Patrick McCabe waxes lyrical on the showband era
These enjoyable stories delve into the musical landscape of the late 1950s and 1970s
The music of the small town is very close to extinction
From the Candy Store to the Galtymore: Stories From Ireland’s Showband Era Of The 1950s-70s
Edited by Dr Joe Kearney and PJ Cunningham
Seosamh O Ceansa, ah boys, what a totem – did you ever happen to hear of him, I wonder, in the course of your travels across the sociological and musical landscape of the late 1950s and 1960s?
It is, of course, Joe Meek to whom I refer, sonic doyen of the atomic age and sombre architect of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite pop tune, Telstar, complete with unforgettable wasps’ nest organ effect – yes, the legendary producer who certainly cut a striking figure in those days, complete with his slender ties, dark sunglasses, starched white shirts and sharp, neatly cut black suits – and who used to live above a leather goods shop opposite my good self on the Holloway Road, London N1, during my time there.
For it was indeed he who first sprang to mind, and most vividly, I have to say, when I found myself perusing a particular reminiscence contained within the covers of this entertaining anthology, Tunnels, Skeletons & Wellington Boots by Victor Sandilands. And which is best described as a diabolically impish account of the author’s time working on the construction of the Barbican when he and his fellow labourers were contracted to remove all the bones from a graveyard – and had, so he tells us, to tie the bones up with string and place them in wheelbarrows to take them to the site offices for the local council.
With much brazen pleasure being derived, Victor recalls, from the whoops of the giddy workmen, all heartbroken emigrants from Cork and Mayo no doubt, cheering as they hurled themselves over diggers and concrete mixers, chasing each other as they ululated Western war cries with the bones as they spun them and fenced away gaily, before depositing them with glee into the older men’s lunch boxes.
I can only imagine what the intrepid Mr Meek – being such a great fan of the past and the future all mixed up (vampires, ghosts, space satellites, deceased lovers returning as guardian angels) – might have made of that, and with very little effort can visualise him pursuing Victor fervently with his portable recorder, hell bent on replicating these amusing episodes via overdubbing, compression, sound separation and distortion, and beaming them, via radio telescope presumably (possible suggested title:Uaigneas Iontach An Naibhi Faoi Chre – The Astonishing Loneliness Of The Interred Navvy) to distant and potentially habitable planets far beyond our own.
With any amount of assistance and inspiration from the Hammond organ arpeggios and three-four country licks that would have been audible across the rooftops of north London at the time – courtesy of the Forum and the Gresham dancehalls – not forgetting, obviously, the legendary Galtymore, further to the west, in Cricklewood.
Joe, apparently, used to record his vocals in the toilet, and the string sections standing on the stairs – circumstances which ought to have ensured that what he produced ought to have been a joke. But, like a lot of the showband material referred to here – especially in these arguably somewhat sterile, over-processed and over-produced times – stands out as wickedly and obstinately individual. It has been said of one of Meek’s more idiosyncratic offerings that it is so sonically compressed it sounds like an orchestra has been squeezed into a wardrobe.
Or maybe like all of The Clipper Carlton shoved into a mini on the way to Ballinsasloe.
A bag of vinyl
Talking about Meek, I was reminded also by these stories of another recording titan of the time, the one and only “Mc Hugh Himself”, who used to trade on Eden Quay, Dublin, “contagious to the Capitol Cinema”. And after a visit to whom, if you travelled to our august capital city by Mini or Morris Minor anytime between the year 1960 and the end of “the Summer of Love”, you could arrive home with a big bag of vinyl and spin to your heart’s content the following esoteric platters, many of which are referenced among these pages: Boots by Nancy Sinatra, Danny Doyle’s Irish Soldier Laddie, Papa Oo Mow Mow by Billy Brown and the Freshmen and the timelessly passionate and stirringly political Blazing Star of Athenry by Brian Coll and the Plattermen – a crackly sui generis seven inches of machine-gun chaos all about the drug-fuelled rock and roll conflict in South East Asia, and the effect it had on a heretofore sleepy little unremarkable Galway town – with one of its sons, at a mere 19 years of age and hardly two wet days in the “US of A”,being drafted and almost as quickly dispatched home to his distraught family in a pine box draped in the lachymose battle standard of good old reliable “deeply regretful” Uncle Sam.
Ah yes, it was a different world then for sure – and I don’t know what our millennials might make of it, the children of the Big Bang, bombarded as they are with an unprecedented blitz of information data, deafening hum and hiss and wi-fi fuzz, locked away behind their earphones or performing little future-time waltzes with their agile googly Smart-thumbs.
Doing their best, perhaps, to make sense of what exactly Rosemary McDermott might mean when she remembers her younger self waiting outside the Melody Inn in Strabane and “hopping about like a hen with distemper”, waiting patiently in the ubiquitous Ulster rain for her brother and “the whole crowd” to pile into the stuttering Volks or Anglia before tootling off to the Royal Blues in Cloudland.
Or Roseland. The Silver Slipper. The embassy. Or wherever.
Yes, a long way indeed from the current Babel and its crushing weight of immediate and proximate stimuli, this protean bubble of mass surveillance, white noise mayhem, social media soundbites and selfies, whose invention was recently self-deprecatingly claimed by Paris Hilton (not forgetting Britney Spears), some eight or nine years ago now.
“After our affair, I swore that I’d leave Dublin,” I remember myself saying, in the Maple Ballroom, to the girl in the tank top and 40in suede velvet flares – who, for just a second, left down her cigarette – a Player’s No6, as I recall, and replied: “If you don’t have a bit of manners and close your mouth, I’ll get Fergie and Josie to kick you and all them other ones with you from Rockorry as far back as Ballyhaise so I will.”
Which was a very nice thing to hear, I must say – in 1972 or any other time. But especially when you were dancing to “the Horsey Band” – concerning whom certain new truths are revealed here for the first time by Pat Belton – when, after haring in their wagon all the way to Arva instead of Ardagh, which is where they were supposed to be playing, but – with Herculean panache – somehow making it back to set up their stacks in the ubiquitous marquee, for which they found – the legendary Horslips! – yes, found themselves “read from the altar” by the local PP, who assured his parishioners that, thanks to their “all-night racket”, the Horsey Band wouldn’t ever be seen in Longford again.
“Not ‘arf, mate!” as a certain presenter of TOTP used to remark – perhaps while introducing Joe Dolan or Foster & Allen, or maybe even U2 who also feature among these pages – yes, in Ricey Sculley’s rib-tickling account of how Ireland’s greatest rock band ever couldn’t even manage to fill the hall and why their manager found himself subjected to the following: “They might have it, as you say, the spark, the genius – and big they they might be. But they’ll never be back in The Garden Of Eden.”
The female perception of this not yet entirely vanished world – for with Nathan Carter, Mike Denver and Co, a new rural/urban generation has already created a “rebooted” version of it – is refreshingly and convincingly represented here.
With much talk of assiduous backcombing, coiffures being teased, “lines” being done, and copious tears flowing on the bridge beneath the moon as you shiver in your cardigan and nibble on what’s left of your heartbreak-salving Club Milk, with a love song by the Swarbriggs coming flickering through the pines – for all the world like little needles of the most ineffable musical light.
Leafing through this sweet book is to find yourself cycling in the company of Albert Reynolds, single-handed engineer of much of this social revolution – as he makes his way, like some mythic Hermes-style messenger, along the roads from, say, Roosky to Abbeyshrule – as the colours of the little hills behind him melt from monochrome into a Polaroid wash, affording his countryside – for it is indeed his – his Cloudland, Roseland, Merryland – with his old machine sprouting wings and he goes sailing off in a dream – from the Candy Store to the Galtymore, presumably – ably assisted by all our genial, gentle chroniclers, much too numerous to mention here.
The small town
But I’m glad that all of them have taken the time to tell their stories – as I am that all those maple floors were sprung.
For this – to an even greater extent, arguably, than the thump of the bodhran or the wild, impulsive sweep of the bow, is the music of the small town and the small farm – both of which are very close to extinction, at least in the form they were once apprehended.
Where, for many of us, and which is plainly evident among these recollections, not only was the little town timeless but in many ways acted as a synecdoche for the universal experiences of mankind, located at the centre of a stable cosmos, like the ancient astronomers had located the Earth in the centre of the solar system.With the locale being exalted as representative of a whole way of life and the typical conflict within many of the songs to which people danced being the essential human goodness of small-town types as opposed to a metropolitan moneyed elite; unpretentiousness against pretentiousness, and littleness versus power.
Such was the case in the Galtymore in Cricklewood, where the country singing legend Margo O’Donnell befriended a bruised fellow human who pledged to, once and for all, “give up the drink” so as he might be enabled, before his God, to “die sober”.
I can imagine a plaintive Joe Meek-style fairground arpeggio scoring that one all right – as plangent as it gets, with a crescendo of giving angels as he ascends.
And it serves as an example of the warm humanity at the heart of this book, which I have to say I very much enjoyed. And when I left it down I couldn’t keep from thinking of its world as a fresh, new print – a still-warm likeness, a pristine fan-pic direct from the machine, still moist – with its brightness gleaming across a sky as blue as a sunlit Milk Of Magnesia bottle lying sideways in a roadside ditch.
I can heartily recommend it for this coming Yuletide – or anytime, really – with its oral mosaic providing many memories, enhancing in the process this old business of being alive, here in this perplexing, ever-revolving, glitterball world.
Patrick McCabe’s latest work is Hello and Goodbye: Hello Mr Bones / Goodbye Mr Rat