“Is this the kind of place you wanna live ?

Is this where you wanna be?

Is this the only life we’re gonna have?

What we need is

An Alternative Ulster”

Stiff Little Fingers / Alternative Ulster

 1. “It was 1968 and the party wouldn’t start again until punk came along.”

In the mid 70’s, Northern Ireland was not exactly Disneyland. In Belfast, the capital, the armed conflict between the IRA – Irish nationalists (Catholics) – and the Ulster Volunteer Force – British unionists (Protestants) – reached levels of terror out of proportion: in 1972 alone, the IRA detonated 22 bombs at the centre of the city, while the unionists from the Shankill Road neighbourhood hard-earned the name “butchers”. The presence of paramilitary groups in the streets, guns at the ready, the surprise murders at the enemy pubs and the explosion of bombs were frequent. “A lot of my friends passed away” Hooley recalls. “I thought I was going to be the only one left; it was a horrible time, but the idea of leaving Belfast made me feel like a traitor.”

Terri Hooley was born in Belfast in 1948. When he was 4 years old he became blind in one eye: he was playing with a neighbour at throwing darts at a tin of biscuits – things of the post-war period, when one of those darts bounced on the tin and went straight to the socket where Terri’s left eye was; since then, he has had a glass eye. When you’re talking to him, it is hard not to get distracted by the non-expression of his left eye. However, he very calmly guarantees that “the loss of an eye never tormented me that much.” It does seem that way. There are some who say that, years ago, the man had the habit of taking out his eye and putting it in his friends’ beers, causing an immediate scandal. “It’s all lies”, he declares.

The adolescence caught him in the 70’s. Being a hippie was what was in. Terri let his hair grow and started going to marches against the Vietnam War and for nuclear disarmament. At that time, his idols were Lennon, Dylan and Tim Hardin. Belfast was, according to him, a good city to live in; it wasn’t London, but “there were things to do and places to go, there were parties, there was music and there were girls.”

In 1968, it all ended.

2. Good Vibrations: punk as revenge

During the first years of The Troubles – as the conflict in Northern Ireland is known in the United Kingdom – Terri Hooley missed his activities and parties. He got married, worked in a photography shop, and broadcast his own (pirated) radio show from the top of a mountain; he also started playing records at a bar that was mostly always empty.

One day, a work colleague who knew his enthusiasm for music and records handed him a newspaper where the sale of a collection of 1,000 singles for 40 pounds was announced. And Terri did not think twice: he decided to collect that amount – a fortune back then – and acquire the music. He was lucky. He then realized that the collection contained true gems; records that were hard to find, and therefore of great value for the true collector. So Terri quit his job and opened a record shop which he called Good Vibrations in honour of the cover the Troggs made of the Beach Boys’ classic, and became interested in the buying and selling of vinyl. “They came from London to pay hundreds of pounds for some of my singles” he recalls, “and on top of that, as the place I had chosen for Good Vibrations was in a very damaged area because of the bombs, the landlord gave me the first six months of rent for free.”

As soon as it opened, at the end of 1976, Good Vibrations filled up with youngsters that longed to find a way out. The store became the epicentre of a new subculture, consisting of no more than a hundred regular customers that had been discontent since a certain Johnny Rotten screamed, a few months earlier, I am an anarchist. “I always say that punk was our revenge: you didn’t listen to us in the 60’s, well look at what comes now”. The crucial moment was, however, the Clash concert at Ulster Hall in 1977. The concert, in reality, never took place because the city council stopped it – apparently, they did not want the city full of “disgusting people”; it made no difference. That night, all existing punks in Northern Ireland got together in Belfast. And there he was, Terri Hooley, a hippie, letting himself get excited by the energy and the music of his young client-bands; organizing concerts, selling albums and going to one party after another, of course.

The next step was recording that music. “For the record companies, Northern Ireland was a stagnant area; so the talented young people were trying to open key-locked doors; I understood then that I was able to give them that key.” In 1978, his store Good Vibrations also became a very rudimentary recording studio, from which singles of bands like Rudi – a band that would soon be the opening act for The Jam – were played in vinyl. Those bands were starting to write their own songs. “The atmosphere was incredible, each time more bands showed up. It could be that those were the darkest years of the armed conflict, but I sincerely believe that those punk bands saved countless lives by distancing the youth of the politic-paramilitary sphere and gave them something exciting to focus on.” Things were going well. But they were about to become much better.

3. “Life was a constant party.”

If you’re 18 years old and you like a girl, and you really like her and would give anything for her, it is possible for the bombs to fall in the background. The fact that the city, whether Belfast or Derry, is divided and you can’t leave your house after 6 pm, that through the window of your room you can see smoke from afar and troops dressed in camouflage running from one side to the other with automatics on is something really hard; and yet, if this girl doesn’t care about you it may be even worse. When The Undertones write ‘Teenage Kicks’, their city was in the middle of a war, but what really mattered was another girl in the neighbourhood/ wish she was mine/ she looks so good. Everything else made no difference.

“When I heard ‘Teenage Kicks’ I was amazed”, claims Terri, who had brought the band from Derry to enter a musical contest that he had organized himself, and which he called ‘Battle of the Bands’. The next day he immediately got down to business. He decided to sign them up, record them, and went to the EMI offices in Dublin where he made 2,000 copies of the EP, before going to London to knock on doors. “I thought: I have six days, and the whole world has to listen to this.” Once there, and to his surprise, ALL the record companies, from the big companies such as EMI to the more independent record labels like Rough Trade, rejected his production. “They physically threw me out of CBS”, he remembers today in laughter. But as luck would have it, he also dropped by the BBC and left a copy of the record to his hero, the radio announcer John Peel. “My wife and I were at home, I had just come back from London completely down, in ruins and in a very bad mood. Nobody had understood anything, nobody had seen the beauty of this music. When, suddenly, ‘Teenage Kicks’ starts playing on the radio.” It was John Peel’s popular show on BBC Radio 1 – the 25th September 1978 – and when the song finished playing, Peel, causing Terri’s tear ducts to flood entirely, said: “Isn’t this the best record you’ve ever heard? As a matter of fact, I’m going to play it again…”

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