By Larry Kirwan
I’ve been to many cities in the world.
Some like Belfast, Buenos Aires, and Berlin, I know well.
In others like Liverpool, Paris, and Barcelona, I haven’t a clue what’s really going on.
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It has nothing to do with how many times I’ve visited, or even if I like these places. The difference boils down to if I’ve played there.
For when you’ve gigged in a town you’ve met the club owner, the bartender, the publicist, the waitress, the audience, and quite often the person who swabs down the toilets.
If you don’t know what’s going on in a burg after those conversations – or confrontations – you might as well stay home and watch Game of Thrones.
Yet I can guarantee that if you read Stuart Bailie’s revelatory “Trouble Songs,” you will know Belfast intimately without the hassle or benefit of gigging there. In its own soulful way it’s one of the finest books written on the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Without dwelling on the sheer psychosis that often reigned in this troubled land, Stuart instead focuses on the redeeming urge of young people to create their own brand of punk music.
What an eye and ear this unassuming ex-musician, writer, and critic has. And what characters he puts before us.
Of course, anyone who has spent a couple of hours in Belfast know this most interesting of Irish cities is teeming with charismatic hard chaws and striking, resolute, women on both sides of the divide.
But the sheer bravery, obstinacy, contrariness, and desire to make some kind of distinctive mark on life while your city is burning, exploding, and generally going to hell is staggering.
The book could have been devoted to Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones, the two premier Northern Punk bands, and deservedly so, instead you become intimate with outfits like The Outcasts, Rudi, Protex and a legion of others.
I’ve seen and experienced more than my share of violence onstage, but I’ve never witnessed teeth embedded in PA Speakers during a gig, nor seen a band like The Outcasts drop instruments and attack the front row of their audience.
And where would you meet a character like the legendary Terri Hooley, founder of Good Vibrations. The very name of this record label is either optimistic, sarcastic, confrontational, or perhaps all three.
Terri’s life is threatened, he is attacked, his record stores burned down time after time, and yet this remarkable man (with one glass eye) perseveres in creating a meaningful music scene with little thought of financial gain.
Although he was responsible for breaking The Undertones successful single, Teenage Kicks, he walks away from the band as they sign a contract with mighty Sire Records.
And what about Billy McBurney, founder of Outlet Records? He released Republican and Orange marching bands, punk legends Stiff Little Fingers and the classic protest ballad, “Men Behind The Wire.”
His nickname, ironically, was “Lucky,” though he was shot by Loyalists, blown up by Provos, and dispatched to Long Kesh by the Brits where he continued to assiduously operate his eclectic and successful record label.
One of the key elements of this detailed and engrossing book is the sheer affection Stuart showers on his subjects.
Unlike my old friend, Lester Bangs, often recognized as the greatest rock critic, Stuart loves his subjects and gives them center stage, although he continues to be a major player in Rock & Roll Belfast as one of the founders of Oh Yeah Music Centre.
Stuart’s gift is that you get to inhabit the brooding streets with his characters while they make their music with their city going to blazes around them.
Lester’s world and concerns now often seem tame in comparison.
There is so much more in Trouble Songs – you’ll learn about the forgotten and oddly dynamic world of Belfast before the Troubles, and how a rigid archaic society finally splintered under pressure. You’ll relive the nail-biting heroics of the Peace Process.
But for me the book brings Belfast to life in all its glory – a city that may have buckled but never went down in an awful time, a city where “Men Behind The Wire” coexists with “Alternative Ulster,” and a city teeming with dynamic characters, each of whom deserves a book of their own.