On May 27, 2007 Punk hit 30. But while the story of its impact in the UK and the US is well known, just how did Ireland take to that most pivotal of all music movements? Commissioned by the Irish Independent, I talked to some of those who were there.
Go Ahead Punk, Make My Day…
Originally published in the Irish Independent
If the world didn’t quite change on May 27, 1977, it certainly shook on its axis. Thirty years ago this month marks possibly the single most defining moment in British rock history.
It was an event that was to cause major ripples for a generation of young people across Britain and Ireland, and underpin a cultural drama that would propel the burgeoning punk movement onto the front pages of newspapers across the UK.
On that day, the Sex Pistols released their incredible single, God Save The Queen, to widespread condemnation from a British establishment preparing to celebrate the monarch’s Silver Jubilee. This was the moment when a disaffected, disenfranchised youth railed against a system they felt was outdated.
Just weeks after Johnny Rotten sneered the line “No future, no future for you”, punk bands like The Blades, The Undertones, The Virgin Prunes, Berlin, DC 9, Stiff Little Fingers, The Atrix, The Facets, Frankie Corpse & The Undertakers, The Boy Scouts, The Vipers, The Sussed, Victim and The Outcasts were to spring up around Belfast, Dublin and Derry.
They joined the likes of U2 (then called The Hype), The Radiators From Space, Rudi and The Boomtown Rats in filling venues such as The Top Hat, McGonagles, Moran’s Hotel and The Project Arts Centre. For a country that had until then only managed Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher, Horslips and a handful of lesser acts, this was a sizeable rise in garage jammers across the nation.
But as the excitement of punk spread amongst younger generations, the establishment hit back at a movement it viewed as a threat to a Catholic and moral society. Across the country priests spoke out from the pulpit; there were debates on The Late Late Show; and even this newspaper was to rail against “this venomous and obscene brand of music”.
In one famous interview broadcast on RTÉ, Fr Brian D’Arcy, the Catholic Church’s ‘youth spokesperson’, was filmed walking through a record shop brandishing copies of Sex Pistols and Clash records while speaking about their “profanities”.
It was no coincidence that punk resonated among young Irish people playing out their lives against the backdrop of the Troubles, economic depression, unemployment, poverty, forced emigration and religious repression.
With its roots in chronic unemployment, clashes with the law, a sense of disempowerment, frustration and hopelessness, it was no coincidence that punk resonated among young Irish people playing out their lives against the backdrop of the Troubles, economic depression, unemployment, poverty, forced emigration and religious repression.
“I think punk became so important here because it was something young people could latch onto,” remembers Ferdia MacAnna, playwright, novelist and frontman with 1977 punks, Rocky De Valera & The Gravediggers.
“The outcry amongst the establishment wasn’t as bad here as it was in the UK – oddly enough – but I think that’s because at the time there was a sense that young people In Ireland didn’t matter. No one really cared what happened to us and there was nothing here for us do. Ireland was this drab, black and white country. Then suddenly punk happened, and everything went Technicolor.”
“Punk really was that seismic,” agrees Frank Kearns, a schoolmate of U2 and guitarist in punk band Frankie Corpse & The Undertakers. “It was like Year Zero. I mean it’s impossible to describe or to visualise the impact it had on a generation of young people in Ireland. No one had experienced anything like it before. Suddenly, everything changed and nothing that happened previously mattered.”
In Ireland, punk was to first manifest itself through The Radiators From Space and The Boomtown Rats in 1976. The future members of U2 also formed a band in the same year under the moniker of Feedback, as they began to be influenced by the records their friend Gavin Friday brought back from the UK.
Friday, who that summer formed one of Ireland’s greatest punk bands, The Virgin Prunes, said: “I’d get the B&I ferry and train to London, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester just to see a gig or to buy records, because you couldn’t buy records here. You know it was hard to source these punk records you’d read about in the NME unless you went to the UK and got them.
“It’s an incredible thing to try and fathom now, but that’s how it was. In 1976 I travelled to London to see David Bowie in Earls Court and saw punks for the first time. They looked extraordinary. They looked like Ziggy Stardust after the bomb went off! It was like a new world. I immediately pierced my ears and cut my hair.
“Here was music that gave you licence to do it yourself. Punk allowed you to steal or borrow a guitar and anyone could form a band. You didn’t need to be as intelligent as Bowie or have a third level degree. You could just do it. Punk showed that and so it became my way out of Ballymun.”
You’d have U2, myself and a load of others trying to work out Ramones songs and swapping notes in the library.
Kearns agrees. “It was liberating,” he says. “You didn’t need to be Jimi Hendrix. When you heard God Save The Queen you knew it was just drums, bass, vocals and guitar. So in my school, Mount Temple, you’d have U2, myself and a load of others trying to work out Ramones songs and swapping notes in the library.”
As God Save The Queen was causing controversy in Britain, Dublin band The Radiators From Space were packing out venues around the capital, having released the first great single by an Irish Punk band – Television Screen. That June, the band staged Ireland’s first ‘Punk Festival’ at UCD. On the bill with them were The Undertones, and the event was given added notoriety when an 18-year-old Dubliner was stabbed to death during the gig.
“I think that was the first murder at a rock gig in the British Isles,” recalls Friday. “But you know the whole thing often teetered on the edge of violence. It got a bit f**ked up in the later years. At some of the gigs in Moran’s and McGonagles you’d have people going crazy in the crowd. I mean the moshing and all that nowadays is chicken-piss compared to then. It was quite violent. In town you’d often get the shit bet out of you because you were a punk. With The Virgin Prunes we’d go all out and wear bondage trousers, make-up and dresses – and we’d get killed for it.
“But the more whacks on the head we got, the more adventurous we got. I mean, getting on the 19 bus in Ballymun, dressed like we were, you did get some abuse.”
‘The look was key,” remembers Kearns. “Everyone used to buy their records at The Dandelion Market near St Stephen’s Green and everyone got their clothes there. But at that time they didn’t have drainpipe jeans, it was all hippy flares. So when we saw The Ramones and The Clash in their drainpipes we took our flares to the drapers to get the ends taken in. That was happening all over Dublin.”
“No one had any money so everything was DIY,” adds Friday. “All our clothes were secondhand and if you wanted to punk them up, you had to do it yourself. There was real identity, real individuality. I did gigs with raincoats stitched together into a plastic suit.
Nowadays in Ireland there’s none of that individuality.
“And you know we had these hairstyles – but there was no hair gel in those days. We used egg whites, or sugar and water. Nowadays in Ireland there’s none of that individuality. People wear the same stuff. It’s either Champion Sports or BT2.”
Outside of Ireland, The Radiators were to have minor success in the UK. The Virgin Prunes achieved some success in mainland Europe, while The Boomtown Rats, Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers and Derry’s finest, The Undertones, were to enjoy the strongest International success. U2, at this early stage, were peddling more straightforward rock ‘n’ roll. “I don’t think there was really anyone that stood out in Ireland,” says Michael Bradley, bassist with The Undertones. “I wouldn’t put us or The Radiators up there with people like The Jam, The Clash, The Pistols or The Ramones. There were some good songs, alright, but Britain and America were way ahead in terms of producing great punk bands.”
“Punk here, and in the UK, did manifest into something more mass-produced within a year or two,” says Friday.
“But in ’76, ’77, ’78, the whole movement was incredible. You know we said to ourselves ‘Let’s not even moan about the Catholic Church, or the bullshit in Ireland and the lack of jobs.
“Let’s f***king do something about it. Let’s kick out at the pricks and try and change the world even if it’s just for ourselves’ – and we did, whilst making some pretty good music along the way.”