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Stuart Bailie: Taking a look back at Carol Clerk and the great tradition of NI music journalists


Carol Clerk with Martin Degville of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, 1985 (Credit: Ian Murdock)

Carol Clerk with Martin Degville of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, 1985 (Credit: Ian Murdock)

Carol Clerk with Martin Degville of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, 1985 (Credit: Ian Murdock)

Carol Clerk was a student at Regent House school when her first piece was published in Melody Maker. The 1973 headline was Bombs, Boredom and No Bands. It was a diary of teenage life at a horrendous time.

Carol, from east Belfast, wrote well about the privations she knew. Her local pub, the Queen’s Inn, had been bomb-damaged. The city centre was a jumble of dread and security checks and hotel discos were too pricey. She watched The Godfather at the cinema and pined for the times when Rory Gallagher or even prog-rockers Fruupp would play a gig the Ulster Hall.

She signed off her story with a positive declaration. “In the hearts of our music-loving population lies the optimistic hope that the present troubles will clear up soon and Belfast will boogie again”.

Happily, she did not neglect her writing talent. Carol took a journalism course and then practiced her trade at the Acton Gazette and the Wembley Observer before taking her rightful place on the Melody Maker news desk.

She filed important stories and won a PPA award for her coverage of Live Aid in 1985. She amazed the self-taught hacks with her mastery of shorthand and ‘Wee Clerkie’ also caroused with passing waifs and rockers at pubs like the Oporto and later the Stamford Arms.

On a visit home, she watched a local punk band, the Defects, playing at Orangefield Boys School. She became their champion, writing keen reviews and helping to secure them a record deal.

“Carol was a diamond,” singer Ian ‘Buck’ Murdock recalls.

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This affection was shared by musicians like Yoko Ono, who became a friend. Carol wrote books on artists such as Madonna, The Damned and The Pogues. She died of breast cancer in 2010. She was only 55 and many of us still miss her kindness and mischief.

Northern Ireland has produced some exceptional music writers. The first was probably Solly Lipsitz, who was a Melody Maker contributor in the 50s (and a future mentor for Van Morrison). Shortly after this, Nik Cohn, a London blow-in, came to the campus of Magee College, Derry, where his father Norman was teaching. Nik saw his first teddy boys in a coffee bar by the Bogside while the jukebox played Little Richard.

This moment grew into an astounding book, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. Cohn wrote it like he heard it. Later, he gave Pete Townsend the storyline for the song Pinball Wizard. He eventually scripted a story about suburban disco kids that became the film, Saturday Night Fever.

A punk fanzine, Alternative Ulster, showcased two incisive writers, Dave McCullough and Gavin Martin, both sadly deceased. They were offered jobs at Sounds and NME at a time when it seemed like being a music writer was one of the greatest gigs. The NME was selling 300,000 copies a week and its influence was profound.

I arrived at the NME a decade later. Gavin was still on the staff, knowledgeable, fiery and fit to write about the rapture that music can bring. He was an intimidating character and so was Sean O’Hagan, a towering guy from Armagh who conspired with hip-hop artists, Bono and Shane MacGowan.

He mostly writes about photography these days, but an upcoming book with Nick Cave will be significant.

London in the 80s was a focus for Irish immigration and the music business offered a kind of shelter. Within this, a network of Celtic enablers became known as ‘The Murphia’. They might find you work or contacts or even a couch to crash on. Carol was a help to me and so too was Barry McIlheney, a Melody Maker regular from north Belfast who later edited Smash Hits and launched Empire and Heat magazines.

However, music papers had fresh competition from MTV, tabloid showbiz pages and then the internet. The circulations fell and titles began to fold but there was still space for the best practitioners. Dave Cavanagh, raised in Dublin and then Belfast, was able for this challenge.

His reputation rose with Sounds, Select, Q and Uncut. He was perceptive and often brilliant. A story in Select about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, adrift in Belfast, is magnificent and sad. Dave wrote singular books about Creation Records and John Peel and he left us prematurely in 2018.

These days, you search out the bylines of Eamonn Forde and Anna Caffola to see how the north is representing in conversations about culture. You also see the continued presence of Blank magazine co-founders, Colin Murray (BBC 5 Live, Metro, Countdown) and Paul McNamee (Editor, The Big Issue).

So, despite all the received wisdom, music journalism is still a compelling notion. With this in mind, we recently launched the Carol Clerk Bursary, aimed at supporting new female and non-binary talent. The project partners are the Women’s Work festival, the Oh Yeah Music Centre and the magazine that I co-founded with my daughter Betsy, Dig With It.

The first recipient of the award is Eleanor Gilmore, a student in Belfast. In her application, there was a meditation about Springsteen’s Thunder Road that involved the band Slint and the phantom calls of foxes in the dark. It’s what we need. The tradition continues.

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