I am legend
As an evening of readings from his memoirs takes place at this year’s festival, Michael Conaghan looks at the life of one of Belfast’s more colourful characters, punk godfather Terri Hooley
More than just the bomb site of myth, Belfast in 1979 was still a mecca to small-town misfits craving big city excitements. Top destination for the aspirationally-hip was Terri Hooley's Good Vibrations record shop in those pre-internet days, deemed by word of mouth to be the best of its kind in Ireland. An Elvis cardboard cut-out pointed the way in Great Victoria Street, then it was up the stairs to browsing heaven.
Old classics, new wave, American imports — you could waste many hours before making a purchase that you hoped would gain a glint of approval from Terri's one good eye. I think I managed it once, with Swindon new wavers XTC's second album GO 2.
If there was a king to be courted in those days, it was Terri Hooley. On a roll from the success of The Undertones' legendary debut Teenage Kicks (whose championing by John Peel moved Hooley to tears), he presided over a vibrant scene, with bands like Rudi and The Outcasts waiting in the wings.
His book Hooleygan, which forms the basis of Richard Dormer's one-man show ‘I, Hooley’ during the Festival, makes much of the accidental nature of all this, but in truth Hooley had the mixture of gumption and political awareness that made him a perfect fit for the role.
Born to parents who were actively involved in the old Northern Ireland Labour Party, Hooley came of age in time to catch the nation’s brief flirtation with the swinging 60s, becoming involved with the anti-apartheid movement and CND. The 60s world view took him beyond the perceived parochialism that underpinned Northern Ireland politics, soon to disintegrate into ‘the Troubles’.
Hooley was not the first to see the link between hippie activism and punk, and he kept faith with Belfast throughout the worst of times, as friends either left the country or tragically became victims of the conflict. He had the guts to stand up for what he believed in too, decking a delusional John Lennon over his support for the IRA in the early 70s.
Ironically, he would later receive a telegram of support from John and Yoko for a controversial gig at the McMordie Hall in Queen’s, which shows either a forgiving nature on Lennon's part or perhaps some memory issues. But Hooley could see the old sense of liberation born again in punk.
Punk mattered in Northern Ireland in a way that took it beyond just another youth culture affectation. While The Clash sang about living in a war zone, kids here actually did. Punk was arguably the first movement to both challenge sectarian assumptions and provide an answer. From the grimy sweat of the stage of The Pound to the gilded steps that led up to Good Vibrations came the first glimmers of the peace process. Alternative Ulster? You had to imagine it first and punk actually did. For that, Hooley deserves much credit.
It's one thing to be a legend and another to benefit from it financially.
Good Vibrations as a business has felt the cold chill of economic reality as yet another ‘closing down sale' sign appeared. But Hooley himself has been rescued by new sets of admirers, such as DJ David Holmes and Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody. The much discussed film is finally in production and the man himself ran successfully for the title of Lord Mayor of the Cathedral Quarter.
The old anarchist is, it seems, being finally courted by the establishment. But I'm sure he'll find a way to wriggle out of their grasp.
- I, Hooley, October 20, 8pm, Oh Yeah Music Centre