Cult Heroes No. 27: Good Vibrations Records
Cult Heroes come in the most unlikely guises. They don’t have to be musicians, or a band. This week we celebrate Irish label Good Vibrations, a label that did so much for the scene over there at the end of the 70s. Check out previous Cult Heroes.
Words: Malcolm Dome
You know the cliché that if someone didn’t exist, we’d have had to invent him? Meet the archetype of this phenomenon. Terri Hooley, founder of Good Vibrations Records and a self-proclaimed hippy anarchist. One of those characters for whom, “Oh, one last thing” rings about as true as, “One for the road?”. A raconteur, a poet, a philosopher, an agitator- and sort of drunken lunatic that gives life an extra boost. The man with more zip, quip and lip than anyone this side of Muhammed Ali at his most irresistible.
How to describe Hooley? A man who’s been through the troubles in Ireland and has come out the other side still able to laugh, albeit very much aware of the deep scars and suspicions that it’s left across Northern Ireland. He’s not just a survivor, but a man who wants everyone to celebrate the heritage of his birthplace, and also the great music it has given us.
While Hooley, who’s currently being harassed to stand for the office of Lord Mayor of Belfast, has packed his life full of punch [in all sense of the term – he once hit John Lennon, and it was deliberate. Over the latter's support of the IRA], vigour, vitality and passion for his beliefs, to many in the outside world, it’s his inspirational founding of Good Vibrations Records at the end of the 1970s for which he’s most renowned. A label that shone a light into the artistic climate of the Irish punk/rock scene, at a time when for most these were the dark ages.
“Did we know what we were doing?” says Hooley with a typically cheeky, self-mocking ambience. “It was more by accident than design!”
But this is the label that gave us Protex, Rudi, The Outcasts, The Xdreamysts…and The Undertones. And you don’t pick up on such talents without having some idea of what you’re doing.
“I had this record shop called Good Vibrations in Belfast, which opened in 1978, and it was suggested that I go and check out a young band called Rudi. So, I went along and they did the song 96 Tears, by Question Mark & The Mysterians – and I loved all those 1960s American garage bands, so I was immediately intrigued.”
The Clash had just played in Belfast and caused something of a pogoing ‘riot’. So much so that the police had become very ware of punk gigs in the area. They raided the Rudi gig, closed it down, with help from the army. At which point Hooley decided: “This was for me!”.
It was the end of the decade, and Hooley got actively involved with the punk scene, agreeing to fund a Rudi flexi disc, of the songs Big Time and No One which would be given away with the fanzine Alternative Ulster. But, basic economics soon took over.
“It would have costs us 11p per copy of the flexi disc. But a proper vinyl single was only 17p per copy. So, we went for the latter. It sold well in my shop, but the idea was use this as a demo, to get the band a deal with a big label. So off we sent copies to all the record companies. You know what? Not one of them replied. I didn’t even get rejection letters – nothing.”
Undeterred, Hooley picked up singles by Victim [Strange Thing By Night/ Mixed Up World] and The Outcasts [Just Another Teenage Rebel/Love Is For Sops. "I hated the band when I first saw them, a ear later I signed the guys, and they became good friends."] ]and then came fose great turning moments in rock history – and, yes, it is that big – he put out the Teenage Kicks EP by The Undertones.
“That cost me £200 to record. I’d gotten their demo, and it wasn’t great. But I used to play it to death. The fact is that in those days, nobody ever went out at night in Belfast, it was just too dangerous. So, we’d all stay indoors and drink a lot of pochin, while listening to a lot of music. But I was alone in seeing their potential. People didn’t get The Undertones at all.
“Anyway, the band appeared to be going nowhere, and were gonna split up when I pressed up this four-tracker. And everyone thought I was mad. I took it over to London, and got a terrible reaction. Rough Trade thought it was the worst thing they’d ever heard. I went to see CBS and they just didn’t understand what was going on, and were totally unimpressed. I was practically thrown out of there. They hated it. In desperation, I went over to Radio 1, and left a few copies in John Peel’s pigeon hole, not expecting much to happen. But hoping he was open minded enough to check it out. And then all hell broke!”
Peel immediately fell in love with the single, and played it twice on his next show “Back to back, which had never been heard of before on Radio 1″. That set the music industry babbling and bubbling. Peel’s influence was huge, and the next morning Sire Records were on the phone to Hooley, offering The Undertones a deal – and a career was on the way.
“Can you believe that CBS [now Columbia] also called me, saying how much they liked the single and wanted to do a deal?! I told them to fuck off, they were too late anyway.”
John Peel became a hero in Belfast, where people regularly listened to his show – one of the reasons again being that everyone stayed indoors, because of the fear of violence on the streets – and, recalls Hooley, when he came over years later for a gig, Peel was given an incredible reception.
“I think it lasted 10 minutes, which was an indication of the affection and gratitude people had for what he’d done for The Undertones, and for Irish music in general. After he played the single, other DJs at Radio 1 began to pick up on it as well.”
But Hooley wasn’t just releasing singles, he was also pushing the local live scene, prepared to play any sort of game to get his way.
“I remember in 1977 there were plans for seven punk bands to play a benefit gig to raise money for a local anarchist book shop. But we couldn’t find a venue prepared to put it on. So, I got myself in a suit and went to Queen’s University, to see if I could persuade them to allow us to hire the ModMordie Hall. I said we were The Belfast Music Society, which made us sound legit. To my amazement, not only were they happy to hire the hall out to us, but I only got charged £5 as a fee! It turns out, the woman I was dealing with thought we were part of the University! But I wasn’t complaining. However, when the powers-that-be found out what this was really about, they did try to stop it – too late!”
Slowly, Hooley became crucial to the revitalisation of the Northern Ireland rock scene. He got Protex and The Xdreamysts onto Polydor, but try as he might, even a man with all his ingenuity couldn’t get Rudi a deal.
“That’s one of my biggest disappointments of the time. But overall they were great days. We were a real cottage industry. The Outcasts would be in helping to fold singles sleeves for Rudi. The Undertones would be packing Outcasts singles into boxes – everyone mucked in and did their bit. What we were doing was putting Belfast on the map.”
Sadly, it all came to an end in the mid-1980s. After 42 singles and two albums [although one other, a compilation called Ulster On A Thin Wire, was cancelled, and the Protex album Listening In only emerged in 2001], the label went bankrupt. But what Good Vibrations left behind was one of the finest catalogues ever assembled by any independent label. The quality was consistently high, and was more than driven punk, more than great pop-rock [and it was both]. This was the soundtrack for hope in a province where the youth were encouraged to embrace hatred.
“Protestant or Catholic, it didn’t matter. This was a unifying force.”
Since then Hooley has had to endure leaving one premises because the rent became too high, ironically due to the introduction of a peace levy. Another set of premises was, he says, the subject of an arson attack, after he and other shop owners in an arcade had resisted the pressure to sell out to major corporate interests.
“Six incendiary bombs were planted. And down came the whole arcade. The Undertones did a benefit to help me raise the money to open another shop.”
An indomitable spirit, Hooley still runs a record store, although these days it’s more of a struggle than ever ["We don't make any money."]. But there’s also a film in the works based on his life story, and he has a book on the way, called Hoolygan. Making it a little different to so many rock ‘n’ roll autobiographies and biographies, which turn out to be no more than thinly disguised hagiographies, Hooley has got a load of other people to write their impressions of him. And it should be a real laugh.
Oh, and then there’s the Lord Mayor of Belfast election possibility. But this has nothing directly to do with Hooley, who is not predisposed at all to standing for public office.
“It’s a Facebook campaign somebody has started. So far about 1300 people have joined it. When the book is launched later in the year, I’ll tell everyone whether I’ll do it or not. But my gut reaction is that I’m too much of an anarchist to for something like that.”
There are also plans for a three-CD Good Vibrations tribute, to be titled Time To Be Proud and released by Immortal Recordings.
“It’s got a mix of new and older bands, all doing covers. Typically, we had an album launch gig in May – and the fucking thing still isn’t ready!”
Without Terri Hooley, the Northern Irish music scene might well have stagnated, and even died in the late 70s. With the exception of Stiff Little Fingers ["Contrary to myth, I did not discover them. But they are a great band."], almost every worthy band from the province in that era came through Good Vibrations. The legacy is that it allowed the music of area to breathe and prosper. And the records they’ve left behind are a precious heritage.
“Ay, we did put out a few great records,” laughs Hooley. “Thankfully they covered over all the shit we were responsible for as well!”
For your listening pleasure: