Belfast Telegraph

Rock 'n' roll saved Northern Ireland: Stuart Bailie's love for the 'soundtrack of the Troubles' prompted him to write the definitive history of music and the conflict... but it wasn't all sweetness and light

The writer and broadcaster says music was the real unsung hero of the violence. He tells Ivan Little how acts like The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers and U2 helped bring peace to the province

The Undertones step out
The Undertones step out
Journalist and author Stuart Bailie
Stuart Bailie hits New York in 1988
Sinead O'Connor

A new book which examines the links between popular music and the Troubles unsurprisingly hails the contribution to Irish rock 'n' roll of the great and the good, like Bono, Phil Lynott and Van Morrison. But there's also a somewhat unexpected mention of the anything-but-good Johnny Adair. Yes. THAT Johnny Adair.

The terrorist's history as the ruthless orchestrator of the murder-crazed gangs of 'C' company of the UDA on the lower Shankill is well-known. But his brief spell as the less-than-dexterous bass guitarist in a nasty Nazi-supporting Belfast group called Offensive Weapon isn't quite so well-documented.

Now, however, in a book called Trouble Songs: Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland, journalist and broadcaster Stuart Bailie has put the record straight about the role played in the Belfast music scene by the man who would go on to revel in the nickname 'Mad Dog'.

In his book - extracts from which are being serialised exclusively in the Belfast Telegraph - Bailie, who delves deep into the backstory of entertainment in Northern Ireland throughout the conflict, says that music was the unsung hero of the Troubles, helping to bring peace to the province.

On the other hand, however, Adair's skinhead band Offensive Weapon, who featured another future UDA leader, Sam 'Skelly' McCrory on lead vocals, promoted hate, racism and sectarianism, with songs like Gestapo RUC, Made in Ulster and Bulldog, the theme of which was 'Keep Britain White'.

A picture of Adair, McCrory and another associate of the band, future UDA figure Donald Hodgen, showed them taking part in a National Front march in Belfast in September 1983 - a parade known as the 'glue-sniffer's march'.

Bailie says: "Offensive Weapon played most of their gigs in pubs and clubs on the Shankill, but they also supported punk band The Outcasts in the Pound Club in the centre of Belfast. They also played White Power gigs in Britain and they were part of the greater National Front family.

"I found a bootleg of an Offensive Weapon gig and listened through it. They were a horrible musical development and I'm glad that there were a lot of good souls who put up a bit of opposition to that."

Offensive Weapon made an EP in a home studio, but reports from the time say Adair had to be replaced on the bass, because he couldn't keep time.

Bailie, who once played in a "terrible" punk band called Acme that never made it into the big time, shatters the myth that the era of punk was all sweetness and light in terms of bringing Protestant and Catholic teenagers together, breaking down sectarian barriers.

Listening to Bailie's reflections, it sounds like broken necks were more likely in some venues, like the Harp Bar on a bad night.

"It could be a battlefield," he says. "You sometimes had to fight your way onto the dancefloor and off it. I was a young urchin at the time and the Harp changed my life and I became a better, more open-minded person.

"But the punk scene was not a touchy-feely, fluffy kind of place, either. It absorbed some of the aggression from outside."

Bailie's book, which he calls the "soundtrack of his life", has been in his head for 10 years - ever since he was asked by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to write a 5,000-word essay on music and conflict. But his work in charge of the Oh Yeah music centre in Belfast meant he didn't have time to follow through with a more in-depth study.

After he left the Oh Yeah, Bailie set about writing his labour of love, interviewing 60 people, including The Undertones, Christy Moore, Stiff Little Fingers, Sinead O'Connor and Terri Hooley, whom he writes about extensively in the book as a "revolutionary", whose Good Vibrations label gave fledgling musicians their first break into the industry.

A youthful Bailie spent 11 years in London working as a music journalist, most of them with the New Musical Express, where he eventually became the assistant editor.

"A lot of people wanted to be spacemen or train drivers, but I always wanted to write about music," he says. "The NME was a great place to work and I was sad that it stopped publishing last month.

"For me, the NME years were golden ones, flying all over the world with the likes of Bono and U2," adds Bailie, who was to have a historic reunion with the band in Belfast in 1998 when he hosted the famous David Trimble and John Hume 'handshake' concert in the Waterfront Hall just before the Good Friday Agreement referendum.

Bailie says the participants, including Bono, flew by the seat of their pants that night.

"The politicians were worried, because rock 'n' roll is so dangerous and people can shoot their mouths off," he says.

But, in the end, the show ended in a spectacular outpouring of support for the agreement from 2,000 sixth-formers.

Backstage, as the performers - some of them in tears - watched the TV news coverage of the event, Larry Mullen of U2 said: "That's it. The deal's done."

Bailie says: "Everyone knew that something significant, something historic, turned that night. Rock 'n' roll saved Northern Ireland."

Bailie's book carries interviews with musicians who came terrifyingly close to some of the Troubles' worst atrocities.

George Jones recalls how he was playing in the Abercorn cabaret club in Belfast in 1972 when a bomb went off in the restaurant below, killing two people and injuring 130 others.

Three years later, came the most direct attack on musicians - the massacre of the Miami Showband outside Newry in July 1975.

Three musicians were killed along with two members of the UVF, who died after a bomb they were planting on the showband's bus exploded prematurely.

Survivor Stephen Travers, who was wounded and pretended to be dead, tells Bailie how he heard the other terrorists open fire as his friends and fellow musicians begged for their lives.

Also covered in the book is the killing by a British soldier of Bananarama roadie Thomas 'Kidso' Reilly, who was shot dead during a visit home to west Belfast in August 1983.

The girl group led mourners at his funeral and later recorded a song called Rough Justice and inspired Spandau Ballet to write another Troubles' song, Through the Barricades.

Bailie also writes about a number of grim songs spawned by the conflict. For many people, Boney M's awful disco dirge Belfast was the bottom of the barrel.

But the book also cites other tracks, like Belfast Child by Simple Minds - "the video nauseates me", says Bailie - and Invisible Sun by the Police, whose lead singer Sting was married to local actress Frances Tomelty and a regular visitor to her family in west Belfast.

Other songs have been by-passed in the book and Bailie says: "I have a list of about 400 songs in my computer and I didn't include them all. But I might write about them one day."

The self-proclaimed 'apolitical' Van Morrison (below) famously steered clear of the Troubles in his writing, although his song, St Dominic's Preview, was about Belfast and included a line about flags and emblems.

But Bailie writes about how Morrison songs Coney Island and Days Like This were later used to 'copper-fasten' the peace process in Northern Ireland Office campaigns.

Morrison performed at the Bill Clinton Christmas tree lights ceremony at the City Hall in Belfast in 1995 when he sang Days Like This and a song called No Religion and the event was seen as a major milestone on the road to peace.

By that time, Belfast was a regular stopping-off point on tours by global musical megastars.

But Bailie's book also looks back at the years when international stars shunned Belfast and he lauds the likes of Rory Gallagher and Ralph McTell for their regular concerts - even during the darkest days and nights of the Troubles.

Another man who helped keep the music business alive, on vinyl at least, was Billy McBurney, the head of Outlet Records, who released dozens of albums of loyalist and republican music - plus records by country & western and traditional folk singers, as well as comedian James Young.

Bailie recalls that McBurney also wrote the lyrics to the song Up Went Nelson after a statue of Lord Nelson was blown up in Dublin's O'Connell Street.

The colourful record producer, who had been a member of the Official Republican movement, was later shot by loyalists and bombed by the IRA.

It was in one of his properties in the centre of Belfast that Bailie set up the Oh Yeah centre.

"I was amazed at what Billy had done during his career," says the author, who also spent a lot of time researching John Lennon's ties with Ireland, his apparent support for the IRA and his controversial song Sunday Bloody Sunday.

Bailie also writes about the late Portstewart guitarist Henry McCullough having played on Paul McCartney's song Give Ireland Back to the Irish, his response to Bloody Sunday.

"Henry called it 'McCartney's cotton wool politics'," explains Bailie, who was surprised at what he calls the "fascinating things I found under the stones I lifted up" during his research into the book.

One of most shocking discoveries was that there was more to the cover of the Dexy's Midnight Runners album Searching for the Young Soul Rebels than met the eye.

The cover picture shows a young man called Anthony O'Shaughnessey fleeing his home in Ardoyne at the height of unrest over internment in 1971.

One of the men beside him, says Bailie, is Robert 'Basher' Bates, who went on to become of the notorious Shankill Butchers.

"My blood ran cold," says Bailie.

Trouble Songs – Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland will be published on May 11, priced £14.99. Available to pre-order now from

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph