Punk in Belfast – 40 Years On
Punk is: “the personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions; a movement that serves to refute social attitudes that have been perpetuated through wilful ignorance of human nature; a process of questioning and commitment to understanding that results in self-progress, and through repetition, flowers into social evolution; a belief that this world is what we make of it, truth comes from our understanding of the way things are, not from the blind adherence to prescriptions about the way things should be; the constant struggle against fear of social repercussions.”
Greg Graffin, Bad Religion.
It was a hard-edged upsurge from restless youths who had rejected the perceived excesses of the mainstream that gave birth to the loud, fast and unpolished genre that took the music scene by storm in the mid-1970s; Music that boasted power as well as simplicity; Music that burst with energy; Music that made a statement. This became known as punk rock.
Belfast was in turmoil. The Troubles were only getting worse. Conflict and violence were commonplace on the streets of Northern Ireland. Several attempts to find a political solution had been tried and failed. At this time of extreme hardship, people were in search of an outlet for their anger. Adolescents became exasperated and vented their frustration and dissatisfaction of the situation and conditions. The Belfast punk scene was born.
Northern Irish bands are often thought to not get as much attention as London bands, and it is for this reason that the irrepressible Terri Hooley founded The Good Vibrations record label in the early 1970’s. His main objective was to put NI punk bands on the map. Hooley’s business started out in a derelict building on Great Victoria Street. He would sell singles out of his bedroom to ensure he was able to keep up with the rent bills. It didn’t take long for Terri’s DIY approach to pay off as his tiny upstairs record store soon became a focal point for young punks in the greater Belfast area. Starry-eyed teenagers would come from far and wide to embrace the abundance of punk / new wave records the quirky store had to offer.
Terri attended a gig at the Pound in January 1978, little did he know that this gig would go on to have such a profound effect on his life. The bill was made up of two local acts, Rudi and the Outcasts; a night of fast, loud, raw and extremely energetic live music. Punk is known for diving head-first from the stage into a mass of tightly-packed bodies. Not for the faint-hearted, but tremendously exhilarating; it is the wildest, freest form of dancing. It wasn’t long before the cops showed up, causing full blown chaos to erupt. The kids were fearless. They had no regard for fascist authority. Total disorder had descended upon Belfast through youthful rebellion and the power of music. Terri was mesmerised by the anarchy. He went on to sign many NI groups including Victim, Rudi, The Tearjerkers, and most famously, The Undertones.
Turning up like badly behaved school boys, Londonderry rockers, the Undertones were armed with rudimentary musical talent. Borrowing sounds from glam rock and welding them together with pub rock, the Derry five tended to stray their lyrics away from nihilism, focusing their subject matter on teenage angst and lust frustration. Their tracks injected all things juvenile into 3 minute bursts of fun, thrust upon the masses with a penetrating Belfast twang, making them one of the significant NI bands to this day. The Undertones are living proof of the age familiar adage that anyone can be in a punk band.
Punk music’s main appeal comes in its ‘Do it yourself’ attitude and emphasis on individuality and self-expression. It is for this reason, that Belfast lad, Jake Burns, decided he’d had enough of playing classic rock cover songs and formed what would go on to be, one of, if not the greatest bands to ever come from Northern Ireland; Stiff Little Fingers. After speaking with the legendary frontman, who currently resides in Chicago, it’s clear that SLF’s ethics espouse the role of personal choice in the pursuit of greater freedom; a radical rejection of conformity as well as forthright action for political change, and not selling out to the mainstream for personal gain. Having drawn inspiration from another massively influential local figure, Rory Gallagher, SLF’s ability to expostulate their own experiences of growing up in Belfast and questioning what was going on around them, really set them apart from other bands that were around at the time. ‘What we need; is an alternative Ulster’; a line that resonated in the hearts of so many people in Belfast back in the late seventies, at a time and a place where punk really mattered.
With their melodic prowess and Jake Burns robust sandpaper voice, SLF have always known how to deliver a superior show by taking classic rock and masticating it through the punk rock claustrophobia and distortion. SLF were able to find charm and charisma in hidden places and in hidden histories which set them apart from other bands that were around at the time; they were raw and they were real. Having seen plenty of wild goings-on on tour, including the classic ‘TV out the window’ experience – Jake advises that his fondest memory is of how much they’ve laughed together; although SLF are seen as a serious political rock band, the boys enjoy nothing more than sitting in a bar late at night after a show, laughing with each other; ‘we’re friends first and a band second’ – a sturdy foundation for a truly superior punk band. These Belfast boys give meaning to the age old saying ‘punk’s not dead’; their most recent album No Going Back reached number one on the Official BBC Album Chart and they are set to play their biggest ever hometown headline show in celebration of their 40th Anniversary this Summer, on Saturday 26th August at Custom House Square. The legends are still burning brightly 40 years later and they are bringing The Stranglers, The Outcasts and the ever prominent Terri Hooley with them – a show absolutely not to be missed.
Anti-establishment, confrontational and controversial; three core elements that echo through the ethos of punk bands old and new. Empty Lungs are a Belfast three piece who erupted onto the scene back in 2011, once again ringing true to the age old belief that punk’s not dead. Their tracks boast a unique, up-tempo, melodic sound, full of sing-along opportunities as well as compellingly addictive riffs and tight drum beats. Empty Lungs music explores interactions with various political realities that frustrate and exasperate them. The beautiful irony of the whole thing is that by singing about feeling broke, angry and alienated, they possess the power to make a whole room packed full of strangers feel a sense of unison and possibility. Empty Lungs are non-conformists, they advocate their fans to think for themselves and most importantly, to support each other and by doing this, they embody the very essence of punk. They recently played a monumental sold out show on The Barge to launch their new EP Don’t Get It, so if you haven’t got a copy yet; it’s been released by Hidden Pony Records on 7” vinyl – you know what to do.
True punk is not a look or a fad. It is passionate, preferring to confront antipathy rather than complacent indifference; working class in style and attitude if not in actual socio-economic background; defiant, unconventional, bizarre, shocking; starkly realistic, anti-euphemism, anti-hypocrisy, angry, aggressive and confrontational. It provokes a willingness to fight which is derived from an underlying vulnerability. Punks may not be able to change the world, but we are dedicated to creating an island of freedom, a community of dissent and experimentation, and we are determined not to go down with our sinking civilization without an outcry of protest and an angry, indignant fist shaking. Words by Lucy Anderson; Archive photos by Bernie McAllister.