SOPHIA DEBOICK on a city where music has been shaped by a traumatic history, but often transcends it.
Derry has been a byword for the Troubles, its disputed name a symbol of the divide between nationalists and unionists. After a history of sectarian tension dating back to the 17th century, the Troubles began in earnest in this border city, images of the famous Derry murals, of the Battle of the Bogside and Bloody Sunday standing for a 30-year conflict. Derry’s music has inevitably been informed by its fraught history, the tradition of rebel song met one of loyalist anthems. But Derry’s music has also had a strong streak of levity, whimsy and humour, despite this harsh background. And while the rich inheritance of Irish folk music deeply marks Derry, the city has also proved also its ability to produce sounds that breaks the mould.
Born in Derry in 1942 to a musical family, multiple Ivor Novello Award-winner Phil Coulter can claim to have been the city’s most prolific songwriter. At a time when the showbands dominated Irish popular music, Coulter had an early hit with Foolin’ Time (1963), written for Dublin’s Capitol Showband, but it was when he teamed up with Scottish lyricist Bill Martin that he made his biggest impact on popular music. Together they wrote 1967 Eurovision winner Puppet on a String for Sandie Shaw, and their jubilant Congratulations for Cliff Richard only lost the following year’s contest by a single point.
But Coulter’s most celebrated song is the heartfelt The Town I Loved So Well (1973), which paints an idyllic picture of the Derry of his youth (‘There was music there in the Derry air/ Like a language that we all could understand’), before the final two verses deal with the Derry of the Troubles: ‘But when I returned how my eyes have burned/ To see how a town could be brought to its knees/ With their tanks and their guns, oh my God what have they done?/ To the town I loved so well.’
The same year he released his lament for his hometown, Coulter produced the debut album of Dublin folk band Planxty, and a decade later Planxty frontman Christy Moore recorded another bitter-sweet tribute to Derry. The lyrics of Back Home in Derry dealt with the exile of the rebels of the Irish Rebellion of 1803 to Australia who ‘sailed out to sea/ Out from the sweet town of Derry’, and had the added frisson of having been written in the Maze prison by Bobby Sands, who related the sufferings of the rebels to that of the politicals of the late 1970s, the ‘rusty iron chains’ and ‘dish[ing] out the gruel’ symbols of the universal experience of the prisoner.
Such pathos was anathema to the Undertones, a group of friends from the Creggan and Bogside areas of Derry who were in their late teens when punk came out of London and New York to provide a language for frustrated youth. Cutting their teeth at the rundown Casbah bar, at the junction of Orchard and Bridge Streets on the Catholic west bank, the chaos that surrounded them could not trump the universal concerns of the teenager which became their lyrical themes. Not for nothing did their second album Hypnotised (1980) open with More Songs About Chocolate and Girls, and singles like Jimmy Jimmy (1979) and My Perfect Cousin (1980) injected punk with whimsy.
In March 1978, the Undertones took the material they had honed at the Casbah and made a demo tape in a studio at Derry’s Magee College. This brought them to the notice of John Peel and into the orbit of the nascent Belfast punk scene, where the more political material of Stiff Little Fingers dominated. In June 1978, at the Wizard Studios on Belfast’s Donegall Street, the Undertones recorded under two and half minutes of distilled adolescent frustration that has yet to be bettered as a teenage manifesto.
Teenage Kicks was a sound that defied the times. Catholic plumber Kevin Dyer, not much older than the band members, was murdered in a sectarian killing after straying into the Shankill area, a stone’s throw from Wizard Studios, the day the single was made, and 1978 both opened and closed with bombings in Derry. But as the band’s success into 1979 and 1980 occurred against the background of further violence and such high-profile IRA attacks as the assassination of Airey Neave and Lord Mountbatten, by 1981 they had turned to writing about the Troubles.
Their last Top 20 single, It’s Going to Happen (1981), was inspired by the Maze hunger strikes, and Bobby Sands died the day the band performed the single on Top of the Pops. Guitarist Damian O’Neill wore a black armband, and circumstances had given the Undertones little choice but to grow up fast.
Over a decade and a half later, another of Derry’s true musical originals also turned to the Troubles after making his name with less serious lyrical themes. Neil Hannon of ‘chamber pop’ project The Divine Comedy claims wildly diverse influences, from Church of Ireland hymnal (his father was a minister then bishop in the church) to Scott Walker, resulting in an inimitable song-writing style dripping with irony. He has written on everything from Catherine the Great to National Express coaches, saying ‘I do believe you can write [a pop song] about bloody anything’.
Born in Derry a year after the Battle of the Bogside, Hannon didn’t write about the Troubles until the Divine Comedy’s sixth album. The typically baroque Sunrise, the closer of 1998 album Fin de Siècle, was genuinely moving, with Hannon singing ‘I was born in Londonderry/ I was born in Derry City too/ Oh, what a special child/ To see such things and still to smile’. He adds ‘Who cares what name you call a town/ Who’ll care when you’re six feet beneath the ground’, before making reference to the transformative effect of the Good Friday Agreement of the previous year: ‘A ray of hope, a beam of light/ An end to thirty years of night/ It’s the sunrise.’
Hannon pushed the boundaries of pop, his idiosyncrasies no barrier to chart success (eight Top 30 hits on the UK chart in the last three years of the 1990s, all at higher chart placings than in Ireland), and Derry’s most recent big-sellers are no less unique. The Priests – three Roman Catholic priests from the Diocese of Down and Connor, including Derry-based brothers Fr. Eugene and Fr. Martin O’Hagan – earned a Guinness World Record for fastest-selling UK debut for a classical act for their 2008 eponymous debut, which was somewhat improbably produced by Mike Hedges, known for previous work with The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Bauhaus.
The Priests’ anodyne music doesn’t reflect the mood of a Derry that has faced renewed turmoil in recent times. The detonation of a car bomb outside the Londonderry court early last year and the killing of journalist Lyra McKee while reporting on rioting at the Creggan estate three months later resurrected the ghosts of the past.
Once again, individuals have been swallowed up by the vagaries of this conflict, caught in a freefall of events in some sense captured in the fragile Dreams by Limerick’s The Cranberries, which has become a latter-day anthem for Derry due to its use in the emotional final scene of the 2018 series of hit sitcom Derry Girls, and which was also performed at Lyra McKee’s funeral: ‘Oh, my life/ Is changing every day/ In every possible way/ And oh, my dreams/ It’s never quite as it seems/ Never quite as it seems.’