The Black Box, Belfast
There’s a saying where I live: ‘Dublin never got into punk, Belfast never got out of it.’ Certainly, Belfast was one of the epicentres of punk in the 1970s worldwide, and a very distinctive brand of punk flourished here. Punks in Britain liked to posture about being underdogs – but *everything* about Northern Ireland – socially, culturally, politically, geographically, employment-wise – was beneath the underdog at that point. To an extent, it still is. Sham 69 could nudge the kids into being united, Belfast punks could rage about the adults being disunited. And if you look at Stormont – a regional assembly that hasn’t functioned for two years – they’re still disunited.
I was at secondary school (well, okay, grammar school) from 1979–86, so while I saw the odd punk act on ‘Top of the Pops’, and while one or two people in my year had ‘punk’s not dead’ type slogans written on pencil cases, it wasn’t part of my lived experience; it already history. So, I never saw any punk bands in the 70s. I popped my head through the door of a venue hosting Stiff Little Fingers in the late 80s or early 90s, but it seemed pretty cartoonish stuff with no power (a tinny PA, maybe) and I left after 5 minutes. It seemed old hat by then, and my own music-historical interests were elsewhere…
Fast forward to this summer, and I went to see local punk legend Petesy Burns’ ARSE playing a Victorian bandstand in Ward Park, Bangor on a sunny Sunday afternoon – a delightfully bourgeois scene with deckchairs, ice cream and 1970s punk classics played by four guys – Petesy (guitar/vocal), Jim (lead guitar), Martin (bass) and Donal (drums) – who were there at the time, down at the Harp Bar watching the Outcasts, Rudi, the Fingers et al. in the 70s, and then playing in early-80s ‘second wave’ bands Asylum, Re’bel and Stalag 17. Add ‘Ensemble’ to those initials and you get ARSE, according to drummer Donal, who coined the name. My suspicion remains, however, that Donal’s traditional position onstage means that he spends the entire show looking at a Petesy Burns’ arse – so the jury’s still out on the matter!
I suppose last night at the Black Box in Belfast counts as my first experience of a punk gig proper: Belfast first-wavers The Outcasts (1977–85, reformed circa 2011) plus ARSE in a room packed with the faithful. My verdict? It was great fun!
The Outcasts – founder members Greg Cowan (bass/vocal) and Martin Cowan (guitar) with Petesy (lead guitar) and JP (drums) – generally play a 45–60 minute set these days, I believe, often at punk revival festivals and weekend gigs around Europe. I think they played around an hour last night – blistering, high-energy, no messing about and exactly right: leaving the punters at that sweet spot between entirely satisfied and wanting more. At this stage, the Outcasts are a well-oiled machine at live performance yet still rough enough around the edges to be delivering punk authenticity. They have a handful of solid-gold classic 70s originals – ‘Self-Conscious Over You’, ‘Just Another Teenage Rebel’, ‘The Cops Are Coming’ – and enough good stuff from the early 80s, including a cover of the Stooges ‘1969’ (a single at that time) and ‘Gangland Warfare’ (a terrific second album track I hadn’t heard before) to make a lean, mean live set. A cover of fellow-travellers Rudi’s 1980 single ‘The Pressure’s On’ bolstered the period punch.
The difference between last night and every other gig they’ve played since reforming was the debut of new songs. Frontman Greg has been dead set against recording/performing anything new until recently – believing that audiences just want to hear the classics. This year, Martin and Petesy led a project to record three songs written by Martin, for release on a vinyl single early next year. Greg was persuaded to get involved, and has now embraced the notion of performing new music under the Outcasts’ banner (and they actually *do* have a banner – see the video clip below). The new songs were called ‘Stay Young’, ‘Rebel Rock Radio’ and ‘78’. All fitted in perfectly, with the first two doffing the cap towards a couple of glam era tunes in parts.
For anyone unfamiliar with the Outcasts, I recommend the splendid DVD documentary ‘Outcasts By Choice’ (reviewed on the Afterword a few months back) and the fantastic ‘Good Vibrations’ film (the only slightly fictionalised and thoroughly entertaining story of Terri Hooley’s shambolic record label of that name, for which the Outcasts recorded). See them if they come to a punk revival show near you.
Petesy Burns joked that the Outcasts were the warm-up act for ARSE. However the billing came about, it was a good result – the Outcasts were done and dusted by 11pm, and then Petesy and his ARSE barnstormed through 90 minutes or more of old-school punk classics by the Pistols, Clash, Damned, Siouxsie, 999, etc. Apparently, the sound was a bit weird onstage, which added extra tension or attack to the playing of all involved (bass man Martin even managed to break an A string on his instrument), but it was terrific out front. I had the pleasure of recording with Petesy and drummer Donal on my political protest effort ‘Smash the System’ a couple of months back (find the video on YouTube if you wish) and their energy in the studio was extraordinary. It was even more so onstage – all of the time.
Even though some regular stand-out numbers had been left out of their act (‘Suspect Device’, ‘Police & Thieves’, etc.), it’s possible that ARSE played maybe half an hour too much in the context of the whole evening (there was a support act on even before the Outcasts’ set, plus Terri Hooley’s disco). How they have the energy to do it, though, I’ve no idea – it was a coiled spring throughout, and Petesy’s washing machine will be gamely wrestling with a number of sweat-soaked shirts. I was weary of just standing after three hours.
It was a wonderful evening, all in all, and it was only the start of a packed holiday period full of gigs for the Petesmeister – playing in several over the next few days with both ARSE and Washington DC rockabilly act the Glenmont Popes (where he’ll be on drums), plus a one-off live show from Colin Harper’s Bourgeois Fury, performing ‘Smash the System’ and other delights, at the Sunflower bar in Belfast on December 30..Naturally, Petesy will also be playing with both the Glenmont Popes and ARSE at the same show. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he dragged the Outcasts along as well. Those people who say ‘Petesy Burns – he just sits around waiting for stuff to happen’ – they’d be wrong!
A wide demographic. I was struck by how many rather short people there were (I’ve nothing against short people – just an observation), plus a handful of very tall people. Plenty of people knew all the words to the Outcasts’ oeuvre – even some members of the Outcasts.
It made me think..
Punk seems a very welcoming, convivial scene in Belfast these days. It was a joyous evening. The Harp Bar back in the day, despite the rose-tinted glow of some nostalgists, was reportedly not a vicar’s tea party. One punter even complimented me on my Mahavishnu Orchestra T-shirt. I don’t think that would have happened at an Outcasts’ show in the 70s.