sun 21/07/2024

The Irish Rock Story: A Tale of Two Cities, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

The Irish Rock Story: A Tale of Two Cities, BBC Four

The Irish Rock Story: A Tale of Two Cities, BBC Four

Too many headline acts and too few supporting bands in this look at the Emerald Isle's rock history

Sinead O'Connor found rock to be a hard place

When a documentary about Irish rock music starts with footage of late-period Bono shuffling about awkwardly dressed in black, my first impulse is to check my iTunes in case he’s surreptitiously shat another album into my computer. The second is to reach for the remote. Thankfully though, this was just a glimpse of what was to come down Ireland's rocky road.

I had more than enough time to steel myself as we sped back in time to a point when the fledgling blues scene was first making an impact in the country.

In the South during the 1960s, the Church held sway and, with it, a tight grip on the music of the day. It's a hard concept to get your head around until you realise it's basically the plot of Footloose, with Kevin Bacon’s role being taken by the many travelling showbands. These heroes played the hits of the day to the kids while religious zealots tried to isolate the concept of enjoyment in order to more effectively remove it.

They may not have been troubling the charts, but they were certainly charting the Troubles

There was much of interest here. Showbands were the greenhouses in which sprouted two towering figures in Irish music: Van Morrison and Rory Gallagher. The live footage and audio of the latter was thrilling and exciting – particularly with the power trio Taste. The film of Van Morrison fronting Them was less captivating, although this was largely due to my mind’s inability to see anything other than a young, blonde Peter Hitchens. Actually, given the recent trajectory of current affairs broadcasting, this could be what Question Time looks like in a matter of months.

On the subject of Van Morrison, he may have written beautifully about his homeland once he’d buggered off to America, but just because a programme tells you it’s not a romanticised view, doesn’t mean it ain’t. The claim "What Joyce did for Dublin, Van did for Belfast" was particularly difficult to square. Morrison had left willingly and was singing about an idyll that no one there was experiencing as tensions simmered and tempers rose. Joyce on the other hand, seemed trapped by Dublin even after he had left, and wrote of escape and flight from the stagnant city. But I digress – unlike the documentary…

In fairness, there’s no real chance to stray from the path in a TV hour and, in the search for bands that changed the world, we got Thin Lizzy (naturally), but no mention of Gary Moore and Skid Row (the band from which vocalist Phil Lynott left with a bass guitar as severance). We got the Boomtown Rats and the Undertones (naturally), but no mention of Stiff Little Fingers, whose song, “Alternative Ulster” admirably avoided cliché and sentimentality and did much to normalise the frustrations of many living in Ireland as sectarian violence increased.

We caught fascinating glimpses of the backdrop in front of which the well-known rock goliaths stood. There, woven into the fabric, were people like Terri Hooley, who brought Catholic and Protestant together in his shop, Good Vibrations, as they fought for their right to party. It was as good an example of music as a real-world force for change as you’ll find anywhere. More on his efforts and his fledgling label would have been very welcome – they may not have been troubling the charts, but they were certainly charting the Troubles.

As the timeline pressed on with a ceaseless urgency, much was lost. U2 went straight from scrappy teens to Red Rock bombast with no mention of Boy which, for many (well, me), remains their best album. The most jarring jump cut, however, was that which followed the footage of Sinead O’Connor’s powerful appearance on Saturday Night Live when she ripped up a picture of the Pope and, in doing so, caused an entire production team (and probably a considerable proportion of the viewing public) to shit a brick. This brave and principled stand, highlighting the centuries-long patriarchal ownership of women’s bodies by the Church – and the most rock and roll moment we’ll see on BBC4 all year – was followed immediately by Bob Geldof laughing about "Paddy singers crapping on". It was a very unfortunate piece of editing. O’Connor deserved much better – not least as she proved to be the most interesting and incisive talking head on offer.

The Irish Rock Story… was, in parts, interesting and enlightening, but, sadly, these elements felt predictably hemmed in and squeezed for time. That’s a shame but, to be honest, it’s hardly a surprise. In a bid to be all things to all people, BBC Four’s music doc slot is often shot through with a familiar sense of mild disappointment, not unlike booking a tour of a foreign city only to realise, halfway through, that you’re not actually straying any real distance from the hotel.

The Church's tight grip on the music of the day came across much like the plot of 'Footloose'


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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A history of Irish rock music without a mention of Horslips very similar to the history of Britain and missing the industrial revolution!

Why is there no mention of Gary Moore? Even though Skid Row and Thin Lizzy were featured of he was a member of both before he went on to establish himself as one of the best guitarists in the world and selling millions of albums world wide.

As usual anti Catholic non sense from the minority groups whacked out of their heads on drugs, propaganda and the usual sense of being now in control. The Horslips were missed and people like Morrison and over marketed bands of no substance ready to earn a few quid. Sine ad O' Connor a lost soul full of manure. Heaven save us from the Children of the Teeth of the Hydra.

I loved so many of these groups and artists but really how can you ell the story of 1970s+ Irish music without the Horslips as some of the key protagonists.

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