The man who brought punk to the Province

It was 1976, and the music had died in Northern Ireland.

Them had come and gone, Van Morrison had fled to a mountain near New York, many of the clubs and dance halls had closed or been bombed out of existence, and the only artists to brave the Province were Rory Gallagher and Horslips, who brought the Whitla Hall down every year with Dearg Doom.

And then a one-eyed hippy discovered punk and changed everything.

His name was Terri Hooley, and in that year, he was selling records from his back bedroom and his only claim to fame was that he had once punched John Lennon.

The two met in London at the start of the Troubles, only for Hooley the hippy to discover that his hero wasn't the pacifist he expected.

"Me and a few friends had just set up a pirate radio station in the Craigantlet Hills and were in London to get equipment for it," said Terri.

"One of Lennon's friends brought us to a garage and showed us guns and asked us if we wanted to bring them back home. They obviously thought we were the lads. We were the lads, just not the ones they thought we were.

"Later that night I met Lennon himself and got in an argument with him about not being a pacifist. There was some talk of money being sent to the IRA and I chinned him. He hit me back."

The fight only ended when Hooley's artificial eye fell on the floor, although it didn't stop him falling out with Bob Dylan, meeting Bob Marley and having several riotous nights with Phil Lynott and Shane Magowan.

Then, in October 1977, punk officially arrived in Ulster with The Battle of Bedford Street, when the Clash's sold-out Ulster Hall show was cancelled at two hours notice, sparking a riot.

Serendipitously, Terri Hooley was in the process of opening the Good Vibrations record shop in a tumbledown building on Great Victoria Street which became the centre of the punk scene when he went to the Pound one evening and heard two bands, Rudi and The Outcasts. He was instantly smitten with them, and the Good Vibrations record label was born with the Rudi single Big Time, followed by releases from Victim, Protex, The Outcasts and The Undertones – a band he was very wary about taking on.

"I wasn't sure about them because nobody liked them. People crossed the road just to spit at Feargal Sharkey. Eventually I signed them. They went into the studio and recorded Teenage Kicks for 100 plus 8 VAT. I hustled it around every record company in London and they all hated it. I came back to Belfast and cried my eyes out. That night John Peel played it on the radio and said: 'Wasn't that the most wonderful record you've heard in your life?' and played it again."

It was the first record in the history of the BBC to be played twice in a row and remained John Peel's all-time favourite record.

The Undertones effectively made Good Vibrations' reputation, and Teenage Kicks was hailed as one of the most important recordings of the era. Terri managed to get all the Good Vibrations bands deals, but only The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers managed to achieve any degree of success.

“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,” was how Terri put it.

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.

But the amateur enthusiasm which had fuelled the movement was to be its undoing.

“We weren’t businessmen,” said Terri. “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.”

Since then, though, he’s had more comebacks than Sinatra, surviving bomb blasts, heart attacks and beatings by racketeers. Ironically, he had to leave his shop on Howard Street when the peace dividend put his rates through the roof.

He was burnt out of North Street Arcade by arsonists, resurrected that shop as Phoenix Records and is now to be found in his latest incarnation, Good Vibes in Winetavern Street.

Earlier this year, he was given a lifetime achievement award by Fate for his services to music and a film is currently being made of his life.

What’s your earliest memory of childhood, and what sort of childhood did you have?

It’s actually my first musical memory as well, from when I was six. We lived in a prefab bungalow and my father was a Labour candidate for east Belfast. In those days, Labour candidates were always getting beaten up because people thought they were Catholics. At election time, bands would come around shouting: “Go back to Cork, you Fenian b******s. Which was a bit ironic, because my dad was English.

He’d come back from the war, then came to Belfast to work on the merchant ships and met mum in Shaftesbury Square in Belfast. She was going downtown to put an ad to rent out rooms.

Dad had just got beaten up again when one day I was out playing and an arrow accidentally hit me in the eye, which I lost as a result. The ambulance came and put bandages over my eyes, and as I was getting into the ambulance with the light shining dimly through these bandages, I suddenly thought of Hank Williams’ I Saw the Light.

I was brought up as a Socialist by dad, and a Christian by mum, which is probably why I’m such a heathen now. Dad was a great gardener as well, and very generous: he was always giving the neighbours vegetables. He’s 97 now and in a nursing home with Alzheimers, and it breaks my heart to go and see him, because he hasn’t a clue who I am.

What are your best and worst memories of childhood?

Worst was school. I didn’t even sit the 11-Plus, because there was no point. All I was interested in was music. When I was five, they came round the doors giving away flip-flop discs of In an English Country Garden to advertise Summer County margarine. I hid that record and treasured it, and played word games with the lyrics. That was the day I became a record collector, and after that I was always in Dougie Knight’s or Mrs Moore’s or Smithfield buying records, discovering Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Paganini, Tchaikovsky, you name it.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Donald Duck. That’s what I told people when I was a kid, for at school they told me I wouldn’t even get a job sweeping the streets, and when I left I could hardly read or write.

Did losing your eye affect your life?

No, it was great at the time. Mum came to collect me from hospital, and took me to the swings in the park rather than school.

What did you do before you started selling records?

My other interest was photography, but I was turned down for a job at Queen’s photographic department because of the eye. I ended up working for Kodak, and one night I came out and three guys with shooters tried to kidnap me because they thought I was the wrong religion. Two guys I thought hated me jumped in and saved my life, but I thought if I was going to die, I should do what I really wanted in the meantime and open a record shop, so I set up Good Vibrations.

How it all started was I saw an ad in Exchange and Mart offering 1,000 singles for 40, so I bought them and took some of them to the Vintage Record Store in London, and the guy there lifted 11 out and offered me 110 for them.

I started selling from my back bedroom, then from Ballymena market, then Dave Hyndman, who worked in a printers, discovered this derelict building in Great Victoria Street. Richard Waters took the ground flower for Sassafras, I took the middle and Dave took the top, and the first thing we did was throw a big party and paint the toilet so that it would look nice in case some girls turned up.

You went from being a hippy, all peace, love and flowers, man, to a punk, all spit and safety pins. How did that happen?

Punk was my hippy’s revenge – sort of “You didn’t listen to us, and now look what you’ve got”. It was an accident, to be honest. A wee guy called Gordie who was always in the shop pinching everything told me about a punk gig with The Outcasts, and I went and hated them, although within a year I was their manager and label boss. Rudi was there as well, and I loved them.

Nobody wanted punk gigs at the time, and the only way you could put one on was to phone a venue and tell them you were organising your daughter’s 21st birthday party, and there might be a couple of bands. By the time they found it was a punk gig, it was too late. I remember in 1977 getting all dressed up and going up to Queen’s one lunchtime to book the McMordie Hall for a seven-band punk gig. I told them it was on behalf of Belfast Musical Society, so they obviously thought it was classical and let me book it for a fiver.

When they found it was billed as The Battle of the Bands, they did everything to stop it, and afterwards I was barred from the Students’ Union for life. We had the Hell’s Angels doing bouncers, and it was the first big punk gig in Belfast.

Was the decision to become a record label a moment of inspiration, or one drink too many?

It was another accident. That night of the concert, the cops came in and broke up the gig, and I thought: “This is great crack. I’ve waited all my life for anarchy like this.”

So I talked to Rudi, and we got a record pressed for 17p each at EMI in Dublin. I sent it off to everyone, but hardly anyone replied. We hadn’t a clue what we were doing, and everything was done by accident rather than design.

How did you feel when you first heard Teenage Kicks?

I thought it was brilliiant, but I played their demo to everyone, and nobody got it. My mate Ricky Flanagan only got it after sitting up drinking poteen all night. I took it to CBS and they physically threw me out of their offices, so I went to Rough Trade, the biggest independent, and they told me it was the worst record they’d ever heard in their life, but because it was on the Good Vibrations label, they’d take 500 copies. A few weeks later they were on looking for 5,000, but that night I came home from London so disappointed that I said to my then wife Ruth that I was never going through that again. Then John Peel played it, and the next morning I got a call from Paul McNally of Sire Records saying he wanted to sign them. He flew over, and we drove up to Derry with Ian Birch from Melody Maker.

The Undertones asked me to manage them, but I told them I wasn’t leaving Belfast, because I wanted to stay and put Northern Ireland on the musical map. Then within two years I was bankrupt and burnt out from too many late nights drinking. But it was all great fun. For me, the Sixties was a party that should never have ended, until Northern Ireland had a nervous breakdown and the Troubles started.

I was offered lots of money to work in London or New York, but I couldn’t leave. A lot of really good people did, and somebody had to stay.

And a lot did happen here. When Kurt Cobain took ill here, he said: “I don’t mind dying here, because it’s the home of Good Vibrations Records.”

Do you think hippies and punks don’t make good businessmen, or were you just hit badly by the Eighties?

There was a big recession, but we were absolutely stupid. One day we got an order from Italy for 500 Outcasts records and just sent them off without checking anything. We never got the money, and a lot of independent record distributors went down owing us money. But it was all great fun. Would I do it all over again, and change anything? No, I wouldn’t. It was a chance for me to relive my childhood and the Sixties, running around like a mad idiot and enjoying myself.

What do you think of pop music today?

I love Amy Winehouse, but not much else. A real talent, if she could get her act together. A night out with Amy would be great crack.

Favourite drinking partner from the following: John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley or Shane Magowan?

It was a great honour to meet Bob Marley, especially since his dad’s Irish. Shane’s a great mate, even though I never understand a word he’s saying.

John’s still a hero of mine, in spite of our run-in. That was just ridiculous. I don’t think he was on the planet at the time, because of various substances.

And I met Bob Dylan in the Grand Central Hotel when he played here in 1966. I asked him why he hadn’t withheld his taxes in protest at the Vietnam War, as Joan Baez and several others had.

“Why don’t you p**s off and leave me alone?” he said.

Favourite five records?

Favourite single is Past, Present and Future by the Shangri-Las. It’s the perfect three-minute opera.

It’s Over by Roy Orbinson, because I first heard it one night when I went to a dance and I met three girls from Strathearn School who completely changed my life. They gave me books to read and took me to art galleries. They’re all dead now: the two sisters were killed in car crashes, and the third was raped and murdered in New York only three years ago. Still haven’t got over that.

Positively 4th Street by Bob Dylan. Heart of Gold by Neil Young. Why Can’t We All Live Together? by Timmy Thomas.

Favourite album is What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, then Forever Changes by Love, a Phil Spector Greatest Hits, Joy by Isaac Hayes, Death of a Ladies’ Man by Leonard Cohen.

Record you’d like played at your funeral, although not too soon?

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. Or Bring me Sunshine by Morecambe and Wise.

Favourite book?

Franny and Zoe by JD Salinger.

Film?

The April Fools with Jack Lemmon and Catherine Deneuve.

Favourite country?

St Lucia. I went there once to write a poetry album commissioned by Warner Brothers, but all they got from me was a postcard. I met a black man in a bar one night and he said: “You bought me a drink in Belfast in the Sixties and got me free into the jazz club.” I had no recollection of it.

Best and worst holidays ever?

Worst, although my girlfriend will kill me, was my last one, Donegal in the rain. If I ever see a rock or a mountain again, it’ll be the death of me.

Best was in New York with Eamon McWilliams. My then girlfriend had gone off to do a Thelma and Louise thing, and Eamon and I spend days and nights going to a string of memorable gigs by people I thought had died years ago. When I was there I was offered a job managing a country artist by a record company in Atlanta, Georgia. They threw down a blank cheque book and said: “Write your wages for the next three years.”

I wake up some mornings and wish I had, but I’d rather be penniless in Belfast than rich somewhere else.

Heroes and villains?

Bob Marley. And Cilla Black. I kissed her once, funny enough. Did you know she was on Elvis Presley’s jukebox? And John Peel. Best DJ in the world, ever. Roy Orbison. We had a wake when he died, and gave him a great send-off. Bob Dylan. Georgie Fame, who was in the shop a fair bit, and Van Morrison.

Regrets: have you had a few?

That I treated some people badly. I haven’t been too bad, just a bit mad.

When were you happiest?

The Sixties. I’ve never really stopped living the Sixties, because it was a time when we felt we could change the world.

And saddest?

In 2006 I lost 37 friends. People like Geoff Harden, who was always there, or Lucy Higgins. And sometimes the sadness only hits you later. I had a friend Phil who died, and three months later I was laying a wooden floor, and I suddenly thought of him and lay down on that floor and cried like a baby.

Pet hates?

What I hate about Belfast at the minute is the commercialism; all this talk about IKEA and Victoria Square. And the way people litter the streets.

What would be your perfect life?

Sitting in a shack in St Lucia, on my own, listening to music.

Where do you want to be in five years time?

Haven’t a clue. I don’t even keep a diary, so I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow. If I get through tonight, that’ll do me for the time being.

If you had to sum up your lesson for life, what would that be?

Live your own live.