Tom Dunne's Music & Me: All hail the showbands' legacy

The success of acts like Van Morrison and U2 can be traced back to work done by the likes of Brendan Bowyer and the Royal in the early 1960s
Tom Dunne's Music & Me: All hail the showbands' legacy

Brendan Bowyer and the Royal Showband at the Bowling Alley in Cork in 1965.

'Kiss me Quick' (Sacred Irish Song #1) by the Royal Showband is the most important song in Irish Music.

It is the originator, the song on which the success of all subsequent Irish popular music is based. No 'Kiss me Quick', no U2, Thin Lizzy or Fontaines DC.

It is one of the six sacred Irish songs that got us where we are today, the Homo Erectus of rock.

This might seem like a stretch, but bear with me. Things then were not the sweetness and light they are today. Early 1960s' Ireland was dominated by a tribe called Na Clergy.

They were ruthlessly anti-craic and controlled the supply and distribution, not just of music but of life itself, which they cleverly called 'procreation' to make it sound less fun. In truth they were anti-creation.

They had successfully stifled the success in Ireland of Elvis Presley. To middle Ireland he was a rumour at best, a child stealer at worse. Now they were turning their attention to The Beatles and The Stones. 

‘Come at us, with your so-called long hair,’ they sneered. But they hadn’t reckoned on the showbands.

For mid-Sixties Ireland was a hot bed of showband revolution. The Flying Columns had ended British rule here but their modern equivalents, eight to a band and at one point there were 750 bands – that’s 6000 rock n roll loving ne’re do wells – were bringing it back, at least musically.

So, for The Royal Showband to top the charts in September 1963 with 'Kiss me Quick', the first ever showband to do so, was quite the thing. Na Clergy could rail against it from the pulpit but at the back of that church they knew there was a man called Seanie, a ‘Kiss me Quick’ hat poised temptingly on his knee, eyeing with all his might little Mary in row 12 and praying with great determination for one thing: that Mary like The Royal.

So in the evenings, as Na Clergy locked up the churches the hills came alive with the sounds of vans being started up and loaded up with musical equipment, PAs, lads in suits and the sounds of the Sixties. It might have been a second hand version of the pop revolution, but it would do ‘til the real one got here.

It might be an exaggeration to say that by the time George Ivan Morrison, then just 21, went Top Ten in the USA with 'Brown Eyed Girl' (Sacred Irish Song#2) all the heavy lifting had been done by the showbands but there was some truth in it. They had given him his first gig but Ivan’s success was an evolution in itself.

Van Morrison pictured in 2010. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA
Van Morrison pictured in 2010. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA

The showbands' success was stifling creativity. Here was an original, recorded with American session musicians, showing the world how it was done. Others took note and took heart.

But it still wasn’t easy. Rory Gallagher was taking the scenic route to success, Irish Tour ‘74 was a way off, and Horlslips despite earning the undying love of Irish fans could not get the elusive break through. And, perhaps as a reaction to the showbands, the other music scenes in Ireland seemed wilfully anti-commercial. There were poetry readings, folk clubs and psychedelic scenes but money was viewed as the enemy of creativity and kept very successfully at arm’s length.

Hence success like Gilbert O'Sullivan’s 'Alone Again Naturally' (Sacred Irish Song #3) was all the more appreciated. It topped the US charts for six weeks in summer of 1972. A Waterford man in a cloth cap was being talked about in the same breath as Paul McCartney. There was hope.

Finally, in the mid-Seventies things started to move. In Summer 1976, Thin Lizzy’s 'The Boys are Back in Town' (Sacred Irish Song #4) exploded from our radios, confident, buoyant, and unstoppable. At their triumphant Dalymount show in 1977 the singer in a support act, The Boomtown Rats, announced that their single, 'Looking After Number One' (Sacred Irish Song #5), would be on Top of The Pops the next Thursday. And it was!

Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats. Picture: Brian McEvoy
Bob Geldof and the Boomtown Rats. Picture: Brian McEvoy

Geldof was stupidly confident. When he later made Live Aid happen it surprised no one who had ever met him. After this, originality and belief were everything. When U2 topped the US charts in May 1987 with 'With or Without You' (Sacred Irish Song #6) Irish music came of age.

Music since then has become a huge part of the confident Irish Identity we now present to the world. But be in no doubt, it began with 'Kiss me Quick'. Yes, in 1960s' Ireland, The Royal were the original Rage Against the Machine.

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