A time in Irish music when a ‘British invasion’ was welcome

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I had always suspected that the minute Ireland heard the opening bars of The Beatles’ She Loves You in 1962, the country had begun to fill with records of crooners, lamenters and folkie naysayers.

I would have thought the crooners themselves would throw away their records. “Our numbers are up,” they reportedly said. I would have been wrong.

Perhaps it was the term “British invasion” that caused the problem. That this might mean one thing for a prepubescent American but a completely different thing for an elderly farmer from Leitrim with the mark of the Tans still on his front door becomes abundantly clear if you look at the Irish singles charts of the time. This is real war ground, Ted.

It didn’t start well. Although the very first chart released in Ireland in October 1962 had Elvis’ “She’s Not You” in mind (we were always happy to be invaded by the Yanks), in 1963 it was a different story. Elvis quickly gives way to Ned Miller (“From a Jack to a King”), Jim Reeves and Del Shannon. The Irish crooners hadn’t even noticed the Beatles.

By the end of 1963, by which time the Beatles album Please Please Me was on its way for 30 uninterrupted weeks at the top of the US charts, the real battle lines were being drawn in Ireland. Brendan Bowyer’s “Hucklebuck” was number one for seven weeks.

RTÉ, still brand new, decided to close at 9 p.m. when Pope John XXIII died. The times, they were not a change.

In 1965, Ireland was the land of Butch Moore, Tom Dunphy, Brendan Bowyer, Dickie Rock and others who limited the UK Invasion chart hits to the rarest and most remote category. And so until 1966, the year of Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds, the year that “everything changed”, started here with Larry Cunningham’s “Lovely Leitrim” and didn’t change much from there .

You could have studied the 1966 charts in Ireland and had no idea what was going on in the Los Angeles studios or Abbey Road, but you would have known immediately that it was the 50th anniversary of 1916. A song titled “ Black and Tan Gun’ topped the charts as the pubs rang out to choruses of ‘Thank God we’re surrounded by water’.

If 1966 was the year to celebrate rebel songs, then 1967, when the rest of the world stopped to celebrate peace, free love and talk of experimental drugs, was the year we celebrate our another national obsession: drinking. The Dubliner’s “Seven Drunken Nights” topped the charts, followed soon after by “Whiskey on a Sunday”.

The Showbands, you suspect, had the upper hand at this point. Johnny Flynn’s Black Velvet Band was dethroned from the top spot by Procul Harem’s classic “Whiter Shade of Pale” and The Beatles’ “All You need in Love,” but were dropped both in short order to regain their crown.

It turned out to be a highlight. By 1968, the British invasion was well established. Showband hits became very rare and did not adapt well to foreign imports. In a year that produced hits like “Hey Jude” and “Daydream Believer,” songs like Dickie’s “Simon Says” and Brendan O’Brien’s “Little Arrows” almost sounded like novelty hits.

But they weren’t finished yet. As 1969 began and the world prepared for the moon landings, the last recorded work of Woodstock and the Beatles, Ireland spent two whole months with Sean Dunphy’s “Lonely Woods of Upton” at the top of its charts. What wood is it?

The song happened to commemorate an IRA attack on a train carrying British troops at Upton station in February 1921.

His release and his success, as Derry witnessed the first of the civil rights marches and Ulster the first of the Troubles, I suppose, were not unrelated.

But as a work, it reveals everything suspicious about the world of showband chart success. The song is actually a “rework” of a Spanish American War song about the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor. This literally changes the words from sleeping under “Spanish clay” to “Irish clay”. Showbands were the dearth of original music in Ireland, as a scan of the charts of the time amply shows.

But rest assured, in the late 60s, one showband escapee formed a band called Taste while another had an idea for a suite of songs inspired by his native Belfast. It was not a moment too soon.

  • Tom Dunne will delve into Ireland’s music history on his Newstalk show weeknights at 10pm
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