tue 04/08/2020

Reissue CDs Weekly: Shellshock Rock | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: Shellshock Rock

Reissue CDs Weekly: Shellshock Rock

Undiluted box-set salute to punk-era Northern Ireland

An arresting graphic created to promote 1979's 'Shellshock Rock' film

The feather in this particular cap is a DVD of director John T. Davis’ 1979 film Shellshock Rock. Filmed from October 1978 to April 1979, its 50 minutes thrillingly catch the Troubles-era Ulster getting to grips with punk rock. Vox pops from disgusted Belfast shoppers vie with live footage of Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones, Protex, Victim, the thoroughly unvarnished Parasites and more in a gritty verité portrait of a scene which, due to its contemporary context, was beyond being a pose for the region’s punks. A nervy Stiff Little Fingers are seen admitting they were scared that the political commentary of their lyrics would attract reprisals.

According to the clippings reproduced in the book inside the four-disc casebound box set (three CDs, one DVD) titled after Shellshock Rock, the film initially had difficulty reaching an audience. It was meant to premiere across the border in the Republic of Ireland at June 1979’s Cork Film Festival but the screening was cancelled for no given reason. After its Belfast debut in late July, this account of non-sectarianism went on to be awarded the Silver Award at that November’s New York Film and Television festival. Press interpreted the Cork imbroglio as a ban.

Shellshock Rock Alternative Blasts From Northern Ireland 1977-1984 Shellshock Rock the film is an essential document of the punk era. It is also an essential rock film, full stop. Davis captured something no one else was looking at with sympathy. At the time, it was a counterpoint to the sensationalist It Makes You Want to Spit, Ulster TV’s then-recent documentary.

Shellshock Rock the box set collects, as its sub-title puts it, 74 “Alternative Blasts From Northern Ireland 1977-1984”. The two totemic bands here are Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones. Other names made waves beyond their home bases to varying degrees: Big Self, The Moondogs, The Outcasts, Protex, Rudi, Ruefrex, Starjets and Victim. Electro-Motive Force, The Peasants, Reflex Action and many others are less familiar.

What’s collected interestingly counterbalances the 2013 film Good Vibrations, which focussed on Terry Hooley and his independent label Good Vibrations. It turns out that Hooley’s imprint was not the only game in town. On the area’s independent label scene, Good Vibrations was preceded by the IT Record Co., and had Rip-Off Records as its peer. Yet neither label attained Good Vibrations’ status as they did not discover an Undertones or share Hooley’s ear for a pop-punk winner. On IT in early 1978, no matter how fun and pioneering it is as an early regional independent punk-era release, The Duggie Briggs Band’s “Punk-Rockin’ Granny” was never going to initiate a long-term music-biz career. Clearly though, numerous bands were active. And as the London-based major labels weren't going on scouting trips to the evidently musically fertile counties of Troubles-era Northern Ireland, independent labels would be the way.

shellshock rock_the duggie briggs bandStylistically, “Punk Rockin’ Granny” is pub rock-style boogie-rock and, correspondingly, it’s fascinating how many of Shellshock Rock’s tracks aren’t punk or new wave in any way. The Detonators’ “Cruisin’” has a Led Zep’ “Communication Breakdown” riff and is chugging hard rock with lyrical Americanisms such as tumbleweed and “cruising down the highway.” Pretty Boy Floyd and the Gems’ “Rough Tough, Pretty Too” is another chugging rocker with a smidge of ”L.A. Woman” Doors in the mix. More rock with a possible Doors slant comes with Blue Steam’s “Lizard King”, a character who’s “a wino and a pervert.” Is this Jim Morrison? The Rattling Throntons’ “Whistle Song” is also boogie rock. Thin Lizzy influences course through Xdreamysts’ “Dance Away Love” and No Sweat’s “Start All Over Again”.

Another contrast with the punk and independent label boom elsewhere in the UK comes with the lack of a female presence. Apart from Dogmatic Element’s guitarist Alison Gordon, no women are heard. It seems there was no place for female voices. However, women crop up as lyrical topics. For Midnite Cruiser’s “Rich Bitch”, the titular subject is “just trash.” In Pretty Boy Floyd and the Gems' "Sharon”, “Sharon was good screw.” In the R&B-slanted “Baby C’mon”, Jumpers’ singer declares himself “a love machine.” “You know I can’t make it alone, come on baby keep me satisfied,” he sings. In the pub-rock vein too on “Looking For a Lady”, Cobra are “looking for lady to cuddle tonight.” In “Suzy Lie Down”, Cramp sing “take off the old blue jeans, show me what I’ve already seen, I’ll give you this, and I’ll make you scream.”

shellshock rock_dogmatic elementDespite the period covered, barely anything pushes the post-punk buttons of musical evolution. There’s Stage B’s “Light on the Hillside”, Aftermath’s “Mixed Up Kid” and two superb Passions-ish tracks by Dogmatic Element (pictured right). In this world, the poppy punk hits hardest. Clive Culbertson’s new wavey “Kiss Me” is a melodic winner. “Lipstick Heroes” and “Nine to Five” by The Androids are fantastic fuzzy blasts – along with Dogmatic Element’s contributions, these are the best of the unfamiliar tracks. Protex’s “Strange Things”, Starjets’ anthemic “War Stories” (with its nods towards The Clash, who briefly turned up in Belfast in October 1977) and The Outcasts’ “Self-Conscious Over You”, The Tearjerkers “Heart on the Line” and Ex-Producers Skids-ish “The System is Here” are also fantastic.

If this unpredictable box set is a representative overview of “Alternative…Northern Ireland 1977-1984” – and there’s no reason to assume it’s not – it appears that Stiff Little Fingers were the only band directly addressing the conflicts of the times (albeit mostly in lyrics written for them by journalist Gordon Ogilvie). Also highlighted is that women didn’t get a look in and that little musical exploration was undertaken as 1977 and 1978 receded in the rear-view mirror. The prime musical flavour is pop-punk.

Shellshock Rock, then, is an eye-opening artefact and essential as a no-nonsense account of a prime aspect of punk-era Britain. Start with the DVD. Then listen to discover that what’s seen there sits within a wider context.

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters