Author:Brendan O’Neill with Denise Danks
Brendan O’Neill, best-known as the drummer in Rory Gallagher’s band during the 80s and for many years with Nine Below Zero after that, was born in 1951, in Belfast. His youth and early adulthood coincided perfectly with the worldwide explosion of pop/rock music, with London at its centre, but also – less happily – with the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Brenda, in March 1973 and they escaped to London in September 1974. Brendan still lives there. There is a good spirit about this book – it’s remarkable for its lack of hubris and for a sense of basic humanity and inquisitiveness. I don’t know the mechanics of the co-writing process in this instance, but probably Diane has provided a bit of overall structure to Brendan’s recollections of personalities, episodes and incidents. Certainly, the reader feels that it is authentically Brendan’s voice throughout, and that voice is quietly compelling – unpretentious, honest and self-reflective when it needs to be.
In some ways, the tale complies with TV drama stereotypes – a West Belfast working-class Catholic (Brendan) and an East Belfast middle-class Protestant (Brenda), negotiating their way through a richly ‘happening’ 60s club life (yes, even in Belfast) on the one hand and, increasingly, the pressure-cooker situation of the Troubles on a daily basis. O’Neill’s family were evicted from their home by thuggery and threats in the early 70s, and O’Neill senior took the blame and served time for a friend who went in search (with a firearm) of the man responsible for that. These were traumatic, appalling times. Some of the siblings stayed in Belfast, others went to Dublin for safety. Brendan kept his head down in an aircraft factory in Belfast and completed an apprenticeship, while zipping up and down the island at nights in one band or another – chiefly Deep Joy, a band also featuring his long-time friend and musical foil Gerry McAvoy.
As Brendan says in the acknowledgements, he talked to lots of his peers and relatives for the book, and the amount of detail and recall – his sisters’ and friends’ woven in with his own – is extraordinary. Aside from its author’s eventual role as a player and observer in a top-level band, the book is, in part, a kind of social history document about working-class life as a Catholic in Belfast in the 50s and 60s. Yes, there is a vicious nun, and yes there is a hard-drinking male culture alongside which wives/mothers did their best to keep families afloat. But there are differentiating elements in Brendan’s tale. He himself didn’t drink alcohol until he was 20; he didn’t fall in with tribal politics; and he was a vegetarian for four years in his 20s, at a time when it was weird and difficult to manage on the road as a working musician.
Also, Brendan’s musical journey – while starting, as with so many of his peers, with the Beatles – took unusual turns. Belfast was a hotbed of musical activity in the 60s, with the legendary Maritime Hotel of the Van Morrison/Them era in 1964 becoming Club Rado by 1967, when Rory Gallagher’s Taste moved to the North from Cork and became kings of that castle (two Belfast musicians in time replacing his Cork sidemen). That era and way of life now seems very distant to someone (me) living in Belfast today. (Trivia: I live just round the corner from Brendan’s early marital home of the early 70s.) There was an upsurge in local live music and venues in Belfast/NI in the mid-90s but the opportunities now (well, pre-Covid) are vestigial. In the late 60s, live entertainment was mainstream as a social activity, generated healthy returns to players even on a local level and dazzled the possibility of a rung on a ladder to a national/international career in music and fame. In every way, that is now a world that has gone.
Brendan was relatively unusual as a journeyman player on the Belfast and Irish club scene in being increasingly drawn to jazz rather than pop/rock. On one visit to London, his jaw drops when he chances on Brit jazz drumming godfather Phil Seamen playing (brilliantly) to ten people in a pub, not long before Phil died an early, heroin-ravaged death. When Brendan moves to London, he swiftly (ahem) falls in with a jazz-fusion outfit called Swift, which – in a development that would be seen as simply too far-fetched for a TV drama – wins a competition and gets put on the GLC payroll for two years. Yes, a publicly-funded fusion band. During this period, Gerry McAvoy asks Brendan to audition for the drum chair in Rory Gallagher’s band, but at this point the drummer’s heart isn’t in it – he’s still a jazzer. Swift made very few recordings but did well for a while on the live circuit. There is, again, tremendously evocative stuff about being in a jobbing motorway-van band in the 70s (often involving problems with vans), and Swift did at least get to tour Britain with John McLaughlin’s One Truth Band in 1978. For a jobbing fusion band, they could have done no more. They were, in the punk era, just a little too late to the party (albeit not for the London Labour Party).
Actually, on the McLaughlin front, the book consistently misspells this as ‘Mcloughlin’, while earlier, Belfast’s Club Rado is given as Club Rato – perhaps revealing that some of the book was assembled from transcriptions of interviews with Brendan but not *completely* fact-checked. These slips are happily rare, although there is one amusing bit of transcription malfunction when an early band involving Brendan is said to have performed “‘Time of the Season of the Witch’, a song by Donovan that was a big hit for the Zombies” (‘Time of the Season’ by the Zombies; ‘Season of the Witch’ by Donovan… and never the twain shall meet).
A set of circumstances comes together in 1981 involving aspects of Brendan’s private life and professional life colliding at a moment of great tension, which would, again, make for stirring stuff in a TV drama. I won’t give anything away, save that not all is lost, but maybe a lot is learned.
The book ends more or less at Brendan’s first European gig with Rory and Gerry in 1981 – a stadium sell-out in a country in which almost no live rock has happened since the Stones were kicked out in 1967. It proves eventful, to say the least, and provides a perfect natural ending, bar some updates on family matters, to a most enjoyable read.
Length of Read:Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Any other narratives about a musician’s long and winding path to success during a richly evocative time in British and Irish social and musical history. The view from the sideman can often be the most illuminating.
One thing you’ve learned
We get to find out who smashed a car window with a bottle of booze flung from a hotel window after that Greek stadium gig and narrowly avoided a bad scene with the Greek police… and we also find out that Brenden would be a great fellow to have a drink and a chat with.