“I met you in No Man's Land
Across the wire, we were holding hands
Hearts a-bubble in the rubble
It was love at bomb site”
-”Barbed Wire Love” by Stiff Little Fingers (1978)
The reason I am obsessed with rock and roll (aside from the banger songs and the incredible bands and artists) is its ability to both empathize with the listeners while mobilizing them. Obviously not all rock achieves this quality effectively, if at all, but the clearest example is the historic sound of Irish punk- a subgenre of music which was essential in the time of war.
If you aren’t familiar with the Northern Ireland Conflict, otherwise known as the Troubles, it was a decades-long war between Unionists (who wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom) and Irish Nationalists (who wanted Northern Ireland to leave England and join a United Ireland). The specific details of the war are long and complicated, so I won’t get too far into the nuts and bolts of everything, especially since I am still learning myself.
Here is what I do know: in the late 70s, a music scene was tough to come by in Northern Ireland because the conflict was so extreme that international bands took venues in Belfast and Derry off of their tours. Local musicians suffered greatly as a result of the cultural divide and the rise of poverty. As a result, teenagers were not only confronting the realities of war but the lack of subculture that Gen-Zers, thanks to the internet, take for granted.
Imagine you are a teenager living in Belfast in 1978. The war has been fought for a decade and both sides are exhausted. Bombings and shootings rage on. You are surrounded by large demonstrations that are calling for an end to the crushing violence to no avail. Do you think you’d be anxious, frightened, overwhelmed, or angry? I wouldn’t be surprised if those teens felt all of those emotions at once. I imagine that would make them a good audience for young musicians who couldn’t do anything but pick up a guitar and annihilate the outside world through reckless, repetitive power chords. That’s how good music happens. Those emotions that I listed are those that time and time again have generated loud, beautiful, well crafted, emotional, accidental, earth-shattering punk rock.
Punk in Northern Ireland took a different image to the punk that had emerged from the bars and garages of America and the UK. However, it was the British tabloids that laid the foundation for the scene- portraying young punks in all of their leather glory and hyping up the Sex Pistols. Soon, teenagers and young adults adopted the fashion sense of their rebellious British neighbors. In true punk fashion, they started publishing zines that gave the inside scoop on where to find local bands and releases. However, actual punk records were only sold in two shops: Caroline Music and Good Vibrations, both located in Belfast.
Phoro credit: Those Were The Days AMF
Good Vibrations became Belfast's most influential punk label and gave the Undertones, Rudi and the Outcasts their big breaks. Along with the two record stores, another iconic location in Irish Punk history is the Pound, a pub that hosted punk concerts late into the night. Soon, lots of other pubs in Belfast and Derry (such as the Harp, which hosted the Clash) were attracting young punks and giving them a place to rock out and form a community.
So who were these bands specifically, who rose up out of the divisions of war and poverty to launch themselves into a community that erased class, gender, and even party divisions? If you’re curious, check out my top 5 Irish Punk Bands of the 1970s:
Bonus: my favorite Undertones song. It has nothing to do with the topics in this article, but the riff is immaculate