Colin H on Stuart Bailie’s ‘Trouble Songs’
There aren’t many people from Northern Ireland who have made a living in what was the music media, but Stuart Bailie and me – for certain periods of time – have been two such curiosities. Stuart’s heartland is in the punk era he grew up in and in young people thereafter making noisy music; mine is in pre-punk musical history, only occasionally popping in to visit the here and now. Aside from neighbourly greetings and the odd cup of coffee there has never been a Venn diagram within which we have converged. And then Stuart’s long-promised book about ‘the Troubles’, and music’s part in its downfall (or vice versa), started to become a distinct possibility.
I was surprised but touched when Stuart asked me to help him with some of the logistical aspects of bringing his magnum opus to the masses. Knowing very well the lonely path of the musical history author, I hope I’ve been able to give some moral support along the way, too. The offer last year of generous part-funding towards printing costs from the British Council – provided that he delivered finished copies in time for a Troubles anniversary event in mid-April – finally made the oft-talked-about book a real project with a real deadline. The printing button was pressed on March 1 and 2,000 copies arrived last week. For the three or four months prior to that, a great deal of track was thrown down in front of the train. It was exciting stuff.
Knowing that Stuart – self-publishing – had opted to use Kickstarter to help generate sales and word of mouth interest, I offered to do an Afterword interview to help get the word out, beyond his core constituency. Unlike several publishing people who couldn’t see, from his proposals and sample chapters, the potential for the book beyond a purely Northern Ireland audience, I firmly believe it *is* a book that would hold a reader with a general music history interest but maybe otherwise unfamiliar or only casually familiar with the specific context of ‘the Troubles’ and Northern Ireland. I’ve read and enjoyed, for example, lots of books about the Mississippi delta and the birth of the blues – I’m not black, I’ve never been to America, I’ve only a passing interesting in listening to blues music, I’ve no experience of segregation… I rest my case.
In contrast, I *am* from Northern Ireland but I do my best to avoid local news, local politics and people banging on about ‘legacy issues’ and ‘identity’. I despise the Troubles and those who caused and perpetuated them, and I despise the self-indulgent, overpaid so-called public representatives at Stormont who have been sulking in public for over a year now on full pay instead of doing their jobs. So, I generally do my musical archaeology in worlds beyond NI, where the sunny uplands of the imagination and a happier past lie.
That being said, Stuart had both the stomach and the passion to trawl through 40 years of misery and bigotry to see what moments of clarity, redemption or fun that music around here had offered – and he’s done a tremendous job, with many surprises along the way.
The core of ‘Trouble Songs’, though, is the punk era of the late 70s. Belfast has basically only ever, musically, been about two things: the blues and punk, the former kicking off in the 60s, the latter in the 70s. In the 90s, there were still lots of old blues guys playing in Belfast pubs and touring Europe on the back of what they did in the 60s; now, in the 2010s, there’s a load of old punks touring Europe and Japan on the back of what they did in the 70s.
As Afterword regulars will know, I have a fascination with old punks – I’ll gladly check out the YouTube clips and watch the BBC4 documentaries (isn’t it amazing that no one has yet made a retrospective Sham 69 doc?) – though it’s of no musical interest, per se; more anthropological. A bit like Attenborough documentaries on Antarctica – great to watch and read about, but you wouldn’t want to go there… Luckily, Stuart ‘goes there’ for us. And who knows, maybe on the back of his book, I’ll go to a first punk gig. XSLF (a version of Stiff Little Fingers with 70s guys Henry Cluney and Jim Reilly involved) will be playing at the book’s launch night in Belfast in May, smashing the system once again, with Terri Hooley DJing, hectoring and re-staking his claim to being the ‘Godfather of Punk’ in NI against the various other candidates. Perhaps tellingly, but not deliberately, I find myself with a ticket to see an old 60s guy (Michael Chapman) on the same night – so maybe that momentary Venn diagram is already dissolving. Nevertheless, at some point I *do* hope to see Petesy Burns’ Arse. Then again, Petesy – veteran of Stalag 17, the Outcasts and now his Arse – was apparently at the first half of a Newcastle, Co. Down, gig by my favourite all-girl Americana band Wookalily yesterday, and I turned up for the second half. So maybe I am destined to never to actually meet these Belfast punk icons of yore. Hey-ho…
Stuart’s social media crowd have done him proud so far on Kickstarter. The campaign runs for another 13 days, though, so if anything I’ve said – or anything that Stuart says in the interview below – piques your interest, give the fellow your £15 and stick it to The Man.
Here’s the link:
In a spirit of camaraderie, I wore a Henry Cluney ‘two fingers’ badge at the interview (gleaned from the vicinity of one of his comebacks, though obviously I wasn’t at the gig…) though I’d prepared some questions to the soundtrack of Jethro Tull’s ‘Stand Up’. Nevertheless, I’ve written this intro blurb to the sound of The Motors’ ‘Peel Sessions’, dancing the night away, so maybe the equilibrium is restored…
The interview follows in the comments.