So Black 47 will be disbanding in October 2014 – or as one wag put it, “standing down.” It would certainly seem like that after all the controversy, but to us it’s always been about the music and creating something original.
That’s what Chris Byrne and I had in mind the first night we played the Bronx in October 1989. We were hired to knock out a couple of sets before a speech by Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, no stranger to controversy herself. In the midst of our Reggae tune, Desperate, some loudmouth demanded, “Play something Irish.” To which I replied, “I’m Irish, I wrote it, what does that make it?”
That challenge initiated a veritable war around Bainbridge and 204th Street for the next year. The punters wanted to hear The Pogues, The Saw Docs, The Waterboys – all great bands, but what point in looking back to Galway or London. We were from New York, the city of Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Public Enemy. We were out to create something uniquely Irish-American – and we did.
It wouldn’t have happened, though, without those battles in the Bronx. Within a year we were opening for The Pogues in London, much of the audience screaming, “Get Off!” before we’d even played a note. But that was child’s play compared to 200 pounds of an irate Connemara man waving a bottle in your face in the Village Pub because you wouldn’t play Fisherman’s Blues. We just turned up the amplifiers to eleven and gave them an earful of Home of the Brave; there are Pogues fans in Camden Town still complaining of deafness.
Oscar Wilde said unless people don’t like what you’re doing, you’re not original. That man never played The Roaring Twenties on a hungover Monday night to test his theory. But we did!
Eventually we gained our own large following, though we never lost the “unconverted,” so I guess we’re still doing something right. It was an amazing trajectory from Bainbridge to Leno, Letterman, O’Brien, Farm Aid with Johnny Cash and Neil Young, Joe Strummer saying we were the only band that mattered, and all the other highlights that we’ve been too busy to savor.
Even now we’re working on Last Call, an album of new songs, still trying to stretch the envelope. Because there’s no stasis in this business – you either move forward or you become irrelevant.
I don’t know how many gigs we’ve played – who had time to count – 2500 or more; and in the end, who cares? The songs will remain; they’ll speak for themselves and the times we chronicled. By my lights Chris Byrne’s Time To Go is the best protest song this side of Patriot Game. Think back to the early 90’s, the North of Ireland was a battle zone, Sinn Fein were pariahs. That song brings you right back there and says more in four minutes than any history book.
The first three years of the Iraq War were a low point. People were writing, “Thank you for protesting, I’ll lose my job if I do.” Talk about free speech!
What was often lost in the furor was that on the IRAQ CD we were merely retelling the stories of our fans over there doing the fighting. All water under the bridge now; everyone pumps their fist in the air to Downtown Baghdad Blues or smooches to Ramadi - everyone except wounded warriors and those who didn’t make it home.
Inevitably in a long passionate career there are tragedies: the casualties include our beloved soundman, Johnny Byrne. And who can forget the awful St. Patrick’s night at The Academy when a life was lost and two people seriously injured.
But then you think of the thousands of performances when we lit up venues from small pubs to stadiums. My favorite moment was the first time we played James Connolly in Paddy Reilly’s. In the dead silence that followed the song everyone knew that they’d heard something totally unique; how often do you experience that?
I hope you’ll come see us over the next year. Black 47 is always at its best when hammering out new songs. And though we’ve surely failed many times, we’ve never aspired to be anything less than the best!