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Tim Wheeler on the musical tradition of Northern Ireland

Published: February, 2008
Source: The Guardian

Tim Wheeler reflects on the musical tradition of his home country - Northern Ireland

As the tourism ads seem intent on reminding people, Ireland is a very musical place. You really can still walk into a pub and find the regulars having a singalong. I’m not a massive fan of traditional Irish music, but those old songs are just so melodic; you hear a snippet and you’ll be humming it all day. People in Ireland have always loved a good tune and I think that’s definitely seeped into modern Irish music. Even if you take the most successful rock band from Ireland, Thin Lizzy, they made rock with real songwriting at its heart.

Thin Lizzy are definitely one of my favourite bands. Phil Lynott was such a charismatic frontman, they had the best guitarists I’d ever heard and they made rock’s ultimate live album, Live and Dangerous. But above all, I loved them because they were from Ireland. There’s a line in a song of theirs called “Black Rose” which mentions the Mountains of Mourne. You can see those mountains from the town I grew up in, Downpatrick, which is just south of Belfast. When I first heard that song it freaked me out, because it was so incredible to hear a reference to something so near to where I lived. Up until then, it had seemed to me that all rock stars came from outer space.

It was the same when Therapy? broke through, just as we were starting Ash. The idea that a rock band from 20 miles up the road could get Top 10 singles in the UK was totally inspiring for us. Northern Ireland could often feel like a complete backwater, but bands like that made us feel like Ash had a chance.

Apart from melody, I think another key characteristic of Irish music is that it tends to be very open-hearted and soulful. You can see that stretching from Van Morrison and Them in the 1960s right up to the wave of singer-songwriters who’ve broken through in the last few years; people like Damien Rice, David Kitt, Fiona Regan and, of course, Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol. I think maybe we’re a little bit less emotionally repressed than the English.

That said, Ireland has definitely had a strong influence on some of the best songwriters to have come out of England. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, John Lydon, Morrissey, Shaun Ryder and the Gallagher brothers all had Irish families, so I think a lot of people in Ireland see the Beatles, the Sex Pistols, the Smiths, the Happy Mondays and Oasis as ours. Of course, Westlife, Boyzone, the Corrs, Daniel O’Donnell and several Eurovision winners are ours, too, but we try not to think about that.

Northern Ireland was a very different place when I was growing up. As a teenager, even going shopping to Belfast could be risky. You never knew what might happen; bombs were always going off and there were a lot of random shootings. People got on with their lives, but everyone who lived there experienced the Troubles on some level. I saw a dead policeman once, on a street corner in Belfast. He’d been shot and the guy had run off. Those were crazy times.

I think the reason punk got so big in Northern Ireland was definitely related to the fact that it was such a harsh place to live. The anti-establishment, DIY ethos of punk inspired young people in a way that nothing else was doing at the time. When the Clash came over for their first Belfast show in 1977, the gig got pulled by the authorities at the last minute and there was a riot. The amazing thing was that the rioters were united across both sides of the sectarian divide, which was completely unheard of.

Music from the north of Ireland has always had a harder edge than the south - again, probably because of its history - and I think that’s why the punk that came out of the north was way better than anything from the south. Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label brought out most of the best stuff, by bands like the Undertones, Rudi and the Outcasts. Plus, of course, there were the Stiff Little Fingers. Each of those bands kicked the Boomtown Rats’ ass. I remember my English teacher gave me the Undertones’ first album when I was at school. It’s a total classic. They had such brilliant, concise and energetic songs and I loved how you could hear the Northern Irish accent in Feargal Sharkey’s vocal bleat. I also loved the fact that those brilliantly acerbic lyrics to “My Perfect Cousin” were not fictitious; they caused a family rift that continues to this day!

Until quite recently, Northern Ireland was pretty much off the touring map, because a lot of bands were too scared to visit. Their Irish tour wouldn’t usually extend beyond Dublin. So whenever bands did come to the north, it was really appreciated and it could make quite a big difference to the place. You can definitely see that with the Clash and the impact they had in kick-starting the punk scene. And it was the same when Nirvana visited in 1992; suddenly there were hundreds of bands that sounded like them. I was 15 and that gig certainly changed my life.

I’m not exactly sure why Nirvana came to Belfast, but I remember it was postponed twice before they actually came and each time it was moved to a bigger venue. I felt so lucky to see them at the height of excitement around the Nevermind album. They pirouetted on to the stage to Tori Amos’s version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and they finished the gig smashing their gear while Dave Grohl played the drumbeat to “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. I loved how they were always taking the piss like that; they got away with it because they were just so good. I listened to a bootleg of the show recently and it was as great as I remembered it.

Not that every international act who came over inspired their crowd. You’d get idiots turning up thinking they knew what was going on politically and trying to say their bit. Dave Mustaine from Megadeth caused a huge fight in the audience in Antrim when he started talking about ‘the cause’ at a show, which was a ridiculously stupid thing to do. Gigs were the one thing that weren’t segregated. You went because you liked a band; they had nothing to do with sectarian divides and that was exactly why young people loved them. But then you’d get fools like Mustaine coming along and saying stupid things. I remember Rage Against the Machine preached some bullshit when they played Belfast, too.

Happily, none of that is even an issue any more. A lot of other countries seem to hark back to a golden age, but I think right now is the best it’s ever been in Northern Ireland. It finally feels like a normal, functioning country. There’s more connection between the north and the south now, even down to bands like the Frames and Bell X1 starting to get more noticed in the north after years of being big in the south. The live music scene is booming throughout Ireland too; loads of bands are playing both Dublin and Belfast, which has meant that a lot of new venues have opened.

Northern Ireland still isn’t exactly an A&R hotspot, but the internet has made it easier for bands to get noticed. They’ve also recently opened a fantastic place in Belfast called the Oh Yeah Music Centre, which I’m proud to say is named after one of our songs. It’s like a hub for the music scene, with rehearsal rooms, performances spaces and places for musicians to hang out. Ireland has always punched above its weight in terms of music - let’s not forget that the biggest band in the world, U2, comes from our country - and the Oh Yeah Centre should definitely do its bit to make sure it stays that way.