Derry in the 1970s: soldiers, ‘Top of the Pops’ and violence

Local author and artist JOE CAMPBELL reflects on life in Derry in the 1970s - when many young people’s lives were controlled by what was happening on the streets and on their television screens.

Friday, 25th June 2021, 10:39 am
Updated Friday, 25th June 2021, 10:47 am
The Undertones at Bull Park, Derry, in the late 1970s. Photo: Larry Doherty.
The Undertones at Bull Park, Derry, in the late 1970s. Photo: Larry Doherty.

I remember a story about some English music journalists coming to Derry in the 1970s to interview or make a film about The Undertones.

I can’t mind the exact context but they were subsequently interviewed themselves during which they related their impressions of the Northern Ireland of that time which was also during the height of the Troubles.

They were amazed at how backward-looking the place was. One said it was like the England his father would have known in the 1940s and 50s - the England before Windrush - all white, still religious and full of skinheads in uniform causing mayhem in the guise of the British Army.

The Northern Ireland they described back then was a white, Protestant utopia that harped back to empire, colonialism and a sense of entitlement, the place itself acting the role of a loyal British dominion, totally in denial of a changing world. It was, in reality, an imposed theocracy, a religious dictatorship allowed to exist as a disinterested act of appeasement on behalf of a distant, disengaged Westminster government. I mean, when you think of it, for us, here, in Derry, what The Undertones achieved was seismic.

The success of The Undertones was all the more significant given the social and political context within which it happened. Here were five Catholic boys from Derry (where?) giving it large on the single biggest music television programme of that era, ‘Top of the Pops’. I suppose, for the current generation, it’s difficult to really appreciate how influential that programme was. One hit appearance on the show could almost guarantee success for life. This was still a time of just three channels on TV - no internet, no alternatives. Almost everyone watched the same programmes and ‘Top of the Pops’ was up there as one of the BBC’s flagship offerings.

The acts it featured reflected and influenced what young people wore, how they identified themselves and with each other. It was a deep and significant cultural influence. And there they were, The Undertones, still in their parka jackets and skinners (a style of denim) singing about Subbuteo, girls and Mars Bars (other confectionaries are available) surrounded by glam rockers in glitter and spandex and blowing them all out of the water.

I can still remember being in the Rocking Chair Bar the night of The Undertones’s first appearance on ‘Top of the Pops’ with Teenage Kicks. The band in the Rocking Chair (The Binmen!) stopped playing and watched the TV in the bar with the rest of us. When the song was over, the singer with The Binmen, the late Jackie Boyd, turned to us and pointed out that a “wee band from Derry” had just played on one of the biggest music stages in the world. We all stood up and clapped. We were that proud.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, in Derry, our world had gone to hell in a handcart. There were hundreds of The Undertones’ peer group dead, injured or in prisons; doors in the Creggan and the Bog kicked-in nightly by police and soldiers; young men had been queuing up to join the Provisional IRA in the wake of the atrocity that was Bloody Sunday with a daily bombing campaign and constant escalating violence on the streets.

Think of all the restrictions of the Covid lockdown (multiplied by three) and throw in the risk of being shot, imprisoned or dying in a bomb attack and having to be totally wary of both sides (not just the British Army and the RUC) but the Taliban-like attitude of the Provisionals who targeted some venues because of alleged drug taking.

For example, The Casbah [located at the junction of Bridge and Orchard Streets] was one of the few places where local music fans could hear a band that wasn’t a throwback to the Irish showband era of the 1950s. The Undertones themselves played there often.

So, what’s my point here? Well, I suppose the story above serves to demonstrate how crazy and awful things were here once upon a time and how far we’ve come. It also serves to demonstrate how powerful culture, in the form of the arts and music like that of The Undertones, can be. They were determined, like the rest of us, to have a youth, in spite of the hate and the killing.

That was our way of getting through it. For me and my mates, making a racket with an electric guitar or a set of drums was far more important than any religious doctrine or political creed.

As I listened recently to the whole interminable, sectarian driven political thing, you would think that nothing has changed. But, unfortunately for some, it has. There is no theocracy anymore, the old order has gone. There is nothing surer than change. Things have changed and will continue to change. The UK has changed and Northern Ireland has changed with it. Everyone can see at a glance, via their phone, what they’re missing elsewhere. We watch 24 hour news, with hundreds of TV channels, streaming and the internet. Ideas and technology advance with lightning speed. Most young people today would rather star on their own YouTube channel and talk of girls, boys, Mars Bars and TikTok videos. Problems are global, global warming and world-wide pandemics are the norm and social media dictates the social and political temperature and no politician is safe anymore. ‘Top of the Pops’, meanwhile, has long gone.

Just to bookend The Undertone story, I spoke to Billy Doherty, their drummer, recently and he told me that, after another appearance on ‘Top of the Pops’, he came home to Derry and was walking down the street when he was stopped by an army foot patrol who asked him his name and address and his occupation. “Billy Doherty,” came the reply. “So, what do you do, Billy Doherty?”, the soldier asked. “I’m the drummer in a band,” Billy replied. “Oh, yeah? What’s the name of your band?” queried the soldier. “The Undertones”, replied Billy. The wide-eyed soldier got very excited and shouted to his mates, “Oi, lads! It’s JIMMY JIMMY!” and Billy had to give them his autograph.

You couldn’t make it up.