Music maestro flying high on his success

To be one of Ireland's most accomplished writers, producers, directors or composers would be enough reason for anyone to put their feet up and take a well-earned rest.

However, to have become all four means John Anderson must have more than enough laurels to rest on by now.

Not that there’s any sign of the man behind On Eagle’s Wing, the John Anderson Big Band and more best-selling records and TV shows than you can shake a microphone at putting his feet up yet.

It must all seem a long way from when he was back at Queen’s University working his way through a B Mus followed by an MA, then seven years of teaching at Methodist College before he left for nine years at the BBC as a music director, presenter, performer and producer.

Then it was down the road to UTV for another nine years to produce and direct in-house music programmes which sold around the world, before leaving 10 years ago to become a freelance producer, director, composer and writer.

Those of you of a certain age will remember that it was the John Anderson Big Band chart success with the Glenn Miller Medley and Swing the Mood that opened the doors to the Jive Bunny phenomenon, one of the most successful record concepts in the world in the Eighties.

In the UK alone, Jive Bunny had three Number One singles, a Number Four single and a Number One album which achieved Triple Platinum: a pattern which was repeated around the world.

Signed as a solo artist to Universal, John then went on to pick up a UK silver disc with his solo album, The Romance of Ireland.

In theatre, he was musical director of the Irish premieres of Jesus Christ Superstar, Cabaret and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, among others.

In radio, he produces and presents a long-running, one-hour weekly show on BBC Radio Ulster, which is a bit of an easy life from the time he produced and presented five shows a week for the Beeb, including The Anderson Tapes, Sounds Sacred, With You to Midnight and Showtime.

For the President Clinton visit to Belfast, having directed and coordinated the television coverage of the event all during the day, finishing with a live worldwide transmission at 5pm, John then left the TV studio to conduct the John Anderson Orchestra as part of the same broadcast.

Not only that, but he had already staged and produced the entire show, working with the White House staff, the City Council, the local and American security forces and artists like Van Morrison and Curtis Stigers.

He devised and produced the Downtown Radio competition for Young Musician of the Year in 1998, and produced the biggest military tattoo ever staged in Northern Ireland.

He’s also produced The Ulster Scots for the BBC, devised and produced School Choir of the Year, which in its 10-year history has become the biggest competition of its type in Europe, involving 10,000 singers in eight days, and produced videos for Roger Whittaker, The Chieftains and Friends with Jean Butler, Nancy Griffith and Roger Daltrey, Finbar Wright and The Clancy Brothers.

As a film composer, his credits include Nail in the Boot, Steel Chest, and Barking Dog, which won the Celtic Film Festival, and The End of the World Man, which won the Golden Bear Award in Berlin.

He’s currently composing for an RTE documentary on the life of famous pre-war motorcycle champion Stanley Woods.

Locally, he’s possibly best known as the writer and producer of On Eagle’s Wing, the large-scale musical about the Scots-Irish and their journey from Scotland to Northern Ireland and on to America, where they played such a significant part in the creation of the nation.

Recorded for television and DVD at its premiere in the Belfast Odyssey in 2004, it was screened in USA coast to coast and recently broadcast to acclaim in Australia.

Most recently, he’s composed songs and music for 24 episodes of the Northern Ireland version of Sesame Street, as well as Voices of Ireland, featuring young singers with a repertoire from beautiful traditional airs to the music of modern Irish writers like Van Morrison and Enya.

Last year their debut performance in the Grand Opera House, Belfast attracted a sell-out audience and a standing ovation.

His latest projects are a touring version of On Eagle’s Wing, which takes to the road in September, and And The Band Played On, a stage show telling the story of the Titanic through the eyes of the seven musicians. John has a natural affinity with the ship, since it was built within sight of where he lives, and two of his ancestors were killed working on the Titanic and her sister ship the Olympic.

What’s your earliest memory of childhood?

Walking to St Comgall’s in Rathcoole on Sunday mornings when I was six to sing in the choir. They’d just started building the estate, and when we moved from the Antrim Road, we were one of the first families in. Rathcoole was wonderful, like living in the country. Now, of course, it covers half the planet.

My father was the church organist, and my mother was a good singer. We weren’t particularly religious, but it was just what you did, and I eventually took over from dad as the organist.

I remember one Twelfth I was out in the garden playing when I heard these drums. I started walking towards the sound in a trance, and ended up in a field full of country lodges. The entire perimeter was lined with Lambeg drums, and when it was time for the lodges to leave, one by one the drummers picked them up and started playing. I felt that I’d died and gone to heaven.

What are your best and worst memories of childhood?

One is of my best friend Alan Millar. We both sang in the choir, and went to Canada when I was a student. I came back, and he stayed and eventually became ordained, then came home and was ordained a few years ago as the minister of St Comgall’s in time for its 50th anniversary.

It was very strange sitting in the seat where we’d sat together as children and seeing him in the pulpit. And the congregation was all the same faces, asking how your family was. A lovely feeling.

How was school?

I went to Whitehouse Primary School, which was a great school except for the corporal punishment, which I seemed to be on the receiving end of more than I should have been. I remember once getting a caning for sucking the ink out of the inkwell on my desk with a straw.

I passed the 11-Plus and went to Inst for a private entrance exam in the old part of the school, which dates from 1811. The desks were extraordinary things: slabs of solid oak bound to huge cast-iron frames which over the centuries had become pitted and gouged so much by schoolboys’ names that every time I tried to write, my fountain pen went through the paper. It was an Osmiroid, and all the wealthy kids had Sheaffers and Parkers.

It was a totally alien environment, but I was probably too daft to be intimidated, so I settled in and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The style of the school bred and encouraged independence, the standard of teaching was incredible and some of the teachers were absolutely inspirational icons both in school and outside.

That’s where the music took off as well. I learned the piano, joined the choir and ended up singing most of the solos.

I was in the Scouts as well, and when I look back at some of the things we did, I look at my own sons and think what a pity it is that they’ve never had the chance to be exposed to potential death on so many occasions, like building an aerial runway from one tree to another over a gorge in the Mournes then flying down it. Or long stave fighting, straight out of Robin Hood. Every Friday night you’d go home with shattered knuckles.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

No idea at all. In those days you just sort of fell into going to Queen’s and doing your best subjects, which were English and music, but after a year the music took over.

What were the best and worst bits of Queen’s, then teaching at Methody?

I don’t know if you really want an answer to that. I spent Queen’s trying to get some sense, which hasn’t happened yet.

I left home and stayed in some dreadful tips, but at least I met Marie, my future wife, in the canteen in second year. She was in first year English, and it was pretty much love at first sight. It must have been, because we’ve had eight kids and we’re still together.

Teaching at Methody was a very salutary lesson, but absolutely fantastic. The headmaster, Stanley Worrall, was a very enlightened man, and felt that while exams were important, developing a rounded personality was more important.

Music was compulsory, even if you were a 6ft 7ins prop forward, and there was a thing called the Senior Chorus, which meant that on Friday afternoons I’d be faced with trying to teach the bass part of Mozart’s Requiem to 50 18-year-old rugby players.

Then at the Easter concert, you’d end up conducting 600 of them, and they did get it. We did things like Mozart’s and Faure’s reqiuems and Carmina Burana, and to this day they’ll come to me in the street and say they’ve got a new recording of one of those, because they’re the only three pieces of music they know.

At the other end of the scale, the set work for the A-Level music class was a very difficult piece called Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which I’d studied at Queen’s and thought I was pretty hot on. I walked in on the first day of term and asked the six pupils if they’d actually heard it. There was a communal rolling of eyes, and it turned out that they knew it a hell of a lot better than I did, because they were all in the national youth orchestra and had played it the week before.

Was it difficult making the leap of faith to go freelance?

While I was in Methody, I started working at the Lyric Theatre, writing music for the 20 million Yeats productions that Mary O’Malley used to put on, then ended up as musical director. Around the same time, Mervyn Solomon of Solomon and Peres asked me if I’d be interested in getting into records, and I’d started to write music for the stage.

It was a very conscious decision that if I wanted to write, I couldn’t do it properly part-time, so Marie and I took the decision to give up our jobs as teachers, and did on the spot.

It was very scary. Still is, but you have to have a belief in yourself and follow a dream. My grandmother always said I’d never go to my grave wondering what something would have been like.

I’d done some talking head stuff for the BBC, and then they offered me a chance to stand in for Gloria Hunniford, along with people like John Bennett and Paul Clark for the summer.

I was so terrible that they slipped me off to the graveyard, a programme called With You To Midnight where I couldn’t do any damage at 11 on a Saturday night, but in a few years that grew to be one of their biggest programmes.

Where did the idea for the Big Band come from?

I came up with the idea of a series called It Only Seems Like Yesterday, about how the war had affected people in Northern Ireland. I mentioned it to a BBC producer, and told him I wanted to do it like an American studio-based programme with a resident big band.

“Sounds great, except we don’t have a big band,” he said.

“You will have by next week,” I said, and that series was so popular that I started touring the band in the late Seventies.

Was the Clinton visit a nice, easy relaxing day?

I’ve never had one like it before or since. I could tell you stories about some of the artists that would make your toes curl, but I’d get sued. I still remember changing into the white tuxedo in the gents at UTV, then walking down to City Hall.

How’s the Stanley Woods project going?

Really well. Incredible story. He and his wife were the Posh and Becks of the Thirties, until his career was cut short by the war, like so many others.

And the next Eagle’s Wing?

Shaping up. The first show four years ago was designed for the 10,000-seat Odyssey, but this is a more personal story with stronger characters, much better for conventional theatres. It opens in the Grand Opera House on September 29.

Is it a Scots-Irish Riverdance?

No. You can’t fault Riverdance, which did, after all, open the doors to all these shows, but it’s a dance show, and fairly superficial. This is a story of incredible guts, faith, love, loyalty, persecution, religion, poverty and famine.

Look at what those people had to go through. I’m worried about getting wet walking back to the car, but they set out in a wee tub to cross the Atlantic.

It’s a story that has been undersold and undertold, because the Presbyterian and Calvinist Scots-Irish are not boastful by nature and tend to play things down, even though the contribution they made to the formation of modern America is incalculable, and is only now being recognised.

What about the Titanic project?

It’s taking on a life of its own, the more I realise the impact the ship and the Yard had on the city. I’m worried it’ll turn into a 300-strong male voice choir in the Docks.

You’ve had a hugely eclectic career so far. Any word of you resting on your laurels any time soon?

With eight children aged between 15 and 30, retirement is not an option.

Favourite book?

Don’t have one. At the moment I’m reading a book called 1690, a military manifesto of the Battle of the Boyne I picked up in a second-hand bookshop in York.

I’ve always wondered how the two forces knew to turn up at the same spot, whether it was the Boyne or Ballynahinch. Who decided: “Boyne it is, then. See you in the big field at three on Tuesday, and we’ll have a fight”?

I think the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible contain some of the most resonant and powerful passages in the language, and I’m sorry they’re falling into disuse.


The Graduate, if only out of envy, wishing I was Dustin. West Side Story, which redefined the modern musical, even if the lyrics were dreadful: “I feel witty and pretty and gay, and I pity anyone who doesn’t feel that way.”

First record?

We only had an old Dansette, but I think the first was Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which I played until I wore the stylus out.

When do you think was the golden age of music?

I just love the Forties, with the discipline and symmetry of swing, the quality of the melodies, the sheer joy, and the intricacy of the arrangements. I find it satisfying at a very fundamental level: not only the sense of order of the music, but the fact that that order creates a platform from which superb jazz musicians can take flight from and return to.

What do you think of pop?

I love it. I don’t like rap because it’s so aggressive and in your face. An elitist attitude to music is absolute nonsense. You get artists who get annoyed if someone in the audience is talking, and you feel like saying to them: “If Duke Ellington and Count Basie could play for dinner dances, what’s the problem?”

There’s a snobbishness about commercial music, but Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Bach all wrote for money. The only difference is that being geniuses, they occasionally struck pay dirt and produced something not of this earth.

Pop works if it can communicate successfully. You might think that it’s easy to manufacture a band like Boyzone or Westlife, but try it, just to see how you get on.

Look at Abba. I’m not a fan and I don’t have any of their records, but I know the words of their songs. What does annoy me is armchair philosophers looking for deep meanings in their lyrics. Listen, they were four Scandinavians who couldn’t speak English using simple phrases to get the message over. It’s not Harold Pinter.

Heroes and villains?

Villains are the business people, devoid of morality and consideration for others, who contribute to the mean-spiritedness which has crept into society.

Vices and virtues?

Tenacity. Not giving up. That’s one of my worst points as well, not knowing when to let go.

Regrets: have you had a few?

Millions, mostly to do with not saying thank you or sorry at the time, or missing opportunities because I love what I do so much that I spend a lot of time living in the moment. I do draw on the past, but I don’t dwell on it, and I don’t speculate on the future because I’m a coward, and don’t want to know what horrors lurk ahead.

When were you happiest?

When you get a payment or finish a job, and know that you’re secure for a few months. But then I get bored because I don’t have a crisis to deal with. Anyway, the last time I felt like that was about 19 years ago.

And saddest?

Watching sons three and four graduate on the same day at Cambridge made me proud and sad at the same time.

And watching our eldest son Mark pass out at naval college in Dartmouth.

At the end of an impeccably organised ceremony, 80 young men in the prime of their lives slow-march up the hill and the massive oak doors of the college slam shut behind them to the tune of Will Ye No Come Back Again.

Moments like that are burnt on you forever.

What would be your perfect life?

To write something that touches other people, and to fulfil your responsibilities to your family.

Sum up your lesson for life in a sentence.

Don’t give up.