Belfast got a rock-‘n’-roll concert on New Year’s Day in the City’s notorious Ulster Hall.
Heading the bill was Rory Gallagher. It was the first public rock concert there since early last summer. The show was sold out weeks before. Sources close to the underground promised the IRA would “leave it alone.”
Two thousand people were overjoyed as Gallagher – a native of Cork, Southern Ireland – took the stage, just 24 hours after the city had witnessed its biggest bomb blast during a night of at least 10 explosions.
“I see no reason for not playing Belfast. Kids still live here,” said Gallagher.
It was an emotional affair, considering the total neglect Belfast has suffered as far as live music is concerned. The authorities were pleased to let the concert go on – but more concerts depend on the willingness of the big British groups to travel there.
Belfast, NEW YEARS DAY. You don’t see many people on the streets this Saturday afternoon. This very grey, very cold afternoon. The street we walk down is well shattered as though some lumbering, blind giant had pressed buildings flat with his boots and then wiped the rubble from his heels off on the roof tops. He frequents the city often.
The dank, almost mildewed atmosphere is so unreal that the first emotion is one of
fear, or maybe suspicion. For God’s sake, where are the people? There are none to be seen. There is little to come into town for these days. And yet today is a very special day. There’s a rock ‘n ‘ roll concert at the Ulster Hall.
You can hear every step you take, for there’s little other noise to cut the air. Just one car flits quickly out of a street and makes off at high speed. Belfast is like some car, one that is burnt out, but re-ignited each night. The shell is very thin, and the engine don’t work anymore.
“You’re a martyr, Gallagher, you know that” says big Jim Aikin, Belfast’s biggest promoter (with little, if anything to promote these days). “Oh no, for God’s sake, don’t say martyr” retorts Rory Gallagher. ” I don’t see any reason for not playing Belfast. Kids still live here. They can get tired of records.” Gallagher is the anti-star of all time.
We are sitting in this lounge. We managed to find it because Aikin knew it. The doors were locked, they search you on entry. “You can’t be too careful” says the “sentry”. Inside the bar is totally empty. It’s about 3 PM, but it’s like drinking after hours. It’s cold.
Yesterday was amazing. “They” blew 100 lbs. of gelignite outside a kid’s cinema and then blew the old year out with nigh on a dozen other bombs. We spent New Year’s Eve in the comparative safety of a guest house in Cromwell Road, and then at a wild, zany ball in the Queen’s University.
Gallagher gigged there, at this “penguins” ball, where about 4000 people got so drunk they lay around getting sick. But it was a great night, like some Roman orgy. Gallagher went on at around 12:30. As he was tuning up, with ten minutes of the old year to run, there were some glorious explosions about a half-mile away. Gallagher grinned, everyone grinned. Some of us felt scared, but you tend to admit it in a joking fashion. Bombs bang very loudly, you know. And they rattle things.
The kids in the University had a load of jokes about the bombs.
There was one girl who giggled, and told us that she had two brothers, one in the I.R.A., the other a doctor. ” One blows them up, the other patches them up” she said. It was funny at the time.
I was asked if I was going to write about the riot-torn Belfast, with citizens cowering in corners or just rock music. Do they go together? ” Why don’t you write something political?” asks one guy. “I mean do you agree with the internment? Do you like the bombs? Bombs are a gas actually, especially when you see one go off. Music? Well, it’s bloody great Gallagher coming. We haven’t had a big name for ages. We heard he wanted to play Belfast, and we heard that his band were a little scared about it. I suppose it’s only right to be scared.” This student was well drunk.
Gallagher is from Cork, Wilgar Campbell and Gerry McAvoy are natives of Belfast. The town was on the gig list. They could have pulled out, and nobody would have asked them why.
As the university rocks and rolls, and blesses the New Year, people start to talk of the Ulster Hall gig. It’s planned for the afternoon. The buses stop running at 8 p.m. All the tickets have been sold.
Somebody very close to the I.R.A. has said that the concert will be left alone. The Queen’s dies at around 5 a.m. and as we travel back to Cromwell Road there’s just one ferret car ferreting around the streets. The soldiers look gaunt as they peer through the post-box slits.
An extract from Take One, a local underground newsheet, printed by The Tribe.
” Rory Gallagher has once again returned to Belfast, at least he came, and for that we must thank him”.
Belfast has now become a graveyard for music. Concerts and big groups are a thing of the past.
Why should we take it? Why must we take it? We have taken enough apathetic shit for too long, the time has come to launch the MUSIC TO BELFAST CAMPAIGN. We must create enough noise in order that the hypocrites in England ( the capitalist agents groups who think nothing other than pulling in a lot of bread) become aware that they are most needed in this torn city.
We want action now, for too long the groups in England haven’t given music where it can give the most help. Lennon tells us to give peace a chance, but has he visited us? All we want John ,baby, is the truth. Perhaps he is furthering the peace movements somewhere in Hyde Park.
Perhaps the groups don’t want to make any sacrifices, maybe they are afraid, maybe they cannot stir themselves to help the people who need it most, who have no power to speak of. Well, we want to try and make groups aware that Belfast needs them here.
MAKE NOISE: MAKE MUSIC, MUSIC FOR BELFAST.
You know they are so absolutely right. When you see the kids there, and they are such great kids, you know it’s right.
Imagine no concerts. Imagine no transport at night. Imagine reading about brilliant performances by bands just over the water and those bands never coming to Ulster. What do you do? Do you sit at home?
No. Just off Cromwell Road they sit in a lounge. And one guy with a beaten up guitar sings a bit, and the kids are so together. It’s great being together. There is no sign outside this pub and the windows are either blacked out or there’s wire mesh about. It’s real, it’s very real. So you don’t care. And that’s what they feel, believe me, they know you don’t care. They know that you care about Banglia Desh, and they know that you must care about that. But is there not time to care about Belfast?
Now we are right back on New Year’s Day, right back in this empty bar. Gallagher is itching to play. You can tell when he is. But today he itches more than usual. The only things Rory talks about is music. He keeps his mouth shut on issues. He just goes out and plays music.
“I had no trouble putting the concert on” says Aikin, with his orange juice. An Irishman who doesn’t drink. “You see, they were only too pleased to let me put a concert on. They like you to try and make things look as though they were normal.”
When was the last concert, Jim?
“Oh God, it was ages ago. Nobody will come now, it’s impossible. There’s only Gallagher here who’ll do it. Some strange things have happened when people gather you know. We have a wee dance occasionally, and people come out to it. It took a long while to get them dancing when there was no trouble. Now they are on the floor as soon as the music starts. It’s very emotional when you see them all together. Maybe it’s like England during the War. People make the most of the few occasions. It’s like a country at war”.
There are a lot of kids in Belfast. There are as many kids in Belfast as, say, Birmingham. Can you understand that? There’s nothing different about them. They have long hair and they’re hip.
We finish the beer. The “sentry” closes and locks the bar door after us. Still no people on the streets. We walk towards the Ulster Hall. That’s where Paisley used to do his thing, you know.
The back doors are reached . They face a building that’s been blown into some awful shape. It’s been torn inside out. I meet a lad who used to work there. He hasn’t got a job now.
As soon as we are in the Ulster Hall, there’s the sound of live music, and an immediate change of atmosphere. Even in the basement, there’s warmth in the air. We walk upstairs, and it gets even warmer. We peep through a window and there are people. People, 2000 or so of them. Young and bopping in their seats.
The band playing is Fruup. They are a Belfast band, who’ve recently returned to their hometown after several months in London. They are playing their hearts out, and the audience is giving them such good things.
Gallagher walks into the dressing room, and there are so many people who want to shake his hand. You hear a dozen or more ” thanks for coming.” Gallagher is very modest, he’s almost embarrassed. McAvoy and Campbell are already there, with some of their friends. Wilgar mutters something about a bridge being blown up. For some reason he’s really annoyed about this bridge; “It’s gone too bloody far.”
I take a walk around the hall. It’s well full, with beautiful vibes about. There seem to be more girls than fellas. They don’t look any different from any rock audience anywhere, they just seem more eager to make the afternoon last. They’re getting every ounce of pleasure they can from it. It’s very hard to explain just how emotional, how delightful this whole thing is. You’ve got to be in Belfast, and then see the youth, all together there, all happy.
Fruup finish playing to loud cheers and applause.
Back in Gallagher’s dressing room there’s a fresh batch of people coming in to shake his hand. I bump into one whose just come out. He’s all sweaty, and shouts at me “Isn’t he the bloody best! Isn’t it bloody great that he’s here! Isn’t it?” Why yes , I suppose there is a need to get emotional about it.
I’ve never seen anything quite so wonderful, so stirring, so uplifting, so joyous as when Gallagher and the band walked on stage. The whole place erupted, they all stood and they cheered and they yelled, and screamed, and they put their arms up, and they embraced. Then as one unit they put their arms into the air and gave peace signs. Without being silly, or overemotional, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life. It all meant something, it meant more than just rock n’ roll, it was something bigger, something more valid than just that.
You just wanted to take the lid off the walls from around this hall and put it on a huge platform, raise it above the city and let just everyone see it, and hear it. Two thousand people together as one, with no minority, no troublemakers, no inhibitions. Believe me, this isn’t over dramatic.
And Gallagher stood there for a while, and feigned not to look, and then he plugged in, swiveled round, said a quick hello, burned his bumpers into the stage, got down low and played his guitar loud and tight.
“Gigs are A, B, and C on a sheet, Belfast may be a B, I saw no reason to think it any different than from A or C” – Gallagher
It went on for a long time. the best audience anybody could ever wish to see. Towards the end everyone got up, rushed to the front, and grabbed up to touch him and the band. And he came back, and played more boogie.
Nobody wanted it to end. There are tears in the eyes of some kids, not just girls flipped on Rory, but guys as well. There’s the best audience in the World in Belfast. The whole point of entertaining PEOPLE reaches a very valid level.
So you can understand bands who won’t play Belfast. Yes, you can understand that. But can you really neglect it? You’ve got to start pricking your conscience a little if you’re supposedly playing music for people. Or is it money first, people next. Nobody wants unnecessary trouble, so cancel the Belfast date. Nobody’s going to come back on you if that’s your action.
But let me tell you they feel very neglected in Belfast. Most of the shine, most of the honesty that was apparently connected with rock can be seen in it’s true light in Belfast. And that shine, that honesty just doesn’t exist. Heroes of the people? Well, Gallagher is, although all he did was honour his date sheet.
This girl in the dressing room must be about 18/19. She’s very pretty. It’s the first time she’s been out anywhere for three weeks. And maybe it’s going to be a long, long time before there’s another concert for her to go to.
“Nobody wants to come. It’s an impossible situation” Jim Aikin.
Was it worth it Rory? He peels off a sweaty checked shirt. ” Yes, oh, yes, I think it was.”
Are we attaching too much importance to rock?
“No, it does do something which nothing else can do. If we can still hold a concert, then it can only be doing good” – Aikin
“Once it got over the feeling that they were thanking me for coming. Once they’d got over that, they were into just the music. Then it was darned marvelous. They’re wonderful kids you know.” – Gallagher
“Yes, that was good. Oh yes” – Wilgar Campbell
If the gig was on his datesheet, then Gallagher would play this town again.
“The outcome of what is being experienced by EVERYONE in this city is leading to the fragmentation of the people into vastly differing states and levels of mind, depending on how much of the truth they can grasp………. To restore equilibrium each one of us must persevere at helping others, and ourselves to be more harmonious. We need each other to save ourselves” – Jim Andrews, writing in the Belfast underground paper, Ego.
” I wish Marc Bolan would come” – girl, about 15.
Concerts are possible. It is possible to travel to Belfast, and to stay the night. Don’t just wipe it away. If money’s the point, well you’ll pack a hall.
So, we come out of the Ulster hall now, and it’s dark. There is nobody left on the streets. Those 2000 have all vanished, managed to get a bus home. It’s all over. A fire engine, or maybe it’s an ambulance questions the silence. It’s like 4 a.m. in the morning. But it’s 7 p.m. and it’s Saturday night.