Battle of Bedford Street that kick-started punk era

Thirty years ago tomorrow The Clash arrived in Belfast for the start of their UK tour. Phil Crossey looks back at a gig which never happened, and how its resonance is still felt today as the catalyst for punk rock in Ulster

Trying to identify the starting point of any musical movement is a difficult business. Transformations in the sonic geography are usually gradual events, and the exact details of what happened several years, and even decades, ago tend to get blurred by time.


And once reliable stories usually get so cloaked in mystery and legend that they are meaningless.

But punk in Northern Ireland is different – it began on October 20, 1977.

That was the night The Clash were scheduled to open their Get Out Of Control tour in the Ulster Hall.

During the Troubles it was a difficult task to get any sort of band to perform in Northern Ireland – aside from the legendary visits from Rory Gallagher concert-goers had little to look forward to in the Province.

So The Clash were a big deal.

The Ulster Hall was sold out – a rare occurrence then – and a new, emerging youth movement was going to be congregating in one place for the show.

But the show was cancelled two hours before the band were due to take to the stage, sparking a confrontation between the police and punks.

The future Clash tour manager Johnny Green, who was working as a roadie on the tour, said it may have been his attempts to give away badges before the concert which led to the cancellation.


"Badges were always given away free at gigs," he said, and the afternoon before the show he was told to hand them out to a group of young people waiting outside the venue.

"The kids saw me and mobbed me. The boxes went up in the air and there was a mad scramble for badges.

"Three Army Land Rovers came around the corner, each with a machine-gun mounted at the back manned by a squaddie.

"When the patrol moved in, the kids went wild in a spontaneous riot, smashing windows at the venue," he said.

"The insurance company was contacted, they came and had a look and the gig was cancelled."

Attempts to reorganise the insurance, or move the venue, proved fruitless and the concert was cancelled, leaving both bands and fans despondent.

The scuffles around the show weren't widely reported in a Northern Ireland where murder was making headlines, but the incident became affectionately know as The Battle of Bedford Street.


"It was the night that kick-started the punk revolution," Terri Hooley, the founder of Good Vibrations records said.

As the man who is identified with punk movement in Northern Ireland – his label signed The Undertones, Rudi and The Outcasts – he said it was the event which turned him "from a hippie into a punk".

He added: "Nothing exciting had happened musically in Belfast since the days of Them."

"It was the first time that kids could come together, people met that night and formed bands."

And it marked a cultural change in Northern Ireland, which went on to produce more than its fair share of quality punk acts.

The indignant rage and angst that fuelled so many punk songs was easy to come by, in 1970s Northern Ireland all you had to do was open the curtains and look outside.

"It used to be that only the police and the Army would come into the city centre at night, then it was the police, the Army and the punks," Terri said.

One band influenced by the goings-on around the aborted Clash gig were Rudi, who penned the song Cops after what they saw as the police's heavy-handed treatment of concert-goers at the abandoned Clash show.

"They over-reacted when they were clearing everyone away," singer Brian Young said.

"The police went nuts – they were treating people who were going to a concert as if they had turned up for an 'ordinary' Belfast riot."

But Brian is reluctant to put too much emphasis on the night as the starting point for punk in Northern Ireland.

"Rudi had been playing for quite some time before the Clash gig, as had The Undertones," he said.


"But I can see why it was an important and it galvanised things. It was the first time you realised how big punk had become."

He also criticised the photographs taken of the band standing beside checkpoints and armoured cars during their time in Belfast.

"The Clash were a big band and the media circus came with them," Brian said.

The photos, as Mickey Bradley of the Undertones said, would "come back to bite them in the arse".

Many regarded it as a cheap and fairly tasteless publicity stunt.

"I just felt like a d**k," Clash guitarist Mick Jones would tell Ian Birch from the Melody Maker.

"I should imagine they'll lap it up in London, though. The soldiers crouching in cubby holes thought we were d**ks. The kids thought we were d**ks."

While co-opting the Troubles as a symbol of everything the band's music stood for may have been a worthwhile idea, it was viewed in some quarters as a crass publicity stunt.

The NME headlined their feature on the Belfast jaunt 'The Clash visit Belfast for picture session'.

The stark images are now part of folklore, and it's impossible to mention The Clash in Belfast without thinking about them.

But for Brian Young, the Press's manipulation of the movement is what helped to solidify public opposition towards punks.


"When the media started whipping up an anti-punk hysteria people who wouldn't have paid attention to it suddenly started bashing punks," he said.

During his time with Rudi he would get to know members of The Clash and said they were a genuine band who "had the sense not to come out with the cliched nonsense".

Also giving punk an added edge in Northern Ireland, with its sectarian tensions, were the use of the Union flag and songs such as God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols.

The movement was based on dissent and the symbols used were not about scoring political points but challenging and upsetting the perceived order.

As Terri Hooley said: "It didn't matter what colour your hair was, or whether you were a Protestant or a Catholic, it just mattered that you were a punk – that was a uniting force.

"People have said to me since that if they hadn't got involved in punk music they would have become paramilitaries. It changed a lot of people's lives."


And punk was a rare positive story coming out of Ulster at the time.

"The Seventies were a terrible time – no-one was safe, people didn't go out of the house much. I remember saying goodnight to people outside Lavery's and never seeing them again," he said.

Of course, the first wave of punk in Northern Ireland didn't last.

"Punk bands imploded, fell apart or made records so bad that no-one wanted to buy them," Brian Young said.

And the DIY enthusiasm, which had fuelled the movement was to be its undoing.

"We weren't businessmen," said Terri Hooley.

"The recession came along in the early 1980s and a lot of people who owed us money went down and we got dragged down with them.

"But it didn't matter, we'd done it and we proved to people in Northern Ireland that you didn't have to look to Dublin or London, you could do it here."

The Clash returned to Belfast on December 20 for a show which would make up for the cancelled date in October, and end the tour which had failed to start in the city.

Peppered with references to Northern Ireland, the storming concert ended with London's Burning ad libbed into Belfast's Burning.

It passed off without incident, with a heavy police presence outside the venue bearing witness to a peaceful evening.

But the continuing appeal of punk, and the seeds that were sown at the Clash's non-show still resonate today, and the movement is still part of the underground music scene here.

And the night in October 1977 still resonates with those who were there, and has achieved almost mythical status among those who weren't.

As Terri Hooley said: "It meant something to an awful lot of people."

Terri Hooley will be performing a DJ set at Belfast Calling – 30 years since the Clash show that never happened, in Lavery's Bar tomorrow night.

The evening will also feature live sets from Doghouse and Velma. Tickets cost 5 from Phoenix Records or 7 on the door.