Music From The Maiden City | 1970 – 2018
By Kevin Magee / Photographs: Thank you to Mickey Rooney, Vinny Cunningham, Jason Flood and Jim Cunningham
On 25 September in 1978, John Peel played The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ twice in a row on his show. There’s a myth that there was music in Derry before this, but you know what they say about myths… What followed was performances on Top Of The Pops, tours with major bands (including The Clash) and being signed to major record label Sire. Joseph Locke, Dana and the showbands aside, it was The Undertones that set the standard as to how success was measured. So, who else has or almost ‘made it’?
The Moondogs ran almost parallel to The Undertones, touring with them and gaining huge popularity in their own right. However, they did not match that status beyond Ireland. If being played on John Peel’s show was an early sign of success, then Bam Bam & the Calling – who formed in 1983, repeated the feat a few years later. The group eventually toured with The Replacements, but like The Moondogs didn’t get much further than local acclaim. Bam Bam & the Calling did, however, give a guitarist and name to the next big thing that had emerged from Derry in 1984, the band That Petrol Emotion, who had already, the major record label deal and sell out tours. That Petrol Emotion wouldn’t gain the notoriety they deserved, but are still regarded as one of the most influential bands on the 80s/90s Britpop scene. The group were way ahead of their time, mixing dance music with rock music.
Those who considered chart hits to be a sign of ‘making it’ would have to wait until 1993 for another success story when D:REAM polluted the planet with single ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. Those with a finer tuned taste were themselves preparing to be the next big exports from the North West. The DIY ethic remained; towards the end of the grunge era and following the emergence of Britpop, Cuckoo and Schtum roused the interest of two of the biggest record labels in the world, Geffen and Sony. The two giants released both band’s LPs: Cuckoo’s Breathing Lessons and Grow by Schtum. They didn’t reach the stratospheric chart successes; both were solid albums that are worth (re)visiting.
Cuckoo recorded with Psychedelic Fur and lost their sound. Schtum toured relentlessly (notably with Richey-Era Manic Street Preachers), the group then unfortunately disbanded while they were touring America. In this era, D:REAM – who’d latched onto popular music to give himself credibility, came back to haunt us. The single ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ was re-released and used for the Labour Party campaign in the 1997 UK General Election; raising once again, the question of political influence affecting music. That aside, the one thing that we can take from Derry bands up to this point, is that timing is everything.
Around about 2000 music was introduced to the internet by a mutual friend and they haven’t looked back. The things that defined success and how it would be achieved were about to change forever. Bands could become popular without making records or playing gigs to gain popularity; people could go on TV talent shows (like Nadine Coyle eventually becoming a member of Girls Aloud) and success could be achieved through hype and social media popularity.
In spite of the changing times, another local band The Whole Tribe Sings gathered popularity here in the 2000s and took it to America; touring relentlessly around a scene that included The Frames and Damien Dempsey. Eventually, the constant touring and lack of attention worked against them. In 2001, Cuckoo’s Andrew Ferris set up record label Smalltown America (STA). He would spend the next number of years being in the vanguard of the local scene; instrumental in the promotion of bands from across Northern Ireland.
Local acclaim Fighting With Wire, who formed in 2003, gained the attention of contemporary Radio 1 DJs. Eventually, they were signed to Atlantic Records; continuing the Derry tradition of reaching a certain point, but not quite being lucky enough to break through to the masses, and eventually split in 2013.
After the rise of DJ culture, The Japanese Popstars became sought after remixers in their genre, notably working with Robert Smith of The Cure (‘Take Forever’) and remixing Beyoncé. Their acclaimed ‘We Just Are’ is still highly regarded in dance music circles. By 2008, bands were back to the drawing board; making new music and trying to reach people through the web. The culture of electronic music/remixer had given birth to the modern day producer, notably Ryan Vail. He has steadily built up an international reputation: with a wonderful live set, a number of EPs, collaborations and a wildly successful crowdfunder campaign for his debut album For Every Silence. This has become a stand-out example of success in the newly defined pop era, recently building a home recording studio.
The city’s historical timeline, of reasonably successful bands and a fierce independence, reshaped the approach of how artists work now. They have embraced the home recording techniques, and avail themselves of all the opportunities the internet and new technology throw their way. Wally, who played drums in Red Organ Serpent Sound/Whole Tribe Sings, now performs in Derry’s hugely popular Waldorf & Cannon. Christian McNeill, Paddy Nash and Decky McLaughlin have all released albums independently to loyal fanbases. The four musicians have toured with major acts to provide us with a new definition of success: steady album sales, pull in crowds – good turnouts at gigs, crafting themselves careers out of their musicianship; or at least be able to maintain a significant presence.
Four-fifths of the That Petrol Emotion formed The Everlasting Yeah. They have used the Crowdfunder method for releasing their LP; which is intrinsically a way for fans to pre-pay for an album. This practice is now veering towards a suitable replacement for record labels; it was most recently employed by John Deery & the Heads, for their Nothing Permanent Lasts album.
So, what about young bands today? SOAK is signed to Rough Trade records and we’re currently waiting on the follow up to the critically acclaimed debut. Talking of debut albums, we eagerly await the Touts, also Woodburning Savages is on the horizon and that is sure to be a belter. So it seems that Derry has more great artists/bands now than in previous years, Ryan Vail, Lost Avenue, Cherym and The Barbiturates are proof.
Over the last four decades, the Maiden City has continued to churn out top-class artists. It has evolved into an alternative music mecca, throughout Ireland and beyond. Our musical peers – from the 70s onwards, set the bar for the produce of exceptional music; both to be played and enjoyed. Those artists essentially, projected a spotlight on the ongoing deliverance of organic talent; carving the city’s unique alt-music identity.