Rory Gallagher: the guitarist who gave Ireland a taste of real rock ’n’ roll

He cut his teeth in the showbands, but when he formed Taste, Rory Gallagher became rock’s first Irish international guitar hero. A new CD box-set, ‘Taste – I’ll Remember’, showcases his talent

Rory Gallagher playing with Taste in Denmark in 1970. Photograph: Jorgen Angel/Redferns

Rory Gallagher playing with Taste in Denmark in 1970. Photograph: Jorgen Angel/Redferns

 

What have the showbands ever done for us? Bob Geldof is of the opinion that the Irish showband phenomenon – which featured predominantly throughout the 1960s, and saw suit-clad entertainers visiting every parochial hall in the country and rendering pop chart hits with perma-grins, high kicks and performance levels that sent everyone home sweatin’ – was the antithesis of anything remotely connected to creativity or individuality.

If you had the nerve to argue the toss with him, then you’d only have to say two names to make him rethink: Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher. Admittedly, two people out of hundreds is a small percentage, but Geldof might – perhaps reluctantly, and not without some swearing – have to concede the point.

Not that showbands were without merit. They entertained the rural, the urban and the outliers, but they weren’t necessarily viewed as breeding grounds for serious talent. Most musicians stayed the course, preferring the comforting familiarity of delivering chart hits to an audience that wanted exactly the same thing.

Morrison and Gallagher, though, used their respective time in showbands (the former in The Monarchs, the latter in The Fontana, which morphed into The Impact) to learn a craft of sorts, and then hightail it out of there into bands that lived or died on the strength of their original material, and how intensely they performed on stage.

A recently released four-disc boxset, I’ll Remember, documents the output of Rory Gallagher’s first rock band, Taste. It includes the band’s two studio albums (1969’s self-titled debut and 1970’s On The Boards), live tracks, demo versions, previously unavailable songs, images and text. The robust, appealing package, says Donal Gallagher – Rory’s brother and former tour manager/confidante and, since Rory’s death 20 years ago, the assiduous keeper of the flame – took some time to come together.

‘Bed of nettles’

The project had been knocking around for some years, while the process of sorting everything out was encumbered by “various legal departments, management, band members, and so on. The phrase ‘bed of nettles’ springs to mind.”

Gallagher goes on to relate how much of a legal spaghetti junction it was to get from the source – which started in 1966 with the formation of Taste – to sorting everything out. “Taste’s early manager, Eddie Kennedy, was contracted to the band’s record label, Polydor, but Taste was contracted to him. And everyone in the band had individual contracts. So because of that it went on for decades.”

Industry machinations aside, from a distance of more than 45 years, what does Gallagher think of Taste’s two studio albums? Do they represent his brother, as the band’s leader, in a good light?

“They have a huge vibrancy to them,” he says. “There’s an energy to them, a level of angst, and that fresh fighter thing about wanting to get into the ring and prove yourself. That sensibility rings true to me, as well as displaying prowess in the studio. Rory admired so many musicians and bands, and spent his life involved in that, so he was conscious of where the benchmarks lay.”

He was also a tad contrary in the studio when it came to taking orders from engineers and producers. “The first album was supposed to be finished very quickly,” recalls Gallagher, “but he fought and argued. He wasn’t happy with the mixes, and he insisted on sitting in the studio when the record was being mixed, which really rattled cages. Also, he was resisting laying down other guitar tracks, embellishing things. I remember that he wouldn’t lose his temper, though – he’d keep cool but stick firmly to his opinions.

Studio skills

“You have to remember that he was also learning his craft; Rory wanted to learn how to improve his studio skills. The only way of acquiring information was to question what the engineers and the producers were doing. He knew the next time he went into the studio that his knowledge would be advanced.”

As for the legacy of Taste, it is inarguable that the band was Ireland’s first successful international rock act. Van Morrison might be Ireland’s first bona fide visionary musician, but the genre of rock resided far away from what he aimed for. With Taste, Rory Gallagher positioned himself – unwittingly or not – as the next-best guitar hero after his contemporaries Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.

Meanwhile, as a band, Taste was being positioned by Polydor to take the place of the era’s other powerhouse blues-rock trio, Cream – another Polydor act, who released their final album, Goodbye, a short while before Taste released their debut.

“Even at that time, Rory was being recognised by major rock music people, industry people – and all of this was running in parallel with Taste performing at the Isle of Wight festival, on the same bill as Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Doors, Leonard Cohen. When Taste hit the stage the festival ignited,” says Gallagher.

“And the band was much more than a footnote. All you have to do is ask many famous rock stars now – Bono, Edge, Bob Geldof – what their views on Taste are, and they’ll tell you how they were the model band.”

For Rory Gallagher, however, self-criticism and an overriding need to be better and better all of the time was never too far away. On New Year’s Eve, 1970, in Belfast – after four years, two line-up changes and two studio albums – Gallagher split up the band. By May 1971, his self-titled debut solo album had been recorded and released.

His post-Taste modus operandi was, says Gallagher, exactly the way it had always been. “It was all about hitting the ground running. He was caught between a rock and a hard place when Taste was in its last days because the management issues were the cause of the problems.

“Rory was terribly disappointed when the two members [bassist Richard McCracken and drummer John Wilson] sided with the manager. They reckoned they could form another band with a different guitarist and do just as well. All of this during a long farewell tour . . .

“Emotionally, I was very concerned for him at that time. Again it all became quite intricate from an industry aspect, but on that final tour, before a show, I bumped into Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant. I had never met him before, and initially I thought he was another Rory fan who was looking for a free ticket to the gig. Of course, it turned out that Peter was indeed a fan, and he helped extricate Rory from his management agreement, represented him, and got him a new deal with Polydor.”

And the rest is Irish rock’n’roll history? “Oh, yeah – with his solo career Rory hit the ground running. Again.”

Walk on hot coals: when Taste turned sour
“Rory had to go through a fairly cruel three-month farewell tour with Taste, a tour that had been booked by the record company, and that had to be undertaken because he was flat broke,” says Donal Gallagher.

“Following the demise of Taste, a sort of depression had set in, but things got better fairly soon due to a management connection with Peter Grant. And so Rory went into the studio for his debut solo album [1971’s Rory Gallagher] with much more confidence and a lot of baggage left behind. There’s a sense of innocence in the songs, a sense of optimism – the album is by a person who had the shackles taken off.”

The four-CD boxset, I’ll Remember (Polydor/ Universal), is out now. The DVD What’s Going On: Taste Live at the Isle of Wight (Eagle Rock Entertainment), is out now

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