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The Great Northern Songbook - 8. Big Time

Stuart Bailie | 15:32 UK time, Tuesday, 19 June 2012

This was the song that caused the most consternation at the May 22 event. Brian Kennedy may have had sworn on air, but what upset more listeners were the musical liberties that 'Big Time' experienced. I have blogged about this already, and I still feel that the old punks are missing the bravura that And So I Watch You From Afar gave to the event. And as a postscript, it's interesting to note that Brian Young from Rudi also approves. Punk was never about the reverence, surely.

In April 1978 a wonderful song called 'Big Time' arrived in the record shops of Northern Ireland. It was the work of some teenagers from east Belfast called Rudi. They were already revered in the local punk scene as the instigators and the trailblazers. They were wise to The Ramones and the New York Dolls, they understood glam culture and Fifties rock and roll. They had attitude and they wore boiler suits, smeared with provocative words.

The music scenes in London, Manchester and Glasgow were already getting over that first thrill of punk. But in Belfast, all that exciting potential was still being processed. So everyone was looking to Rudi for some kind of a steer, a way to put all this into words. The band responded with a creative spree and so many calls to action. Songs like 'Time To Be Proud' and 'Excitement' became valued parts of the Rudi songbook. But 'Big Time' was the first installment and the one that got so many other kids of the day to pick up guitars and to get themselves empowered.

Guitarist Brian Young had learned his trade by playing along with Chuck Berry records like 'School Days'. These were the bedrock licks, as Chuck bent the strings and clanged the notes together to recreate the sound of a jumping horn section. By the time this idea had been knocked around by Keith Richards and by Johnny Thunders from the New York Dolls, the riffs had reached classic proportions.

Brian Young played his variation on a cheap copy of a Gibson SG guitar. The sound of his club catalogue Antoria was relayed though a Carlsboro Stingray amp with the "suzz" switch on full. And so, a killer song introduction was born.

It was recorded in Templepatrick in a studio that belonged to the Solomon Peres organisation. It was the band's first time in such a place, and the song was recorded live in an intense rush. The producer on that February 7 session was George Doherty, who was also dabbling with a combo called Pretty Boy Floyd And the Gems. But while the latter had questionable connections to the showband scene, Rudi were true to the promise of punk.

The vocalist was Ronnie Matthews, who delivered a sneering put-down of a local character with big aspirations and little soul. The chorus was like a playground taunt, the voice of the young and the self-assured. On the flip side of the record, a track called 'Number 1', Brian Young sang the lead. He declared that his picture should be on your sister's wall. Rudi, you see, were also about pop music. Brian had actually met the glam icon Marc Bolan in 1975 and he was confident that you could sell lots of records and still be cool.

'Big Time' was going to be a flexidisc, given away free with the local fanzine, 'Alternative Ulster'. But when the quotes came through, it was actually not much more expensive to press it on seven inch vinyl. Which is where Terri Hooley came into the picture. He had opened a record shop on Great Victoria Street in 1977 and after seeing Rudi play with The Outcasts at the Pound club in 1977, he was inspired to take action. His new record label, like his shop, would be called Good Vibrations. The recording was sent to a pressing plant in Dublin and it came back, thick as a dinner plate but still the greatest proof of alternative culture. At a time when Belfast was internationally known as a trouble spot, a city full of hatred and discord, here was a very different story from an intense subculture.

Instead of a regular sleeve, the single was packaged in an A3 sheet, ingeniously folded. Once again, it was all about resourcefulness and working around a problem. This became a trademark of the Good Vibes label, and with the fourth release, a track called 'Teenage Kicks', the levels of achievement rose higher still.

But 'Big Time' was a critical part of that story, a roaring statement, the sound of a generation looking beyond negativity, realising that the act of being successful was born in your head and in your heart. It absolutely was time to be proud.


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