Why Belfast Got the Blues
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
By McLaughlin & Braniff
Why did we write this book?
One doesn’t find oneself, nor understand much of the society in which they grew up and were shaped, by writing a straightforward biography.
We both wish that a personal story could reveal all, but quickly came to realise when this project was mooted, that personal experience itself is always mediated by a complex repertoire of material outside of the self.
Music, especially, has an elusive power to evoke times, places and events long past and to shape the most personal of recollections.
In this spirit, we became a little alarmed that music, and its complex relationship to memory, featured little in the serious historical accounts of Northern Ireland in the decade.
While serious scholarship may have avoided Northern Ireland’s popular-musical 1960s, this absence is more than compensated for in curated rock retrospectives, in the story of Them and Van Morrison, and in the numerous Morrison biographies especially.
With a debt to other city scene studies, we initially asked ourselves if the ‘story as told’ could be, in its own terms, complete?
What else might have been going on?, we pondered. We were not only pleasantly surprised by the scale of the other things taking place, but also - on digging deeper - of the international influence the city had on the trends of the time.
At first, we had a different project in mind. We imagined we might be narrating a more on-the-ground story - a counter history centred on those, largely-forgotten, souls who played a substantial role in laying the compost for the city’s rise to fame in early 1965.
Some of that initial thesis is in the book’s pages. Fortunately, however, we adjusted our plans in the light of our findings.
For example, when embarking on the project, we never could have predicted Belfast’s centrality to the broader pop narrative of the decade in the ways that emerged: such as the untold story of the authority of local management, and its relationship to more well-known music business powers that be; or to how the city’s music scene would connect with the state, both local and national, in complex and unforeseen ways. Or the fascination Belfast held for London’s emerging counterculture.
The other more modest ambition was to revisit a scene while many of the protagonists were still able, and willing, to recount stories that would add to the existing published accounts. We didn’t realise then, that such stories would exhume the ghosts not only of a popular-musical past, but also the spectres of unionism past.
If you would like to find out a little more about how the one party state in Northern Ireland sought to negotiate the broader revolutionary narrative of the late 1960s for the sake of its own survival, this might be the book for you.
Needless to say, we are too long in the tooth to write a book to please all-comers.
Nor did we write it to deliberately irk folk who may disagree with us.
It was written out of respect to the power of music and musical memory, but also out of a concern to explore parallels between ‘music-politics past’ and ‘music-politics present’.
Photo caption: Newspaper report about 1960s Belfast R'n'B group Jargon Junction featuring John Braniff, author Joanna Braniff's father.