Is there be a way to say something about that late, lamented ultimate rock star Lemmy and still make it relevant to a blog about Irish rock music? Well it’s a bit of a stretch, but let’s try it anyway! In 1965/1966 those sadly under-appreciated Belfast R’n’B dynamos The Wheels were playing a residency in Blackpool, as part of which arrangement they shared a farm house at Garstang, Lancashire, with struggling local group The Rockin’ Vickers. And just as The Wheels guitarist Rod Demick was from North Wales, so too was The Rockin’ Vickers guitarist Ian Willis (whose father had in fact been a vicar).
The Rockin’ Vickers, as the name might imply, had a typically ’60s gimmick of dressing in a bizarre mixture of religious garb and – as they were very successful in Finland – the Finnish national costume. Demick remembers Them and many other touring bands visiting the farm to party. The time the two groups spent together evidently went harmoniously as, in a newspaper interview from late 1965, the various Wheels were sure, when asked their favourite musical artists, to name-check their little known housemates.
Both bands would ultimately break up without breaking through, with some members achieving modest success during the ’70s. Willis, of course, would undergo an unlikely transformation to Hendrix roadie, hippie singer with Sam Gopal‘s group, sonic adventurer with Hawkwind and finally, as Lemmy, rock’n’roll legend with Motörhead. Lemmy’s life reads like the evolution of rock music itself, from 1950s skiffle fan all the way to metal aristocracy. He never hid his unhip origins, acknowledging that he had been inspired first by Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele, and he was part of a generation for whom rock’n’roll was more than just disposable entertainment, it was the white-hot essence of youth culture. His macho persona was genuine rather than the stage routine of so many of his contemporaries, and he refused to follow the well-worn path of reformation followed by sobriety and smugness, but what was most remarkable about the man was his sincerity, humility and his sharp humour, in spite of all his success. Music will continue be made and may be vibrant and exciting, but it is unlikely to ever have such cultural significance again, and Lemmy’s passing seems to herald the final closing of that chapter. But we are blessed to have so much fantastic music from that time preserved for us to relive as often as we want and, as someone very cool once said, the only way to feel the noise is when it’s good and loud!
Billy Harrison is in many ways the unsung hero from the big bang of Irish R’n’B. He formed The Gamblers in Belfast with Alan Henderson and Ronnie Millings – the band that later became Them with the addition of Eric Wrixon and Van Morrison – stepping back from front-man to lead guitarist behind Van’s dominant persona. He remained band leader and manager until the music biz professionals took over, but Billy was an integral part of the original Them sound, with his distinctive raw guitar playing to be heard all over their first album, and apparently much more input into the writing process than he is credited with. After a confrontation with manager Phil Solomon over vanishing royalty payments, and finding little solidarity from the rest of the band, Billy packed it in. He was briefly involved with a rival line-up of Them (which evolved into The Belfast Gypsies) and did some session work with Van’s Them, Joe Meek and The Pretty Things, and was eyed-up by Belfast group The People before Henry McCullough joined and they became Eire Apparent. Billy then left music completely and took a regular job with the Post Office, returning from London to Belfast in 1975.
That was it until 1979, when Billy Harrison decided to revive Them one more time, inviting Eric Wrixon and Alan Henderson along with new guys Mel Austin and Billy Bell. They convened in Hamburg and the resulting Shut Your Mouth album – all written or co-written by Harrison – was an enjoyable return to their R’n’B roots. Again the band was incapable of holding together and Billy was fired from the group he had started, to be replaced a second time by Jim Armstrong for a subsequent German tour.
Perhaps surprisingly, Billy decided to make one further album. This 1980 record, with the self-deprecating title Billy Who?, is essentially a follow-up to Shut Your Mouth, being entirely written by Harrison and recorded once again at Hamburgs TELDEC-Studio by engineer Klaus Bohlmann and producer Frank Dostal. This time Billy was singing as well as playing guitar, and was backed by a group of experienced German session musicians. Like its predecessor it’s a mix of R’n’B material and ballads, but Billy’s gravelly faltering vocals, to these ears at least, give a more fragile touch to his songs than Mel Austin’s croaky holler on the previous album. On tracks like Big Lover we get to hear Billy’s distinctive slide-guitar sweep back through our speakers once again. Orange Field lists some landmarks from a more innocent time in Belfast and asks an unnamed person when they last walked its streets (decide for yourself who that might be directed at). Baby Please Don’t Go is an original ballad with a presumably tongue-in-cheek title, while Bad Night is peppered with Billy’s menacing wolf howls.
Thereafter, Billy Harrison officially retired from music. He seems to consider his contribution to rock music to have ended on a high in 1965, and that to have carried on as a struggling musician would have been at the cost of his reputation. This is a noble idea but, bearing in mind that Eric Wrixon and Jim Armstrong each made a decent living touring a Them-based blues repertoire in the nineties and noughties, we can only wonder if this decision was due more to his poisonous experiences of the music business. Still, far from being bitter about the past, he will occasionally sit-in on a local pub gig, or attend an event to commemorate Belfast’s musical legacy. Probably because it was released under the Them name, his 1979 album has since been reissued on CD as Them Reunion, but to the best of my knowledge this 1980 solo album has remained unjustly out-of-reach.
- Big Lover
- Hold On Tight
- Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman
- Orange Field
- Baby Please Don’t Go
- Bad Night
- Get Some Lovin’
- Summer Nights
- Black Haired Momma
- Free Ramblin’ Man
Billy Harrison interviewed by Richie Unterberger – Ugly Things #31 & #32 (2011)
If this site has whetted your appetite for something slightly more modern, the Irish Nuggets blog brings you an excellent initiative collecting Original Artyfacts from the Irish Alternative Music Scene 1977-89. Most of these have had to be digitised from vinyl, so a lot of work has gone into this project. A Treasure indeed!
After stints with Dublin groups including The Liffey Beats, The Black Eagles and The Burma Boys Showband, drummer Brian Downey joined Pat Fortune (bass/vocals), Brian Twomey (guitar/vocals, formerly with The Difference) and Dermot Woodfull (guitar, formerly with The Intruders) in rock band Sugar Shack in 1967. With, according to the Irish Rock Discography, a repertoire of pop and blues-rock covers and some originals, the two recorded songs they left behind suggest they must have been an impressive live act.
‘Morning Dew’ was written by folk singer Bonnie Dobson, but later made famous by Tim Rose (who awarded himself a co-writing credit) and The Grateful Dead. Sugar Shack’s version may owe a debt to that by The Jeff Beck Group, also recorded in 1968, featuring strong musicianship but with vocals paling in comparison to Rod Stewart’s. Cream’s ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ sounds better, with a real hard-rock thump and a song more suited to the singer. Through Tribune Records this single reached #17 in the Irish chart, but the band were divided on whether to follow a rock or pop route, and they split up after two years when Brian Twomey got married.
By 1969 Downey had reunited with his former Black Eagles bandmate Phil Lynott to form The Orphanage, and the two played together in another rock group during the ’70s and ’80s. Pat Fortune later turned up in country group The Ranchers and a mid-’70s line-up of showband Stage 2, not long after Dermot Woodfull had joined the Canadian-based Dublin Corporation, formerly The Pacific Showband, a familiar career path for many Irish rock musicians at the time. Woodfull apparently died in a car accident in 1976.
- Morning Dew
- Sunshine Of Your Love
It’s way too late to be highlighting this St. Patrick’s Day gig – especially as tickets have been sold out for quite some time – but it’s good to see such an array of musicians willing to help out in aid of the ongoing care of legendary guitarist Henry McCullough in the aftermath of his crippling November 2012 heart attack.
Henry’s former Eire Apparent manager and Stiff Records founder Dave Robinson has set up a Facebook page in order to raise funds for Henry’s care.
RTÉ’s Lyric FM broadcast an hour-long show on Granny’s Intentions with lots of great interviews, which will be of interest to many readers here. Should’ve been two hours!
The Irish Rock Discography justifiably calls this “a ghastly front cover” (are those Tina’s own hands or someone else’s threatening to strangle her?), but the description of the content as “bland country-tinged covers done showband style” might arguably be a bit harsh. As mentioned elsewhere, Dublin-based group The Real McCoy formed in 1968 and had a string of quirky, vaguely psychedelic pop hits such as ‘I Get So Excited’, ‘Quick Joey Small (Run Joey Run)’ and ‘Guitarzan’, but by 1971 the band had begun to fracture. Core members Dave Pennefather (drums), Eddie Campbell (lead guitar) and Keith Donald (saxophone), who had all previously been with The Greenbeats, regrouped at the end of that year with a new line-up backing singer Tina Reynolds, formerly of the showbands Tina & The Mexicans and Jim Farley & The Tophatters. With Tommy Walsh (organ), John L. Sullivan (saxophone) and Johnny Brown (bass), they became Tina & The Real McCoy and scored an immediate Irish number one with the ballad ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’, taken from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s recent rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar and driven by Tina’s strong but pure vocals.
The hit was included on this LP which followed in 1972. Among the more schmaltzy songs on offer were the poppy gospel number ‘Put Your Hand In The Hand’ (as recorded by Canadian singer Anne Murray and by Canadian band Ocean), the Sonny & Cher song ‘All I Ever Need Is You’ (also recorded by Kenny Rogers & Dottie West) and Mort Shuman and Kenny Lynch’s ‘Over My Head’ (originally a B-side by Cilla Black). Things improved a bit with a punchy take on Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Keep The Customer Satisfied’, and with ‘Did You Ever’ – a vaguely suggestive recent minor country hit for Charlie Louvin & Melba Montgomery. There is a creditable version of The Carpenters’ ‘For All We Know’, although ‘Superstar’ suffers from an overly lounge-music arrangement. The Band’s ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ is smoothed out with orchestration but the female vocals give it a new twist, while the jaunty tone of ‘The Banks Of The Ohio’ disguises some pretty dark lyrics in this nineteenth-century murder ballad. The best track on the album is probably ‘Tell Me What’s The Matter’, seemingly an original written by producer John D’Ardis, which could have ranked alongside the better Eurovision entries of the day. The production overall is great, though the quality of the source record used for this post isn’t great.
There were a few more singles and an EP which included tracks not available on this album. A road accident near Portloaise in the summer of 1973 brought an abrupt end to the band, as both Tina and Keith Donald were hospitalised for some time and they never reconvened. Tina had entered the National Song Contest in 1972, finishing third, and had been flown out to the April 1973 Eurovision Song Contest in Luxembourg as a possible replacement for Maxi, who was threatening not to perform because of problems with the live rehearsals. In 1974, after her recovery, Tina finally represented Ireland at the Eurovision with ‘Cross Your Heart’ (written by Chips member Paul Lyttle), but came in seventh behind ABBA’s breakthrough performance. Enjoying a solo Irish hit (a German-language version was also released), Tina soon joined the long-established Nevada Showband and scored further hits during the rest of the decade, but also suffered another serious road crash before eventually retiring from touring in 1978. Eddie Campbell was one of the many Irish ex-pats who found it easier to earn a living as a musician in Canada, joining Dublin Corporation in 1973 (and becoming close friends with fellow-exile Ray Elliott), but died there at a very young age. Band leader Dave Pennefather became General Manager of MCA Ireland from 1984 and was Managing Director of Universal Ireland from 1999 to 2008.
- The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
- Tell Me What’s The Matter
- Over My Head
- All I Ever Need Is You
- Did You Ever
- I Don’t Know How To Love Him
- The Banks Of The Ohio
- For All We Know
- Put Your Hand In The Hand
- Keep The Customer Satisfied