Alternative Ulster: Punk Rock In Belfast 1977

Punk rock comes to Belfast in 1977 and teenage school leaver Gavin Martin knows the moment for change has come. SLF, The Clash and The Sex Pistols replace the UVF, school and monarchist relatives in his world outlook.
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Punk rock comes to Belfast in 1977 and teenage school leaver Gavin Martin knows the moment for change has come. SLF, The Clash and The Sex Pistols replace the UVF, school and monarchist relatives in his world outlook.

Summer 1977. Schools Out. The sun splits the sky. And the sword of destiny lands at my feet. Its there - glistening in the sun - when I awake on the top of the bathing boxes one morning at Ballyholme beach. I and some friends have slept out in the warm night. Now we can greet the happy arrival of the Royal Yacht Britannia in the bay, a pleasant little seaside spot in Bangor, Co Down Northern Ireland just down the loch from Belfast. Because, fresh from her Jubillee celebrations the Queen, Prince Phil and other emissaries of her fascist regime have decided this is the place to start their victory lap by boat.

We rise to the ocassion as the crowds gather with their binoculars. In graphic detail we outline crude variations of imagined congress and misbehaviour on the deck of the royal yacht. We are merely toying with the sword that came crashing down just before the stinking school gates closed for end of term and The Sex Pistols alternative anthem No Future God Save The Queen b/w Did You Know Wrong smashed into the charts. An affront to all the pinched Protestant loyalist community round these parts held dear the record insured I received a quick beating - and a ban on the song being played ever again - when, in my evangelical idiocy, I brought it to accompany a one man pogo exhibititon at the local Police Run, Blue Lamp disco. So the sword got knocked out of my hands.

So what? When my Aunt, my lovely but brainwashed Aunt, had come to stay with us she was shocked to see what was now decorating my bedroom wall. Aunt Emily lived in a poor (outdoor toilets) but hardline area of Belfast (Coolbeg Street. Is it still there?), murals of King Billy and the UVF on the gable walls, painted kerbstones, flegs hung all year round. And there she was in tears at breakfast time. "I can't beleive what you've done to our Queen," she said. She was referring to the Jamie Reid Sex Pistols safety pin poster of the Queen that had pride of place above my divan (there were no pictures of neighbourhood Godess Carol Browne that size, y'see). I didnt like to see Aunty cry. But still I felt vindicated - this sword could cut deep.

A few weeks later my dad was bent double with laughter in the kitchen. I had announced - with due reverence and solemnity- that that very night The Sex Pistols debut Top Of The Pops performance was going to take place. It was essential that the TV was reserved for me at the alloted hour. This is momentous I tell him, the most important band in the world at the minute, possibly in the entire history of rock, performing 'Pretty Vacant', the third single in their unholy opening trinity of excellence. "Johnny Rotten," I confidently announce, "is a brilliant lyricist!" "Johnny Rotten??/Johnnny Rotten?," my dad is on the verge of a breakdown so helplessly has the laughter now over taken him. "Johnny Rotten," he says, barely able to get the words out for chuckling, " Johnny Rotten's bloody stinking." Mmmm I couldnt see it at the time but my dad got it - the comedy aspect of the Pistols much more clearly than I did at the time. So maybe it was a rubber sword. With a bendy blade. What the fuck? I picked it up anyway.

Punk rock... I did not want to be called a punk and I loved music that was too powerful to be boxed in by any category. I knew punks were persons that got fucked up the ass in American prisons. Punk was not what I wanted to be called, at all. Punk, as I understood it, as I had read , was ANTI tribal, it was about self expression. I was into a lot of music, a lot of it contained on my £12 portable push button cassette recorder. Recorded off the radio, ambient household sounds in the background or off the record player. There was The Buzzcocks, pere Ubu Chuck Berry and Junior Walker, there was James Brown and Steely Dan and Eddie and The Hot Rods so I did not want to be simply a punk. But it was like this, if pushed I would rise to the ocassion I would allign myself with the creed that others designated for me. The sword was there after all. Why not pick it up?

"MmmmmmMartin Sir, Mmmmartin wants to tell us about ppppunk rock sir.” September 77, School is back in session. And Timothy Richards, the impossibly tall, blue eyed, blonde haired, posh Malone Road voiced, rugby playing fascist fuck is addressing Mackie, the googly eyed, prematurely balding, rugby playing, history teacher in my class at Bangor Grammar School. Richards goes through the entire time I spend at this same sex shithole with the words National Front emblazoned on his ruck sack. Years later the school will be found to have been sheltering, for upwards of 25 years a, cherish the title, Vice Principal whose paedophiliac behaviour includes spreading jam and sometimes talcum powder on young boys' behinds. You could check the trial records but I don't think the offender, Doctor Lindsay Brown, fucked them up the ass . They weren't punks.

When I leave this place - as soon as I can – Richards will be made what they call Head Boy. In truth I have no wish to tell him - or the gormless grinning Mackie, or anyone else - about punk rock. I want to be down the town seeing if Carol Brown and her friends are at the chippy. I want to be far away from this hell hole and I will be as soon as I can but for now I hold my nerve. I accept Richards challenge and tell them about the music and the words and why its important to me and the world ...and they all think its so funny. And, of course, when I single out the reference to the death of Blair Peach , a teacher killed on an anti fascist march referenced, clearly, in The Jam's In The City, as being a warning of a future where police are a private security force working at the behest of municipal governments and corporations, I get laughed and shouted down and I think.... What the fuck IS the point?

Round about now the sword turns into a pen. A Graffiti writing pen that scrawls band names on school desks and, rather than being caught and being forced to run the gauntlet of the Grammar's vicious punishment system, I am - Saved! I meet an elder, similarly besotted with music, also graffiti'ing desks - its how we meet, in fact - and, following the lead of scribe tribe pioneers across the water in the London, we give each other the guts and the get up and go to put together the first edition of a magazine we call Alternative Ulster. Alternative Ulster, its first edition, numbered number 7 and printed by the Buzzcocks fanclub photocopier in Manchester, is no relation to the magazine currently bearing that name. It is no relation either to the song by Stiff Little Fingers. Jake Burns band, the most celebrated outfit to come out of the Belfast punk scene which is about to explode in the winter of 77, name the song after the magazine. They play it onstage one night at the Trident in Bangor and the idea is that we might give the song away as a flexi disc on the cover of the mag. Stiff Little Fingers will pay the costs but I don't like the song and I am deeply suspicious about the band's relationship, recently formed, with co lyricist and Daily Express Belfast correspondent Gordon Ogilvie.

In anycase by the time SLF have played that song The Clash have already visited Belfast. It is a visit that serves to give the naturally chippy Ulster mentality an added grudge to bear, in its punk incarnation. Joe, Mick and co leave with some very nice posed by the barricades pics but they play not one note. Perhaps it had to be that way. The excitement, the setting and the history was just too much. The Clash in the Ulster Hall, a seat of Ulster demagougery that had oft times hosted the feasome bull headed bigotry of Reverend Ian Paisley, to be laid to waste by the shock troops of the new? I was BEYOND myself at the thought of it all. Already I had seen the full blooded, community unifying glory of sainted blues rock guitar warrior poet Rory Gallagher light the ecstasy infusing touch paper in that very hall. And just up the road, in The Whitla Hall, in the same very week their stupendous Live album Stupidity hit the topspot, Doctor Feelgood had presented the greatest machine gunner the city had ever seen let loose on a stage, the speed fulled fury of pudding bowl cropped Wilko Johnson.

In a country still music starved after the sectarian assassination of the Miami Showband The Clash's appearance was set to complete an emanicipatory tryptych. But not in the way we had imagined. The scheduled show on October 20th 1977 never took place. But the riot that took place when the news filtered through to the fans (oh alright then – punks) , drawn from all over the north and south of Ireland, of the cancellation was pivotal. This was no ordinary Ulster riot based on political allegiance or religious affiliation. This was a riot that united people looking for a good time against the forces of repression. This was how punk began to open Belfast – the city where I had been born – back up to me. Closed off by security gates, scarred, shocked, pockmarked by shooting, bomb blasts and the pervasuive thrall of terror Belfast was shaken alive, cro barred open - by punk.

But now, as the spontaneous “SS RUC” chant became the rallying call of the crowd reigned against the police and , soon, the army, outside the Ulster Hall, the need to meet our vanquished liberators became paramount. Word got about and soon we raced across town to The Europa, at that point the most bombed hotel in the planet. Within minutes we somehow found ourselves in the Clash's hotel room. Topper let us in. Strummer lay on his back on the floor, necking honey straight from a jar. Just back from initial work on Give Em Enough Rope in Jamaica the band's hotel room is permeated with the enticing but unfamiliar fug of JA weed. Already some fans are in the bathroom looking a little peaky. Mick Jones is on the bed holding court. I realise that this is my chance, finally a chance to fulfil my destiny and speak with one of the musicians who have helped bring me to this point. The only thing is I dont have a pen or a tape recorder and I dont have any questions. Just a magazine thats not yet printed and a head full of confused dreams. I tell Mick about the magazine and soon relaise that this is something he probably hears everyday. Oh dear. I need to think on my feet. I know, I've read what they've been up to! Recording a new album. So I ask what seems to me to be the obvious question bound to elicit some chat. “Whata about the album?” Mick continues taking the hit on the joint, inhales, shrugs his shoulders and says : “What about it?” Shit, I think, this aint going so welll. I need time to think about this interviewing business.

The joint gets passed around. I fall into a deep sleep and I awake 30 years later. All my dreams – and a few of my nightmares – have long since come true. I am sat in a West London lock up telling Mick Jones about the very first time I attempted to conduct an interview with him, over a joint in the Europa hotel, in Belfast, a lifetime ago. He listens to my story , he smiles, he takes a hit on the joint and he says, “Well not much has changed there then has it?...” No, Mick, just everything. And nothing.