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Cormac MacConnell - The West's Awake
They Were Quite a Show
October 10, 2008
The West's Awake by Cormac MacConnell
SOMETHING special happened recently before a sellout house in the Royal Albert Hall in Belfast.
The spotlights came dazzlingly upon the band on the stage beneath the old crystal ball, the drummer rapped the skins, the bass guitarist backed the beat and, poignantly, 33 years after a band of Loyalists murdered the half of them in a late night ambush on a border road, the survivors of the Miami Showband and their new companions started rocking all over again.
A lady who was there told me she wept at the sound, but then she dried her tears and danced the night away to the Miami Showband the way she did when she was a girl. The music never died.
It was a concert for a Third World children’s charity and the three survivors of the ambush, stars of their era, were little more than children themselves on the night their van was stopped after a gig and their lead singer Fran O’Toole and two other bandsmen were mown down on the side of the road.
It was indeed a poignant night in a new and more peaceful era up there. It was also a testimonial of a kind to the resilience of the unique Irish showbands that laid down the dancing beat and maybe the pulse beat of an emerging new Ireland and post-war world 50 years ago now.
The showband era was already past its peak when the Miami was murdered. For that matter the Miami Showband was well past its peak too.
It was in the top five a decade earlier when it was fronted by the legendary Dickie Rock. It had slipped well down the rankings by the time of the ambush.
Indeed, by that time the entire showband industry was being ambushed by the licensed new discos and nightclubs mushrooming throughout the island. Scores of bands had already folded up and slipped away into the shadows.
A business that once employed up to 10,000 musicians and minders was well in decline. The big “dry” (alcohol free) ballrooms that had been the social centers for three generations were closing down. They were called the Ballrooms of Romance. Now the young were dancing and drinking and mating in the discos.
With the Troubles in the North, furthermore, many of the surviving bands in the south refused to cross the border any more.
We are now at a time when academics and social scientists and others are studying the impact of the showbands on Irish society at that time. It is a fascinating field of hindsight, especially for those of my generation, those who are middle aged now.
In a more ascetic staunchly Catholic and Celtic society just before the showbands arrived on the scene, when little but Irish music was permitted on the national airwaves, our parents danced and romanced at simple country house dances in their own parish. If they went outside that circle it was to parochial ceili and set dancing in the local hall, run and supervised by the parish priest.
If they were daring they danced to the tuxedoed dance orchestras in the towns and cities, the musicians sitting staidly behind their sheet music stands, everything in strict tempo. I remember the very last of those.
And then, out of nowhere, a Tyrone band called the Clipper Carlton came onstage, stood up in blue shiny suits instead of sitting down, and started to play rockers like the Rock Around the Clock film that was causing a major furor at the time.
Many clergy ranted from the pulpits about this new jungle music, but it was too late. Inside a few years the showbands were booming, and the rest is entertainment history now.
The showbands were our homegrown stars, strutting around in thick suede jackets in winter, whizzing in luxurious white vans from gig to gig.
Brendan Bowyer and the Royal were always number one, the Capitol Showband were number two and, when led by Dickie Rock, the Miami Showband were never far behind.
They regurgitated the latest pop songs and dances and, very cleverly, jazzed up some old Irish material to make national hits of “The Black Velvet Band” and “The Streets of Baltimore.”
I recall the very first Irish showband hit record was from the Royal Showband called “If I Didn’t Have a Dime.” It was sung by the bandleader Tom Dunphy and, not long afterwards, he died in a car crash near the village of Rooskey.
The nation mourned. He had gone before his time.
Now many of his peers are leaving us nearer their proper time and season. Joe Dolan’s grave outside Mullingar has become a place of pilgrimage for those who followed him throughout his entire career.
Many more have gone too, and there are only a handful of showbands left on the margins of the entertainment scene they once dominated.
Memoirs of the bandsmen are now emerging in tandem with the more serious research. The highly respected Ulster broadcaster/journalist Gerry Anderson has just released a memoir called Heads about his days as a bass guitarist with a range of Ulster showbands. You get it all, including the warts and the frequently seedy world behind the spotlights.
It follows hard on the heels of The Freshmen Unzipped by the former star Derek Dean, who fronted them along with a character called Billy Brown. The Freshmen were a niche band, always in the second division, but the stories are essentially the same.
It was not all glamour, far from it. Life on the road was hard, even though there was a time when the top stars were earning more than doctors and judges.
It is a world warmly remembered too by respected Dublin broadcaster Ronan Collins, once a showband drummer and crooner, who reveals facets of it almost daily on his daily request shows on RTE.
A percentage of the requests nowadays come for former colleagues on the circuit who are now in hospitals or old peoples’ homes. He often plays their big hits. They sound poignant too, evocative of a certain time and place, just like the resurrected Miami Showband in Belfast in early September.
They were the best of times. They were the worst of times. But the music lingers on.
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