Sigh and Explode - Derry and the soundtrack of the Troubles
A new book chronicling the history of music in NI during the Troubles is jam-packed with yarns about Derry and the often offbeat attitude the city adopted to the violence, bigotry and hate that consumed the region.
‘Trouble Songs,’ by journalist and broadcaster Stuart Bailie, charts the story of music and conflict in the North of Ireland since 1968.
It features interviews with artists including Christy Moore, The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, That Petrol Emotion, Sinead O’Connor, Terri Hooley and The Miami Showband survivors.
The book also includes a piece from U2’s Bono who talks about the lyrics of the song, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
Bailie - who describes his book as an “alternative hearing of the conflict” - also reveals details of a death threat sent to punk icons, The Clash, when they planned to play at an outdoor festival in Derry in 1979.
Christy Moore, meanwhile, explains why he sang, “The Time Has Come” at the graveside of Martin McGuinness and Raymond Gorman, of That Petrol Emotion, talks about how NI politics impacted on his band’s fortunes.
The book kicks-off in Derry in the summer of 1968 when protestors singing the civil rights anthem, ‘We Shall Overcome,’ blocked the lower deck of Craigavon Bridge.
Among the demonstrators, who were protesting at a sectarian bias in the allocation of homes in the city, was a young Eamonn McCann who recalls: “I think that ‘We Shall Overcome’ made its way spontaneously and I think the main reason for it is it is the easiest song in the world to learn... I remember thinking, ‘This is a bit different’. ‘We Shall Overcome’ - we shouldn’t be singing that. That is the black people in America. But there was something romantic about that because it suggested that what we were involved in was a much wider and more noble struggle, rather than just fighting about things in Northern Ireland.”
Fast forward to the late 1970s - 1979 to be precise - and the bizarre story of a death threat sent to Joe Strummer, frontman of The Clash, in the run-up to a festival in Derry.
On August 11, 1979, the NME - the bible of self-confessed ‘musos’ in the late 1970s - announced details of an ambitious Derry gig featuring The Clash, The Undertones and new local act, The Moondogs.
The date for the event was August 25, the location was the grounds of Templemore Sports Complex and admission would be free.
One week later, an NME courier delivered a letter to Wessex Studios in London for the urgent attention of The Clash. The music paper’s editor had attached a cautionary note which read: “I don’t know if this is serious, but you should have it”. The attached letter was handwritten in red ink in block capitals. It purported to come from the ‘Londonderry Battalion’ of the Red Hand Commandos - a loyalist paramilitary grouping.
The letter was essentially a death threat against Joe Strummer who, earlier that year, had backed calls for British troops to be pulled out of NI.
It read: ‘JOE STRUMMER SHALL BE EXECUTED IF HE ENTERS ULSTER. WE SHALL NOT PERMIT NO MAN TO ENTER OUR COUNTRY IF HE CONDEMNS OUR CROWN AND HERITAGE AND OPENLY BACK THE IRA.’
Despite protestations from The Undertones - who didn’t think the threat was genuine - the Shantallow concert was cancelled and The Clash never played in Derry.
A few years later, politics was also to play a defining role in the fortunes of another band from Derry - That Petrol Emotion - who, in the press release to their 1985 debut single, pledged to try to “redress the balance on totally ill-informed coverage of NI”.
Drawing attention to strip searching, Diplock Courts, the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the use of plastic bullets, the band faced the ire of sections of the right-wing press in Britain.
“Some people were saying we were the musical wing of the IRA,” recalls guitarist Raymond Gorman. “It really hurt alot. I just thought, ‘We’re talking about civil rights but we’re perceived as the musical wing of the IRA’. How could you win against that?”