Music: Rock in a hard place

As Ulster acclimatises to peace, Belfast's music scene is undergoing a renaissance. By James McNair
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The Independent Culture
It's the Friday of Glastonbury weekend, and Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern have just flown into Belfast to discuss the latest decommissioning impasse. In a rapidly gentrifying section of the city's docks, the sun is shining and the T by the River rock festival is under way.

"All the outside world gets to see is David Trimble, Gerry Adams and Orangemen," says Robin Greer, a local media relations manager, "but the contrast between that and what's happening here culturally is striking."

Tomorrow, the opening of the annual Belfast Carnival will add weight to Greer's argument, but for now, The Divine Comedy are closing their set with "Sunrise". The song's penultimate verse seems pointedly germane:

Who cares where national borders lie?

Who cares whose laws

you're governed by?

Who cares what name you call a town?

Who'll care when you're six feet beneath the ground?

The Divine Comedy's support on Friday evening were the much-touted indie trio co.uk. The band's rise has been concurrent with the tentative rebuilding of their city's pop infrastructure, but it's clearly a trial-and-error process. T by the River, for example, was over-priced, and with just co.uk, The Divine Comedy, Republica and Dogstar over two evenings, the "festival" tag was something of a misnomer.

Even so, Johnny Davis of the Belfast-based label Bright Star maintains that it was a large step in the right direction. "I heard that Tennants knew they stood to lose a quarter of a million pounds, but they also knew it was important to make a start here," he says. "They've got a five-year plan, and they'll make it work." If Davis appears overly optimistic, there is an increasing body of evidence to the contrary.

At the height of the Troubles, Belfast city centre was cordoned-off at 6pm. The effect on live music was catastrophic and, as recently as five years ago, the scene had barely recovered. More recently, though, many new pub venues have opened to support and capitalise on the nascent gigging scene. At T by the River, a young music journalist, Kirsten McAlpine, told me that she had noticed a huge resurgence of interest in local bands in the past year. This has enabled Bassline, Blank and her own music magazine, Big Buzz, all to switch from bi-monthly to monthly.

co.uk's singer and guitarist Joe Bush confirms that despite this changing climate, people still expect his band to leave Belfast. "They'll say `I saw you in NME - when are you moving to London?'," he says, "but you can't blame them, that's the way it's always gone, even with people like Ash and Therapy."

Co.uk are signed to Bright Star, and it's clear that they'd love to achieve major success without upping sticks. Bush is quick to emphasise that they are not out to make any political points by staying, however. "It's just a different approach," he says.

Davis looks set to be a key figure in the revival of Belfast's music scene, and his motives for making Bright Star work are intriguing and laudable. A former Olympic-standard fencer who left Belfast for London in 1979, Davis represented Britain at the Seoul and Barcelona Games. He's also held senior positions at RCA and Island Records in his time. He's well-equipped to promote Northern Irish bands abroad.

Davis tells me that he felt increasingly driven by a romantic notion to come back to Belfast and help in some way. He says that, when he returned in 1996, he got "a lot of abuse from people who said: `You left, but we stayed in the trenches.' I can understand those comments, but I've no time for them," he adds quietly. "I finished my Olympic competitions as Britain's number one. Then I thought, wouldn't it be great to do that with a Belfast-based record company?"

Back at the Europa, which has been bombed more times than any other hotel in the world, I chat to Stuart Clarke of the Dublin-based magazine Hot Press. He says that The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon spent "six times as long as normal" on the lyrics for "Sunrise", the song quoted above. Given that the singer grew up in Enniskillen and is the son of an Anglican bishop, his fear of being misconstrued is understandable. What's also clear is that on those rare occasions when the Troubles have been touched on in popular music, non-Irish bands have often appeared naive, or worse still, patronising. No doubt Spandau Ballet's "Through the Barricades" was well- intentioned, but its romanticism could be construed as exploitative.

Similarly, when Simple Minds released "Belfast Child" in 1989, many people were offended. Stephen Anderson, a music PR, remembers the band flying in to shoot the accompanying video: "They took a quick run up the Falls Road, a few graffiti shots, and it was like `the war rages on in the Emerald Isle'. I can't point the finger at the band directly, but as a Belfast man, I didn't appreciate it."

The need for sensitivity is always there, and Anderson is better placed than most to second-guess reactions. When co.uk were featured in Kerrang! magazine recently, the photographer suggested wrapping them up in a Union Jack. "It was quite innocent, I think, but as the band's PR, I had to say no," he says. "I immediately felt that flags and emblems would be inappropriate."

As a band coming to the fore as the peace process advances, it's understandable that co.uk are tired of questions about the Troubles. Bush and drummer Rab O'Neill are Protestant, while bassist Chris Robinson is Catholic. They're from Northern Ireland and they're called co.uk. "It's a real mix- up," agrees Bush. "How could we comment, anyway?"

Over the course of the weekend, I learn more and more about how the Northern Irish music scene is complicated by its political backdrop. A taxi driver tells me about Sinead O'Connor and the West Belfast Festival. Allegedly, she wanted to bring victims of punishment beatings by paramilitaries up on stage. The festival organisers objected, and O'Connor declined to appear.

I also read a column in a free music paper by Stuart Baillie, an NME journalist and Belfast resident. He celebrates June's busy local musical calendar, but sadly acknowledges that everything will be put on hold again when the July marching season kicks in. "Can't anyone guarantee us the right to rock'n'roll while the sun shines?" he asks.

Late on Saturday evening, I had just left the Europa with Tom Craig, the photographer who worked on this piece, when we were stopped by Ian Currie, a teenager who recognised us from the festival. Currie explained how his ambition in life was to see Oasis live, and how he'd been too young to see them when they played at the Limelight in 1995.

"There was a bomb scare that night, and Oasis haven't played in Northern Ireland since," he said. In a region that's second only to London in terms of record sales per capita, fans rarely get to see their favourite bands locally.

In the light of all this, it's important not to be cynical. There's a lot of good work being done to re-establish the Northern Irish music scene from the ground up, and, as Stephen Anderson affirms, there are signs that influential bodies outside the province are starting to take note of developments. "In August, Radio 1 is coming over to broadcast an Evening Session programme from Belfast, and we really welcome that," he says. "I hope it's the start of more inclusion for marginalised regions."

co.uk's single `Not Today' is released by Bright Star recordings on Monday

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