Sunday 8 December 2019

Here comes the history of Irish rock in four hours

Van Morrison
Van Morrison
Phil Lynott and Rory Gallagher in 1982

Dave Fanning

How long does it take to tell the story of Irish rock? It probably depends on how much time you have and I've been given four hours on BBC 6 Music (starting tomorrow at 1pm), so my journey will be less a history and more a quick tour through great moments that brought so much joy to so many.

It's 50 years this July since Them recorded their first studio session in Belfast. Them had mid-60s hits with bona-fide classics such as 'Here Comes the Night' and 'Gloria' and, of course, the band were fronted by Van Morrison.

After Van from Belfast, it's down to Cork for Rory Gallagher. It's the connection between these two that's the real starting point for my journey, because once you go back to their roots – that peculiar Irish phenomenon, the showband – you can start.

In the 60s there was a time when the only real way a professional musician could make a living was by playing in a showband, travelling the highways and byways, packing clubs and dance halls, churning out the hits of the day – the songs of The Beatles, The Stones, The Searchers, The Hollies, The Supremes, The Kinks. Van Morrison played in a showband called The Monarchs, Rory played in The Fontana. In between, in Dublin, Phil Lynott was in rock band The Black Eagles, then Skid Row.

It's the three of these – Morrison, Gallagher and Lynott – who constituted the frontline in the world of 70s Irish rock. And since we only have four hours, after that, we'll go in all directions.

The first programme takes the album angle, not necessarily each artist's greatest, bestselling or even best received but, for various reasons, they're as good a definition of what makes their music great as any other. So, bypassing the decade-a-programme route, after that it's a collection of classic tracks from Irish acts. Then we'll alternate bands from the North with acts from the South and for the following week it's acts from this century, with an emphasis on those happening now.

With the latter, there'll be room for bands such as Little Green Cars, O Emperor, The Strypes and solo acts such as Adrian Crowley, Cat Dowling and Hozier.

Across all four programmes Van and U2 will obviously feature most and, with no interviews – just some set-up and context – the music is the message.

From some of the bigger names, for example, Snow Patrol and Sinead O'Connor, I'll feature something from their more interesting, less commercial side.

From internationally less well-known acts who've been making consistently interesting music this century (from Bell X1 to Adrian Crowley – 14 albums between them) there are so many fine tracks to pick from. And, of course, when it comes to great tracks from great acts there has to be room for the likes of Thin Lizzy's 'The Boys Are Back in Town' and The Undertones' 'Teenage Kicks'.

We've been at this thing for 50 years; the British invasion didn't just happen to America. While we were as affected and optimistic as anywhere else, a certain innocence has been lost over the past decades, and the technological revolution which has democratised all of the music industry means that we've grown out of our adolescence into uncharted waters.

In the 80s we stumbled blindly, naively, even gloriously, into the international spotlight, emboldened by the success of U2 and ignorant of the pitfalls, potholes and plunging chasms of the rock industry. It was a fun time – bands either soared past these obstacles on a rush of youthful exuberance or, as was usually the case, fell into oblivion.

Irish rock bands enjoyed as much regular daytime radio air play as the international pop groups of the day and rock was beginning to become a safe alternative career choice to that of an electrician or an accountant.

If it was tough out there in those days, it's even tougher now. Playlists on radio have narrowed and today's audience, expecting to get its music free, makes it harder for bands to survive.

As BBC 6 Music celebrates Ireland, we'll get a mix of both the great and the new artists – those who craft their own styles outside the pigeon-holing (and maybe the patronising) of an industry that hardly exists any more. All that matters – all that we have here – is good music.

6 MUSIC CELEBRATES IRELAND WITH DAVE FANNING: BBC 6 MUSIC, SUNDAY, 1PM.

Irish Independent

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