IT’S the balmy summer of 1977. The radio airwaves groan out an increasingly staid hit parade, laden with the latest middle of the road melodies from the Brotherhood of Man, Boney M and Showaddywaddy.
On television, the Fonz impresses nobody when he bounds over a shark on water-skis. Meanwhile, on the big screen, Luke Skywalker busies himself destroying the Death Star over and over again for appreciative audiences. All the while, the Queen is celebrating her Silver Jubilee.
And the King is dead.
At the time of his death, Elvis Presley embodied the unfortunate state of rock music in the mid-1970s. Past his prime, bloated and portentous, he bore little similarity to the man who once inspired outrage with his incendiary guitar riffs and his swivelling hips. Rock had lost its provocative edge, its danger, and, with it, much of its youth appeal.
All of that, however, was about to change as, slowly but surely, the Sex Pistols encroached upon the public consciousness. Staggering along a path to notoriety paved with simplistic, contagious power chords (and plenty of obscenity and bile) they leapt intentionally from controversy to controversy - be it dropping a spectacular fusillade of ‘F’ bombs on primetime television, or castigating against the monarchy with audible venom on their deliberately timed 1977 single ‘God Save The Queen.’
As the Pistols called for ‘Anarchy in the UK,’ they stoked the flames of moral panic whilst lighting the ferment for a new youth subculture. The more that besuited newsreaders - not to mention concerned parents and teachers - voiced their distaste for the smirking, pill popping, glue sniffing punks, the more exciting and vital they became.
The ethos was very much one of do it yourself. Got a guitar that you don’t know how to play properly? Don’t let that keep you from joining a band and getting onstage. Can’t sing? You can slur, sneer and spit though, so you’re the lead singer. Can’t find a record label to release your single? Find a way to get it pressed yourself.
After all, punk was never really about the music. It was the noise, the camaraderie, the adrenalin - the pure, non-conformist buzz of being a teenager screaming at a society that had lost the ability to shape you.
In Northern Ireland, such sentiments were amplified out of a desire to be to be heard over the onslaught of violence that gripped the country in the 1970s. The intensity of punk arrived on these shores amidst intense times, so it was only natural that the genre and accompanying lifestyle secured such a fanatical local following.
Indeed, during those uncertain days, if you ventured along Great Victoria Street (the most bombed street in Europe at that time), you’d eventually be greeted with a life-sized wooden cutout of the recently departed Elvis Presley. To climb the staircase the King gestured to was to bear witness to the changing of the musical guard - and the genesis of an Alternative Ulster.
It was the headquarters of impresario Terri Hooley’s ‘Good Vibrations’ enterprise. On the one hand, it was a record shop, stocking all the latest punk and New Wave music and fanzines. On the other, it was an independent record label lending a voice to Northern Irish talent like such as Rudi, the Outcasts and the Undertones.
“I can remember getting chased down the stairs by Terri because I was nicking gig posters from the wall,” recalled Antrim man and punk archivist Sean O’Neill.
“I always tried to take my time so as not to rip the posters on the staples, so this increased the risk of being spotted.”
Back in 2003, O’Neill - stripped of his spikes and safety pins by the passage of time, but not of his loyalty to the movement that shaped his formative years -struck success alongside fellow Antrim man Guy Trelford with the publication of their retrospective punk history, entitled ‘It Makes You Want To Spit’.
Painstakingly documenting the local punk and New Wave scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the book was an instant critical success following its launch at Queen’s University’s Belfast Festival. Over the course of the book, O’Neill and Trelford convincingly portray how there was more to Northern Irish punk than the Undertone’s timeless classic ‘Teenage Kicks,’ thrusting the spotlight on lesser known but no less authentic ensembles such as Dogmatic Element, Moral Support and Dick Tracy & The Green Disaster.
It also boasted an impressive array of input from celebrities who remember that exciting time, including writer Colin Bateman, Ulster DJs Stuart Baile and Johnny Hero, the late John Peel of the BBC, and John Strummer of the Clash.
For many, the wealth of photographs - lovingly compiled over a five-year period - featured within the pages of the book were particularly evocative, capturing for posterity that fleeting moment when hair was exotic, colours were no longer optional, and trousers were bondage. Incredibly, Antrim was at the eye of the storm.
“Punk in Antrim certainly drew people together, cutting across divisions of class and religion, creating a very real sense of camaraderie,” explained Sean. “It really did feel like it was us against the world!
“Punk certainly inspired us to question everything, think for ourselves and go out and do our own thing. Antrim had several bands back then too and many lasting friendships were forged.
“Because the look was very different, I’m often asked if it was about the music or the attitude. Well, for me it was the whole package - the look, the attitude, the music, and what is often overlooked, the fun and excitement of it all!
“Like a lot of people, the Sex Pistols kick started it all for me. Locally, bands such as the Outcasts, Rudi, and the Defects were great live bands and leading lights on the local scene.”
As their interest grew, the Antrim punks began to devote more energy to perfecting the distinctive punk look. A double take from a shocked parent was often a good indication that they were on the right lines.
“Gear was mostly obtained via small mail order companies who regularly advertised in music papers such as the NME, Sounds and Melody Maker,” said Sean.
“There were also a few outlets in Belfast later on, such as Image, which we frequented.
“Much later on, Ronnie Miller’s Pop-In record shop in Antrim also took to stocking some T shirts and bondage trousers.
“Hair-wise, soap was used. As was egg white. Both obtained the desired effect when combined with standing on your head under a good hairdryer.”
Once dressed, it was time to hit the town, and one of their favourite haunts was the Castle Grounds - which was the scene of many a rowdy party. There were also road trips all over Ireland and the UK to gigs and gatherings.
However, even though the movement continued to burn brightly into the early 1980s, the ranks of the Antrim punks began to thin. Little by little, perhaps inevitably, the music and swagger began to fade as the Spirit of ’77 petered out into folk memory.
Many of the players got jobs, settled down, had families of their own. Punk had come of age - a dangerous development in a scene which was always a young man’s game.
Nonetheless, Sean kept the faith, his interest weathering a number of crude late 1980s literary efforts to dissect and explain what the movement had been about.
“At the time I was sick and tired of reading books that seemed to think punk began and ended with a small clique of fashionistas in London and once us oiks from elsewhere discovered it then it was all over.
“To paraphrase the Pistols, what a load of b*llocks!”
This indignation was channeled into his book - and once he and Guy completed the project, it became apparent that reports of the demise of punk had been grossly exaggerated. The reaction was ‘instant and overwhelming’ and local punk fans were galvanised in a way they hadn’t been for years. They loved it, but soon they wanted more.
It eventually evolved into an award winning website- www.spitrecords.co.uk- which, as the name suggests, is also the home of a label devoted to uncovering rare and unreleased recordings others simply can’t reach.
“The Spit book took some five years to complete but I’m still collecting and updating band bios etc on the website,” said Sean. “It never stops!
“In many respects, the label is a companion to the book and website. I’m always keen for people to get in touch if they have any old photographs or information - and, in turn, there are hundreds of fantastic images on there.
“The premise of the label is to issue previously unreleased material by Northern Ireland punk and New Wave bands from the late 70s early 80s.”
At present, Sean’s label has accrued and released albums from an impressive roster of artists. The Outcasts, the Androids, White Noise, the Co-Ordinates, Shock Treatment and Rudi are among the groups that today comprise the Spit Records stable.
“People who were around at the time,” he adds, “will appreciate what a big deal that is.”
In recent years, punk has enjoyed something of a resurgence as interest in the era, music and subculture regains momentum. In 2013, the exploits of Belfast punk godfather Terri Hooley were celebrated in the acclaimed feature length film ‘Good Vibrations,’ starring future ‘Game of Thrones’ actor Richard Dormer as the irrepressible Hooley, and Jodie Whittaker of eventual ‘Broadchurch’ and ‘Doctor Who’ fame as his wife Ruth.
Having attended the premiere of the film, Sean recalls that “there were lots of ‘Good Vibes’ in the Ulster Hall that night.
“The film was surprisingly upbeat and hilariously funny with a great attention to detail. I’ve no doubt it will travel well and stand the test of time. After all, history never goes out of date!
“The only ghosts from the past that I observed were contained in the images of actual punks from the time used in conjunction with the closing credits. These featured quite a few Antrim punks - some of whom are sadly no longer with us.”
After 58 years behind the decks, Terri Hooley had planned to retire this year following a final DJ-ing tour, which he wryly dubbed the ‘Goodbye Vibrations Tour.’ One of the venues that had been earmarked for this last tour had been Antrim’s very own Madden’s Bar - but the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has regrettably put paid to these plans.
Sadly, the current coronavirus situation is hardly conducive to experiencing punk in its natural habitat. After all, it takes little imagination to understand why it may be far-fetched at present to be packed like sardines with your peers, raving in a sweaty subterranean venue. That said, Northern Ireland’s punk renaissance is hardly at an end.
Set for release at the end of July, Cherry Red Records’ ‘Shellshock Rock: Alternative Blasts From Northern Ireland 1977-1984’ sets out to chronicle punk’s heyday over the span of three CDs, with a total of 74 musical selections from the length and breadth of the province. Buyers of the set will also be treated to a DVD reissue of John T. Davis’ award-winning and zeitgeist-encapsulating documentary, ‘Shellshock Rock’.
Over the course of the box set, all of Northern Ireland’s most renowned punk artists brush shoulders with others who, until now, had been largely forgotten. The more familiar names are represented with lesser known cuts from their discographies, no doubt to the enjoyment of collectors.
But, of course, what matters is the music - and what is collated here is a treat for punk fans old and new.
Opening with the Undertones’ ‘True Confessions’- replete with lean, churning guitars and Feargal Sharkey’s familiar warble - we are then taken on a tour taking in the raw eclecticism of Northern Irish punk.
As to be expected, the grim shadow of the Troubles is never far away, as exemplified by the inclusion of the Starjet’s ‘War Stories,’ ‘Suspect Device’ by Stiff Little Fingers, and Rod Vey’s ‘Soldier Boy.’
Nonetheless, other tracks, such as ‘Teenage Rebel’ by Strike, the Fader’s ‘In It For The Kicks’ and Victim’s ‘The Teen Age’ speak of the universal experience of punk: the exhilaration, the self-awareness and, most crucially, the sense of rebellion.
There’s even a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s country standard ‘Me & Bobby McGee’ (a favourite in the repertoire of many a local showband) by Lenny & the Lawbreakers. Beginning fairly true to the original source material, it accelerates into a scuzzy, throat-tearing stomp at roughly the 50 second mark.
Scanning through the meticulously researched accompanying booklet featuring an introductory essay by Stuart Bailie and individual sleeve notes for each featured artist, punk fans may notice a familiar credit repeated throughout - ‘Courtesy of Spit Records.’
Antrim’s own Sean O’Neill has secured the town an unlikely place on the map as a bastion of punk.
The Spirit of ’77 is back - if it ever left. Rude health, of course.