Friday 15 December 2017

Irish rock history gives us the A-side without the B-side

Phil Lynott joins Rory Gallagher for a song at Punchestown Racecourse in 1982
Phil Lynott joins Rory Gallagher for a song at Punchestown Racecourse in 1982
Rory Gallagher

THE Irish Rock Story: A Tale of Two Cities was on BBC4 on Friday, will be screened by RTE1 on Thursday and yet again by BBC1 Northern Ireland next Monday, having been pushed back from tomorrow night.

A documentary so good they’re showing it thrice, then? Sadly, no. Mike Connolly’s film, a co-production between RTE and BBC NI, was an unsatisfying affair that managed to bite off more than it could chew in an hour, missing out on, or simply choosing to ignore, large and important chunks of the story.

It wasn’t a shoddy production by any means. There was a first-rate line-up of talking heads, among them Bob Geldof, Bono, Adam Clayton, Sinéad O’Connor, her author brother Joe, Rory Gallagher’s brother Donal, several members of The Radiators from Space and The Undertones, Thin Lizzy’s Eric Bell and Brian Downey, and the great Terri Hooley of the Good Vibrations record shop and label.

There was a particularly moving moment when Miami Showband survivor Stephen Travers recalled the cowardly and sickening slaughter of his bandmates by UVF savages – they shot lead singer Fran O’Toole in the face 17 times with dum-dum bullets.

Rory Gallagher

But on the whole, as it took a dutiful, chronological plod through territory that would be familiar to many of us, it began to look like something aimed at an audience lacking even a basic knowledge of the genesis of Irish rock.

Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher were held up, rightly so, as the prime movers in the nascent Irish rock movement of the 1960s, kicking back against the social repression of the church and the stranglehold on the music scene of dismal diddly-eye.

“What James Joyce did for Dublin, Van did for Belfast,” intoned narrator Richard Dormer portentously. Well, if by that you mean getting the hell out of the place and viewing it through an emigrant’s eyes, Morrison certainly did that.

While Van the Man was in New York nurturing his solo career and waxing lyrical about the Belfast of his youth, a place now vanishing fast in a red mist of sectarian violence, Gallagher – born in Ballyshannon in Donegal but long settled in his adopted home, Cork – was ploughing on, the only artist prepared to risk his neck by actually playing gigs in the city (usually during the brief Christmas ceasefires).

The Irish Rock Story was at its strongest in this early segment, thanks to the wonderful footage of Gallagher performing with Taste – exhilarating, no matter how many times you’ve seen it before – and Morrison fronting Them (for my money, that music that’s still better than anything he’s done since).

The rest of the film, however, was a case of going through the motions. We got the meteoric rise, though not the tragic fall, of Phil Lynott; a retelling of The Undertones’ John Peel-assisted breakthrough; Geldof and The Boomtown Rats tearing up a picture of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John on Top of the Pops before launching into Rat Trap, and Sinéad O’Connor tearing up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live.

The section on U2 leapt from an awkward early appearance on RTE to the world-conquering, 25 million-selling The Joshua Tree with nothing in between.

Where was the rest of the story? Where were all the other bands? You can’t discuss Belfast punk rock without touching on Stiff Little Fingers. This did. Brush Shiels popped up briefly, but there was no mention of his and Lynott’s time together in Skid Row.

Paul Cleary flashed on and off screen without a single mention of The Blades. It was like listening to the A-side of a vinyl record and then turning it over to find there’s no B-side.

The Story of Irish Rock: A Tale of Two Cities **

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