Colin H on Brian Houston
The very first newspaper feature I wrote, during a seven-year period as a professional freelance writer, was 22 years ago, in 1994. The reason I mention that is because the artiste I interviewed on that occasion was Brian Houston – the Belfast Elvis, a full force gale, the king of rock’n’roll, the bar-room Bruce, the Celtic Soul brother number one, and all sorts of other epithets that I and others in the Belfast media would hang around his neck (like a verbose and perhaps unhelpful flock of albatrosses) over the next few years.
Brian grew up in working-class protestant East Belfast in the 60s and 70s, soaking up Elvis Presley films (however terrible) on Saturday afternoon TV and starting a love affair with American culture and music. He worked in a shipyard as a carpenter – a very good one by all accounts – and performed in the early 80s in a gospel-rock band called Communiqué, during a period when there was a thriving gospel-rock scene in Northern Ireland. Bands of all types – rock, soul, metal, synth, reggae – would typically play in church hall ‘coffee bar’ mission weeks, and there always seemed to be one at a church hall nearby.
There were a number of really terrific musicians involved in this scene. I’ve had the privilege of recording in more recent years with several: singer Janet Holmes and her guitar-hero brother Ivan Muirhead, both in SOS (who released a vinyl single and appeared live on local TV); singer Ellen Weir from Prophet; Iain Archer, who played with enfants terrible of the gospel rock scene Dorothy Fields (before going on to write hits for Snow Patrol and release solo albums); even Duke Special (then plain Peter Wilson), though younger than the above, was involved in this scene. Other talented friends of mine from that world include artist Mark Shields (then a bass player with Still Human, who went on to be a painter of international repute, with portrait commissions from Prince Charles, Ian Paisley, Michael Heseltine, et al.), Robin Mark (frontman with light reggae act Undercover, later to become a huge-selling international worship songwriter/recording artist based in the US), and Ken Haddock (drummer with Prophet, who went on to become the current king of Belfast’s bar/covers music scene with a side-line in soul/jazz/rock original music albums).
So this was the world in which Brian Houston began his musical career. Communiqué got as far as making a self-released vinyl LP, which was rare then – only the godfathers of that scene, Moral Support, had managed that before, in the late 70s. I only saw Communiqué once, at a 10-band gospel-rock festival maybe sometime around 1983. I can still clearly recall the hordes of fans screaming – maybe they had bussed in their own team, but it was an indication of things to come in his later secular music career. Brian Houston, even then, was a potent live performer who could somehow connect with an audience and make them part of an exciting journey for the evening. It would be no surprise that, aside from Elvis, Brian’s biggest, clearest influence during the 1990s, when he stormed Belfast’s original music scene – indeed, one could even say he more or less created Belfast’s original music scene, in terms of bar owners realising that this stuff could bring in the masses just as easily as cover bands – would be Bruce Springsteen. There would be bluster, bombast, blue-collar credentials and rock’n’roll nirvana. It would be said in print that every night, Brian Houston and his band played Wembley.
But we’re fast-forwarding a little. In between the early 80s gospel-rock era and the forging of Brian’s solo career in the mid-90s, Brian fronted a band called the Mighty Fall. Members included the aforementioned Iain Archer (guitar) and Ken Haddock (a drummer who learned sax for the gig), and Jonny Quinn (drums), who was taught to play on the job by Big Ken and who later leap-frogged Brian in the rock-stardomry stakes by hitting pay-dirt with Snow Patrol.
The Mighty Fall played bars and universities and caused a sensation wherever they did. Brian, wearing leather trousers and some kind of headscarf, gave it 110%. He played Wembley every night, and people loved it. Terri Hooley, godfather of Belfast punk, was persuaded to cancel a holiday and fund a vinyl single on his Good Vibrations label in 1991 – one of the last on the label’s original run, I think. For some reason, Terri asked me to write some notes for the back of the hand-folded picture sleeve. I can’t recall how or why this happened – possibly it was through Kyle Leitch, a former Belfast punk scenester who was advising Brian like a manager at the time, and who went way back with Terri. Kyle’s now one of my best pals, though I’m not certain I know him very well back then. Anyway, somehow Terri asked me for sleeve blurb, I provided some, and he didn’t use it “because it’s shite”! (Luckily, my nascent writing career recovered…)
The A-side was a catchy but artistically pretty slender rocker called ‘Kick It In The Head’, which wags used to rename ‘He’s Got His Knickers On His Head’, in homage to that headscarf I mentioned. The B-side, ‘Tonight’, was a much stronger indicator of the great song-writing to come. I haven’t heard it for decades but I can still recall its hooks and lyrics – a pretty good sign that the fellow had something…
In due course, Terri would denounce Brian, memorably, as “a fake and a fraud” – a phrase which would turn up in a brilliantly self-demythologising song on Brian’s third or fourth album, at the end of the 90s, which contained fabulous lines like (from memory) ‘I was the great white hope / The black Irish pope / Then they called me a fake and a fraud…’
But how did Brian get to the point where he could write such coruscating and drily humorous, autobiographical songs and know that there was a wide audience who would lap it all up? How, in other words, had he become – ironically, just like Terri Hooley – such a figure of folklore, larger than life?
The answer in Brian’s case is twofold: firstly, because he lived the dream, had huge confidence and bravado, was a swaggering personality in a small-city goldfish bowl environment, was an outstanding performer, and seemed to thrive on, and be the sort of person to attract, a steady stream of rumour and talk (be it from friends, enemies or local music rivals); but secondly, and much more importantly, he was a brilliant and prolific, songwriter.
That alone – the extraordinary, unstoppable talent – is why he was able to forge a genuinely international career from the early 2000s onwards, having had a very intense Belfast-centric career (four or five albums and numerous sold-out concert hall shows built up from his bar-room triumphs) during the 90s.
With every new influence Brian absorbed, from Van Morrison to Bob Dylan to Hal Ketchum and whomever else (though always, it seemed, American or American-esque artists – British rock held little interest for him), there would be a stream of new songs that wore those influences on their sleeves. And yet the listener would not think them pale shadows of the progenitors but, more often, ‘the best song so-and-so never wrote’. Even Neil Diamond had a momentary influence: and, yes, Brian’s late 90s ‘Orangeville’, about a mythical wild-west pioneer settlement rather than the ‘Orange-ism’ associated with East Belfast, remains the best song Diamond never wrote.
Brian’s breakthrough, from cult music bar sensation to an artist given airtime on local TV and radio and feature coverage in newspapers, came in early 1994, just around the time that I decided to jack in a really terrible night shift job and have a go at writing for a living. With a loan from Jules Maxwell, his keyboard player of the time, Brian had released ‘Crush’, a mini album on CD – an exciting new format. He was one of the first local artists to get onto self-funded CD, which was a real local news story in itself in those days. He was a trailblazer for a whole host of other bands and artists in Belfast in the following few years – a real golden era for local music, looking back.
The point about ‘Crush’ is that it featured a song called ‘Daddy’s Getting Into Jesus Again’, which somehow tapped into the Northern Ireland psyche – a drunk father who promises to clean up his act through religion, and keeps failing. A local DJ played it late at night and the phones rang off the hook. Soon, Brian was making personal appearances in record stores and selling bucket-loads of the album. He had the momentum to graduate from the bars to the theatres – from the Lyric Theatre, to the Opera House, to the Waterfront Hall.
It was a happy bit of serendipity back in 1994: I had a ready-made subject for numerous Irish newspaper and magazine features and Brian had someone willing to help his bandwagon roll even faster.
There were bumps in the road. A potential management and record deal with big hitters in Dublin fell through in 1995 apparently because Brian was asking too many questions about merchandising rights X years down the road. A CD single (of ‘Daddy’s Getting Into Jesus Again’) was lined up for all-Ireland release but was pulled at the eleventh hour as Brian and his label fell-out over the hypothetical minutiae. Remarkably, the only place where the single actually made it into the shops was Belfast – the one place, as I remember Brian noting at the time, where it didn’t need to!
These were heady days for Brian and his band. A second, country-rock/Springsteen-ish album was recorded locally but shelved. Sessions with some guy who had produced Tears For Fears, or someone like that, then took place, and there was always talk of this or that opportunity about to open up over in England – where all Irish artists naturally had to gravitate, from Them in the 60s through the Boomtown Rats in the 70s, U2 in the 80s, et al.
One of Brian’s follow-ups to ‘Crush’ (whose title I can’t recall) was a huge, shiny, epic production job that had been created over in England with name session men and a name producer. Ironically, its lead track was called ‘Simple Now’, originally a funky, nuanced four chord shuffle which referenced how easy things were back in the good old days but, on the album, a towering sonic epic that came not to natter over the garden fence about things nostalgic but, rather, came to bulldoze your hi-fi at stadium rock volume. It was all great stuff, but Brian was still very much trying to ‘find’ his true voice, his natural style.
In those days, Brian was a ‘solo artist’ but he operated exclusively with a band – a very particular bunch of people: Ken Haddock on drums, Jules Maxwell on keys, Gary ‘Charles’ McFarland on bass and Caroline Orr on backing vocals. It was a really great band.
By 1996, though, most of these people had formed a new band with James Devlin, another singer/songwriter with American blue-collar rock influences, from Magherafelt, about an hour up the road from Belfast. I’m not certain quite how this happened, but I think personality issues were involved. Either way, I regard both Brian and James as being great songwriters, and I’m glad that I had the chance to see both artists many times back in the 90s, with more or less the same great band.
It amuses me to recall a car journey from that period with myself, Ken, Charles and, I think, Kyle Leitch in the car. I can’t recall the reason we were all driving somewhere but after a while somebody said, ‘Brian says that people are talking about him…’ ‘Really?’ someone else said, ‘I haven’t heard any talk…’ And, I kid you not, for the next 40 minutes ALL we talked about was Brian Houston! As Oscar Wilde once said, the only thing worse than being talked about is NOT being talked about. Sometimes, the talk would be set in motion by his lyrics. I recall fevered speculation – not unlike the Carly Simon/ ‘He’s So Vain’ thing – around the subject of Brian’s ‘Backseat Driver’ from this period. I think we all decided it was Kyle Leitch.
I really do think that this aspect to Brian – the tendency to have minor fallings-out with people back in the day, and the associated tendency to be a lightning rod for rumour and controversy – has been part of the reason his core fan-base in Belfast has endured. People like their stars to be ‘characters’. And with the likes of Van Morrison, George Best and Alex Higgins, you must admit that Belfast has had no shortage of such rough-edged heroes.
Still, people can’t be kings of local castles for ever. Sooner or later they need to take their wares to the wider world. Having essentially failed, despite high-profile support slots at Dublin concerts and the like, to make any significant in-roads into either Ireland nationally or Britain during this period of his remarkably localised fame and high profile in Belfast in the 90s, Brian recalibrated things in the early 2000s. I’m a little hazy about this period, because I saw less of Brian and became much less involved with the local music scene from this point onwards. I believe it was at this point that he took opportunities in America – publishing deals, touring opportunities – within the Christian music scene there, working as part of a trio called the Hudson Taylors or something like that, with other personalities from the worship music world.
This wasn’t exactly a sell-out for Brian because he has always had a Christian music aspect to his career. During the 90s in Belfast he kept both successfully separate, raising hell as a performer in bars and concerts, leading worship at an evangelical church on Sundays. The lines blurred in the early 2000s. Brian had hit brick walls in his secular music career while doors were opening in America for a professional version of his Christian music side-line.
The one problem with accepting this path is that it has probably confused some of his audience, or certainly casual punters, ever since. Only last month a local journalist friend asked me, quite seriously, was Brian funded by the church. Absolutely not.
After two or three albums and high-level US tours with the Hudsons (and bear in mind I may be reducing/expanding this period here through fuzziness of knowledge), Brian realised he was not being totally true to himself. Yes, gospel music was PART of his muse/vocation, but only part of it. He had other things to write and sing about which couldn’t be realised within the confines of the Christian music world.
Coincidental to these feelings, Brian was invited out of the blue to take part in a multi-artist live show that Bob Harris was curating, somewhere in England. Bob had heard and rated one of his albums or songs and has proven a keen supporter of Brian’s music on radio ever since. This was the real beginning of the secular music career that Brian has followed to the present.
Having lived in Belfast all this time, there was a two-year sojourn in America recently – a time of highs and lows – where Brian combined gospel and secular gigs. Returning to Belfast recently, for family rather than professional reasons, and following a three-album run with a particular style of music (electric guitar drenched, full-band, southern soul influenced), Brian reckoned it was time for a kind of fresh start on various levels.
He wanted to draw a line under the US adventure, wanted to move on from the soul-influenced muse (though he still had new songs in that vein), and, having not seen me for three or four years, decided to revive the old sounding-board of yore.
We met in a local coffee shop and Brian explained that he’d been inspired to explore Irish songs from old Clancy Brothers his dad used to play when he (Brian) was growing up. On paper, it sounded like a big risk: lots of those songs are clichéd and over-familiar. Could Brian Houston, a man whose muse lay closer to New Jersey or Texas than Connemara, really reclaim this material from the LP bargain bins of history? Of course he could!
Brian had done a deal with a man (from America) with a studio in Coleraine for 10 days of time. He had tracked guitar and vocals already, and gave me a CDR. He had used up half the time. Did I think it would be advisable, or even possible, to get some Irish trad musicians to play on the tracks? And did I think the tracks were any good?
Well, one listen and I was blown away. Brian, the barnstorming Belfast Broooce of the 90s, had arrived at a point where he totally understood nuance and subtlety, in both singing and guitar playing. His picking was dextrous and sublime, understated but exquisite and dynamic within the taut arrangements. His voice was like a whisper in places, close miked and oozing years of experience and inherent quality. He had layered stunning vocal harmonies, recalling the Beach Boys in places, where they needed to be. His re-arrangements were simply extraordinary.
He had also arrived at a point where, for the first time, he didn’t need to present an album of self-written songs: these were all covers. And they were nothing whatsoever like the ‘originals’, as many would term them, as recorded by the likes of the Clancys or the Dubliners in the Irish ‘ballad boom’ of the 1960s. One might also stretch the list of ‘firsts’ to suggest that for the first time Brian was looking toward somewhere other than America for inspiration – although one might argue that it was only the filter of the (Irish) Clancy Brothers arranging and performing these songs for American concert audiences that made them so iconic. It is, in a way, an ‘Irish American’ repertoire.
Be that as it may, Brian had totally deconstructed and reconstructed the likes of ‘Molly Malone’, ‘Carrickfergus’, ‘Roddy McCorley’, ‘The Irish Rover’, ‘Black Velvet Band’ and ‘The Battle’s O’er’, changing them from the caterpillar beer-swilling singalong ribaldries of the 1960s into richly coloured butterflies, dancing around a Texas campfire late at night. I ‘heard’ the lyrics to many of these songs for the very first time.
Like Britain versus America, one could say that the Irish trad world and the rock world are ‘separated by the same language’. There are different ways of doing things in either world. Cutting a long story of minor misunderstandings short, I delivered internationally acclaimed uilleann piper and low whistler John McSherry to the Coleraine studio one Monday and hung around all day (barring a couple of hours in a seaside café with Chris Probst, the one ex member of James Devlin’s mid 90s band who had NOT previously been in Brian’s!). It was a tremendous session. John brought wonderful new textures to an already great record and – asked to do so by Brian – played an instant composition on pipes straight after ‘Whiskey In The Jar’, as the click track ran on. It was an astounding piece of creativity. We all – me, Brian and producer Tré – applauded spontaneously at the end. (The clapping can be heard on the finished album.) that evening, Brian wrote and recorded a song on top of the piping wizardry, ‘Ode To Jenny’. It is a Houston/McSherry original among a sea of ‘trad arr’.
Well, not entirely a sea of ‘trad arr’: two covers of songs that Brian associates with his father’s record collection, and which fit with the mood of the album are included. These are Tom Paxton’s ‘Last Thing On My Mind’ and Eric Bogle’s ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’.
Tré and Brian have added percussion and electric piano here and there, but basically ‘Songs Of My Father’ is a stunning, mesmerising album of two colossal music artists from Belfast, East and West, from two very different professional music worlds combining to create magic. The songs may be well-known, but not like this: this is a vinyl album-length resurrection of remarkable songs that have perhaps almost never been heard as they should have been all this time. They are masterpiece paintings that have had a load of gunk and grime removed and been allowed to dazzle anew.
The album is released on CD in March. I know Brian is hoping for a vinyl release, but this will be 6 months away at the earliest. Buy it now! Some people who are talked about aren’t worth the talk, especially these days of celebrity based on nothing at all. Brian Houston, it turns out, really WAS worth all that talk back in the day – and he’s still worth talking about in the here and now, and for the right reasons. He was a local hero 20 years ago, a big fish in a small pond who sometimes blew air bubbles at the other fish in the pond; today, he is an artist of world class. We always knew he was, but we didn’t know if he could survive all the slings and arrows of ill fortune that the path of professional music involves. Well, it turns out he could. ‘Songs From My Father’ is the careworn sound of a survivor who has been through the mill and come out older, wiser and still celebrating the joy of living.