Tuesday 20 May 2014

The Night The Showbands Died

“Silicon suits, ballroom romance
Belfast on fire, would you care to dance?
All mixed up, no rhyme nor reason
Don’t cross the Border in the middle of Marching Season…”

            Songs have a way of shooting you back in time, don’t they? I only have to play the first chords of The Night The Showbands Died and I’m right back in Ireland in the summer of 1975.

            It was a bad time. Sectarian killings had become the norm up North; but being relatively early in the conflict, there was still an inkling of hope that things could get better.

            Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher and Planxty ruled the cool scene, while showbands dominated dancehalls on both sides of the Border. A band had to know two national anthems and be ready to play whichever depending on the community. In the rare “mixed halls,” the lights came up instantly after the last song to forestall any provocative requests for either A Soldier’s Song or God Save The Queen.

            In reality, though, showbands were hurting. Punters no longer wished to attend alcohol-free parochial dances. Large pub lounges featured three or four piece groups while strobe-lit discos were now more to the taste of the dancing populace.

            The Miami Showband was an exception. An institution since the early 60’s this Dublin outfit was surging again in popularity largely because of lead singer, Fran O’Toole. An unlikely mixture of Otis Redding and Georgie Fame, Fran wasn’t a great showman – no it was that voice; it would stop you dead in your tracks at a dance and you’d find yourself standing alone humming along while your friends danced off with the pretty girls.

            Fran was a beautiful guy. My band opened for the Miami a couple of times in Wexford; we weren’t just bad, even our friends considered us god-awful. Still, Fran always made a point of commenting favorably on some song that we’d totally butchered. Later on in Dublin if I ran into him at the Television Club on Monday’s Showband Night Out, he’d favor me with a friendly wink.

            I often wondered what was the vibe like at the Miami’s last gig in the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge, County Down. As ever the six piece signed autographs and chatted with the punters before setting out on their fateful return trip to Dublin.

            Another band heading home
            Down the AI to Newry Town
            “British roadblock up ahead”

            They had reached Bushkill, seven miles north of Newry, when they were flagged down by a group of men dressed in British Army uniforms. Though in disguise, four of these were actually members of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) a British Army regiment; all were members of the dreaded Catholic-hating, Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

            “Good night lads, what’s the craic
            Step out of the van, it’s just a wee check.”

            Lined up by the side of the road, the band was not unduly worried, for a British officer had arrived and seemed to be in command. Then bassist, Steve Travers, heard the “soldiers” rummaging in the back of the Volkswagen van and was fearful for his new guitar.

            “Careful with that guitar there, man
            What are you putting in the back of the van?”

            They roughly shoved Steve back in line, luckily for him, for the soldering came loose on the bomb they were planting and it detonated, ripping them to shreds. The remaining “soldiers” opened fire killing three of the band and badly injuring two others. They chased Fran through a field and pumped 22 bullets into his face.

            Awful things had already happened up North, but all innocence evaporated that night. Bands refused to cross the Border and contact between the communities froze.

            It’s almost 40 years ago but the case will soon be reopened, for some of the survivors and families of the deceased have sued the British Ministry of Defence and the Chief Constable of the PSNI over suspicion of collusion between the British Army and the Loyalist gang.

            We’ll never hear Fran O’Toole’s amazing live voice again, but perhaps someday we will get the full story of the night the showbands died.

The Night The Showbands Died is from Last Call, Black 47’s final CD. It can be heard at www.black47.com

Monday 12 May 2014

Dream Big/Work Hard

            You have to wonder about the vitriolic regard in which President Obama is held by big business.

            After all, the man bailed out Wall Street with the Troubled Asset Relief Program when the financial services sector almost wrecked the whole economic system. Toss in the fact that he went to bat for the now thriving American car industry when many said it should be abandoned and you’d imagine the captains and the kings would be nominating him for capitalist canonization.

            Stock prices are at, or near, an all time high, as are corporate profits and upper management remuneration. Productivity is just humming along now that fewer employees are doing more work for the same paychecks.

            Large companies are sitting on mountains of cash with no requirement, or incentive, to reinvest in job training; besides which, they can park foreign profits outside the country until the cows come home without threat of taxation.

            The Dodd-Frank Consumer Protection Act has been, at most, a minor irritant and has done little to prevent Wall Street cowboys from once again riding the financial range. With Hillary Clinton waiting in the wings for coronation, a real reformer like Elizabeth Warren will have to wait at least another six years to make a run for the roses.

            So what exactly is the problem with Barack Obama? Could it be race? It’s hard to imagine given that the US boasts a remarkably integrated society. Turn on your TV – look at sports, entertainment, even weather forecasting, African-Americans are well represented – at least on the surface.

            But recently while talking to a middle-aged, well-to-do, white gentleman the subject of the president arose. After suffering through the standard, “He’s out to turn the country into goddamn Cuba” diatribe, the real reason for his distaste emerged: “I hate the way he lectures me.”

            That statement left me perplexed. Does Barack Obama lecture more than his predecessors? If anything he’s quite cautious in his pronouncements, and logical to an extreme. 

Perhaps the gentleman preferred the “bomb ‘em first, talk later” credo of President Bush or “explain to them until they’re blue in the face then they’ll leave you the hell alone” stratagem of President Clinton.

Or could it be that he just doesn’t like a black man running the show?

            I realize that this is not exactly a comfortable suggestion; but cut me some slack I’ve been laboring for a couple of years on a musical about the intricacies of race during the New York City Draft Riots of 1863.

            Race was a tortuous subject back then and it’s lost none of its capacity to engage, embarrass and annoy; and yet it’s safe to say that, for the most part, the US does its best to deal fairly with this extremely complex issue.

            After all, we did elect a black president and we’ve largely gone about our business paying him the normal amount of heed or lack of attention that we devote to any politician. I believe that’s because Barack Obama is no 50 Cent or Mike Tyson; rather he’s a paid up member of the Ivy League clique that perennially rules the country.

            And yet, there’s a resistance to this moderate, cautious man that seems to go far beyond normal ideological differences. Perhaps, it’s an unease with the history of the country – for there’s no denying that some of the Founding Fathers were slave owners, while the first union of states could only be achieved by putting the moral issue of slavery on the long finger.

            Or could it be that the resistance to Barack Obama is merely symptomatic of the discomfort that follows a barrier being broken – as happened with the election of Jack Kennedy, the first Catholic president.

            Despite any beefs I might have with this black president over his caution and pragmatism, I recognize that he’s still a symbol of the greatness of the country; moreover, he’s an inspiration to all races, classes and creeds, that if you dream big and work hard enough you or your children could one day become president too.