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

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