Sean O’Neill and Guy Trelford’s exhaustive 275-pager, It Makes You Want To Spit!, published by Reekus in 2003, pogoed in to plug any remaining gaps.
But the story of homegrown punk extends far beyond Big Time, Alternative Ulster and thon song John Peel was rather partial to. Three generations of snotty-nosed rebels have continued to kick against the pricks ever since that initial musical explosion in the late 1970s. The roots of the present-day scene can be traced back a quarter of a century.
The early 1980s was a tough time for the old guard. Stiff Little Fingers folded in 1982 following an unsuccessful attempt to broaden their sound. That year’s overtly poppy Now Then… LP further alienated an already waning fan base.
Jake Burns, Henry Cluney, Ali McMordie and English drummer Dolphin Taylor reformed in 1987 because they were "skint and wanted to make a bit of cash to get back to Ireland for Christmas", and sporadic tours and live albums led to a full-scale reunion in 1990. A comeback album, Flags & Emblems, was recorded the following year, the four-piece by this stage boasting the Jam’s Bruce Foxton on bass.
SLF’s northwest counterparts, the Undertones, fractured in 1983 amid dysfunction and exhaustion, bowing out with a somewhat anticlimactic farewell show as guests of Dire Straits at Punchestown Racecourse. Lead singer Feargal Sharkey pursued an intermittently successful solo career, while brothers John and Damian O’Neill founded That Petrol Emotion. A 1999 reunion, with new frontman Paul McLoone replacing the indisposed Sharkey, has thus far yielded two strong albums, Get What You Need in 2003 and this year’s Dig Yourself Deep.
Back in the capital, the perennial ‘nearly men’ Rudi imploded shortly after signing to Jamming! Records and opening for their new bosses on a UK tour in 1982; when the Jam split in December of that year, the boys from east Belfast went with them.
Band member Brian Young has kept busy in the intervening 25 years, fronting rockabilly outfit the Sabrejets and latterly as one third of Ulster punk ‘supergroup’ Shame Academy, alongside fellow old hands Greg Cowan of the Outcasts and Petesy Burns of Stalag 17.
For a second generation of Northern Irish punks, it was the 1982 performance by Crass at Belfast’s Anarchy Centre, where they were supported by Stalag 17, which was to provide the catalyst for a new wave of activity. Toxic Waste, FUAL and Pink Turds In Space were among a glut of artists inspired into action by the abrasive dogma of English ‘anarcho-punk’. These bands married informed social commentary to frantic blasts of 90-second white noise, often integrating ska and reggae elements to fuse a defiantly unique sound.
In 1980s’ Belfast there was certainly plenty to shout about, and many records from this era stand as potent reminders of a time when Ulster punk had considerably more on its plate than drooping mohawks and low cider supplies.
In 1984 the Warzone Collective was established with the intention of carving a tangible alternative to the commercial music industry. This gathering of Northern Ireland’s hardcore punks and activists operated an autonomous ‘hub’ in Belfast city centre from 1986 to 2003, comprising a gig venue, rehearsal room, recording studio and vegan café.
The Warzone Centre, or ‘Giros’ as it became popularly known, continued to inspire during a two-decade tenure, its latter-day exponents including Newtownabbey’s fiercely DIY Jobbykrust and the Belfast-based Bleeding Rectum, who memorably earned 15 minutes of tabloid infamy in 1991 when a joke ‘death threat’ to Ireland’s favourite crooner got out of hand on the ‘Daniel O’Donnell Must Die’ tour…
COMMERCIALPrimed by grunge, the 1990s also saw the birth of a newer, more commercial form of punk. Bad Religion, the Offspring and Green Day (who, incidentally, performed to a mere 100 heads in the now defunct Richardsons Social Club in Belfast long before they were famous) helped pave the way for Northern Irish heroes such as Larne hardcore trio Therapy?, whose 15 chart singles between 1992 and 1998 launched them on a worldwide adventure which continues to this day, and Downpatrick pop-punks Ash, a group whose enormous global success belies a primitive history of pub gigs and comp tapes.
Warzone shut up shop in the early 2000s, and many of the original Ulster icons, bloated by the comeback trail, have long since stopped ‘meaning it maaan’.
A complacent iGeneration, having ditched fear and loathing for the reassuring glow of YouTube and MySpace, is less interested in worthy indignation than it is instant gratification. But Ulster punk struggles on beneath the radar, fuelled by three decades of three-chord fury.
For many groups, politics remains a motivation. Belfast skinheads Runnin’ Riot have taken their ferocious anti-fascist message to every corner of Europe and the USA. Across three uncompromising albums the band have struck a chord with restless youth on both continents.
West Belfast indie-punk four-piece the Tin Pot Operation share a similar agenda but guitarist and co-lead vocalist Anto O’Kane reckons a fresh approach may be in order: "There are plenty of punk bands but I think a lot of them are going over old ground. There doesn’t seem to be the swell of new ideas. They’re rehashing things that SLF might have wrote about 30 years ago."
Formed in 2003, the TPO followed up debut album Manufacturing Dissent with a download-only EP last year. The group are one of the few in the city to sing in their native accents, as well as being one of the only non-traditional bands to actively write and perform in the Irish Language.
Anto hopes that their next release will capture the essence of an acclaimed live show. "People don’t respond in the same way to our recorded stuff as they do to our live shows," he reflects. "I think we’re a live band and we want to get that on record."
The group has yet to tour extensively in Ireland or the UK, but managed a short French jaunt in the summer: "We were barely prepared. We had all the gear in the back of a Nissan and it was the same old thing: cancelled gigs, last-minute reschedules… We turned up at places and it was ‘Who are you? Never heard of you’."
Nevertheless, the group enjoyed the experience: "The French are a very political people, left-wing more than anything, and they were very receptive to our message. Unlike the way we have divisions in this country, most of Europe is divided down straight left-right lines. If you can connect to the people on that sort of level it gives you something – well, with half the population anyway."
Kev Bones, guitarist and vocalist of the Lobotomies, agrees: "Being part of a subculture, even if it is sometimes a hypocritical subculture, is important to me. I appreciate the sense of community offered by punk rock, and want to be involved in something that is a wee bit different, that means something to me."
The Lobotomies are one of the hardest working bands on the circuit, having taken their spiky stylings to Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, as well as relentless trips around the UK and Ireland. The Belfast-based group, which was formed by Kev and drummer Jim Mellow Dramatic in 2005, book all the shows themselves.
The frontman admits it can be tough going: "It’s a lot of work but I like the idea of doing it yourself. It’s something that you have to do but there’s also a bit of pride in it. It’s not easy. We tour three or four times a year and I’m always skint."
The band’s current EP, Drink, Pass Out, Repeat, was co-released by local label Keep ‘Er Lit and the English-based EHC Records. The Lobotomies recently expanded to a quartet with the addition of bassist Paul Decoy, allowing erstwhile four-stringer Dan Madge to return to guitar, and are at present rehearsing six nights a week in preparation for a debut album.
Kev credits his father, an acoustic folk musician, for stirring an interest in music, and echoes the Tin Pot Operation ethos: "If you write a political song there’s a slight chance that you might change something. If your ideas can connect with even one 14-year-old kid then it’s worthwhile. Politics is the only thing I can write about honestly."
At the other end of the spectrum is Numskull. This cartoonish outfit, whose members hail from Holywood, Bangor and Newtownards, are unashamedly apolitical. Bassist and frontman Simsie Numskull admits that there is no agenda:
"I don’t go to a show to be educated. I go to a show to have fun. In this country, if you play in a band that has any sort of fun you are instantly shot down and you are frowned upon and people wish that you were dead.
"There are loads of pop punk bands about but none of them have any guts at all. They will sing about ‘Oh my girlfriend, oh she dumped me, I might as well kill myself,’ but I have no problem saying ‘screw you’ to absolutely anybody."
Despite being the son of Radio Ulster’s Davy Sims, allegedly the first DJ in Northern Ireland to play punk rock on the wireless, Simsie grew up listening to heavy metal bands like Megadeth, Pantera and Metallica.
When introduced by a friend to the wonders of punk rock the teenage musician was instantly hooked: "Punk is really straightforward. It cuts out all the crap. There are no 90-minute guitar solos and you don’t need to relearn how to play scales."
Although Sims Sr supports his son’s exploits he was initially hesitant. "My dad was keen for me to get on with education and in some ways I’m sad that I didn’t listen to him. But he’s come to a point where he just accepts that this is what I do and he’ll support me however he can – as long as it’s not financially!"
Simsie isn’t the only band member with punk rock in his genes; lead guitarist Mark Numskull’s stepfather and uncle were both members of 1970s group the Defects.
Numskull continue to record and tour, and are hoping to top up a 200-plus gig tally with further UK and Irish dates to promote their current digital release, Ripped. But they’d better be fast as there are plenty of hungry mouths nibbling at their heels…
Across Northern Ireland, punk is being kept alive and well in all its forms by dozens of young bands. A heroically diverse genre, the word ‘punk’ can these days be used to describe anything from the most brutal grindcore, exemplified by Belfast lads Condemned, to the Busted style pop of Gimik, an unashamedly commercial assembly who describe themselves as "breaking all the rules in the music business in their quest to become the next big thing out of NI".
Belfast hair farmers Steer Clear have cornered the market for sickly sweet emo, while the long-running Pocket Billiards continue to fly the flag for nine-piece ska thrills. Satisfying those for whom three chords and the truth no longer cut it are the wilfully awkward We Are Knives and Londonderry’s bizarre Evangelists.
Old school hardcore gets a nod with cross-border combo Complan, whose Belfast-based singer Cormac Bennett is also responsible for booking DIY punk shows in the city under the Revenge Therapy banner (their next biggie is the Undertones at the Spring & Airbrake on November 15).
Even the metal community has embraced the art, with acts such as Enniskillen’s Nice ‘N’ Sleezy and Newry thrashers Gama Bomb (recently signed to Earache Records) spicing their riffs with plenty of punky attitude.
The eternally youthful Rodan, who as In.Decision gave Ash their first leg-up when both bands were fresh-faced beginners, celebrate 15 years in the business next month. Only family commitments and a resolutebone-idleness have stopped the husband and wife team of Paul and Lorraine Mallon, together with drummer Ruairi McGreevy, from scaling similar heights to their old Penny Farthing buddies.
In the end, what goes around comes around. Stiff Little Fingers, who have racked up five studio albums since that 1987 reunion, this year marked their 30th anniversary with a sold-out show at the Ulster Hall. The occasion has been immortalised as …Still Burning, a commemorative road movie directed by Grammy-winning filmmaker Don Letts. As well as interviews with band members past and present and a battery of famous fans, the DVD includes a live run through classic debut Inflammable Material in its entirety, recorded before a partisan crowd at the Bedford Street venue in March, where the Belfast legends were supported by my own band, the Dangerfields.
As Jake himself might say, "See you up there!"Last Updated: 19 October 2007 12:00 PM