I was talking about Irish showbands on Celtic Crush - my SiriusXM show - recently when I realized I’d never actually played a track by these oft-maligned musical outfits.
So, off with me to iTunes where I found Irish Showands – The Hits Collection – 50 tracks from greats such as The Royal, The Miami, The Capitol, The Dixies, all the way down to unknowns the like of Trevor Kelly and the Galaxy, and The Epic.
Showbands ruled the roost in Irish entertainment from the mid-1950’s until the massacre of The Miami Showband outside Newry in 1975.
They had a distinctive sound, for they sported a brass section of sax, trombone and trumpet. Since brass was not called for in many songs, it was incumbent upon the section to dance – or at least move in time – hence was born the showband shuffle.
A raw teenager, I entered the showband ranks towards the end of their reign - recruited by Johnny Reck, a legend in Wexford musical circles. He had observed me playing a pub gig and invited me to become his bassist with the following confidence-building line, “Six strings seem to be a bit beyond you – let’s start you out on four!”
The other members – a surly bunch somewhat taken with alcohol – were even less impressed; but no matter, there was a shortage of singers and I was hot to trot. As was my friend, Pierce Turner, who joined soon after.
We were on the far side of atrocious, but Johnny was a nimble thinker for we played under many names including The Liars, The Palladium, and the Johnny Reck Showband to prevent instant identification.
We did have a bit of a following around Wexford Town with the hip, the hearing-challenged, and rival gangs of teenage psychos. ‘Twas in this band I learned to play standing on one foot while kicking out at combatants sent sprawling onto the stage. This skill would later serve me well in CBGB’s and various drinking emporiums on Bainbridge Avenue.
At first my teenage girlfriend refused to attend our dances for as she put it, “you’re feckin’ awful, and besides your crowd is fierce rough.”
She changed her tune soon though, for Johnny had a brainwave: he got the band members to join the Musicians Union of Ireland. Then he contacted all the local big ballrooms and informed the promoters that he’d shut them down if they failed to hire union members for the warm-up band slot.
We were suddenly catapulted into greatness. From local buckets-of-blood we ascended the majestic stage of Wexford’s Parish Hall, and similar venues.
We had not, however, improved musically. Most of the starring bands were decent about this but Ben Dolan of the Drifters took grave exception. He basically agreed with my girlfriend’s evaluation of our talents, but his language was far more pointed and profane.
Not that it mattered for Wexford was a pro-union town – like the revered Larkin and Connolly we were loyal union members and had to be hired.
Ben’s brother, the mighty Joe Dolan, said little but occasionally he’d sneak into the wings to observe us, for what Turner and I lacked in musical sophistication we made up for in sheer gusto. Chords, harmonies, lyrics, mattered little to us – we were striving for Wexford originality – even if we weren’t quite sure what such a thing might be.
For about a year we opened for all the big names – we even started to improve - slightly.
Then catastrophe struck: we were expelled from the union for failing to attend the annual mass for deceased members! To add insult to injury, my girlfriend ditched me for an artificial insemination inspector; so I resigned from Johnny’s band of many names and moved to Dublin.
I’ve been moving ever since. But one night recently after a couple of drinks I downloaded Irish Showbands – The Hits Collection and turned up the volume full blast.
I then resurrected my showband shuffle and danced solo to The Royal, The Freshmen, The Pacific, The Dixies, and The Mighty Avons; and for a sweaty hour I was back in my glory nights in Wexford’s Parish Hall with Joe Dolan smiling enigmatically at me from the wings.