Parochial, not provincial? Punk outside the metropolis: the case of Northern Ireland

Parochial, not provincial? Punk outside the metropolis: the case of Northern Ireland

This week, PhD student Tim Heron (University of Rheims) discusses how the Troubles created an alternative punk scene in Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. and Ireland.

Punk is known to be a popular music phenomenon and a subculture which reinvents itself and adapts itself to local culture, from the Basque country to the Philippines, from Communist East Germany to Putin’s Russia. Punk, in its most recognizable form, was shaped in London – with significant influence from the New York scene – both before and after 1976, the year when punk first sprang to international attention, so it is not surprising that punk experience was long understood as being essentially metropolitan in nature. Yet punk was a transregional and transnational phenomenon, and scenes emerged in towns all across the Atlantic Archipelago.[i] In those contexts, punks not only had to negotiate a set of pre-existing national attitudes, they also had to deal with local pressures and constraints. A lot of work has been carried out in the past two decades to document the experience of punks outside London, and in this post I will draw on my research on Northern Ireland’s punk scenes in the late 1970s and 1980s to briefly outline how punk was articulated in terms of the North’s status as both a peripheral and a conflict zone.[ii]

Northern Ireland’s peripheral status meant that the experience of punks there differed in several respects from that of members of the subculture based in London. First, lack of access to products associated with the subculture’s style encouraged young punks to create their own clothes (ripped t-shirts, flared trousers taken in by their parents, etc.), just as lack of coverage of local bands and events by the music press prompted them to create their own fanzines: out of necessity, punk’s DIY ethic had particular importance in the ‘provinces’.[iii]Secondly, as in other peripheral regions or cities across the isles, the suspicion of individuals who did not seem to conform to local and traditional values (class, masculinity, ‘appropriate’ behaviour, locality, ‘decency’) often translated into acts of violence directed against them.[iv]Violence was endemic in the 1970s across the isles, from soccer hooliganism to the disruption of concerts and street fighting between members of subcultures. However punks in Northern Ireland did not face the same degree of violence as their counterparts in England: discounting conflict-related violence, crime rates were relatively low in Northern Ireland, and when on tour, several members of Northern Irish punk bands were shocked at the level of violence witnessed at concerts or in cities in Great Britain. A third feature linked to the North’s peripheral position was the lack of an established infrastructure for rock music in the late 1970s, forcing promoters and bands to look south to Dublin and especially east to London if they wished to pursue an international career.[v]

If Northern Ireland punk shared some of the features associated with other peripheral scenes, it was the only scene in the Archipelago to be located in a conflict zone. More than any youth subculture until then, punk negated the quasi-sacred nature of signs: it de-articulated and re-accented them in novel and ambiguous ways and inserted them into new contexts (the safety pin, the swastika, bondage gear). In a region where highly charged-signs were used to signal group identities and boundaries – murals, flags, painted kerbs, soccer scarves, names, the pronunciation of a consonant, etc. – punk’s playful deconstruction interrupted the process of decoding and blurred the boundaries between the two communities, which meant that the two could easily perceive the punk subculture as belonging to the ‘other side’. For instance, the Sex Pistols’ 1977 song ‘God Save the Queen’ and the band’s provocative antics[vi]horrified loyalists, who considered punk as having republican overtones. Ironically, a few republicans initially believed that the song was a celebration of monarchy. Thus on several occasions threats were issued by paramilitaries, and punks were regularly beaten up by their peers in their respective communities. But they were undeterred, and continued participation in a subculture which highlighted the arbitrary and contingent nature of signs helped loosen the hold of sectarian ideologies over them. At a time when cross-community contact had become uncommon, punk encouraged a small minority of the North’s youth to ignore their political and religious differences and provided them with the opportunity to secure a space in the margins where they could temporarily retreat from the conflict and create an ‘Alternative Ulster’[vii]in which cross-community, cross-class – and in the 1980s, cross-gender – coexistence, cooperation and even camaraderie was possible. This form of unity was at first accidental: the few spaces which were open to punks (record shops, bars, concert venues) tended to be located in non-segregated zones, which drew young people out of their neighbourhoods and threw them together. Moreover, the degree of cross-community solidarity must not be exaggerated: the dynamics of sectarianism were put on hold but would occasionally resurface.[viii]However, punk was undeniably one of the few cultural phenomena in the era to foster prolonged and amicable cross-community interactions in the North. Therefore, although it shared many characteristics with punk scenes south of the border and across the Irish Sea, in the context of the ‘Troubles’ it took on added significance.[ix]

Both Northern Ireland’s peripheral nature and the persistence of conflict had an influence on the genre of punk rock which emerged locally, but not in the way one might expect. Rather than talking explicitly about the ‘Troubles’, a large number of 1970s local bands preferred to deal with it obliquely.[x]From the Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ to the Outcasts’ ‘Self Conscious Over You’, from the Idiots’ cover of the doo wop classic ‘Teenager in Love’ to Rudi’s version of the bubblegum pop song ‘Yummy Yummy Yummy’, Northern Irish bands inflected punk rock with pop-influenced lyrics and melodies and produced a sound not unlike the Ramones in New York or the Buzzcocks and Generation X in England.[xi]Northern Irish punks imagined a world where they could temporarily evade the conflict – ever-present on the radio, on TV, in their everyday lives – and concentrate on being young and on dealing with problems such as crushes and sexual frustration, and in so doing they the opened up of a third space which, temporarily at least, allowed them to transcend some of their society’s boundaries. Through their adoption – and lampooning – of the aesthetics of American teenage pop culture and its focus on pleasure, they articulated a leisure critique of the status quo.[xii]

The Northern Irish scene is just one example of how punk scenes all across the Atlantic Archipelago, while keeping an eye on London, were adapted to local contexts, thanks to the ambiguity and fluidity of this cultural phenomenon. To follow Patrick Kavanagh’s terminology, punk was parochial, but not provincial.

[i]I am aware that the toponym ‘Atlantic Archipelago’ is not the most elegant of terms, nor is it unproblematic, but it has the advantage of being less vague than ‘these islands’ and less inaccurate than the traditional ‘British Isles’. Moreover it reflects the specific and complex historical and cultural interactions of the isles in two directions: inwards, within the isles (Archipelago) and outwards, towards both the Americas and the European ‘continent’ (Atlantic).

[ii]For a recent example of some excellent research on peripheral ‘music worlds’, see Crossley, Nick. Networks of Sound, Style and Subversion: the Punk and Post-punk Worlds of Manchester, London, Liverpool and Sheffield, 1975-80. Oxford Univ Press, 2015.

[iii]O’Neill, Sean, and Guy Trelford. It Makes You Want to Spit!: The Definitive Guide to Punk in Northern Ireland, 1977-1982. Dublin: Reekus, 2003.

[iv]Cobley, Paul. ‘Leave the Capitol’. Punk rock, so what? the cultural legacy of punk. Ed. Roger Sabin, 1999. Reprint. London: Routledge, 2009, 171.

[v]Hooley, Terri, and Richard Sullivan. Hooleygan: Music, Mayhem and Good Vibrations. Belfast: Blackstaff, 2010, and personal interviews.

[vi]Notably Jamie Reid’s promotional artwork (ripped up Union flags, defaced portraits of Queen Elizabeth, etc.) and the Thames boat concert orchestrated by band manager Malcolm McLaren on the day of the Queen’s Jubilee, 7 June 1977.

[vii]A reference to both Stiff Little Finger’s 1978 single and to the Belfast punk fanzine from the same era.

[viii]For instance when Joe Strummer donned an H-Block t-shirt in support of republican hunger strikers, thus alienating some Protestant fans of the Clash, or when punks ditched their clothes and unspoken etiquette to perform more sectarian-informed identities at soccer games: see McDonald, Henry. Colours: Ireland – from Bombs to Boom. Edinburgh: Mainstream Pub, 2005, 50.

[ix]Another consequence of the conflict was the fact that the paramilitaries’ embargo on hard drugs ensured that substances such as heroin did not affect the Northern scene as they did in London or Dublin.

[x]McLoone, Martin. ‘Punk Music in Northern Ireland: The Political Power of ‘What Might Have Been’’, Irish Studies Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2004.

[xi]There were exceptions, of course: Stiff Little Fingers and Ruefrex often dealt with the Northern Ireland conflict in more explicit terms. This was also the case for most of the bands from the more militant second wave of 1980s punk, which were inspired by English anarcho-punk acts such as Crass and Poison Girls.

[xii]See Osgerby, Bill. ‘The teenage aesthetic and genealogies of American punk’. Punk rock, so what? the cultural legacy of punk. Ed. Roger Sabin, 1999. Reprint. London: Routledge, 2009 and Frith, Simon. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock’n’roll. New York: Pantheon, 1981.

Timothy A. Heron is a third year PhD student and junior lecturer (PRAG) at the University of Reims in France. His dissertation is entitled ‘Alternative Ulster’: Punk and Transgression in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. He is researching the Northern Ireland punk phenomenon during the ‘Troubles’ and examining its impact on the practices and outlook of those involved. His wider interests lie with Irish studies, gender issues, and popular and alternative cultures. His first article has been published in issue 19 of the journal Imaginaires (Presses universitaires de Reims, 2015). You can find him on Twitter and academia.edu.

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