Friday, March 29, 2013

Walls and Bridges - Terri Hooley and Good Vibrations

Terri Hooley, Good Vibrations, Belfast, Northern Ireland

The Good Vibrations movie about the Ulster punk scene received a nationwide cinematic release today across the UK and Ireland.

Six years ago the founder of the Good Vibrations record label in Belfast itself in the late Seventies – Terri Hooley – was the recipient of a letter from former American President Bill Clinton who praised his role in promoting alternatives to violence in Northern Ireland.

Alike the legendary comic-actor James Young and footballer George Best, Hooley’s contribution to the socio-cultural life of the city in those days of now barely conceivable terror and hatred is truly beyond measure. However, to their immense credit, a handful of major performing artists continued to play in Belfast during the peak of the Seventies Troubles such as Horslips, the late Rory Gallagher, Elton John and Cliff Richard.

The first single released on the label was Big Time by Rudi. It was beyond reason that both Rudi and The Outcasts on Good Vibrations, alike The Blades from Dublin in the same period with singles on Reekus such as Downmarket and Hot For You, did not reach a bigger audience across these islands.

A BBC feature article later in 2008 included this magnificent commentary from Hooley: “Good Vibrations was more than just another record shop and label. It enabled young people to believe in the power of self-expression and understanding at a time when society in Northern Ireland was tearing itself apart. We were on the side of the angels. I would gladly have died then for something that l believed then, so for me personally (and l can't speak for anybody else) it really was a time to be proud. But if l had known in 1978 that Belfast was going to become so corporate and the way things were going to turn out, l would have been fighting for a wage-less, money-less, class-less society. Belfast is not about new shopping centres. Belfast is the centre of the universe and if we can solve all our problems, we can solve the problems of the world.”

Interestingly, Hooley’s 2010 autobiography includes reference to a physical run-in with John Lennon in post-Swinging London in the early Seventies over the latter’s strident feelings in support of militant Irish Republicanism. This tieing in with earlier telling commentary on the same matter in Johnny Rogan’s No Surrender biography of Van Morrison and to which many British Beatles fans may wish to remain selectively deaf.

It certainly sounded as if Lennon’s humanitarian instincts did not extend to the British soldiers serving and dieing in Ulster. This ironically so since the overwhelmingly vast majority of them were working class and – as often standing between a final descent into anarchy in the one corner of the United Kingdom that unfortunately included my own street - were considered heroic in the eyes of hundreds of thousands of Lennon's then-fellow British citizens. For it certainly was neither the Baader Meinhof Gang, the Red Brigades nor ETA blowing up my local Esso garage, Spar or Brian's sweet shop in 1972.

Good Vibrations is certainly one of the finest productions of British independent cinema in many years and a sobering reflection upon humanity and passion at a time of true darkness.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Saint Patrick Returns - Belfast 1973

Our Jimmy, James Young, Belfast, Northern Ireland, Ulster Troubles, St Patrick's Day

Many posts ago I made reference to legendary Ulster comedian James Young and how the last years of his professional career in the early Seventies were spent performing in small audience venues across Northern Ireland - ranging from the loyalist Shankill Road to Derry's republican Bogside and with the exact same repertoire in tow. This was due to the May 1971 closure of his Group Theatre in light of the scale of the Troubles and the then fatal dangers of Belfast after dark. Indeed many television documentaries and news analysis of the early Troubles use one particular piece of colour footage of a car bomb explosion in Ormeau Avenue on Bloody Friday - close to the theatre in Bedford Street - in a generic fashion.

The ninth and last James Young album to be released in his lifetime was 1973's The Young Ulsterman - recorded at the Group on one solitary night alone when it was briefly reopened for this purpose. Young's repertoire was the usual mix of fast paced comedy, political satire and thought-provoking pathos. The standard introduction touched base with the realities of a Belfast at war and how his wee street, home city and broader society had changed beyond recognition for both him and his mammy.

It ended with a moving call for reflection and friendliness after five years of political turmoil and terrorism which had defiled the physical beauty of the North of Ireland - and its shared folk culture - and threw the Ulster working classes at each other's throats. Indeed Young's final single release in July 1971 on Emerald Records - the month preceding the introduction of internment which pushed Ulster over from barely contained civil disorder into qualified civil war - had been God Bless The Working Man backed with I Believe In Ulster.

Saint Patrick Returns on The Young Ulsterman album was also portrayed dramatically during his Saturday Night BBC television series of October 1972 to March 1974. The patron saint's return trip to his beloved Ireland turns out to be not a happy one despite his anticipation at seeing all his favorite people again like Danny Boy and Kitty of Kilarney. After being hassled by the security forces at every turn in the hunt for guns and explosives - and ending up in the middle of a Protestant counter-demonstration against a Catholic civil rights march which he had intitally assumed was nothing more than a Welcome Home celebration - Patrick decides that his legacy stands for naught and that it was obviously time to recommence his Christian mission on the island.

So in honour of this very special Feast Day - and in memory too of a lone figure who in the midst of Ulster's darkest times at least tried to replicate the Christian message of consideration for one's fellow man through comedy and satire - here is The History Lesson from that last ever night of tears and laughter at the Group Theatre Belfast. The author is unknown.

The following year - on Tuesday 9th July 1974 - the hearse carrying the body of James Young would pause outside the theatre on Bedford Street on the journey from his home in Ballyhalbert on County Down's Ards peninsula to the crematorium at Roselawn where George Best's grave lies today.

The plaque outside the Group Theatre as unveiled in 1999 notes: The citizens of Belfast gratefully acknowlege the contribution made by Ulster comedian James Young (1918-1974) to the life and humour of the city. He regarded the Group Theatre as his home throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

God bless Our Jimmy and God bless the Working Man - may both parties rest in peace.

A Dutchman called Prince William, and an Englishman King James, fell out and started feuding and calling other names.

It was for the throne of England but, for reasons not quite clear, they came across to Ireland to do their fighting here.

They had Sarsfield, they had Schomberg, there was horse and foot and guns and they landed up in Carrick with 1000 Lambeg drums.

They had lots of Dutch and Frenchmen and battlions and platoons of Russians and of Prussians and Bulgarian Dragoons.

And they politely asked the Irish if they'd like to come and join and the whole affair was settled at the Battle of the Boyne.

Then William went to London and James went off to France and the whole kaboosh left Ireland without a backward glance.

And the poor abandoned Irish said goodbye to King and Prince...and went on with the fighting and they've been at it ever since!