What does it sound like?:
I’m fascinated by old punks. I was not quite ‘there at the time’ but I was at secondary school from 1979 on, so I was aware of the second wave people – the sort of acts written on one or two school rucksacks at that time. By then punk was really a fashion choice rather than a vital movement. By and large, the music wasn’t any good and neither fashion nor the idea of being part of a club of any sort has ever interested me.
I’ve always enjoyed a good documentary, though, and over the past few years, in among the jazz, folk and rock docs, I’ve seen lots of punk-era docs on BBC4. Fascinating stuff. The Outcasts were surely the biggest Belfast punk band never to get signed to a London label, releasing three albums, an EP and eight singles on Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations and on their own labels and a couple of other independents spanning 1977–85. I’ve just watched the compelling, lovingly crafted and beautifully filmed DVD documentary ‘Outcasts By Choice’ (2017), a 75-minute doc produced, directed and edited by Kate and Paul McCarroll. It’s as good as anything you’ve seen on BBC2 or BBC4 and a credit to Kate and Paul for having been able to create it seemingly outside of having broadcaster resources. I thoroughly recommend it.
I recall seeing the Outcasts on local TV in the mid-80s performing what discogs.com now informs me was their final single, ‘1969’. They always seemed to be cartoon yobbos and, in retrospect, the surviving ‘original era’ band members – Greg Cowan, Martin Cowan and Raymond Falls – and their crew hold their hands up to this. But what emerges is a very real, honest and admirable story of angry young men who seemed to attract trouble coming back as elder statesmen (from 2003 on) entirely on their own terms, doing it again for fun and as a part-time thing because people wanted it and because it was a great hobby to have going into your retirement from normal jobs – better than ‘rotting away’, as Martin Cowan puts it. And he’s right.
In the beginning, the Outcasts made music that was technically poor but full of spirit and, like the Undertones, with pop melody amid the racket. Mostly, it was written by Martin Cowan – the Dark Knight to Greg’s Joker. There’s a great moment where frontman Greg says he listened to their first album ‘Self Conscious Over You’ (1979) as soon as it was pressed and then put it away, embarrassed at how ropey it, and the band, sounded. But looking back, he now appreciates its naïve charm and understands why people liked it then and still do.
Honesty and ‘realness’ runs through this film. One gets an understanding of why people were punks in Belfast in 1977 – a hellhole – and why it still means something to them. Individually, one warms to all the band members and the core of crew and camp followers from back in the day who are interviewed – there’s no pretension or spin, it’s just people who did something in their youth, in the moment, which fizzled out in the mid-80s, and woke up 20+ years after to find that they could do it all again, older, wiser, calmer, better musicians, better hotel rooms. Even Terri Hooley, quite often a pain in the arse when you meet him, displays his charming side here. You get a tangible sense that it really was a handful of people with very meagre resources and a surge of stuff-you energy doing something/anything at a time of misery.
The band had its share of tragedy amidst the mayhem. Among all the scuffles and ‘cartoon violence’ that hallmarked their early days, there was one genuinely scary riot in Dublin that’s recalled and eventually the chaos (and bills for wreckage) led to even Terri Hooley, the arch apologist for chaos, telling them to leave the label. Drummer Colin Cowan died in a car crash in 1982 and guitarist Colin Getgood died during the making of this documentary in 2016 (though he doesn’t appear as an interviewee, an outcast from it seemingly by choice).
Ultimately, this is a film about real people and what comes across is integrity and a maverick spirit. In contrast to the yobbo image, and the suspicion that one may have had previously that Greg (with his perma-tan and strange haircut) is something of a poseur, these are actually very likeable individuals. Greg and Martin and Petesy Burns – a Belfast punk fellow traveller from back in the day who replaced Colin Getgood when the Outcasts reformed in the mid-2000s – offer a great deal of sound philosophy on how to live towards the end of the film, and it all rings true both of itself and as the way these people actually do approach life now. You want to wish them well in their Indian summer weekend treks around Europe, playing to fans old and new – and without the violence, cartoon or otherwise.
There is a terrific amount of vintage footage in ‘Outcasts by Choice’, often from the 70s punk films of John T. Davis, along with evocative stills from bar gigs and press cuttings. Cognoscenti may note that the early 80s, the original band’s later years (including the last two of their three albums), aren’t covered in any depth, nor illustrated with period footage, but that was probably an editorial decision as much as a budgetary one. Their impact was made in the Good Vibrations era, and that repertoire is what they play onstage today (though I’m told they will be recording a couple of new songs soon, for the first time since the 80s).
The recently filmed material, from gigs in Dublin, Belfast and Europe (a river cruise in Germany), is superb and the anger of yore has been tempered by the fun (and better musicianship) of now. We see a bit of the hinterland of the band members, with Petesy Burns teaching Tai Chi and performing it on a beach – another outworking of the DIY punk ethos, he explains – and Martin Cowan going through his fitness regime and playing ballads with his musical daughter. There’s less insight into Greg’s lifestyle, although his wife Yvonne, an early fan, provides a sense of what it means to him ‘coming back’ – and there’s an amusing anecdote of a Russian coach party chanting Outcast songs at him when encountered on a family holiday to Egypt.
In the internet age, Belfast punk from a handful of grotty backstreet bars in the 1970s is now a global brand. And the freedom that global communication network allows means that now *everything* is outside the system – whether you’re a weekend punk band like the Outcasts having fun around Europe or a full-time ‘classic rocker’ like Andy Powell, organising coherent tours of various territories year after year as an uber cottage industry made possible by fan loyalty and huge personal energy, or, indeed, a part-time author like me, printing and distributing a book yourself (as I did with ‘Echoes From Then’ last year), because you fancy doing it and can’t be annoyed trying to convince a publisher it’s viable. The world is our lobster. Still, I’m glad I didn’t go to an Outcasts show back in the day. Going to one now seems much more salubrious. Of course, I could be wrong…
What does it all *mean*?
The overwhelming ethos that comes across is ‘treat others as you would have them treat you’, and who could argue with that? Petesy talks serenely about a life lived outside of the ‘mainstream’ and, having met Petesy and heard what he has to say in the film, it seems to me to make much more sense than anything Northern Ireland politicians, then or now, say to their electorate or each other – not that they do the latter, having all been sulking on full pay and not attending their ‘mainstream’ place of work for 16 months and counting.
Goes well with…
A cup of serious coffee on a Sunday morbning. Or smashing the system.
Might suit people who like…
BBC4 rockumentaries; old punks.