Saturday, 18 June 2011
Irish Blood, English Heart
This books tells a story that has long fascinated me, the story of how the children of Irish emigrants to England became some of the most important musicians in English rock music. It focuses on the eighties, interrogating the stories of Kevin Rowland (Dexy's Midnight Runners), Shane McGowan (The Pogues) and Morrissey and Marr (The Smiths).
"I wanted to be a part of it, and up the front of it, what was going on here. Second -generation Irish Catholics, from John Lydon on, have been at the cutting edge of British popular culture." Kevin Rowland
Johnny Rotten mentioning the UDA and the IRA in Anarchy in the UK; Kevin Rowland listing Irish writers on Dance Stance; Dublin sitting easily amoung the English cities listed on Panic; Mike Read announcing a song from Pogue Mahone (Kiss my Arse as gaeilge): the second generation Irish have managed to interlope their ethnicity into the cultural mainstream in Britain. This subject has had sparse attention given to it until the arrival of this book. Indeed, Sean Campbell's articles on the subject were most of what little existed.
This is an academic book and not always an easy read but both the text and maybe even more so the footnotes are and invaluable foundation stone for anyone who wants to explore this area further (like myself).
The first section focuses on Kevin Rowland and Dexy's. One of the main themes running through the book is how the featured artists intermittently embrace and subvert ideas of Irish nationality. Rowland insisted that Dexys should tour 'on the wagon' and this certainly contrasted with the boozy reputation of the Irish. Rowland's comment was that "we're big tea drinkers". This was to contrast highly with The Pogues.
At another time they wore Berets and greatcoats in hommage to the Irish rebels of 1916, played the final date of their tour in the National Ballroom in Kilburn and in a twist on the columns of Likes and Dislikes beloved of the pop press had one such list in the tour programme that included the IRA in the Likes column.
It's easy to forget how hard it could be to be Irish in the UK during the 70's. After the Birmingham bombings Irish people and organisations became "the targets for abuse and obscene phone calls; stones and a petrol bomb were thrown through the windows of the Irish Centre; an Irish pub was badly damaged by another petrol bomb.....' (from PHD thesis The Irish in Birmingham, Kaja Irene Ziesler)
In the media the Irish Joke was all pervasive. Programmes like The Comedians consisted of stand ups whose sets included many jokes that included punch lines showing how the Irish were thick and backward. Kevin Rowland remembers asking his parents "Are Irish people supposed to be stupid?"
"I know loads of people who believe Irish people are thick. It's fucking ridiculous, like the thing that Jews are tight, or Pakis smell - England is riddled with that type of shit." "I wrote the song (Dance Stance) because Irish jokes make me sick. A lot of people believe all that stuff."
Rowland was told that his Irishness was not a good thing to push, career wise but he"wanted to get in anything Irish that I could without 'doing an Irish thing.'"
His strategies for doing this are carefully examined by Campbell in an original and thought provoking way.
Shane McGowan was, like Rowand, someone who embraced punk and his first band (The Nipple Erectors/The Nips) who were well regarded but never really achieved real success. Seeing the burgeoining 'world music' scene around him in the early eighties McGowan "thought..if people are being "ethnic", I might as well be my own "ethnic". He called his music and style "Paddy Beat", devising a look that was a mixture of Brendan Behan and 1950's Navvies. After a brief stint as Pogue Mahone The Pogues were born.
Although drawing on Irish traditions The Pogues songs were often set on the streets of London and it was always clear that they were London Irish rather than native born Irish. The Dark Streets of London took the Irish ballad form and twisted the form to reflect late twentieth century urban concerns.
"No one taked about us. (the second generation) You didn't know how to articulate what your life was like." Cait O'Riordain. The Pogues gave the second generation a voice and their concerts became their celebrations. McGowan told them they had "got as much right to call [themselves] Irish as anyone with an Irish accent."
This right wasn't always recognised in Ireland. The Pogues were described as an Irish joke, the Irish Times suggesting that McGowan "play acts as the emigrant casualty".
Worse awaited on a radio show on RTE where they were asked "where is that Irish music rooted" - by traditional musician Noel Hill who went on to call their music 'a terrible abortion' of Irish music.
The Pogues came to be viewed by some as embodying an 'essentialist' Irish identity where hard drinking was a part of national identity. Similar claims were not made about English bands or musicians who drank too much.
The final band covered in this book is The Smiths, long considered the archetypical English band. They were not a band who could be pigeonholed easily and they never made music that drew expressly on Irish traditional music. However, it is worth pointing out that there are a large number of (native) Irish bands who never drew expressly on this well either. Johnny Marr explains how he was influenced by the 'feel' of the music he heard in his parents and that he tried to capture this in some of his compositions. He notes that this is particularly true of Please, Please, Please, Let me Get What I Want, originally titled The Irish Waltz.
The thing is, of course, that the whole of The Smiths ouvre is filed with a sense of displacement but that this isn't reduced to a simple formula pertaining to second generation Irish in England but appeals to all the displaced. One startling example is their popularity amoung Latinos in the US, and Campbell finds a quote to show that for some, at least there was a sense of a shared displacement at the heart of this popularity.
The opening of Never Had No One Ever expresses this clearly. "When you walk without ease /On these streets where you were raised." Morrissey explains the song "It was the frustration I felt at the age of 20 when I still didn't feel easy walking around the streets on which I'd been born"
Of course, for an artist, a sense of not belonging is somewhat essential, and perhaps this is what led to so many second and third generation Irish musicians making their mark in England.
We find that The Queen is Dead was consciously intended as follow up to God Save the Queen. These two songs alone would make an interesting case for a second generation Irish tradition in England. There are far more besides. Sean Campbell should be thanked for making the case so well. I look forward to further excavations.