Authored byRichard DormerActor
Forty years of Irish rock
At the beginning of the 1960s Ireland was a deeply divided island with its two capitals, Belfast and Dublin, diametrically opposed on most issues.
However the establishments, north and south, were unified in their opposition to the rock'n'roll influence that had begun to permeate the airwaves and influence the youth of both communities.
The showbands, a uniquely Irish phenomenon, had emerged in the mid-1950s – playing in the ballrooms and halls north and south of the border.
By the 1960s they had replaced their original big band sound replicating the rock'n'roll hits of the era. Considered the lesser of two evils by the state and church, the young homegrown Irish singers and musicians who populated these bands were well paid and playing to packed houses every night. Although considered ‘human jukeboxes’ the showbands were an important training ground for some of the artists who would emerge as major players on Ireland’s burgeoning music scene.
In Belfast in 1964, a young Van Morrison had tired of the showband scene and quit to form a rhythm and blues outfit called Them.
Influenced by the American blues records of his father’s eclectic collection, Van’s newly formed band secured a residency at the Maritime Hotel and kick-started the Belfast blues scene. Originally formed as a reaction to pop music of the day, Them’s chart success, with hits Here Comes the Night and Gloria, meant the band were quickly submerged by the very industry they were railing against. Tired of the pop world and band infighting, by 1967 Them had imploded and Morrison left for America.
The young Cork raised musician Rory Gallagher was so fascinated by the Belfast blues scene that he decided to return to the province of his birth.
Moving his newly formed trio Taste 250 miles north, Rory arrived in Belfast with Ireland’s first Fender Stratocaster. Gallagher’s guitar virtuosity meant that Taste quickly established themselves on the international stage. Breaking up soon after a scene-stealing performance at the Isle of White Festival, Rory politely declined the Rolling Stones’ suggestion that he join them as a second guitarist. Forging a successful solo career, his work influenced generations of guitarists worldwide.
Van Morrison’s time in America consolidated his reputation as one of the most visionary and talented artists of his generation.
A few months after arriving in the States, the Belfast singer had a top ten US hit with Brown Eyed Girl. But living in and experiencing first-hand the environments that had produced the rhythm and blues records of his youth, Van became more convinced of his own ‘Irish’ artistry and increasingly incorporated this and themes of exile into his subsequent albums. His extensive body of work has influenced musicians as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and Ed Sheeran.
Philip Lynott grew up in Dublin – the only mixed race child at his school – an experience which was to fuel his often autobiographical song writing.
In the late 1960s Phil and his friend Brian Downey played in a number of bands around Dublin but it wasn’t until Eric Bell, an established rock guitarist from Belfast, joined them that they found a distinctive sound – a mix of Dublin folk and Belfast blues. The band’s rock version of an old Irish folk song, Whiskey in the Jar, propelled them to international stardom and Phil became the famous rock star he had always aspired to be.
The Boomtown Rats
Frustrated being back in Ireland, after working as a music journalist in Canada, Bob Geldof formed The Boomtown Rats while waiting for his visa.
Disgusted and frustrated by Ireland in the 1970s, Geldof used the Boomtown Rats to vent his anger at the corruption, economic deprivation and abuse that he felt was endemic in Southern Ireland. Songs like Looking After Number One and Banana Republic intelligently articulated the punk mood of the time. Rat Trap became the first single by a punk artist to top the UK Charts. The commercial success of this and their other music helped Bob to leave the country of his birth at the first opportunity.
Just as the blues scene had evolved a decade before in Belfast, by the mid-1970s, punk was taking hold on the city now ravaged by the Troubles.
Music lover Terri Hooley had become bewitched by punk and from his record shop, on Europe’s most bombed street, he ran the eponymous record label Good Vibrations. Hooley’s DIY label produced records by local bands Rudi, The Outcasts and The Undertones at a time when Belfast was musically dead – bands rarely visited and the city. Punk music helped bring together young people from the fiercely divided catholic and protestant communities during Northern Ireland’s darkest days.
By virtue of their schooling in Dublin’s first interdenominational comprehensive, U2 were always destined to be somewhat different.
From the off, this post-punk band were set on exploring weighty issues with their songwriting. The death of Bono’s mother, tackled in U2’s debut album Boy, was followed by the more politically charged New Year’s Day and Sunday Bloody Sunday. Always different, with their expansive sound and emotional live shows it was on America that U2 set their sights. With their American breakthrough album The Joshua Tree (1987) U2 became the biggest band in the world.
Sinead O’Connor used rock to confront male domination in Ireland and in rock music itself.
She first exploded onto the music scene with a skinhead, bomber jacket and Doc Martins - the antithesis of other female Irish artists of the time and the pop starlets who dominated the charts. Although she sold over a million copies of her debut album, it was her cover of the Prince song 'Nothing Compares To You’ which made her a global superstar. A virulent critic of the state and church, she has used her music and celebrity to confront difficult issues about Irish society.