6 Music celebrates Irish music with Dave Fanning

Journalist and Broadcaster

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How to tell the story of Irish Rock on radio? An hour a week for half-a-year might do it. 26 hours all-in. That would be ideal. For my new series on BBC Radio 6 Music which started on Sunday 13th April however, we’ve only got four hours. So, what we’ll have is less a history of, than a journey through, what I’ll loosely term, Irish Rock.

It’s 50 years this July since Them recorded their first studio session in Belfast. Them - the band fronted by Van Morrison - had mid-60s hits with bona-fide classics such as Here Comes the Night and Gloria. After Van from Belfast, it’s all the way down to Cork for Rory Gallagher. And it’s the connection between these two that’s the real starting point, because once you go back to their roots—that peculiar Irish phenomenon, the showband - you can start.

In the 60s there was a time when the only real way a professional musician could make a living was by playing in a showband, travelling the highways and byways across the country, packing clubs and dance-halls churning out the hits of the day – the songs of The Beatles, The Stones, The Searchers, The Hollies, The Supremes The Kinks etc. Van Morrison played in a showband called The Monarchs, Rory played in one called The Fontana. In between, in Dublin, Phil Lynott was in a rock band called The Black Eagles then Skid Row. 

And it's the three of these - Morrison, Gallagher and Lynott - who constituted the frontline in the world of 70s Irish rock. And since we only have four hours, after that, we’ll go in all directions. Bypassing the decade-a-programme route, the first programme takes the album angle, not necessarily each artist’s greatest, best-selling or even best-received but, for various reasons, they’re as good a definition of what makes their music great as any other. Programme two is a collection of classic tracks from Irish acts, then in programme three I’ll alternate bands from the north with acts from the south, and for the fit’s acts only from this century, with particular emphasis on those happening right now.In that last show, there’ll be room for bands like Little Green Cars, O Emperor, The Strypes and solo acts like Adrian Crowley, Cat Dowling and Hozier.

Across all four programmes Van and U2 will obviously feature widely and with no interviews - just some set-up and context - the music is the message. From some of the bigger names e.g. Snow Patrol and Sinead O’Connor, I’ll feature tracks from what I believe is their more interesting, less commercial side. From internationally less well-known acts who’ve been making consistently interesting music this century (from Bell X1 to Adrian Crowley - 14 albums between them) there are so many fine tracks to choose from. And, of course, when it comes to great tracks from great acts there has to be room for the likes of Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back in Town, The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks and such like.

We've been at this thing for 50 years; the British invasion didn't just happen to America. While we were as affected and optimistic as anywhere else, a certain innocence has been lost over the past decades, and the technological revolution which has democratized all of the music industry means that we’ve grown out of our adolescence into uncharted waters.

In the 80s we stumbled blindly, naively,  even gloriously into the international spotlight, emboldened by the success of U2 and ignorant of the pitfalls, potholes and plunging chasms of the rock industry. It was a fun time - bands either soared past these obstacles on a rush of youthful exuberance or, as was usually the case, fell into oblivion. Irish rock bands enjoyed as much regular daytime radio airplay as the international pop groups of the day and rock was beginning to become a safe alternative career-choice to that of an electrician or an accountant.

If it was tough out there in those days, it's even tougher now. Playlists on radio have narrowed and today's audience, expecting to get its music free, makes it harder for bands to survive. But as 6 Music celebrates Ireland, we’ll get a mix of both the great and the new artists - those who craft their own styles outside the pigeonholing and maybe the patronising of an industry that hardly exists anymore. All that matters, all that we have here, is good music.

Dave Fanning is an Irish journalist and broadcaster.

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