As the 25th anniversary of the death of the beloved Cork guitarist occurs on Sunday, Des O’Driscoll looks back at some of his seminal performances
By the time Rory Gallagher moved to Cork in 1956 at the age of eight, a combination of hearing US armed forces’ radio in Derry where he’d been living, and growing up in a household where both parents loved music, ensured the seeds of his future career were well and truly planted.
Even in his childhood years Rory had the self-discipline to spend hours practising on his acoustic guitar. His big ‘breakthrough’ came when he won a talent competition at Cork City Hall around 1960.
In what was the first of his many encounters with the media, a delighted 12-year-old came into the offices of the Cork Examiner and Evening Echo on Academy Street in the city to proudly pose for a picture holding his guitar on the roof of the building.
The first album he ever bought, The Buddy Holly Story, was purchased from a bookshop on Shandon Street, and the emergence of the new wave of British bands from 1963 onwards had spawned a small ‘beat’ scene in this country that provided an alternative to the dominant showbands. It was a movement the teenage Gallagher identified with, even though it was the showbands that provided an important outlet for him to hone his skills as a musician.
A huge gig for his generation came in 1965 with the visit by the Rolling Stones to the Savoy, and Gallagher had saved for weeks for a ticket. That Stones gig helped inspire the burgeoning music scene in Cork, and by 1966 Rory, his brother Donal were involved in a new club on Leitrim Street in Cork.
A labyrinth of a building, The Cavern catered for a mostly 15-to-17-year-old age group. With just a mineral bar forrefreshments, and luminous paint on the wall to up thecool-factor, that early club provided the main venue in the city for the kids who wanted to take a different path to the showbands.
Donal had even set up a primitive set of record decks — basically, two record players rigged up inside a box from Harrington’s bakery — and he’d play records during the breaks in between bands.
By 1966, one of the most popular attractions at the venue were The Taste, fronted by his brother.
By then, 18-year-old Rory had already clocked up an impressive CV of experience with other bands, touring to the UK and Spain. But this new three-piece really gave him an opportunity to forge his own path, and some of those early gigs in The Cavern are still an ‘I was there’ moment for Corkonians of his generation.
by Ed Power
Taste’s acclaimed performance at the 1970 Isle Of WightFestival, saw Gallagher’s band share a bill with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and Leonard Cohen.
Watching Gallagher, bassist Richard McCracken and drummer John Wilson proceed, loosely and louchely, through a repertoire of rollicking blues numbers at Isle of Wight, it is clear you are witnessing an outfit at the very height of their abilities. At the time, they were regarded as peers of Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin — Live At The Isle of Wight makes clear why this was so.
The documentary, by respected director Murray Lerner, follows Gallagher and his crew in the days preceding the festival, providing a revealing snapshot of a young artist shortly to claim an enduring slice of rock immortality. For admirers of Gallagher — and students of early ‘’70s rock generally — it makes for fascinating viewing.
“When Taste hit the stage the festival ignited,” recalls Donal Gallagher. “Murray Lerner had come to the Isle of Wight planning to shoot one of two numbers per band because he had a limited quantity of tape and he wanted to save it for The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell. When he saw Taste, he kept the cameras rolling for over an hour, which was extraordinary and speaks to the impact they had. They electrified the festival.” Alas, the wheels came off shortly after Isle of Wight as Taste split suddenly. Ambitious but also loyal and decent minded, Gallagher was scarred by the experience, his brother reveals. He’d never had any interest in a solo career. For him, Taste had been the vehicle by which he hoped to make his dreams reality.
“They broke up for managerial reasons,” says Donal. “Rory was keen to get out of his management contract. It was a conflict between Rory and the manager. Rory knew exactly where he wanted to go. The other two sided with the manager and formed a band called Stud, which was very short-lived. They found out the hard way what Rory was trying to tell them.”
With his group fallen apart and a rosy future plunged into sudden uncertainty, Gallagher faced the biggest crisis of his short career. “At the time he felt as if the world was falling in,” says Donal. “Here was a band that had stolen the show at the Isle of Wight. And yet he felt his hands were tied contractually. He felt betrayed — and never looked back at Taste again.”
Rory Gallagher didn’t just headline Ireland’s first majo routdoor rock festival – he also had a big hand in organising it. At least, he did via his brother Donal who was drafted in to ensure Rory’s set would be a success. The guitarist had been reluctant to sign up to play at Macroom, a town which even by the standards of Ireland at the time had little experience of putting on such events.
However, the fact that his mother Monica de Roiste’s people were from the nearby area of Cúil Aodha was used to put some pressure on to convince him to play. The trade-off was that his trusty brother, who had been with him through his career and possessed a wealth of technical and organisational experience, would be hands on for the festival.
Donal drafted in the likes of Mike Lowe, a sound system expert from Liverpool who went on to design rigs for of Pink Floyd and U2; and Joe Herlihy, the Cork man who would end up as U2’s sound engineer for decades.
Their hard work got the nod of approval from Rory, and the 10,000 fans who paid £2.50 a ticket for the gig were treated to a proper sound system for a typically energetic gig.
It was a productive era for Rory, the gig came in the year following his Calling Card album, often ranked by fans as among his best.
See the book, Macroom Mountain Dew, by Roz Crowley
At the picturesque spot of Loreley on the Rhine, there’s a legend about an enchanting woman who distracts boatmen and leads them to their death.
In 1982, however, Rory Gallagher was the one doing the seducing with a storming set that was also broadcast across the continent.
As with his first appearance at a Rockpalast concert in 1977, it was an event that was groundbreaking in terms of broadcasting technology, as it was among the first live broadcasts of an outdoor gig in stereo.
The concert had come two years after the release of Jinx, an album that had marked the end of a six-album deal with Chrysalis. Being off the road in later years was a mixed blessing for Rory, but his brother Donal Gallagher recalls his brother being happy at that time to be free of the pressures of the annual album-and-tour grind.
“It gave him the freedom and time to work on his music and just to breathe,” says Donal.
Rory was also happy to be sharing the bill with Eric Burdon, a longtime hero of his, and the two had an association that went all the way back to the Acadia in the mid-1960s when Rory and The Impact showband had supported The Animals at the Cork venue. Footage from the Rockpalast gig has been re-shown on German TV this week to mark the anniversary of Rory’s death and shows Burdon and Gallagher playing together on ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’ at a mass jam to finish the concert.
Rory Gallagher’s final gig in the US came at a mixed time in his life. A world tour had turned into a logistical nightmare because of the outbreak of the first Gulf War, and personal issues had come to the fore that had seen him spend a few weeks in a rehab clinic.
While booze seemed to be an obvious issue to those around him, it had also emerged around this time that prescribed drugs were causing even more of a problem. Medication to ease his anxieties around flying, and sleeping pills to fight his insomnia, became part of a serious issue that would take its toll on his body and eventually lead to his death following a liver transplant barely four years later.
‘I thought keeping Rory on the road was better than keeping him off the road,” recalls his brother Donal of a difficult time for all concerned.
But there were reasons for optimism as the band flew from Australia to California on March 2. Rory had been ‘on the dry’ for a few weeks, and got a kick out of having two birthdays as he crossed the International Dateline on his 43rd birthday.
As the tour began, he was also reminded of the esteem he was held in by the music world when Slash from Guns N’Roses showed up backstage to pay homage at the Hollywood gig.
By the time they reached New York a month later, word had seeped out that Rory was going to part company with Gerry McAvoy and Brendan O’Neill, the rhythm section who had been at the heart of his line-up for the previous ten years (with bassist McAvoy going all the way back to 1971).
That news had increased the hype for the gig, and the promoter was happy to make the most of the huge demand for tickets.
“It was absolutely packed,” recalls Donal Gallagher. Somehow, the New York Fire Department got wind of how crowded the venue was and soon showed up amidst a wail of sirens.
As the gig continued, Donal found himself negotiating between the fire department, the police who were threatening to arrest the promoter, and Rory who was having a great time on stage.
“I said, ‘Look, if you pull the plug and he has to go off the stage, that’s going to cause even more damage’,” Donal recalls. “I asked the fire department guy if he could just do two more numbers, and he replied: ‘OK, he can do two more numbers, as long as one of them is ‘Messin With the Kid’!”
Rory duly obliged, and then finished out his set with ‘Bullfrog Blues’, the classic Mississippi Delta number that was a fitting choice to bring the curtain down on his association with a country that had done so much to inspire his music from an early age.