Punk Music in Northern Ireland: The Political Power uir. Punk Music in Northern Ireland 31 much

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  • Irish Studies Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2004

    Punk Music in Northern Ireland: The PoliticalPower of What Might Have Been

    MARTIN McLOONE, University of Ulster

    Punk nostalgia has been going on now for a long time. The tenth anniversary years(from 1986 to 1989) established the trend (and the market) for the phenomenon ofpunk nostalgia, and the first wave of CD compilations and band re-releases emerged tofill the need. The summer of 1996 marked the twentieth anniversary of the UKssummer of punk and instigated a period of punk nostalgia in Northern Ireland thathas hardly abated since. The Sex Pistols re-formed that year and went on a world tourthat included Belfast. If there was a general feeling that the Pistols were basically in itfor the money (it was called the Filthy Lucre tour!), nonetheless, the tendency was toexcuse this in the band that had begun the movement and which had made its namefrom ripping off the record companies so memorably twenty years earlier. The Pistolsgig in Belfast was greeted with a fair amount of nostalgic press coverage and was anexcuse to revisit the local punk scene that, it was argued, was inspired by the originalPistols in the 1970s (especially Johnny Rottens dictum that anyone can become a SexPistol). Thus Northern Irelands leading political/cultural magazine Fortnight ran acover feature entitled Did Punk Rock the Troubles?, and offered a competition to winfree tickets to the Pistols Belfast gig with a tie-breaker question: In no more than tenwords explain why The Sex Pistols changed your life [1].

    A year later the focus of attention was on the twentieth anniversary of the QueensSilver Jubilee of June 1977 and The Sex Pistols memorable party-pooping God Savethe Queen (the biggest selling single in Jubilee week but denied its no. 1 chart positionthrough establishment chicanery). However, by 1997, the catalyst for the emergenceof punk in Northern Ireland was regarded to be The Clash rather than The Sex Pistols.According to journalist John Bradbury, the 1977 concert by the band was the maincatalyst for kick-starting the Belfast punk rock scene (Bradbury claims December butit was probably in October of that year) [2]. In fact, the concert was cancelled (theexcuse was a problem with insurance but throughout 1977, throughout the UK, punkrock concerts were cancelled regularly as local councils and nervous promoters reactedto the moral panic that followed the infamous Pistols television interview with BillGrundy). The disappointed Belfast punks who turned up for the gig in a sense foundeach other. The evening ended in a riot and the RUC found itself battling a differentkind of white riot from those it was used to. On that night, in other words, theindividual punks of Belfast coalesced into a scene and many of the bands that wouldemerge in the next few months could trace their genesis back to these events.

    By the time of the Queens golden jubilee in 2002, punk was itself celebrating its

    ISSN 0967-0882 print/ISSN 1469-9303 online/04/010029-10 2004 Taylor & Francis LtdDOI: 10.1080/0967088042000192095

  • 30 Martin McLoone

    FIG. 1. The Undertones, 1977. Photograph Redferns Music Picture Library Ltd.

    silver anniversary and the coincidence was particularly noted by Observer correspondentHenry McDonald. As the ageing aristocracy of British rock music (including PaulMcCartney, Elton John, Rod Stewart and the remnants of Queen) assembled atBuckingham Palace for the Jubilee garden party, McDonald was in ironic mood:

    The Irish should be ashamed over our national indifference to the jubilee. Toallow such an auspicious occasion to pass without public celebrations, majordocumentaries on television, concerts, films, reflective newspaper featuresand commemorative souvenirs is a downright disgrace. The failure to im-press upon our young people the historical significance of this importantanniversary is to rob them of the legacy of freedom so hard won, indeed soepitomised by the very institution to which we pay homage to this year.

    We are talking here, of course, about punk rock and its silver jubilee. [3]

    McDonald need not have worried. By the end of that year there were in fact two filmscelebrating punk in Northern Ireland: Tommy Collinss Teenage KicksThe Undertonesand Roy Wallaces independent video Big Time, which McDonald himself reviewed inglowing terms in a follow-up article on punk [4]. At the very end of the year, the deathof The Clashs Joe Strummer occasioned another piece by McDonald on the import-ance of punk music to his generation growing up in Belfast in the 1970s at the heightof the Troubles [5]. McDonald endorses Bradburys opinion that The Clash were thereal catalysts in the birth of punk music in Northern Ireland. This is not surprising,given the overtly political nature of many of Strummers pronouncements back in197678. In December 1976, for example, as The Clash set out as support band on the

  • Punk Music in Northern Ireland 31

    much troubled Sex Pistols Anarchy tour of that month, he defined the bands politicalprinciples in very unambiguous terms: I think people ought to know that wereanti-fascist, were anti-violence, were anti-racist and were procreative. Were againstignorance [6]. This combination of radical politics and multicultural solidarity wasparticularly attractive in the sectarian political culture of Northern Ireland, especiallyfor the emerging punk sensibility that McDonald and Wallace celebrate. Joe Strummerand The Clash came to represent an ideal that was in marked contrast to the dominantpolitical modes of late 1970s Belfastbe these the establishment politics of the parentgeneration, or the violent and blatantly sectarian politics of the paramilitaries. Strum-mers death in 2002, therefore, was not just an occasion to lament the passing of oneold punk; it was also an opportunity once again to celebrate an ideal that never quitebecame a realityand to lament the lack of this ideal in the present.

    McDonald and Wallace are, of course, self-confessed old punks themselves andthey constitute part of the formidable old punk presence in the media throughoutBritain and Ireland. In Northern Ireland, this presence also includes (among others)independent writer John Bradbury, rock journalist Stuart Bailey and BBC producersOwen McFadden (ex-drummer with Belfast punk band Protex), Jackie Hamilton(ex-guitarist with The Moondogs) and Michael Bradley (bass player with The Under-tones and the man who has assumed the mantle of keeper of the flame for the bandsreputation) [7]. This presence in the media of so many journalists who remember 1977is one reason why punk nostalgia has been so rampant in recent years. However, it isnot the main reason and it is not why this nostalgia is worth considering in more detail.

    The question of punk nostalgia is an interesting and contradictory one anyway. AndyMedhurst has pointed out that part of the problem is the very unsentimental nature ofpunk itself:

    A central thread in punks semiotic and ideological repertoires was itsscorched-earth, year-zero attitude to tradition and the past whereas nos-talgia often springs from an attempt to seek consolation and security in timesgone by. Getting nostalgic about punk is worse than a contradiction in terms,its a betrayal, trading in punks forensic nihilism for a rose-coloured cosi-ness. [8]

    As Medhurst acknowledges, though, the situation is more complex than this. On onehand there is a musicological consideration. It remains difficult today to fit the raw,angry sound of first-generation punk rock into the contemporary mainstream musicalsoundscape of easy listening radio and golden oldie retrospectives; by the same token,it is difficult to reconcile the anarchic, do-it-yourself values of 1977 with the currentgeneration of formulaic, designer punks. This gives old school punk a continuingresonance beyond the sentimental. More importantly, punk music was itself part of abroader and deeper movement of dissatisfaction with the political and cultural estab-lishment and this is one reason why the contemporary radical sensibility is inclined tolook back at punk music and its attendant culture with something akin to longing. Thecontemporary mood is one of a bland sentimental acceptance mirrored in a popularmusic dominated by TV-manufactured teen idols or retro styles without substance.Quite simply, the young are no longer revolting.

    In another way, though, Medhurst considerably overplays punks radical impulses.His is the punk of the metropolitan centre rather than of the provinces, and thesituation for punk (and for punks) was very different outside of its art/pop epicentre onthe Kings Road. Paul Cobley has noted the dilemma for the provincial punks, deniedthe protective environment of Londons cosmopolitanism. Punk, he argues, was a

  • 32 Martin McLoone

    considerable affront to a host of deep-rooted values, including class, masculinity,decent behaviour, locality and tradition:

    That punk had to negotiate a set of pre-existing national attitudes is well-known; but the fact that these attitudes were even more formidablyentrenched outside the main urban centres meant that being a provincialpunk represented a considerable leap of faith. The social context of theprovinces therefore made the punk phenomenon a much different prop-osition from that which has been so slavishly rehearsed in written accounts.[9]

    Cobley was talking about his experiences of being a punk in Wigan but his point is allthe more pertinent for Belfast. In some ways, late 1970s Belfast and punk were madefor one another. If there was an element of the abject about punkgobbing, vomit-ingthere was no more abject place in the Western world than Northern Ireland,specifically Belfast, in 1977. The deep-rooted traditions that Belfast punks had tonegotiate were not only those that punks nationally had to