I was a teenage pop star

You know him as the conscience of the BBC, the man who reports from the world's grimmest trouble spots. But there is another Fergal Keane: a lad with a guitar who once rocked the village halls of Cork

My guitar teacher looked at me with pity. We had just spent an hour on the "House of the Rising Sun" and my singing was getting worse. "Son, you might make a guitar player, but I'd give up the singing if I was you," he said. He was a droll Canadian who gave tuition to aspirant rock stars like myself in an attic room near St Peter and Paul's Church. The maestro explained that not everybody was cut out to be a singer. Guitar playing was something that you could improve with practice. But a bad voice was like having no voice. You just couldn't create sounds that weren't there. "Damn you," I said (to myself) and got up to leave.

My confidence might have taken a bit of a bruising but I had three things in my favour: I had a guitar, I could play at least three chords and I had an ego the size of a football field. For an aspirant rock star in the city of Cork these were not inconsiderable assets. In those days we teenagers were living under enemy occupation. They were everywhere. The army of the Republic of NO: the priests and the teachers and the parents and the politicians, the whole boring bloody lot of them keeping us in check... but only barely. For the Ireland of my adolescence was being convulsed with strange new forces, we sensed we were standing on the cusp of a revolution and wanted to be part of it. The Sixties had shaken things up. But the hippies had grown up and got married. Men we had admired for their long hair and contempt for authority had gone off to become teachers and doctors. They had swapped their tie-dyes and bell bottoms for tweed jackets and slacks.

I didn't get involved with a band until I was midway through secondary school. A friend of mine called Chris Ahern was also a big rock fan and a promising guitarist. Chris loved the Beatles, especially the early rhythm and blues numbers. His eldest brother was one of the top guitarists on the local scene and the family home was filled with music of all kinds. Since coming back from my summer in Dublin I had developed an addiction to the Rolling Stones and practised my Jagger impersonations in front of the bedroom mirror every night. We had a wealthy schoolfriend who allowed us to practise in his house. He was the only one with a decent instrument - a mahogany bass guitar - and was naturally guaranteed a place in the band. We found a drummer at school and began to rehearse a set of Beatles and Stones numbers. Our first name was "Home Brew". Then we graduated to "The Runners" (we had a symbol of a tennis shoe on our home-drawn posters) and finally "The Streets".

I can't remember our first gig. Probably out of shame. We were pretty crap in the beginning. It wasn't until my brother Eamonn came along that the music started to pick up. He was a trained musician who could take his hand to any instrument and make it sing. He took over on bass and along with Chris started to impose some kind of musical discipline. What was my own role in this grand enterprise? So much for the droll Canadian's warnings... I was the lead singer.

Our first triumph was a charity hop at school. By now we had shifted our rehearsal rooms to the children's nursery, which was run by Chris's mother. Her tolerance was boundless as we pounded out one rock classic after another. By the time the gig came around we were, as they say in the business, a "tight" unit. Such a night of glory. The crowd - mostly our friends - jumped and hopped and gave us three encores. I had flung myself around the stage with fierce abandon, my ego firing on all cylinders. The band were so loud that I'm not sure the audience heard much of what I sang. It was the beat that mattered - a truth I would never forget.

We began to pick up gigs around the city. At the Arcadia - where U2 played ("imagine that") - we played to a big crowd; biggish at any rate. There was Shandon Boat Club and Cork Boat Club and the Cricket Club dance. For the latter we were forced to broaden our range and include "pop" songs. We were tormented by members of the audience wanting to sing and use us as a backing band. The gigs were not always triumphs and my ego was frequently dented. We had no money and were reduced to borrowing and begging equipment. Sometimes the gear was good, but often it made us sound like we were playing inside a washing machine. For transport we usually depended on one of our mothers. I remember once the entire band plus equipment and my baby brother being packed into my mother's Mini for a 40-mile trip. (We were skinny young lads).

The best gig I can remember was in Ardmore, where my family went for the summer holidays every year. The local hall was called St Declans and I had enjoyed my first dances under its tin roof. Most of the bands who came there were regulars on the country and western circuit. "The Antelopes" (I am serious), "The Double Units" (twin sisters), "The Indians" (complete with tribal gear) were a few of the big names who came. It wasn't my type of music but they were genuine professionals. No bum notes, no whining feedback, no forgetting the words. None of the diseases from which we in "The Streets" suffered so regularly. But our Ardmore gig was a hit. As usual we had taken the precaution of stacking the audience with friends and family. But there was something about the venue - the heat, the abandon of summer, the patchouli perfume and the testosterone - which lifted us from being averagely good into one moment of greatness... well, for me at least.

Afterwards there was the usual row about money with the parish priest. They were the hardest men in Ireland to deal with. You would have had more luck getting money from the Sicilian Mafia than one of the reverend fathers. Once when we were denied one share of the takings we decided a symbolic protest was in order. And so - as the crowds were leaving - we returned to the stage and began to play a punk number. We jumped and jumped and pounded and went crashing through the floorboards. Viva rock'n'roll.

One of our last gigs was at a rural harvest festival - a dance held at the end of the harvesting - near a seaside town on the county Cork coast. It ended in chaos when a crowd of Dutch fishermen arrived and took over the stage. Later that night there was a big fight with the locals and - quelle surprise - the priest couldn't find the money to pay us exactly what we were owed. Our driver was a notorious hard man in Cork and asked me if I wanted him to negotiate with the priest. I took one look at Micky and decided this would be unnecessary. Micky was shot dead in a drugs war in Cork years later.

By the time we left school the band was in the process of disintegrating. The real musicians like my brother and Chris were exploring different styles and writing their own material. Both Eamonn and Chris went on to become accomplished and highly regarded musicians - and I sang at parties whenever anybody asked.

It wasn't until I moved to South Africa that the call of the stage returned in the person of a British diplomat named Michael Shipster. I'd met Shippo at a party and we got to talking about music. In a few minutes we'd set up a guitar session and the rest is history. Well, sort of, South African history at any rate.

In the closing days of the white empire Johannesburg was a city of never- ending parties where people were only too happy to dance away their worries. Shippo and I saw the potential opening and formed a band. Our drummer was a cameraman for German TV, our bass player a sound recordist. In mockery of a phrase from the anti-communist paranoia of the apartheid years we called the band "Total Onslaught". We were hot. Very hot. We played about four gigs but I am sure South Africa has never forgotten them.

The final epic performance came at the time of the first multi-racial election. The week after the votes were cast and the new ANC government came to power, we performed to a crowd of journalists and politicians in the lush premises of the Transvaal Automobile Club. The new deputy Minister of Defence, Ronnie Kasrils (a famous anti-apartheid activist), joined us on stage. It was a great night in the middle of extraordinary times.

Since then I have only played guitar at home, waiting for a phone call that I suspect will never come. My rock'n'roll days are probably over, and I never became a star. But what the hell - it was only rock'n'roll and I liked it. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

`Letters Home' by Fergal Keane will be published by Penguin, pounds 6.99, on 25 November

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones