Phil Coulter is one of Ireland’s most successful songwriters and producers, selling millions of records and going on to enjoy international solo success with his Tranquility albums. Now the 77-year-old from Derry is embarking on a new career as an author, with his memoir Bruised, Never Broken.
“This is all so new to me. We were gigging at the weekend and after the show I was signing books instead of CDs,” he says. He spoke to us about some of the most memorable songs of his career:
Puppet on a String (1967 Eurovision winner)
“This was the one that got me off and running, after two years in London, keeping the bank manager at bay, just about clinging on. Here was I, a rookie out of Derry, trying to get a foothold in the music industry; they didn’t exactly welcome me with open arms. Puppet elevated me from Joe Nobody off the boat to someone who had just won the Eurovision Song Contest for the United Kingdom for the very first time.
We [Coulter and songwriting partner Bill Martin] studied previous winners to see what it took — you have to remember that people are only going to hear this song once and then vote on it. It needs to be instant.
"We discovered that winners were either romantic melodic ballads by the French or Italians or cute kind of songs like ‘Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son’. We couldn’t compete with those big sweeping ballads so we went cute. That’s how we ended up with ‘Puppet on a String’.
"It was research and homework, absolutely, it didn’t fall into our laps. We were also blessed with Sandie Shaw, who was already an established star, as was Cliff Richard the following year.”
“What were the odds of the same two songwriters representing the United Kingdom two years on the trot? We didn’t get a free ride the second year, our demo was submitted anonymously along with all the others. I remember the headline on the front of the Evening Standard was ‘Can the Irishman and the Scotsman Pull It Off Again’.
"We nearly did [‘Congratulations’ controversially lost by one point to the Spanish entry]. The song that won rocketed into obscurity while Congratulations went on to become a standard.
"I also have a soft spot for it because it has fed, clothed and educated several of my children. Those are the kind of songs that every songwriter dreams about — we call them pension songs. These days it is virtually impossible to write a pension song, there is just too much exposure too soon.”
Scorn Not His Simplicity(The Dubliners/Luke Kelly)
“We sold five or six million with‘Puppet on a String’, and again with ‘Congratulations’; we were on the pig’s back, we were big-time songwriters and record producers. And then I told Bill, ‘right, I’m going off for a few weeks to work with The Dubliners’. He thought I was mad but it was something that I wanted to do for me.
"‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’ [about Coulter’s son Paul who had Down syndrome and later died, age four] was a very different exercise because it was very personal and I’m not a very public kind of guy. I didn’t want to peel off layers of myself to let the people peer into my darkest, traumatic thoughts. But Luke Kelly kept encouraging me.
"It is a very honest song. Another one of my motivations was that this was in an era when children with Down syndrome, who were called ‘mongols’ back then, they were hidden away. It took me months to come to terms with it and then I thought, this has happened, there is nothing to be ashamed of and I’m not going to hide it.
"That song has provoked so much reaction — to this day I still get contacted by people who’ve discovered the song for the first time, people who have physically ormentally challenged children. They discover the song and they can relate to it. They know they are not ontheir own.”
The Town I Loved So Well
“That was a song that had to be written about the North. I was in Derry on the weekend that internment was introduced — I had a kind of a gut reaction and in anger and frustration, I wrote an anti-internment song called ‘Free the People’. Luke Kelly was all over that and we recorded it within weeks, and it was a hit for The Dubliners.
"It wasn’t a great song but it served to get my head into that whole space of writing about something political, which had never been my forte before.
"The actual writing of ‘The Town I Loved So Well’ took months. I knew that this was a very volatile situation and with the wrongly chosen words it could just become another rebel song. There were plenty of those already and what we didn’t need then, in this very highly charged atmosphere in Northern Ireland was another rebel song.”
My Boy (written for Richard Harris and later performed by Elvis)
“That was fun, there was never a dull moment with Richard, I was very fond of him. We got the record into the top 20 and did an American tour. I came back from that and I was very close to checking myself into St John of God’s. I thought, ‘that was fun, but Jesus Christ, I had better get myself back on track’.
"Harris went back to making movies, I went back to my other stuff and I thought that was it. Elvis taking up the song later was a real bonus.”
Shang-a-Lang (The Bay City Rollers)
“I did ‘Saturday Night’ with the Bay City Rollers, it sold gazillions, was number one in America and really broke them globally. But my favourite with them was ‘Shang-A-Lang’. Two months ago, I was performing on the high altar in Clonard Monastery in Belfast at the West Belfast Festival.
"The following night, I was on stage in Leopardstown with the Bay City Rollers doing ‘Shang-a-Lang’. They did it as one of their encores and called me on to the stage and I had such a laugh. The song is a big fan favourite, it reminds me of a fun time.”
“Rugby was largely played in the non-Catholic schools in the North while in the Catholic schools, it was soccer or Gaelic. So the players from the North were normally of the Unionist persuasion, as were the fans. The IRFU had kicked the can down the road for a long time, with the uncomfortable situation where, when ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ was played, the guys in the squad would have to stand there dumb.
"The IRFU commissioned me to come up with a sporting anthem — it was never meant to replace Amhrán na bhFiann. It took time for it to catch the imagination of the public but I knew it was going to earn its spurs. The fact that it has now been adopted in cricket and hockey is kind of flattering to me and I am delighted with that.
"I knew there would be flak; I got the stuff about pandering to unionists and all that. Peoplewho made that complaint do notappreciate there are people in the North who are born to believe they are British and you have to respect that.”
“We were at the start of our touring career and after the Gaiety, we went to the Opera House in Cork. I was so nervous about carrying a whole show by myself, even with an orchestra, that I got Niall Toibín to do the first half. The first night at the Opera House was brilliant.
"From early days, Cork audiences wrapped their arms around me. Our last two tunes were ‘Mise Éire’, as a tribute to Seán Ó Ríada, who is still one of my heroes, and ‘The Town I Loved So Well’. We got a standing ovation.
"Then big Paddy, the stage doorman, said ‘If you had only done ‘The Banks’, you would have wrecked the place’. I had been aware of a Joe Lynch recording of ‘The Banks’ but I wasn’t familiar with the song. I thought it would be nice for me to make the effort to learn it if it was as important as Paddy was saying.
"So, he came in the following morning, sang it for me and I sat at the piano writing it all down. I did a quick arrangement for the orchestra and we put it in the set that night. As Paddy had predicted, it wrecked the place. The next time we were in Cork, I took it a stage further. We did a Cork medley starting with ‘Beautiful City’, then going into ‘The Boys of Fairhill’ and ‘The Banks’.”