Visitors to Belfast in recent times find it to be a modern, bustling European city, replete with diverse culinary options and musical entertainment, but a generation and more ago it was a bleak place to try to find fun. It was a particularly dire scene for teenagers, as the escalation of the Troubles through the 1970s and 1980s left the city bereft of nightlife for youngsters who craved live music, excitement and a chance to mingle with friends away from their parents. It takes a certain kind of mad dreamer to believe it possible to change this scenario in a war zone, and one such visionary emerged in the mid-1970s in the form of Terri Hooley. His incredible but true story gets the stage treatment in the rambunctious punk rock musical “Good Vibrations” this month at the Irish Arts Center, to celebrate the power of music to overcome any obstacle that stands in the way of teenagers having a good time.
Hooley started out as a struggling Belfast DJ with a vast record collection. Frustrated with spinning 45s to empty dance floors, he decided to take a gamble on opening a record shop in the city center in 1976, on the most-bombed stretch of real estate in Europe - Great Victoria Street.
Rent was cheap, naturally, and insurance was out of the question – unless you count dubious offers of “protection” from both types of paramilitary, who barge into his store demanding a cut of the negligible profits from vinyl sales in return for letting him stay in business. Terri faces them down, and is determined to stay neutral and make his shop, Good Vibrations, a social hub open to all. He soon attracts a teenage rebel crowd - kids from the nascent punk scene burgeoning all over Belfast. With no venues for the punk bands to play, and no chance at getting record contract, the unstoppable Terri steps up to become a show promoter and record producer. Within months, stardom beckons. One such set of proteges, The Undertones, went from playing their local hometown club in Derry, The Casbah, to sending cassettes of their demos to Terri, to supporting The Clash on a US tour within a year and a half. And thanks to punk’s Pauline evangelist DJ John Peel in London, BBC radio play for The Undertones’ debut single, Teenage Kicks, caught the attention of New York’s recording supremo Seymour Stein, who signed them as label-mates of The Ramones and Talking Heads at Sire Records. Success followed to varying degrees for Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers, Rudi, and The Outcasts, and at the centre of this punk maelstrom was the irrepressible Terri Hooley.
Anyone who remembers punk as a brief but nasty interlude of sneering, noise and random saliva redistribution wasn’t paying close attention - it was so much more than that. Punk was all about self-belief, determination, and trying, failing or succeeding, to achieve a dream, with more enthusiasm than skill. Can’t play music? Start a band. Can’t get a record contract? Record your songs yourself. Terri Hooley channeled all of this late-70s punk energy with a passion for the music that made the kids of Belfast feel that anything was possible.
Written by Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson and directed by Des Kennedy, the Lyric Theatre's “Good Vibrations” hurtles along at a blistering pace that captures all of the wild energy of Belfast punk music. A cast of twelve actors from the city duck, weave and dance through dozens of roles and a fistful of punk classics to tell Hooley’s inspirational tale of one man defying the odds stacked against him, bringing a generation of rowdy teens along in his slipstream.
We don’t need reminding that Ireland’s small-scale musical shows and films, from trad to rock, have grown by word of mouth and press enthusiasm in the past to reach audiences all around the globe. “Riverdance" started out as a 7-minute Eurovision interlude-filler while the judges tallied their votes in 1994, and "Once" soared from a cheap-and-cheerful busker romance to Oscar glory in 2007, morphing later into a hugely successful stage show. We have form in this area. So, get yourself over to the Irish Arts Center to see this rollicking racket before the show gets too big for its Doc Martens and heads onwards to Broadway.
"Good Vibrations" runs at the Irish Arts Center, with matinee and evening performances, through mid-July. See also Larry Kirwan's column here on "Good Vibrations" and an interview with the Lyric Theatre's Jimmy Fay here about the musical.