Healing the Broken Voice
Johnny Fean, who died on Friday, was lead guitarist with Horslips, pioneers of Irish cultural rebirth and our first truly populist rock band. This extract from my 1995 book ‘Race of Angels’ relates.
For Johnny, who kept us awake for decades with his 1953 Gibson Les Paul.
When we were children and teenagers, growing up in the West of Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, music was something that was present but misunderstood. An awful lot of humbug attached itself to the notion of music, which made it difficult to perceive its having any purpose in expressing how people felt in their hearts and souls. This, in fact, was a mildly ridiculous idea. Music was perceived as requiring to be useful first, and beautiful only as a bonus.
There was plenty of music in my background, as there was in most people’s. My grandfather on my mother's side had been a traditional fiddle player, and my father's brother, my Uncle Michael, had played both fiddle and accordion, both at home in Co. Sligo and later on when he went to New York. He worked as a street musician, a busker, and was found lying on the street on a winter’s day in 1961 with injuries from which he subsequently died. When I say that music was present but misunderstood, I mean partly that whatever musical tradition had existed in our area had died or been repressed long before I arrived.
Music had died in both the community and within our family. This death had begun with the Famine of the 1840s and continued ever since. ‘Poetry, music and dancing stopped' when the Famine started, an old woman had said to the President of the Gaelic League, Douglas Hyde, a native of my home town. 'Sport and pastimes disappeared. And when times improved these things never returned as they had been.’ It was almost as though music signifying joy could never again be played until some unspecified aspiration had been achieved.
So I walked, or crawled, into a decimated musical culture. Some would suggest it wasn't a culture at all, but then culture is a pretty fluid concept. By ‘culture' I don't mean just values or activities or forms of expression which are mummified or kept on ice and maintained as a sort of defiant self-assertion in the face of an unfriendly outside world. I mean culture in the sense of things people do when they don't have to do anything — the ways in which they choose to express themselves without thinking that they are 'expressing' themselves, the things they do when they are 'merely' having fun. What I find interesting about it now is that the culture in our area was so broad and varied, and yet nothing of it was what might be called indigenous; everything was borrowed or imported. In fact, our confidence in what this culture bespoke was very much related to the fact that it was not of ourselves. In this sense, my experience was emblematic of Irish culture in general around this time. Not everywhere, of course, because there were exceptional pockets of indigenous cultural activity, some of it healthy, some of it not. Irish music was strong in counties like Clare and Donegal. In other places it was kept alive on an artificial respirator. But in most places, what culture was occurring spontaneously rather than in a premeditated and self-conscious way, was the culture we drew from outside.
The mass media came to Ireland with the opening of the first national radio station, 2RN, in 1926, when the Free State was just a few years old. There was then, it seems, little awareness of the epistemology of mass media, or even that such a concept might exist. The Official Handbook of the Irish Free State, published in 1932, while dealing comprehensively with every other imaginable aspect of culture and public affairs, has not a single mention of the national radio station. The notion that the magics of speech and writing were in the process of being supplanted by the magic of electronics had not occurred to those charged with teaching the fledgling state to fly.
This was not surprising, seeing that much of the grace, intelligence and inspiration of the liberation movement had been lost in the final push to independence. Republican leaders like Padraic Pearse and James Connolly, who had nurtured visions of a free Ireland based on a profound sense of sovereignty and spirituality, had been executed after the Rising of 1916. Today, the ideas of these men have been caricatured out of recognition, but to re-read them is to catch a glimpse of the extent of the loss the new Ireland suffered even before it began. Pearse was a poet, a visionary and a teacher — the most obvious modern comparison is Václav Havel in the Czechoslovakia of 1989. In the years before the Rising, Pearse had written about the freedom project and what it would mean. ‘Vivifying the whole,' he writes, 'we need the divine breath that moves through free peoples.' True political independence, he elaborates in an essay, ‘The Spiritual Nation', ‘requires spiritual and intellectual independence as its basis, or it tends to become unstable, a thing resting merely on interests which change with time and circumstances'. This consciousness died when he did, and the newly liberated Ireland was inherited by lesser men with smaller minds. Interests ruled, and instability beckoned. The word ‘spiritual’ was interpreted in its narrowest possible connotation.
It was perhaps inevitable that the initial years of independence would be characterised by a cultural protectionism, a backlash to everything considered 'alien'. The Gaelic Revival, which had begun in the final decade of the nineteenth century, became the inspiration for the new state. But, unleavened by the wisdom and perspective which people like Pearse might have brought, it became fanatical and insular. Pearse, in his essay on the British system of education ‘The Murder Machine', articulates a positive cultural and educational project: ‘To “foster” the elements of character native to a soul, to help to bring these to their full perfection rather than to implant exotic excellences.' Interpreted by those who lacked his learning and subtlety, such dicta became the basis of an official policy of cultural xenophobia, which then proceeded as a rhetorical parallel to reality. What I encountered, when I came to cultural consciousness towards the end of the 1960s, was the product of fifty years of this approach. Raidió Éireann, the successor to 2RN, played everything from Céilí bands to the Beatles, sean-nós (old-style traditional singing) to showbands, light classical to ragtime, ‘come-all-ye’s to light opera, and without any sense that what they were purveying was a culture of any kind. For all the official rhetoric about the revival of the all but extinct spirit of cultural nationalism, radio had been the true cultural formulator. Even the form of ‘traditional' music most frequently heard on the wireless was Céilí, a strange, mechanical form of Irish music incorporating drums and saxophones, which invariably began with three taps on a wooden block, proceeded as a blast of collective energy that would make the Ramones blush, and ended as suddenly as it had started. Céilí, devised to serve the needs of radio programming and dances, was a classical example of the unmonitored effect of mass media on traditional forms. The official rhetoric of the time, which described the media as a neutral instrument of cultural revival, was now addressing itself to a nation in which the central metaphor of communication had been utterly transformed by the arrival of mass media. Douglas Hyde, a leading light of the Gaelic Revival, had talked about the necessity for ‘de-anglicising Ireland’; but, even leaving aside the desirability or feasibility of such a project in the previous reality, the new reality was turning it into a nonsense.
We didn't have a radio in our house until I was seventeen. The only reason I knew what was on the radio was that we used to go on holiday to our aunt's house in the country every summer, where the wireless setting alternated between Raidió Éireann and the BBC Light Programme. I was in my late teens before I got to listen to Radio Luxemburg. In a sense, the way I discovered music was a slightly exaggerated version of the way the generality of Irish people encountered it. There were, obviously, pockets of the country where the tradition of Irish music had been preserved, in varying degrees of health. But where I came from, which was definitely not one of these places, was more typical of Ireland as a whole.
When I say that we encountered music by accident, I mean we heard music on the radio, and decided, ‘Yes, that is music.’ We thought very litle more about it. We rarely stopped to ask, ‘Whose music?', or ‘Where does this music come from?’, or ‘In what way is this music about my life?’ The idea that music could, or should be ‘about our lives’ would itself have seemed a little strange. Music was for dancing to, or cheering yourself up, or having a bit of a singsong. It would be broadly true to say that most of us who grew up in Ireland after the mid-1940s simply encountered particular forms of music almost at random and tried to adapt them to our needs as human beings. Because there was so little of the sense that what we were listening to was an accurate representation of what we were, we became a little like what we listened to. And because what we were listening to was neither the expression of an organic culture nor the result of the stated desire for a revival of an earlier identity, but rather the product of a particular set of media metaphors, we had simply, in this area at least, replaced one form of colonialism with another.
What is often forgotten in post-colonial situations, writes Frantz Fanon in his classic book about post-colonial societies, The Wretched of the Earth, is that the forms which culture feeds on, ‘together with modern techniques of information, language and dress have dialectically reorganised the people's intelligence and that the constant principles which acted as safeguards during the colonial period are now undergoing extremely radical changes’.
If this is not recognised, what happens is that it is the colonial mentality, rather than a true cultural identity, which transmutes itself in the allegedly free post-colonial society. This is something that can be clearly observed in the Irish experience. Largely as a result of the way music was taught, for example, there emerged in the society a profound disjunction between the acts of listening to music — of consuming music — and of singing or playing an instrument, i.e. performing, entertaining, producing or creating music. One of the ways in which the virus of colonialism has been handed down to this day was through the educational system, which was adopted without amendment from the British system which Pearse characterised as 'the Murder Machine'. Pearse is most specific that, in order for real freedom to be achieved, this system would have to go. The Murder Machine, he writes, was there to teach Irish people 'not to be strong and proud and valiant, but to be sleek, to be obsequious, to be dexterous: the object was not to make them good men, but to make them good slaves. . . . A soulless thing cannot teach; but it can destroy. A machine cannot make men; but it can break men.’
With Pearse gone, there were only his interpreters left. The education system of the new state, like the system of government itself, was simply a continuation of the old system, based, as Pearse had observed, around the manufacture of jailers and slaves. Until the 1980s, the Irish education system continued to be based on a marriage of hierarchy and violence.
We learned music in much the same way as we learned everything else. You learned or else. As with the teaching of the Irish language, we acquired music by rote, by being forced to play particular things in a particular way, with no mention or thought of how we might seek to make it relate to our everyday lives. I had a single-row button accordion, in the key of C. It's now thirty years old [in 1995]. I played it for three or four years as a child, and then put it aside. Only in the past year or so have I taken it out and started to play it again.
I was never any good. I don't mean that l couldn't play. I actually had a wide range of pieces in my repertoire, which I performed competently, but without ever having the feeling that I was actually playing. I don't have even the slightest memory of being able to play anything that moved me. I assumed, as did others, that the reason I was never any good was that I didn’t have any natural aptitude for music, that I had no ear, no sense of natural rhythm. Some slave! This puzzled me, on account of my grandfather and my uncle. It seemed to me that something should surely have come through to me.
But I did have an ear for music. I could sing. For several years, I was one of a hand-picked choir which sang the High Masses in Latin whenever someone died, which was not half often enough because you got off school tor two hours every time. But I can't sing now, and I know why. I remember the moment I lost my voice. It was when I was twelve, doing the exam at the end of primary school. One of the exams was in singing. I know now that when your voice is breaking you're not supposed to sing. But the brother insisted that I sing anyway, and we didn't argue with brothers in those days. I sang ‘The Minstrel Boy’, which in retrospect seems pretty appropriate. I can still recall the torture, the agony of that song, on a bright early summer's day, which caused irreversible damage to my vocal cords. A few weeks later I had a voice like Sylvester Stallone and I never sang in public again.
It was a similar story with the button accordion. We were conditioned with the idea that the purpose of musicianship was to impress, to be able to go through your paces, that music was to do with technical dexterity and skill. There was no sense that you were working out of a tradition, or feeding off a culture, or seeking to enrich that culture. There were set pieces, traditional arrangements, songs like ‘The Minstrel Boy', ‘The Rose of Arranmore', 'A Nation Once Again', ‘The Irish Rover,’ ‘The Dawning of the Day’.
‘The Dawning of the Day’,or ‘Fáinne Geal an Lae’, was the first tune we learned to play. An old Irish melody, it provides a good example of what we were taught in the guise of music. The first thing we learned was the notes: Doh ray mee mee mee, ray mee so so lah, so mee doh ray doh doh doh. . . .
We played it as a military march. It had this strained, regimented rhythm which drained all the life out of the tune. I grew up hating it. Then one day on the radio, I heard Luke Kelly's version of the same tune played by the Dubliners. It was called ‘On Raglan Road', with words by Patrick Kavanagh:
On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.
I wept that first time I heard Kelly sing this song. Not just because of the magic of Kavanagh's words, or the power of Kelly's voice. It was the way Kelly held and moved the melody like a dancing partner, this way and that, to accommodate Kavanagh's lyric. The Irish poet Paul Durcan, writing about Van Morrison in the current affairs magazine, Magill, when I was editing it some years later, sketched an unseen connection between Morrison and Patrick Kavanagh, after Van himself recorded that song later on. Durcan writes that the only new development in recent Irish poetry was Kavanagh's introduction of the jazz line in this song, and Morrison's continuation of it. Durcan is talking about the improvisational dimension of the relationship of Kavanagh's lyrics to the old Irish tune, taking the same basic melody on a journey through a maze of words, thoughts and daydreams. 'Kavanagh', Durcan observes, ʻwas a great tenor sax who was content to blow his horn in the sunlit angles of Dublin street corners in the 1950s.’
All that, I suppose, was part of what I felt when I heard Luke Kelly's version of this presumed dead tune. But more than that, it was the realisation of how I had been cheated, of how we had been cheated. Because here was Kelly administering artificial respiration to an air that I had always regarded as not just dead but fossilised, and the song was getting up and walking away with him into the sunset. This was the melody that we had been taught to play as a march, and yet was nothing like one. It had sex, soul, passion. It had an intoxicating quality which I had never dreamt might exist in that tune before. It had meaning.
On a quiet street where old ghosts meet I see her walking now
Away from me so hurriedly my reason must allow
That I had loved not as I should a creature made of clay —
When the angel woos the clay he’d lose his wings at the dawn of day.
It was a new song and yet an old song. It told me so much about what had happened to me as a would-be musician, and the reasons why so much Irish music had failed to express so much of what I felt inside. In the last few months I've started to play that tune again the same notes, but in a different way. And I've begun to see as though for the first time that this music is more than notes or form or structure — that it is the transmission of feeling.
We don't talk about the war that kills the music within our heads. Colonisation is not a word you will hear in the public discourse of modern Ireland. It wouldn't be polite. But its effects are as real today as they were the day before our notional independence.
The coloniser, as Frantz Fanon says in The Wretched of the Earth, seeks to 'plant deep in the minds of the native population the idea that before the advent of colonialism their history was one which was dominated by barbarism'. This idea was driven into the Irish mind like a nail. Today, when there is talk at all about the past, it is in terms of the occupation of our territory and the abuse of our ancestors. But this, we lead ourselves to believe, is all behind us now. The English are no longer our enemies. But what if, when the English left, we became our own enemies? What then?
Colonisation is an insidious and double-edged process. The people both believe that they are savages and yet, at another level, refuse to believe it We believe that we are not savages — we tell ourselves that we are the inheritors of an ancient civilisation — but yet we recognise ourselves in the descriptions of the coloniser. We wish, deep in our souls, to be like the one we fear and despise. We are doomed to imitate without identifying. We are thrown into confusion. What if the coloniser is right? And when the coloniser leaves, unless there is a coherent project for the restoration of national consciousness, the suddenly liberated colony simply internalises the colonial condition in invisible ways, in both the country at large and in the heads of its inhabitants.
Ireland suffers still from the schizophrenia which is the principal hallmark of colonised peoples. This is both metaphorically and literally true: Ireland has the highest incidence of schizophrenia in the world. Today, after more than seventy years of alleged freedom, we are stricken with the disease which afflicts colonised peoples elsewhere, and yet appear to have none of their excuses. The freedom we achieved was a freedom in name only, and its occurrence simply served to drive the true nature of the colonial heritage underground where it could not be observed.
The classic pattern was followed. We developed our own native ascendancy class, who took over the administrative, political and cultural roles of the coloniser. The mentality continued to be as before. The Irish mind, though now 'free', but perhaps because of the nature of that freedom, repressed those aspects of itself which it had been taught to despise. It lost sight of the true meaning of culture as an expression of some inner compulsion, and either surrendered to the wash of culture from outside or adopted a version of culture which it came to perceive as a badge of defiance, a tight-arsed defensive roar in the face of the contempt which had been showered upon it. It undervalued its indigenous culture, or in some instances sought perversely to defend a superficial version of that culture in a manner which was bound to destroy it anyway.
‘The native artist who wishes at whatever cost to create a national work of art shuts himself up in a stereotyped reproduction of details,' warns Fanon. And again: ‘That extremely obvious objectivity which seems to characterise a people is in fact only the inert, already forsaken result of frequent, and not always very coherent, adaptations of a much more fundamental substance which itself is continually being renewed. . . . Culture has never the translucidity of custom; it abhors all simplification. In its essence it is opposed to custom, for custom is always the deterioration of culture.’
This is what happened to 'Fáinne Geal an Lae'. We sought to revive it as culture in a form which was already inert. From the best of intentions, but out of a deep and basic insecurity, we began to think that if we were to preserve our cultural heritage we needed to keep it sterilised in clinical conditions. If it was to survive at all it should not be allowed to mix. This idea was based on a profoundly pessimistic view of the quality of Irish culture — in fact, on the coloniser's view of that culture. This idea was itself a product of colonial indoctrination. Ignorant of the dialectical nature of the relationship between culture and the post-colonial condition, the powers-that-be perceived themselves to be confronted by an opening up of the cultural pores characterised by a one-way process of cultural transformation. Misled by their own rhetoric, they saw a direct relationship between freedom and cultural nationalism. Moreover, they perceived the restoration of national values as an end in itself, overlooking the fact that the purpose of national cultural realisation is to enable a people to influence, permeate and interrelate with other cultures. Because they believed the people wanted what they had told them they should want, they imagined that all they had to do was provide the channels for the rendezvous of Ireland and the Irish mind. When it wasn't happening as they imagined it would, they panicked and reverted to an even more fanatical fundamentalism.
Latter-day music historians writing about the culture from which U2 emerged tend to dismiss the showband era beside which they grew up with a paragraph as angry as it is superficial. I say ‘beside’ rather than ‘in' for a reason. U2 owe little or no direct dues to that culture, but it was nevertheless a central element of the culture that created them. The tendency up until now has been to paint Irish rock music since the 1970s as a new culture starting from scratch with Skid Row, Taste and Them and making a frenzied sprint via the Boomtown Rats to The Joshua Tree. The truth is far more complicated.
The sixties in Ireland were the creation of Seán Lemass, the revolutionary-turned-politician who had been involved in the Rising of 1916 and in 1926 became a founder member of Fianna Fáil, the party that would dominate Irish politics right up to the present. When Fianna Fáil went into government for the first time in 1932, Lemass became Minister for Industry and Commerce. Over the coming four decades he would have an unequalled impact on Irish economic affairs. He was a practical, energetic man whose aims were to make Ireland prosperous and peaceful and allow it to take its place in the twentieth century.
‘We are not prepared,’ he wrote early in his career, ‘to watch calmly the de-population and impoverishment of our country. . . . Unless we are prepared to see the scattering of our people over the face of the world and the destruction of our nation, we must take steps to preserve and develop here the industries which mean employment for our people in their own country.' In 1959, at the age of sixty, he became Taoiseach, and for the next six years — known today as the Lemass Era — would lead the most energetic government the Irish state had ever seen. His two Programmes for Economic Expansion are regarded as the most significant economic achievement by an Irish government. In any event, Lemass succeeded in reversing the centuries-long trend of out-migration from Ireland. As a consequence of the development of the Irish economy in the Lemass years, the seventies became the single decade in recent Irish history in which there was a net inflow of population rather than the reverse, with an average of more than a thousand people returning every month of that decade. Lemass had a favourite line — ‘a rising tide lifts all boats'. But the rising tide of sixties Ireland was a highly selective one - economically and socially, and, ultimately, culturally as well. What in retrospect reveals itself as a top-down revolution had the effect of concentrating population on the east coast, where much of the discourse about the nature of change was then focused. The idea of modernisation was twinned with that of industrialisation, which henceforth became the mantra of progressiveness. This was the agenda dramatised week to week in the cabaret of the Late Late Show.
In the brief and fragile flowering initiated by the Lemass Era, Ireland acquired for a time the semblance of normality. The dramatic economic turnaround was accompanied by a revolution in popular culture, of which the showbands were part. It is almost impossible today to obtain objective descriptions of the kind of culture Ireland is — never mind of the kind of culture U2 emerged from. Usually what you get is a particular prejudice about an aspect of that culture, or even worse, a reaction to such a prejudice from someone who has been wounded by it.
Irish culture, in other words, remains tribal. We see only what corresponds with our idea of what we are, or conversely, the image of something which we definitively are not. The possibility of a dialectical understanding has not yet surfaced.
Kitsch, wrote Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, is more than simply a work in poor taste. There is a kitsch attitude, he insisted, kitsch behaviour, ‘the kitsch-man's need for kitsch’.
Those generations which emerged from the Ireland of the past half- century, whose contact with art was limited to weekend dançing to showbands in the local ballroom will, in applying Kundera's words to their own experience, divide more or less equally in terms of their responses. Half will be convinced that the other half are 'kitsch-men', and the 'kitsch-men' will regard the others as snobs. But the more you think about it, the more likely it appears that, because of our hidden post-colonial psychosis, we are all of us kitsch-men, incapable of distilling from the experience anything other than superficial delusions. All of us see culture where there is simply arrested development. Half of us want to rehabilitate the past, to tart it up as an icon for the present, the others to burn it at the stake. Both responses are kitsch, because neither is the truth.
This is a pity, really, because an objective enquiry into the state of recent Irish popular culture might end up yielding far more than a story of song and dance. We might, for example, see in the showband culture an image of our own colonised consciousness. ʻIt is imitation when the child holds the newspaper like his father, says the psychoanalyst Annie Reich. ‘It is identification when the child learns to read.' Frantz Fanon argues that it is one of the hallmarks of colonised people that they can imitate but never identify. The showband culture was at once an unconscious expression of the post-independence failure to reconstruct an indigenous culture on solid footing, and a valiant attempt to create an instant culture with a big bang.
In the ebb and flow of this culture through the sixties, seventies and eighties can be seen the shadow of the social dynamic of the times. During the boom years of the late sixties and seventies, the showband culture was a dolly-mixtured range of music and styles, from the simple strains of the sub-country mutant known as Country 'n' Irish to the progressive rock of bands like the Platterman, whose singer was Rob Strong, father of Andrew who in the early 1990s would sing the songs he learned from his old man in the hit movie The Commitments. I grew up in the West of Ireland, allegedly the most conservative part of the country; and yet, in the early 1970s, I was conscious of belonging to a society which, for all its outward appearances of backwardness, was intensely ‘modern' in its cultural aspirations. There wasn't much pop on the national station, RTE, but we listened to Radio Luxemburg and John Peel and Bob Harris on the BBC. Some people could even get BBC television, and would talk smugly about something called Top of the Pops. To grow up almost anywhere in Ireland in that time was truly to believe yourself at the centre of the world. But as the economic winds chilled with the 1970s oil crises and a mounting national debt, the thinning out of the more 'progressive' musical voices signalled the recommencement of emigration.
Country 'n' Irish has been the surrogate folk music of many parts of Ireland since the 1960s. Developing around the 'Galway Wallop', the rock 'n' roll offbeat applied to old-time waltzes and Irish standards, it was emblematic of the fears, conservatism and longings of the time. There is even a theory that it was a reaction to the mid-sixties shift from US to British pop, that Irish audiences, or at least those outside the cities, responded badly to the change in the beat which resulted from the emergence of the Beatles and Stones, which did not suit the strange ritualistic dance known as the jive. Country music, in any event, had been the product of the transmuted idioms of Irish narrative singing carried in the minds of the emigrants to America in the eighteenth century. Now it came home, a new mutant.
In 1992, when the controversial Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey was replaced as Taoiseach by Albert Reynolds, a former ballroom owner from the midlands, the Dublin intelligentsia unleashed a torrent of bile in the direction of the new prime minister on the grounds that he was a purveyor of ‘country and western values’ and therefore not a fit person to run the Irish state. On one level, it was pure snobbery, the old hillbilly taunt. On another, it was the expression of other, mirror-image fears, conservatism and longings, nurtured by a different section of 1990s Irish society.
After almost a decade of renewed emigration, that society had plenty to be insecure about, but these insecurities did not emerge in the rhetoric of ‘the sound economic fundamentals’ much in favour at the time. While it was pretty difficult at the time to work up any great enthusiasm for or against Albert Reynolds, I found myself rowing into the fray on his behalf in my column in the Irish Times. What bothered me most about the 'country and western' smear was its utter disregard for the facts of Irish popular music history. Albert Reynolds had little or nothing to do with cultural values, one way or the other. He was a businessman who had made his money in the entertainment business, who had never shown any evidence of interest in the music he facilitated. There was — is — a debate to be had about pop versus country, but this wasn't it. It was an attempt to smear not just Reynolds, but also the three-quarters of the population who grew up listening and dancing and courting to showbands. As I wrote at the time, I felt stupid having to write in the Irish Times that there was nothing intrinsically backward or sinister about showbands, that there were good showbands and bad showbands, just as there are good writers and bad writers, and this is as much a matter of personal prejudice as objective aesthetic considerations. The Irish rock orthodoxy about showbands is identical in essence to the snob-response to Albert Reynolds's leadership ambitions. This view describes a hegemonic stranglehold by the talentless and derivative, a plagiaristic miasma of country and western and bad pop. This is accurate only up to a point. But moreover, the moral invective which invariably accompanies the charge betrays the extent to which the argument is off the point. What is being articulated is an ideological aversion, rather than the anger of the deprived.
In the first place, the showband scene did not consist merely of bad country and western copyists. There were actually some good country and western copyists as well, and one or two grotesque originals thrown in for good measure. Big Tom may not have been everyone's cup of tea, but he could not have been accused of sounding like anyone else. For all the sense of a slumbering sentimentality about him, his hulking, unsmiling presence bespoke a strangeness as real as anything in Samuel Beckett. All his material was cover-versions and much of it was sickly-sweet, kitsch-and-make-do songs like ‘Gentle Mother’, ‘Flowers for Mama’, ‘Tears on a Bridal Bouquet’ — which were every bit as bad as their titles predicted. But neither was he incapable of mysterious empathy with the songs he sung. As you listen to his version of Merle Haggard's ‘Sing Me Back Home’, you cannot escape the sense that what you are hearing is not entertainment but drama.
Big Tom's voice is hoarse and almost tuneless, but its ordinariness seems to match perfectly the mood of this one song. It is, moreover, his own voice, a husky Monaghan accent which makes no attempt at Americanisation. The storyline is both nostalgic and sentimental, but the guitar contains a strand of magic that rescues the lyric from the grip of self-pity. The song has in one verse more soul and meaning than a thousand guitar solos ringing around the bars of Dublin at the time. ‘Sing Me Back Home’ may be the one egg in a million that amounted to anything, but it gives the lie to at least some of the misdirected prejudice of rock myth about country showbands. They may not have achieved it often, but a lot of showband musicians knew what they were after. And the people who went to hear them went not because they knew no better but because they wanted something that they sometimes found, in short sharp flashes in the night.
There was also a mass of pop bands, literally hundreds, who played cover versions of US and British hits on the ballroom circuit. The Freshmen, Billy Brown's band, was one of these. It is almost impossible to convey to today’s pop kids how much of a star Billy Brown was. He and his co-frontman, Derek Dean, were the target of hysterical mobs of young women wherever they went. Brown cut a particularly startling figure, with his long blond hair, dark beard and flower-power dress sense. He looked like a hippy but sang like an angel. He would walk on stage, take the cigarette out of his mouth and begin:
Apa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa apapa oom mau maulA papa ooom mau mau.
The funniest sound I've ever heard
A papa ooom mau mau/A papa ooom mau mau.
And I can’t understand a single word
A papa ooom mau mau/A papa ooom mau mau.
It was impossible to hear this and avoid the urge to do something. It spoke to you at a level that bypassed your ears and your brain, and struck some dark corner of your psyche. It was strange, disturbing and made you want to throw yourself around.
Greil Marcus, writing about the original of ‘Papa Oom Mow Mow’ by the US band the Rivingtons, puts his finger on the song's secret: it made you sit up and say, WHAT? What? ‘I know,’ he writes, ‘it's ‘Oom Mow Mow’ but ‘Mau Mau’ is what the Rivingtons meant.’ Well, ‘Mau Mau’ is what the Freshmen sang. For anyone who was there, it was the funniest song they had ever heard. This was no pallid, diluted version of the original, but a blurted shock of the new from a band who knew exactly what they were doing. If rock 'n' roll is about strangeness — and, among other things, it is — then no one who was there would try to say that Ireland in the sixties was denied a rock 'n' roll initiation. The Freshmen were mainly a covers band — though Brown did write a number of fine songs — and they were best known in the early days for their covers of Beach Boys numbers. I remember the great Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher telling me many years later about going to a Beach Boys concert in Belfast at which the Freshmen played support and seeing the local band blow the headliners off the stage with their own songs. Of course the showbands stifled creativity, but many of them brought a new spark and an original touch to the music they covered. There were enough of such moments (the Royal Showband's ‘The Hucklebuck' was a blistering three minutes as good as anything since) to convey to those who were attuned to the strangeness of the new sounds that there was a world out there unlike anything they had dreamed of.
The point, I suppose, is that while the showband scene was undoubtedly infected with mediocrity, predictability, sterility and reductionism, it was not completely lacking in variety or opportunity. The scene developed as a business rather than a culture — neither organic nor spontaneous. But in spite of — perhaps because of — the artificiality of its origins, it provided a distillation of the options of modern pop music and gave the emerging generation a glimpse of the possibilities that they might not otherwise have been given for another decade. If you want to talk about Irish popular culture in this period, it is the showbands and the folk revival that you must deal with. There was a beat scene in the pubs and clubs of the bigger cities, but it was small and no more original than the showband fare. Moreover, it did not percolate to the radio, which both the folk groups and showbands monopolised between them.
And then came Horslips. I can remember the first time I saw them on television, on one of the intermittent pop shows which RTÉ transmitted to us in one-channel land in the early 1970s. It was about teatime, probably on a midweek evening and I was watching television in a friend's house. I had vaguely heard of Horslips, but thought of them as some kind of variation on the orthodox ‘progressive’ sound, which did nothing for me.
The television presenter announced that the band had come into the studio to perform ‘An Bratach Bán’, a track from their debut album, Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part. The rest is a blur of sensation. I was conscious of the opening notes, three notes repeated on the bass guitar — bbuuuumbbd bhed dumb! bbuum-dub-dum! bbuuuumbbdbhed dumh! bbuum-dub-dum . . Then the organ came in, introducing a layer of something low and promising underneath. Then a hi- hat began to stake out the beat, a light ska that gave back to the tune in rhythm everything it took from it in reverence. And finally the electric fiddle: mocking, yet totally on top of its craft.
This is a lame attempt to describe the music in words. At the time I heard it not as the output of specific instruments but as a statement of intent. Even today, though I know what's coming, it has that same capacity to surprise. ‘An Bratach Bán’ was a traditional song in what sounded like Irish but was actually Scots Gaelic (a first cousin of Irish, but more like an almost identical twin brother), and this was the most shocking part of all. The five musicians all had long hair and wore glitter costumes and platform shoes. It seemed both sacrilegious and revolutionary, funny and serious, but above all . . . right.
The voice came in. Jim Lockhart, standing behind the electric organ, sang into the microphone, holding his hair away from his face. Vickheil yun un bradack banya/ Vickbeil yun on bradack banyal Vickbeil yun un bradack banya . . . Cumyon mein thu lun hard salya . . . It is impossible to convey today how deeply shocking this was to those of us who had been raised in an atmosphere of reverence for both Irish music and the Irish language. What Horslips were doing wasn't utterly unique to them — there were other bands like Planxty, in Ireland, and Fairport Convention, in Britain, but these seemed to be more interested in developing the tradition on the terms on which they had encountered it. Horslips seemed not to care. This was not merely a rocked-up version of a traditional tune, but a reinvention of the medium for a different version of history. It was as though we were being given a glimpse of what the radio might have sounded like if the past eight hundred years had happened differently. It was as though the underground stream of Irish music culture — the way it might have been — had suddenly erupted through the ground into the living rooms of early- seventies Ireland. Horslips changed the history of Irish popular music, and possibly much more besides. They acknowledged a hunger for an Irish music that would respect the permanent and yet be new, that would transcend all tradition and yet be real, everyday, spontaneous and true.
Horslips were the first genuine Irish rock band. They put Irish tunes to a rock beat and wrote songs based on the folk tales of Irish mythology. In retrospect, they seemed to have understood completely the dialectical nature of cultural growth. Refusing the diktats of both trad purists and rock snobs, they sang rock songs in Irish and folk songs in English. They used Ireland as their home, their inspiration and their source. Unlike contemporaries like Rory Gallagher and Thin Lizzy, who focused on London, they were based in Dublin and saw the ballroom circuit as the principal live market. They went away to Britain and the US, and were written up in the music magazines, which allowed us to measure our own perceptions against the possibilities of the outside world. Then they came back and brought their increased quotient of prestige and credibility to the hall down the road. Their comings and goings, recreated in their music, provided a dramatised version of the culture which they now promised to bring to life. Horslips were at once both a product of the showband culture and a reaction to it. They appropriated its slipstream, and ultimately made it bearable. They showed us its limits and its possibilities. They lasted a decade, until, caught between the conflicting demands of an idiom born someplace else and another as yet unable to free itself from the limitations of post-colonial babytalk, Horslips found their chances of growing shattered on the rocks of cultural incomprehension. Their early music was too rooted in Ireland to travel well to Britain and the US, and when they tried to develop it to appease the US market they found themselves losing the spark which had made them appealing at home. After a time, the Irish market was not enough for them, and the band split on the question of how to approach a definitive assault on the US market. When they broke up in the early 1980s, Irish rock again directed its gaze, through the prism of Dublin, to London and the US.
Horslips are the most plausible fragment of ancestry to be found in recent Irish popular culture for U2. In the smallest sense first: their experience provided a map by which U2 manager Paul McGuinness could plan his baby band's assault on the world from Ireland, for which there were few other guides. More importantly, they provided a cultural model by which their putative offspring might seek truthful ways of self-expression out of their own experience. It is not a coincidence that the Horslips bass player, Barry Devlin, produced some of U2's earliest recordings.
But there is an even more interesting way of seeing it. There are, according to Frantz Fanon's analysis, three cultural stages in the trajectory of a colonised people towards freedom. Fanon wrote only about the role of literature, but let us, for the fun of it, spread the net a little wider. In the first phase there is unqualified assimilation: for which read showbands. In the second phase there is an attempt to remember, a going back to the past: ‘old legends will be reinterpreted in the light of a borrowed asceticism and of a conception of the world which was discovered under other skies'. Let us see this as a reference to Horslips.
And the third phase? 'During this phase a great many men and women who up till then would never have thought of producing a literary work . . . feel the need to speak to their nation, to compose the sentence which expresses the heart of the people and to become the mouthpiece of a new reality in action.'
What if, for ‘literary work’ and ‘sentence’, you were to substitute the word ‘song’? And what if the third phase of Irish cultural reawakening had dawned in the form of. . . .
But we move ahead of ourselves. It will be enough for the moment to say that U2 came not so much out of a place as out of a time. They emerged from a chink in Irish popular culture, a freak accident which in retrospect the entire culture seems to have conspired to create, a spectacular one-off now perhaps impossible either to better or repeat.
In this performance with the Ulster Orchestra, Johnny Fean sings ‘I’ll Be Waiting’, from The Man Who Built America:
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