Way, way back in September 2015 an impressive response to a benefit gig for Syrian refugees provide a one-night-only chance to see the best of Derry’s musical community play live. So I made my first journey to Northern Ireland & what a night it was. The clincher was a rare appearance by Bam Bam & the Calling, the same 4 guys I had worked & played out with 30 years ago. They were good people to know & their band rocked, always had & still did. This week they reassembled to celebrate the Gweedore Bar, a touchstone for the city’s musicians, fans & drinkers who came of age in the 1980’s. It was Xmas, I had places to go, people to see, all of them a long way from Derry. These clips, from the set at the well-appointed Nerve Centre, show that I sure missed something.
Derry, indeed all of Northern Ireland in the 1980’s, was a different deal to mainland Britain. Those Troubles, troops & bombs & the shame-faced manoeuvres of political leaders who lacked the will to find a solution, were part of an everyday experience that needed somewhere to go to do good things like play & listen to music. I asked Joe Brown, bass player of Bam Bam & the Calling, for his memories of the Gweedore & an appreciation of its importance to the musically minded youth of his generation
For many of us The Gweedore Bar in the 1980’s was a safe zone. Back then Derry’s city centre was a different place, other establishments were bombed out, burned out, under surveillance (from various factions involved in the conflict) or worse, transforming into a dodgy wine bar attracting people in pastel colours, home perms, no socks and linen jackets rolled up to the elbows…and that was just the blokes!!
The Gweedore itself back then was a dingy, dull hole, the faded decor untouched since the “glory days” of the early 70’s. The place was held together with beauty board, flock wallpaper,and the strong aroma of a new smell of something burning other than war. For all its dull outward appearance it was the most colourful, vibrant, comical, open minded, free thinking joint in the town, indicative of its patrons and staff and at the helm was its Captain.
Willie Barrett…everything flowed through Willie…he championed everything, from awaydays to see Derry City’s games, quizzes, darts tournaments and his influential starring role as “entertainments manager”. He took it on and became a mentor to every musician who played a note in that bar. The upstairs “lounge” became our very own CBGB’s/100 Club… Any list of the bands that played there would be a very long one & there would still be hundreds of faces & noises that we have forgotten.
National music magazines, record companies, A&R people, braved the “Troubles” to get a piece of what was becoming the most talked about live venue in the north..and still, the flock wall paper played a starring role…to this day people remember careers being launched/ended and launched again there… Bands came and went, emigrated, recorded, wrote songs, released records, helped one another out and became part of a scene that proved to be both innovative and inspiring.
In the new decade the music continued with new faces, longer hair, and t-shirts over baseball tops. There were new owners, redevelopment & wall paper strippers which cleaned up the joint & it was time to find somewhere else that would have us. The impact of those years still reverberates around Derry & further afield. It was a creative explosion of a different kind. In a city where life could be difficult the dirty Gweedore was a place where things could be said, arguments could be had & new music was created & appreciated. The Gweedore and its ethos will live forever…. SEE THE LOSERS IN THE BEST BARS, MEET THE WINNERS IN THE DIVES….(Neil Young “Sail Away”)
OK Joe, “where the people are the real stars” yeah. Thanks Joe for remembering that & thanks too to Jim Cunningham for remembering to take his camera to the Nerve Centre. Jim’s clips capture a band of brothers with an undimmed passion to play the music they like & like they mean it. It’s great to see the award-winning animator John McCloskey onstage. John unfortunately missed the gig I attended, he knows how these songs go, his guitar adds muscle to the dynamic tension of the band. Bam Bam & the Calling keep the flame of big guitar music, Derry music, burning. This great photo of singer Paul Pj McCartney, a man of individual preference in shirts & immaculate taste in music, turning it up & leaving it on, makes me wish I’d been there for the reunion. Next time for sure.