Thursday, January 29, 2015

Boom Boom Boom Boom - Belfast Before The Fall


Johnny Rogan's excellent 2005 No Surrender overview of Van Morrison's deep connectivity with his Northern Irish roots includes recollections of Belfast's thriving rhythm and blues scene of the mid-Sixties. One woman recalled seeing Morrison's Them at the city's Maritime Hotel in College Square North and how: "I knew those days were special and everybody there knew those days were special. There was such an aura about that time in Belfast - and it was never to be repeated. Ever".

Some posts ago in an article about Irish hard rock group Thin Lizzy I mentioned the huge raft of Northern Irish entertainment venues which closed over the course of the Troubles and indeed two of the "Ballrooms of Romance" have been in the news recently. The yet intact Orpheus ballroom in York Street is facing final demolition and there are efforts afoot to restore the Floral Hall near Belfast Zoo. The 1932-vintage Orpheus was situated on the top floor of the Co-Operative department store while details of the latter's history since 1936 can be found on the ever wonderful Lord Belmont catalogue of Irish architecture. Lulu, The Small Faces and Pink Floyd all played at The Floral Hall and the then 
barbed-wire enclosed building was used as a counting centre during the Northern Ireland Border Poll of  1973 - a year when 250 people died in Troubles-related deaths across the British Isles. It closed as an entertainment venue in 1972 and currently is used for storing feed for the city's zoo animals.

The details of the tragic loss of that once thriving Belfast - dance venues, restaurants, cafes, pubs, cinemas and theatres alike - are fascinating to recall yet terribly melancholy to reflect upon.  This encapsulated for myself with regard to the North Street area of Belfast city centre near the long-destroyed Smithfield market. Two other excellent examples of art deco design in the city alongside the ballrooms mentioned above can be found here - namely the derelict Bank of Ireland site and the Sinclair Building opposite. Older readers of the blog will of course recall The Elephant Bar in the street with its famous five-feet high grey wooden elephant outside the entrance. The pub survived many bomb blasts of the Troubles but closed in the Eighties. I have seen many pictures of North Street from the Fifties and Sixties that are so redolent of a bustling North American city of the period - today it is a derelict, haunted and depressing thoroughfare albeit awaiting radical redevelopment by way of university expansion.


An extraordinarily large raft of entertainment venues existed in Sixties Belfast up to the period when serious civil disorder commenced in mid-1969 - comparable to any major port city of its size and enough indeed to warrant its own listings newspaper City Week. An excellent showband feature on the Culture Northern Ireland website notes that - besides The Orpheus and The Maritime Hotel - the main venues in the city centre for live music at the time included The Plaza in Chichester Street which was regarded as the city's best, The Fiesta in Hamilton Street, Romano's in Queen Street, Maxim's in Fountain Street, The Tudor Hall and The Elizabethan in Royal Avenue, The Orchid in King Street, The Astor in College Court, The Boom Boom Rooms (The Starlite) in Arthur Square and The Gala in Victoria Street. 

As noted in the earlier post there were also many busy venues outside the city beside the Floral Hall in Newtownabbey - namely The Embassy in Derry, The Strand in Portstewart, The Arcadia  and Kellys in Portrush, The Savoy in Portadown, The Flamingo in Ballymena, The Locarno in Portaferry, The Star in Omagh, The Top Hat in Lisburn, The Pallidrome in Strabane and Caproni's in Bangor. Of all the details of that lost time and place surely the greatest of all relates to the latter Palais de Danse which bore the legend Through These Doors Have Passed The Most Beautiful Women In The World.

Some of the other Belfast dancehalls that are fondly recalled on internet forums included Betty Staff's in Anne Street, Cecil Clarke's in Upper Donegall Street and Sammy Houston's Jazz Club on Victoria Street. One of the most oft-used pieces of archive television footage of a city centre bombing in the early Seventies was captured near the dancehall in Donegall Street. Anne Street meanwhile was very close to the site of the 1972 Abercorn restaurant atrocity and Victoria Street is the location of Europe and possibly the world's most bombed hotel - The Europa. 

All of these venues held lunchtime and weekday dance sessions and - incredulously enough to consider at a time when Britain is now populated in the main by functioning alcoholics - were dry. The Plaza also set Saturday afternoons aside for children. Terri Hooley's Hooleygan biography recalls  how at Betty Staff's ballroom the owner would separate overly amorous couples with a blast of hairspray though didn't seem to mind the use of cannabis. A public commentator on one forum recalled the night he politely asked a lady for a dance at The Fiesta and was met with the reply "Yes you can have it - I don't want it". In another thread about what people missed from days gone by in Belfast a poster stated:

To those who feel better away from Belfast, good riddance, we have the best people in the world here with a small minority of so-called sectarian bigots on all sides. Forget those imbeciles and concentrate on what we had and have. People of my age in their Seventies met girlfriends and our wives in the great dance halls in Belfast, we could leave girls home to any part of the city and get home safely. The girls from Gallaher's taught me to jive in The Plaza on Monday afternoons. Another thing about old Belfast, it was the working class people who kept the country going. 

The vast majority of these venues did not survive the initial surge of the Troubles and by the time I was growing up in the Seventies the city centre by night had a heavy presence of soldiers and policemen, was cordoned off with a ring of security fences, looked and felt as dead as a ghost town and frequently radiated menace. I used to sense this a lot when driving through Waring Street at nighttime in the family car - now at the heart of the thriving Cathedral Quarter and used for many location shots in the acclaimed crime drama The Fall. Indeed the walk home my father took in the late Fifties after leaving my mother off from their city centre dance would not have been replicated even by Batman 15 years later.

Van Morrison held to the fact that there was a radical creative gulf between the Them of the Maritime stage and the group's two subsequent recorded albums. That said and acknowledged, have a listen to the powerful and driving I Can Only Give You Everything from 1966 on the group's second LP - as written by Derry's Phil Coulter and covered by both The Troggs and The Liverpool Five. Remember that old Belfast and the people who walked those streets in peace - I desperately wish I could have been one of them. 




Monday, January 26, 2015

George Best City - Unquiet Nights


A quite incredible and very moving piece of music about Belfast has been released this month by the artists Unquiet Nights:

http://www.unquietnights.com/news/george-best-city

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Burning Sky - Writings on Ulster History


I have recently been asked by a regular reader of this blog for some pointers towards quality reading on Ulster history. Although obviously highly subjective my personal overview would be as follows.

During the late Seventies the BBC and Thames Television both produced major historical documentaries concerning the conflict  - Ireland A History and The Troubles. The former was written and presented by the late Robert Kee - author of the classic Green Flag trilogy on Irish nationalism - and remains perhaps the definitive and most thoroughly accessible introduction to Irish history in general in my opinion. It should be borne in mind that Roy Foster's Modern Ireland  - which I see often in high street bookshops to this day - is definitely not for beginners. Another volume I would highly recommend is Henry Patterson's Ireland Since 1939.

In terms of the history of Northern Ireland itself ATQ Stewart's The Ulster Crisis and Michael Farrell's The Orange State (and later Arming The Protestants) are the best known Unionist and Nationalist interpretations of the political dynamics surrounding partition. Two other important books covering this period are Patrick Buckland's second volume on Irish Unionism and Timothy Bowman's study of Carson's Ulster Volunteer Force.

Some other important works concerning Northern Ireland between the start of the 20th Century and the re-emergence of political violence in 1966 are John Gray's history of the 1907 Belfast dock strike, Philip Orr's The Road To The Somme about the 36th Ulster Division's fate, Paddy Devlin's work on the 1932 outdoor relief strike and Robert Fisk's overview of the radically different experiences of the Second World War in the two Irish states - A Time Of War. Also worth reading is Brian Barton's study of the actual Luftwaffe raids on Northern Ireland and indeed this entire period is covered in Jonathan Bardon's excellent histories of Ulster and Belfast.

For the period of the modern Troubles itself the best general introduction is probably David McKittrick and David McVea's Making Sense of the Troubles while other comprehensive overviews are Tim Pat Coogan's The Troubles, Jack Holland's Hope Against History and J Bowyer Bell's The Irish Troubles. Peter Taylor's BBC Troubles trilogy from the turn of the century are highly recommended too - Provos, Loyalists and Brits.

Of the paramilitary groups involved in the conflict, Henry McDonald and Jack Cusack have written comprehensive studies of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association - McDonald also co-wrote a history of the Irish National Liberation Army with Jack Holland. The best known serious overview of loyalist militants remains Steve Bruce's The Red Hand while two other important works are David Boulton's early Seventies' study of loyalist paramilitary revival and Sarah Nelson's Ulster Uncertain Defenders. Ian S Woods' Crimes of Loyalty study of the UDA is also worth reading. The Official IRA was the subject of Brian Hanley and Scott Millar's fascinating The Lost Revolution while highly regarded histories of the Provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army have been written by J Bowyer Bell, Ed Moloney and Patrick Bishop and Eamonn Mallie. Toby Harden's Bandit Country and Kevin Toolis' Rebel Hearts are also indispensable.

Of the reportage from the early Troubles, Henry Kelly's How Stormont Fell, the Sunday Times' Insight Team study and Martin Dillon and Dennis Lehane's terrifying Political Murder in Northern Ireland are fascinating reads. Dillon's later The Shankill Butchers and The Dirty War are also essential. The four David McKittrick compilations of articles from The Independent cover all aspects of the Troubles history and the peace process.

In terms of biography, Gill and McMillan's collection of brief studies from the early Eighties are first class and most are easy to find second-hand - WB Yeats, Jonathan Swift, Wolfe Tone, James Joyce, Sean O'Casey, James Connolly, Michael Collins, Charles Parnell, Daniel O'Connell, Eamonn De Valera, Sean Lemass, Arthur Griffith, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and the Irish and Ulster Unionists Edward Carson and James Craig. Other notable works are Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak's portrait of Ian Paisley, David Sharrock and Mark Devenport on Gerry Adams, Henry McDonald on David Trimble, Chris Ryder on Gerry Fitt and Roy Garland on Gusty Spence. Paddy Devlin's autobiography Straight Left  is also excellent and the various recollections of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four prisoners individually make for very grim reading - Gerard Conlon, Paul Hill, Paddy Joe Hill and Hugh Callaghan.

Other important political works I would highly recommend would be Flann Campbell's The Dissenting Voice history of Northern Protestant radicalism, Alan F Parkinson and Malachi O'Doherty's seperate studies of the worst year of the Troubles - 1972, Robert Fisk's The Point of No Return about the May 1974 Ulster Worker's Council Strike, Jack Holland's Too Long A Sacrifice and Anthony Bailey's Acts of Union reportage, both Padraig O'Malley and David Beresford's works on the 1981 IRA hunger strike, Henry McDonald's Colours and Gunsmoke and Mirrors, Chris Ryder and Vincent Kearney's study of the Drumcree dispute, Ed Moloney's Voices From The Grave interviews with paramilitary figures and Derek Lundy's Men That God Made Mad review of his own Unionist family history. All the fatalities of the Troubles are catalogued in David McKittrick et al's Lost Lives - also see Susan McKay's Bear In Mind These Dead and the WAVE Trauma Centre's deeply disturbing collection of interviews with individuals seriously injured by terrorist violence.

Finally, ten particularly interesting books regarding Ulster that I would suggest are worth investigation are Geoffrey Beattie's We Are The People and Protestant Boy recollections of his youth in loyalist Belfast, the late Wolverhampton Wanderers footballer Derek Dougan's The Sash He Never Wore, punk legend Terri Hooley's Hooleygan autobiography, Lebanese hostage Brian Keenan's I'll Tell Me Ma's memories of his childhood in a now vanished North Belfast, Teddy Jamieson's superb Whose Side Are You On study of sport and the Ulster conflict, Johnny Rogan's No Surrender analysis of Van Morrison and Northern Ireland and Kevin Myer's Watching The Door recollections of his professional engagement with Troubles Belfast.

All these works recall desperate years of bigotry and madness in Ulster and very sad times for the whole of Ireland - so many different generations alike sharing the same wasted years and wasted time.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Vagabonds of the Western World - Remembering Thin Lizzy





And so the most somnambulant Christmas of my near half century on this earth comes to closure. London has seemed completely unanimated since the second week of December right through to around Wednesday 7th January no less. Yet another extraordinary reflection of changing demographics in the capital which makes little sense on any front - let alone the logistics of modern employment as I have ever experienced them personally. Or anybody I know has for that matter.

That most seriously ghostly period of Christmas remains of course the definitive focus of pained nostalgia for so many people thinking back to a long lost Britain - as discussed in the previous post on Brian Desmond Hurst's Scrooge and the 1914 Christmas Truce. Digital technology alas has seemed to have fundamentally undermined so much residual charm of the period in turn with such a large part of the population now physically, emotionally and spiritually welded to hand-held devices - the blanket collapse of Christmas television viewing as an industry ratings-focus merrily helping this decline along apace.

That particular aspect of a shared family Christmas - from grimly dated material like Morecambe and Wise through to serious quality output like the BBC's annual Ghost Story For Christmas - is certainly gone for good though a few pieces of music have still remained a mainstay for myself at that time of year. I think in this respect of Mario Lanza's beautiful collection of Christmas hymns and carols on RCA Victor from 1959, Horslips' timeless folk collection Drive The Cold Winter Away from 1975 and Elvis Presley's Seventies Christmas album - released in October 1971 and recorded in May of that year in Nashville.

One particular aspect of festive times gone by that I recall was avidly listening - on the evening of Christmas Day itself - to the vinyl LPs I had received that morning as presents. I remember a degree of physical engagement that now sits in absolute reversal to the modern day when human patience can barely handle 45 seconds of full album uploads on youtube before moving onto the next full album upload. Such an incredible paradigm shift indeed from treating music with total absorption as compared to ludicrous disrespect to the artists. I clearly recall listening in this regard all those years back to Led Zeppelin's third and fourth albums, Rush's A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, The Beatles' red and blue compilations and Kate Bush's Lionheart and Never Forever. Perhaps beyond all of these however I think of Thin Lizzy's 1978 Live and Dangerous - one of the greatest live rock albums of all time and as ranking alongside Van Morrison's It's Too Late To Stop Now, Deep Purple's Made In Japan and The Who's Live At Leeds.

Thin Lizzy were formed in Dublin in 1969 and released twelve studio albums between 1971 and 1983 in all  - the first three falling within the remit of bluesy progressive rock, the middle six being broadly hard rock in focus and the remaining three residing within the heavy metal genre in essence. With the exception of a single track - the fourth single The Rocker - the classic live album is drawn from the three year period between 1974 and 1977 and the five releases Nightlife, Fighting, Jailbreak, Johnny the Fox and Bad Reputation - the lineup throughout this time being Irishmen Phil Lynott and Brian Downey, the Scot Brian Robertson and Californian Scott Gorham.

For all that I have just previously disparaged the impatience with which people now treat album uploads on digital interfaces I must confess that the first side of Live and Dangerous was so incredibly exhilarating that I found myself repeating the same four-track song-cycle time and time again and found it difficult to ever even get to the second side. This consisted of Jailbreak, Emerald (which along with Horslips' Dearg Doom remains the greatest of all celtic rock songs into perpetuity), Southbound and the Bob Seger cover Rosalie. Ironically Southbound's lyrics prefigure the radical financial struggles ahead for so many millions of people across the British Isles in the decades to come and to this very day - it is a beautiful piece which clearly stands equal to the other three more famous songs around it. Two other Thin Lizzy songs talk about the curse of emigration from a politically and economically-wracked Ireland in Wild One from Fighting and Fool's Gold from the Johnny The Fox album.

To my complete discredit I never got around to seeing Thin Lizzy live in the late Seventies and early Eighties when growing up in Belfast and look back on this with great regret - similar to missing The Skids in the same period and subsequently The Cramps and the original Hugh Cornwell-lineup of The Stranglers after moving to London. Like Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy would often play in Belfast across the timespan of the Ulster Troubles and two of their guitarists - Eric Bell and the late Gary Moore - came from Joceyln Avenue and Castleview Road in the east of the city. An overview of the group's concert history throws up many venues in Belfast and Northern Ireland that are now long gone:

1970 - The Astor Belfast in March, The Carousel's Zig Zag Discotheque Belfast in April and the McMordie Hall at Queens University Belfast in May. Ulster Hall Belfast (two gigs) and Newry Town Hall in October. They also played at the Embassy Ballroom in Derry City during the year.

1971 - Another gig at the Embassy Ballroom in Derry and the Town and Country Inn in Newtownards.

1972 - Kelly's Barn Portrush, Ballymena's Flamingo and the King's Arms Hotel in Larne in July.

1973 - Eric Bell's last performance with the group on New Year's Eve at Queen's University.

1974 - Ulster Hall in January and The Carousel in April. Kelly's Hotel Portrush, Antrim Town's Deerpark Hotel and the King's Club in Bangor in July. In August they played the Deerpark Hotel again and the Ulster Hall. Kellys at Portrush on Boxing Day. Other internet resources mention gigs in Newtownards, Dromore, the Royal Arms Hotel in Omagh and the New University of Ulster at Coleraine. Also a December gig at Romanos Ballroom in Belfast.

1975 - The Flamingo in Ballymena in January.

1978 - Two nights at the Ulster Hall in June.

1980 - Lakeland Forum in Enniskillen and The Forum in Antrim in January. Also a gig at the King's Hall in Belfast.

1982 - Three concerts at the Whitla Hall Belfast in January. Phil Lynott played a solo concert at Derry's Rialto in this year - another at the Maysfield Leisure Centre in Belfast was cancelled.

1983 - Last Thin Lizzy concert in Northern Ireland at the King's Hall Belfast on 8th April.

(The Astor was a dance hall in College Court off Castle Street in Belfast and was one of the city's most popular showband venues and later home to the late Sixties "Marquee Club". It closed in the early Seventies in the midst of the terrorist campaigns of the time and was demolished in 2001. The Carousel was located in Chichester Street in central Belfast - the date of its closure is unknown. Romanos Ballroom was in Queen Street in the city and closed around 1969-70. Ballymena's Flamingo hosted concerts by the likes of The Small Faces, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and Dusty Springfield from its opening in 1959. It also closed at the start of the Seventies. The King's Arms Hotel in Larne was damaged in a large IRA car bomb attack in 1980 and would no longer appear to be in business while The Deerpark Hotel in Antrim was demolished in the late Nineties. The Royal Arms Hotel in Omagh closed in 1999. The Rialto Theatre in Derry became a Primark store and the Embassy Ballroom a nightclub. I can find no information at present on The King's Club in Bangor or the Town and Country Club in Newtownards - both in County Down).

A year after the group split up in 1983 Gary Moore and Phil Lynott released the bestselling single Out In The Fields about the bitter conflict in Ulster. Lynott had released solo albums in 1980 and 1982 - the former covering subjects ranging from now-vanished Soho streetscapes to the death of Elvis Presley to the London punk scene of 1979.

At Christmas in Belfast I noticed that a set of several murals facing The Duke of York pub in the Cathedral Quarter included one of famous Belfast and Ulster personalities including Gary Moore. Alongside him were portrayed George Best, the comic actor James Young, boxer Rinty Monaghan, poet Seamus Heaney, punk icon Terri Hooley, snooker champion Alex Higgins, The Chieftans' instrumentalist Derek Bell, actor Liam Neeson, Eurovisionists Dana and Clodagh Rogers, flautist James Galways, songwriter Phil Coulter and goalkeeper Pat Jennings. Leaning against a wall at the back and looking at the stars - in front of a poster for The Maritime blues venue of Them-vintage - stands Phil Lynott the black Dubliner.

During the Sixties George Best would frequent the overnight bar at the Clifton Grange Hotel in Manchester's Whalley Range which was run at that time by Lynott's mother Philomena - Phil Lynott was a huge Manchester United fan over years and wrote a track about Best called For Those Who Love To Live. He also namechecked the footballer - along with Van Morrison and the Mountains of Mourne - in the Black Rose song's litany of Irish icons.

Very few places in the world produced celebrity figures as cool, utterly unique and charismatic as Best and Lynott in the Seventies - let alone a country at war. So much of the light and style and warmth of Irish cultural identity are embodied in these two men who left this world way too soon. Have a listen tonight to 1973's Vagabonds of the Western World track to remember just how good Thin Lizzy were.

The Rocker and Georgie Best died of substance abuse at the ages of 36 and 59 respectively. Lynott passed away in 1986 and is buried in St Fintan's Cemetery in the Northside of Dublin at the base of Howth Head  - Best died in 2005 is buried in Roselawn Cemetery on the outskirts of East Belfast with his mother and father.