Trouble Songs: Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland (Stuart Bailie)

My knowledge of the local music industry is at best passive. I’m not sure if I’d recognise Alternative Two Door Stiff Little Ulster Cinema Fingers Club if they fell out of a packet into my cereal bowl.

Twenty minute snippets of Monday night’s Across the Line on BBC Radio Ulster often accompany the late night drive home from Belfast, so Stuart Bailie’s voice is distinctive and recognised. However, the only time I actively tune in and listen to the whole show is for their annual Christmas Carol ‘Service’ when local bands cover classic festive songs, usually adding a stylish – and sometimes sinister – twist to the familiar refrains.

However, it turns out that this level of distance from the local music scene is perfectly adequate to enjoy Bailie’s new book, Trouble Songs: Music and Conflict in Northern Ireland.

The two strands of music and conflict are gently woven around each other, creating a richly coloured braid that – for me – opened up a new narrative around some very familiar events through the Troubles and the peace process.

One chapter deals with that Trimble-Bono-Hume moment of upraised arms during the Good Friday Agreement ‘Yes’ referendum campaign. Bailie’s interviews with the campaign organisers explain their plan intention to create an iconic image without using a lot of words. The next chapter has an email interview with Bono adding his perspective and revealing how he deliberately left Trimble and Hume alone in a room before their on-stage appearance with only each other’s company, telling everyone waiting outside that they didn’t want to be disturbed!

Alongside the story of punk and showbands,  readers learn about lyrics – some obvious, some misinterpreted – that referenced events as well as the pain, hurt, confusion, hope and peace that found expression in the vibrant music scene that continued bringing big artists to Belfast venues despite the ‘security situation’. And the book finishes with Joby Fox’s redemptive journey from recreational rioter to relief worker.

Having started out by racing through the book, I quickly realised that the 260 pages are worth savouring. The human stories jump out, particularly those in which artists open up honestly about being thrust into the middle of mayhem and sometimes murder.

Published by Bloomfield Press, Trouble Songs is available from local bookshops, Eastside Visitors Centre on the Newtownards Road and online.  And you can catch Stuart Bailie talking about the book at this evening’s launch event at 9pm in Oh Yeah Music Centre as part of Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

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