Belfast’s punks wrote tunes that stood the test of time


The floor is important in a rock club; it is a key indicator of the character of the place.

If it is sticky, then the joint is the real deal, if it is clean then it is a sign that you have probably wandered into a poseur’s venue.

Magasin 4 in Brussels is as real as it gets, sticky underfoot and sweaty under T-shirt. The technical crew could have stepped out of a ‘Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’ comic strip and the bouncer looks like Mike Tyson’s harder grumpy brother. Close your eyes and you could almost be transported back to the glory days of Belfast’s notorious Pound Club, all the more so last Friday when the Brussels club played host to a nostalgic Belfast punk invasion, with The Outcasts and XSLF sharing the bill.

The Outcasts have a sizeable following in the German and French club circuit. Nowadays they gig as a hobby, albeit one that has become a bit more lucrative since the success of ‘Good Vibrations’ the film about the Belfast impresario of three chord chaos Terri Hooley which featured The Outcasts back in their prickly piss and vinegar filled adolescence.

Punk nostalgia sometimes seems just plain wrong, an aberration that belittles a passionate movement that was all about kicking out the old. However Belfast’s punk musicians were never allowed to take themselves too seriously and, having aged with their tongues in their cheeks, have largely avoided being tainted with the whiff of hypocrisy.Belfast’s punks also had a tendency to write great tunes that have stood the test of time.

Front man Greg Cowan still cuts an imposing stance on stage though the spikes in his bleached hair cut are now a little further apart than they used to be. They are as sharp as many a big name band in their prime their unique blend of monochromatic murder, mania and pimply faced teenage angst, sounds remarkably fresh.

“Well we should have got them right by now, we have been playing them for thirty years,” Greg Cowan said afterwards when I remarked on how tight the band sounded. “And who would have thought we would be travelling through Europe playing them thirty years later?”

Certainly no one would have thought that The Outcasts would have added a surprising new song to their set list, ‘Big Time’ by their back-in-the-day punk rivals Rudi. The song was demanded by German audiences who have seen ‘Good Vibrations’. (The film received a cinema release in Germany.)

Before The Outcasts, XSLF, featuring Henry Cluney and Jim Reilly from Stiff Little Fingers, took the stage and cantered through a rough edged selection of their greatest hits. Quite what the Belgian audience made of the references to troubles era Belfast was hard to tell, but it was good fun stuff from start to end and a contrast to the current official SLF line-up which can be a bit too serious at times.

In Belgium you are guaranteed to see one strange thing every day. On Friday it was the sight of a 2015 club audience screaming ‘Alternative Ulster’. And there was a young lady from St Petersburg who knew the words of Suspect Device off by heart.

Who could have guessed what began in Belfast garages would still be resonating around the world decades later. Thank goodness that punk rockers are not subject to the sort of introspective parochialism that flows through so much of the rest of Northern Ireland’s arts sector.

I caught up with the former SLF guitarist Henry Cluney, as he was having a bit of a ‘Spinal Tap’ moment trying to find his way to the stage. It was good to see Henry again as he is now based in the US and had a serious health scare a few years back.

After the show we mused that it has been around twenty years since we used to hang out together. I hope it won’t be as long until we are able to catch up again.