- 13 Jun 18
Stuart Bailie talks about his new book Trouble Songs, a compelling examination of the role music played during the Northern Irish conflict. Interview: Peter McGoran
Having worked as a broadcaster and a journalist for over 30 years, as well being the co-founder of Belfast’s Oh Yeah Centre – an invaluable resource for emerging Northern musicians – Stuart Bailie is better equipped than almost anyone to write about the history of music during the Northern Irish conflict. Speaking with Hot Press, he explains that the idea of a book of this magnitude had been in his head for a long time.
“Ten years ago I did a piece on the Troubles for the Arts Archive,” he explains. “And it was 5,000 words on music and the conflict. But as soon as it was done I thought to myself, ‘That’s a very thin veneer of what was going on’. A few years later, I realised I’d spent the best part of 10 years working in Oh Yeah. By the end, it was getting quite stressful, and it involved a bit more admin than I would’ve liked. So I thought, ‘I want to write again. I want to do something which most of my adult life has been about’. I spent a few years doing some bits and pieces, trying to get agents, trying to get companies. Then about a year ago, the British Council said, ‘Can we help?’ The follow-up question was, ‘Can you get it out by the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement?’ So they’d set the time, and I had to get the head down for a year of ferocity.”
Trouble Songs begins in the midst of Stiff Little Fingers’ 40th anniversary concert at Custom House Square in 2017. Lead singer Jake Burns proclaims ‘Alternative Ulster’ as the new national anthem and delights in the fact that, decades on from first releasing this defining hit, Northern Ireland has changed irrevocably.
The occasion might not have seemed significant at the time, but as the author argues over the course of his book, the very act of gathering citizens of the city together, for a music event that didn’t adhere to the sectarian divisions of the time, was nothing short of impossible when Stiff Little Fingers first began.
In the early chapters, Stuart explores how protest songs in the late ’60s – used to rouse and connect masses of people in public spaces – led very quickly to reprisals from security forces. In the decades that followed, death threats from paramilitaries struck at the heart of live music entertainment. Notably, The Clash were forced to cancel an ambitious gig in Derry because of a threat from the Red Hand Commandos. And most tragically of all, there was the Miami Showband massacre.
“The Miami Showband story…” Stuart shakes his head. “It’s been well documented now, but every time I meet Stephen Travers [one of only two survivors], I think the story gets dirtier and dirtier. Every time I hear more about it, I’m just left thinking, ‘Why?’”
The massacre proved that musicians were not separate from this conflict. They could, and would, be targeted.
“My mother stayed awake every night I went out,” Stuart recalls, “because people just didn’t come home sometimes. I think that’s why Rory Gallagher was regarded as a saintly figure in Belfast. He turned up every year to play there. He didn’t grandstand or use it as PR stunt either. He just did it for the people of the city.”
Rather than try to form a simple narrative about the conflict, the book covers many facets of music during the period. From Johnny Adair’s stint as a bass-player for a punk band, to the DUP’s Reverend William McCrea and his arena-sized evangelical gospel shows; from David Holmes, Orbital and acid house music, to Van Morrison and Astral Weeks – all musical life is represented here.
“I thought I would try my best to encompass the whole range of it,” reflects Stuart. “You could argue, you know, ‘What was it like being a classical musician at the time? Should I have gone there?’ At one stage I was thinking, ‘Should I spend a bit of time with a marching band? Should I hang around with folk bands?’ There were dozens of areas for this. But at the core of the book I wanted to talk about the songs. Who wrote what, and what did it say about where we were at in the conflict? I think if it got much bigger it would be a doorstop. But I’ve got a file in my laptop with areas that I could expand on.”
There’s a notable disparity between the amount of male and female bands. Was that reflective of the time?
“Yeah, a lot of it was part of the time,” says Stuart. “The music scene in NI, and possibly all of Ireland, was largely a boy’s project until the mid-’80s maybe. Now, one of the projects I’m working on currently involves talking to female punks of the time. There was quite a lot of them around, and a lot of them were terrifying! But quite a lot of them didn’t get on stage. Obviously in England you had the likes of Siouxsie Sioux and The Slits and Poly Styrene. But sadly in the back catalogue in the Northern Ireland punk scene, apart from the likes of Family Of Noise and Déjà Vu, there wasn’t that many punk records with female voices on them.
“Having said that, the project that I’m working on at the minute, with the Woman’s Work Festival, has put out an open call to get female punkettes to tell the untold story of the time. We want to shed light on this.”
One of the most memorable chapters in the book documents the last-minute concert by U2 and Ash in Belfast, in support of a ‘Yes’ vote in the Good Friday Agreement referendum. It proved to be one of the most important interventions of music into the politics of the conflict.
“The moderate vote was collapsing,” Stuart explains. “Convicted loyalist killers like Michael Stone were getting released. Street bombings were still taking place. People were thinking, ‘This deal could be dead in the water’. And this concert was all thrown together so quickly! You know, you had U2 using Ash’s gear 'cause it was all on the fly.
“I was at the Waterfront the whole day when it happened, and people were just winging it. No one knew what was going to happen. But the jubilation at what did happened – David Trimble talking about his love for Elvis, John Hume in tears – was incredible. You’re watching footage after it all on the main news and thinking, ‘That’s it, the news agenda has been changed. Finally.'
"You have to consider, politics was throwing everything at this referendum because there was such a powerful opposition. There was so much at stake with this vote, and then three days before the vote itself rock’n’roll – the cavalry – came over the hill! Looking back, I’m semi-angry that that’s never fully been recognised before. The role of music, I mean.”
Concurrent to that, Stuart also notes that while Northern Ireland has finally moved away from conflict, music still hasn’t been given its proper recognition.
“NI stakeholders will come to music when it suits them,” he says. “Then after, they conveniently forget about it. Shortly after those moments when music has thrown in its lot with tourism and politicians – with the likes of the MTV Music Awards and Derry/Londonderry City of Culture – those stakeholders have moved on, to golf, to Game Of Thrones, and they’ve left the music industry lying in the dust.
“And I think, to a degree, the artistic community have kind of been fluffers for the neo-liberal takeover of Belfast. You have Cathedral Quarter, which is a great place, turning into the next Temple Bar, with a parade of drunks and charmless bars. I mean, it’s too early to be able to judge the last 20 years, but I’ve been disappointed that there’s been a lot of short-termism. Twenty-five new hotels in Belfast and no new venues, you know? No real respect for music. I’m a little bit jaundiced at the moment. But people will be able to judge this better in the future.”
Trouble Songs is published by Bloomfield Press, with Eastside Arts.