Artists From Ireland #2: Terri Hooley

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terri hooley

Who punched John Lennon, won the ultimate compliment from Kurt Cobain, founded a seminal record label and legendary record shop on the most devastated half-mile of Europe, and never made a bean from any of it?

Terri Hooley is your man, and if you’ve seen the film ‘Good Vibrations’ you may, admittedly like myself, have only become aware of him through the 2013 film. At the heart of his story is one of the ultimate music fans, who whilst eschewing the divisions of his home town, chose another identity: punk.

In his mind punk was the hippy generation saying ‘you didn’t listen to us, now look what you’ve got’. Indeed, punk would be Terri’s “hippy revenge on the world”. His passion wasn’t confined to punk at all, he has listed the Shangri-las, Marvin Gaye, Charlie Parker and Amy Winehouse among his favourite musicians for example but Terri’s legacy will forever be enshrined with one particular band, within one particular genre, and with the particular help of one legendary DJ.

After a near brush with death in the seventies he decided what his particular contribution to the world would be: he would put Northern Ireland back on the music map and show that there was ‘more to Belfast than bombs and bullets’. Van Morrison had relocated to the United States, Rory Gallagher and The Horslips were the only prominent acts that still came regularly and the major record labels and distributors in England had absolutely no interest in any group from Belfast, so amidst the bombings, the murder gangs, the untold devastation and a cancelled Clash concert that sparked a riot, he asked a simple question, why can’t we do it ourselves?

Terri initially opened a record store on Great Victoria Street and the shop became something of a beacon for local talent and passionate music fans. In the process he established a small but culturally significant bulwark to faceless commercialism, and in his own words, something of a community centre, an ‘oasis in a desert of madness’. Keenly aware of the talent quite literally on his doorstep, he decided he’d be the one to get local bands recorded and distributed. He founded ‘Good Vibrations’, which was entitled as an ironic comment on the frequent bombings on his street. This would be the label that drew the most flattering quip from Kurt Cobain when taken ill in Belfast in 1992 who said to the hospital porters that he ‘didn’t mind dying in the home of Good Vibrations’.

In local pubs and clubs such as The Harp and The Pound, Hooley discovered the first acts he would sign to his fledgling label: Rudi had the honour of the first single with ‘Big Time’, and were followed by a slew of bands such as the Outcasts; Victim; Protex; The TearJerkers; The Shapes and The Moondogs. Each are fondly remember and some are still going strong such as Protex.

Hooley had a habit of making things happen, it was not easy getting punk bands into venues, and entailed Hooley pitching the gigs as 21st birthday parties to venue owners so that they might acquiesce. He also had the benefit of his friend opening a print shop above his store which was used to great effect for the album covers and artwork. He pulled the immediate community around him together to make things happen.

There were many great bands, but one band ultimately changed everything. Terri was not impressed with the Undertones initially and has recalled people actually crossing the road just to spit at Feargal Sharkey. Nonetheless, he helped them get into Wizard Sound Studios where their EP was recorded for “100 plus 8 VAT” and a helping of fish and chips and lemonade. The results were undeniable and armed with the Teenage Kicks EP Hooley approached Rough Trade Distributors, who flatly told him it was the worst record they ever heard in their life. Worse followed, EMI told him it was ‘atrocious’, then at CBS, he was literally thrown out of their office, after he wrecked it.

Terri’s wife suggested to a dejected Hooley that John Peel might play it. Earlier that year (1978) Stiff Little Fingers had secured a distribution deal through John Peel’s relentless promotion of their single ‘Suspect Device’. Not only did Peel play ‘Teenage Kicks’, he famously played it twice. Peel later declared it his all-time favourite song and some of the lyrics are engraved on his headstone. It was the first time the BBC had ever played a record two times in a row, The Undertones went onto a bigger budget and Sire Records, but Hooley had made it happen.

Meanwhile the punk Godfather had given young people somewhere to dance in the middle of Belfast. Belfast had effectively been ghettoised, alternating between being a ghost town and full blown riots; this was the “first time in a decade that young people got together”. Not satisfied, Terri organised the first international Festival of Punk and New-Wave at the Ulster Hall in 1980. He had taken local music to a national level and beyond and the story of his DIY and Independent label proved an inspiration to independent and alternative labels around the globe. The label died when the first wave of Punk subsided in 82, but he continued to help out the bands he got to London, many of whom came back to him. They had given punk, in Hooley’s own words, a particular edge, a roughness contrasted with haunting turns of melody, now sometimes referred to as ‘shellshock rock’ or simply anti-sectarian punk

Punk, ironically, had represented a pacifist, apolitical and non-partisan stance in a warring community. In his own words ‘punk was a united force’, but being a punk was particularly dangerous at that time. Hooley suffered for this and by his last count he had been arson attacked or closed down ten times, only to reopen eleven!, indeed Hooley was physically assaulted as recently as 2012. He started over and over again, setback after setback, and his record store kept appearing in numerous iterations such as Cathedral Records, Vintage Records, Good Vibes and Phoenix Records right up to 2015.

It wasn’t just punk and what that stood for at that particular time, there were also campaigns for nuclear disarmament, the painting of peace signs on barracks, and the opposition of property developers that did not have the community’s best interest at heart. Hooley was at the centre of all of it. The esteem Terri is held in on the back of his commitment to his community was recently reflected in a campaign for Hooley to be major of Belfast, which he laughed off in a typically tongue-in-cheek fashion. His legacy, getting young people to come together for music, will never die.

Terri’s anecdotes are golden, and given his inherent passion for life and music, the alleged altercations were perhaps inevitable. The most notorious is probably his altercation with an apparently less pacifistic John Lennon who drew Terri’s Ire with loose talk about gun-running. Fists flew as did Terri’s glass eye (Terri had been over in London to buy equipment to start a pirate radio station). Never afraid of offering his opinion, he also ruffled Bob Dylan by asking him why he didn’t withhold his taxes like Joan Baez as a Vietnam War protest in 66.

Hooley received lucrative offers to leave his beloved Belfast, but he stayed, and built something where it mattered the most resolving he’d ‘rather be penniless in Belfast than rich somewhere else’. He still managed to meet his idol Bob Marley and had strong connections with Phil Lynott and Shane McGowan, the latter of course having particularly pronounced punk connections.

It won’t come as a surprise to any music fan that the people who often affect the most positive impact on music are not necessarily prominent musicians. Without the Alexis Korners; the Tony Wilsons; the Alan Lomax’s; the mentors; facilitators; collectors; broadcasters; the renaissance men; the idealists and impresarios like Brian Epstein, movements in music simply don’t happen. For Hooley, it must have simply boiled down to having the right values: ‘I’m not a businessman, I was never interested in money…I just like turning people onto good music’

Young people will always seek out good music, here’s hoping that the Terri Hooley’s of the world will continue to be sought out by the John Peels of the world, and that in the synthetic fabric of the music industry, there still is that organic thread of the superfan who will always be preeminent in the creation and proliferation of music that matters. Passion is contagious, and for all that young ears are suffused with abounding soulless affectations and archetypes, what is real will always be felt.

Here’s wishing him well.

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