Colin H on Belfast music legends you’ve never heard of
I’m rather excited about this concert – this Friday. Let me explain… Two or three months back, I started digitising and uploading to YouTube a load of music by mid 90s acts from the Belfast music scene – cassette demos, CDRs of lost albums, the odd commercially released local CD, tracks from various artist live albums etc., moving on to unreleased live sets from DATs (with permission from those concerned). I was a part of that scene as a writer for a local newspaper and organiser of two multi-artist live albums from two venues, firstly The Warehouse (a now legendary venue run by a couple of bohemian characters, only open for 18 months) and then The Empire (part of a chain of pubs/hotels, and still going as a venue). This activity led to various coffee=shop catch-ups with musical pals and scenesters I hadn’t seen in 20 years… which led, with barely any effort whatsoever, like a giant open door, to this four-band reunion concert in five days time. 🙂
We hear a lot – as in, we simply never stop hearing about it locally and, I suspect, nationally (off the back of the splendid ‘Good Vibrations’ film and the current Indian summer of old punks from Ulster touring Europe/Japan with the cachet of that late 70s ‘golden age’) – about the Belfast punk scene of the late 70s. There’s a cache of recorded works on Terri Hooley’s ‘Good Vibes’ label (and others) and a load of classic film shot by John T. Davis and others. ‘Ulster punk’ is a ‘thing’ alongside London punk and New York punk. The saying that ‘Dublin never got into punk, Belfast never got out of it’ has a lot of truth to it 🙂 Even this week past, I was at a book launch and the place was full of old punks, with Terri Hooley DJ-ing as people mingled… I speak as someone who has a lot of friends from the Belfast punk scene of the 70s, though I was never part of it (too young, too middle class, not my music of choice). But, honest, we did other stuff too!
So… did nothing happen between the 70s punks and the latterday punks of the 90s (Ash, Therapy? etc.) that made waves nationally? Well, yes – off to one side and under the national radar there was ALL SORTS OF MUSIC going on in Belfast in the mid 90s – from the fabulous traditional and trad-influenced music of TAMALIN and ÓIGE (featuring a 16-year-old Cara Dillon) to the Doobies-esque ‘yacht rock’ of the BUSH TURKEYS, the progressive country of the CATTLE COMPANY and ROMEO TEXAS, the wacky studenty turbo-skiffle of WATERCRESS, the brilliant Britpop-ish melodicism of the NEW BRONTES, the Springsteen-esque blue-collar showstoppery of BRIAN HOUSTON, the dazzling pop jangle of TIBERIUS MINNOWS, the cauldron of pure molten rock of STONEFISH (the Belfast Pearl Jam), the psychedelic grooves of DISREALI GEARS, the stoned country-rock of Woodstock survivor HENRY McCULLOUGH (no song less than 10 minutes long), the brass-backed soul punch of Dungannon ragamuffins THE GOOD THINGS and Bangor vocal sensation FOY VANCE in SOUL TRUTH… and much more besides.
The 1995-97 period really was a golden age in Belfast live music but it lacks the coherent narrative of Terri Hooley’s Good Vibes scene in the late 70s or Tony Wilson’s Factory scene in 80s Manchester, or the united-by-sonic-similarity thing of the Postcard label’s scratchy pop of Glasgow in the same era or the louche pastoral sounds that linked all the so-called ‘Canterbury scene’ acts of the early 70s and so on.
What the ‘Belfast mid-90s scene’ was linked by was venues, and most specifically one venue: The Warehouse, which ran from late 1994 to early 1996. It was opened by Chris and Ern, two maverick characters who had been running the Rotterdam Bar on Pilot Street – a remote, off-the-beaten-track hub of live music of all sorts, including international folk and blues troubadours, down by the docks. (A photo of Chris Roddy – who still runs gigs for the love of it at Belfast’s American Bar on Saturday afternoons – at the Warehouse bar in 1995 appears above.) There was no passing traffic, nobody lived nearby (except a rather dismal looking monastery on the same all but derelict street), and you really had to want to go there. Chris and Ern had this idea about revamping the Rotterdam and closed the place to do so (they never did get around to it) – transferring their license to (literally) an old warehouse opposite. Somehow, magic happened – the right place, the right time, the right music. International acts played there, but it’s the local acts I remember most.
Chris’ father had run The Pound in the 70s – a sort of last bastion for 60s blues people, ex members of Them and Steely Dan covers acts, which ran gigs on Saturday afternoons during peak ‘Troubles’ (central Belfast being basically shut down at night). The Pound conveniently represented what the punks were railing against at The Harp Bar (though the punk acts occasionally did also play at the Pound). The Pound has its own mythology – and ‘Pound Remembered’ gigs run every few months in the Black Box to this day. I find it quite amusing that 40 years later I’m still introducing ‘Pound’ people to ‘Harp Bar’ people who have each been plying their trade on the music scene since yet have never previously encountered each other! Invariably, they turn out to have much more in common than not. 🙂
I organised the multi-artist live album ‘Alive in Belfast: The Warehouse Sessions’ in 1995 – four nights of acts recorded at The Warehouse in April, and a double CD created, which sold out locally. It was a minor sensation at the time (the dawn of the DY CD era) – though the Dungannon Music Collective (DMC) – Dungannon being a small town 40-odd miles from Belfast – had actually pioneered the multi-act self-help album in NI in 1988, with the DMC5 vinyl LP (featuring versions of the Good Things and Tiberius Minnows, both of whom appeared on ‘Alive in Belfast’ as well). Even at the time, I was aware that it was a historical document as much as a promotional here-and-now calling card for the acts involved. The same thing with ‘Live at the Belfast Empire’ a year later (a few of the same acts, many new ones).
The time for celebrating that legendary but still underappreciated scene appears to be now. I’ve organised this ‘Warehouse Remembered’ event (taking inspiration from those ‘Pound Remembered’ gigs I mentioned above) with simply the first four acts that made themselves available – which was instant. I didn’t have to canvas at all. Strawman (Neil Young meets power pop) had reunited last year at a one-off event to pay homage to late member John Crawford. I knew Bruce McClements would be up for rekindling the spark if there was a reason for doing so. Coffee with Stonefish cauldron-of-pure-molten-rock-meister Norman Boyd confirmed that that slumbering giant would awake to roar once more if gently nudged…
I think I just mentioned the idea of a concert on Facebook after that, to test the water, and *immediately* Ali MacKenzie – a behemoth of burbling bass brilliance, from the famously fractious Bush Turkeys – and Paul Archer, charismatic kingpin of tie-dyed sensations Disreali Gears, were in touch to say ‘count us in’.
With four acts – two full reunions, two partial reunions (it transpires we’ll have 3/4 of both the Turkeys and the Gears, though I initially expected Ali and Paul to use current assemblages playing the old repertoire) – we booked, a sound man (with recording gear) and a man with a film camera. A couple of weeks back it became clear there was a public demand for former PEACEFROG man Dave McLarnon to appear in some capacity. Dave is a fascinating character – a punk-era man (a record on Good Vibes no less, with his band Shock Treatment, with future Q/Mojo publisher Bazza McIlhenny his vocalist) but one who Zelig-ed into stadium-rock-aspirationists Peacefrog and all manner of other acts before and since. Indeed, his current act is SUNSET – a revival of his 1970s school band, playing progressive rock! 😀 Thus, Dave will play a cameo spot with PEACEFROG repertoire backed by a supergroup of Bush Turkey and Stonefish members.
And… it seems that Snow Patrol legend Jonny Quinn, who counts Disreali Gears in his Pete Frame family tree, will indeed be in the September 20th Gears resurrection – one of the very few from that scene who managed to find that golden ticket to bona fide rockstardomry. 🙂
I have a feeling it might all be legendary. I’ll look a fool if it isn’t. 😀
Here’s a brief promo I’ve just created, to give you a flavour of these four acts back in the day. If there was a great local scene wherever you live, back in the day (whenever that day was), let me encourage you to do likewise – make some enquiries, drink some coffee with people, and see if the hinges on the door swing easily open…