Stuart Bailie on ‘Trouble Songs’: ‘I wanted to do something beautiful and pure’
For his new book, about the music that soundtracked the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Belfast journalist Stuart Bailie followed the DIY aesthetic of the punk-era bands
Stiff Little Fingers: “When I was a kid and you heard Suspect Device on John Peel, it was like, ‘What? They’re saying that?’
Stuart Bailie’s Trouble Songs is based around a premise so simple yet persuasive it feels like a book that should have always existed. A comprehensive history of the music that soundtracked the Troubles, the project primarily focuses on the 30-year period of turbulence between the late 1960s and the Good Friday Agreement, a time when rock and pop artists – especially Northern Irish ones – were at their most socially and politically engaged.
For Bailie, a Belfast-born journalist and broadcaster, former NME editor and official Thin Lizzy biographer, and founder and CEO of the Oh Yeah music centre in Belfast, it was a long-term labour of love.
“It’s been like an itch I’ve wanted to scratch for a while,” he concedes. “It’s my life, y’know, I went to the Harp Bar and had my head completely spun around by what I saw there. And once you’re won over to the light side, sectarianism looks so horrible. Having been witness to certain pivotal moments, I’m trying to put all that in the book. Even all the pre-punk stuff, where it was just brutal, I relived it all.”
Trouble Songs’ publication coincides with the 20-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Despite Brexit border anxieties, the time elapsed has afforded distance and perspective. But the book’s gestation began, Bailie says, as long as a decade ago.
“I did a thing for the Arts Council about 2007, 2008, they started their Troubles archive, so in conjunction with them I wrote 5,000 words on music and conflict. And I got to the end and went, ‘Jesus, I haven’t scratched the edges of it, really.’ And then, when I was coming to the end of 10 years at the Oh Yeah music centre, completely bludgeoned by stress and everything else, I thought, ‘I want to do something beautiful and pure!’”
Bailie had a literary agent on board, but despite the scope and potency of the material, none of the major London publishers took the bait. With the help of the British Council Northern Ireland, among other official bodies, he opted for the cross-funding/kickstarter option. Apt, given that so many of the figures celebrated in the text were such independent and resourceful characters.
“There’s this succession of obstinate people who wouldn’t accept what was proposed to them,” Bailie concurs, “and near the end of the writing of the book I was going, ‘Why should I do it the orthodox way? Why should I accept a pittance from a small publisher or whatever, when I can kinda rock’n’roll it?’ So, the whole process is almost like a Good Vibrations record release. I’m up to my ears in jiffy bags and Sellotape, but that’s kind of great: as soon as you take it on yourself, you get amazing energy.”
And for all the recounted horrors – sectarian killings, car bombings, kneecappings and atrocities such as the Miami showband massacre – Trouble Songs is in many ways a story of bloody-minded resistance and resilience.
“People like Billy McBurney who ran Outlet Records,” Bailie considers, “I inherited his building for Oh Yeah, and I always thought he was a bit of a market trader, he did all these dodgy kick-the-Pope and up-the-Ra records, and then you find out that he wrote Up Went Nelson (an Irish chart-topper for the Go Lucky Four) and put out this incredible folk music. He and Terri Hooley and various other people are carved out of that same resolute granite.
“And then you talk to someone like George Jones, who was playing a gig upstairs at the Abercorn, and literally the ceiling went and he was perched on two beams ringing his wife from a phone box and looking at the bodies downstairs – my god! And a lot of them kept playing. It was an incredible act of defiance. Rory Gallagher is still regarded like a saint in Belfast because he played those Ulster Hall gigs every year and didn’t make a big deal out of it, he was a humble guy.”
Reading Bailie’s book, it becomes clear that the punk explosion was a major monochrome-to-technicolour moment, with acts like Stiff Little Fingers, Rudi and The Outcasts obliterating the cultural cringe of partisan doggerel songs from the early 1970s. But although punk gigs were a significant factor in defusing sectarianism, there was a dark side to the music too: for every Crass-like anarchist collective, there was a Skrewdriver-style jackboot mob.
“I remember Johnny Adair being on the fringes of the punk thing, and there was this strange energy when him and his mates appeared in places. Even bands like The Outcasts were touched by that, and Greg Cowan produced the first Johnny Adair demo, Offensive Weapon. But Petesy Burns and Stalag 17 and Crass laid down a model for how to be a strangely moral human being outside of capitalism, and places like Giro’s became these small havens.
“A lot of those people carry that with them the rest of their lives, you can nearly spot one coming down the street, you go, ‘That was somebody who was saved.’ There’s a walk and a look about them, the way they see the world. Whereas the whole Oi/fascist thing kinda clicked too easily in certain parts of Northern Irish society.”
Politicised pop musicians
Another impression the reader gleans from Trouble Songs is how politicised pop musicians were in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was the golden era of agit-pop, from Alternative Ulster to Oliver’s Army.
“A lot of musicians almost regarded it as their duty,” Bailie recalls. “I think part of that was the music press – you were expected to talk eloquently about where you stood on the spectrum and why and how that impacted on your music. Back in the day the Labour Party was more vocal and more consciously aligned with the Left. You also had Thatcher and Reagan going off. The anarchist centre in Belfast was called Giro’s because people lived off their benefit cheques. Third-level education was a similar thing: art colleges, where you had a little bit of time to think about where you stood and how you related to the world before you moved forward.
“My children now are going directly into debt in the education system and are being monitored from the get-go,” Bailie continues. “If there’s another revolution, it’s going to have to be very canny, in a lot of ways, to move people. Or there could just be a complete peasants’ revolt, I don’t know. I was at the NME during the Poll Tax riots and it was incredible, that something could semi-spontaneously shake the system.
“Why isn’t there more of that now? I miss it, I really yearn for it, although Northern Ireland’s interest in the whole LGBT thing is a colossal cause, much as Repeal the 8th is a cause in Dublin and beyond. And there’s something magical comes out of Derry, they still have that with Wood Burning Savages and Touts and Susie-Blue, they’re all revolutionaries in a way, it’s brilliant. So you push where there’s room to push.
“But certainly, when I was a kid and you heard Suspect Device on John Peel, it was like, ‘What? They’re saying that?’ That was so exciting. And that line in Alternative Ulster: ‘Take a look at where you’re living’ – it was just such a brilliant throw-down. So, we live in hope.”
- Trouble Songs is out now, published by Bloomfield