Belfield's Burning: Forty Years of Punk

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the commercial breakthrough of punk rock in these islands. Defined by the success of the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen”, 1977 witnessed the explosion of a youth culture that terrified the press here and in the UK.

In many ways it was a global trend, with the Ramones and Iggy Pop frightening the media on the other side of the world too; one NBC report went as far to say that “this is punk rock and its purpose is to promote violence, sex, and destruction, in that order”.

Sociologists, historians and music critics have spent four decades now debating whether punk rock was a real youth rebellion or more of a corporate swindle.

While the Sex Pistols were undoubtedly an invention of savvy marketers like Malcolm McLaren, they did inspire something very real, and played no small part in turning thousands of Irish youngsters onto this new sound.

Attempts by Irish journalists to understand what a punk was often made for entertaining reading. Take the Irish Press in May 1977, which wrote of the “average punk rocker lady getting ready for a little Saturday night’s aggro”, telling readers that “first, she washes her strawberry pink hair, changes the safety pin in her pierced nose, and slips into a new black plastic rubbish bag. To add the final touch, she wraps a few layers of sellotape around her waist in place of a belt.”

The Irish Independent was horrified by the sight of them loitering on the O’Connell Bridge and harassing pedestrians, writing that “Punk rock, the teenage cult based around a controversial British pop group, reached Dublin streets yesterday as gangs of youngsters roamed about, abusing pedestrians, spitting on the pavements and emptying the contents of litter bins.”

In Ireland, the year saw the emergence of a number of commercially successful punk bands, including The Radiators From Space, who achieved chart success with “Television Screen”, a song which captured the frustrations of the youth of the day in less than two minutes, boasting of how “I’m going to smash my Telecaster through the television screen, ‘cause I don’t like what’s going down.”

Michael Murphy in Village described the single perfectly as “a vitriolic musical statement of defiance from a country where silence and shame reigned”. The chart success of “Television Screen” frightened some in Irish society, suggesting that even the Irish youth would succumb to the leather jackets and spiked hair of the punks.

The band included Phil Chevron in its ranks, later a founding member of The Pogues. Chevron made it clear in interviews that to him Iggy Pop in America was “the only real punk rocker” and not to believe the press hype from the neighbouring island.

Other bands to emerge included The Boomtown Rats, while north of the border The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers championed this new sound. The Undertones would find success with “Teenage Kicks”, a song so good that John Peel played it twice in a row on his iconic radio show.

Yet the birth of Irish punk in 1977 was marred by a festival on the grounds of University College Dublin’s Belfield campus, where bands including The Radiators From Space, The Undertones and The Vipers performed before hundreds of young punk rockers.

The concert took place in June and was called Belfield’s Burning, a play on The Clash’s “London’s Burning” track from their debut album. In the weeks that followed it seemed like the Irish punk rock scene would burn out too.

During the opening acts performance, a fight broke out in the crowd and young Patrick Coultry, a teenager from Cabra, was fatally stabbed.

In the weeks that followed, a vicious media campaign attributed the blame for the death to the punk bands performing that night, leading one letter writer to the NME to make the point that “The Radiators From Space are about as responsible for the death as The Beatles were for the Mansion Murders. They are also victims of the stabbing in so much as they will probably be remembered only for this incident in a lot of people’s minds.”

Michael Bradley of The Undertones recalls the tragic events in his memoir Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone, remembering how many of those in attendance were quizzed by gardaí at the venue, including members of his band. To him, “it shows how naive I was as a 17-year-old that I didn’t think policemen in the Republic would be like that. North of the border, yes, but not down in dear old Dublin.”

A 17-year-old was convicted of man-slaughter in the aftermath of the concert, but it felt like the entire punk music scene had been tried and found guilty by some of the press, not least the Sunday World, which waged war on The Radiators.

Punk would make its way into another Dublin campus later in the year, as The Clash performed in the examination hall of Trinity College Dublin. A commentator noted that “portraits of Edmund Burke, Jonathan Swift, and Queen Elizabeth stared disdainfully down on 500 people below. If any of those pictures could have talked, they’d have been speechless.”

As the year drew on, it felt like commercialisation had taken the bite out of punk rock. The iconic Mancunian band The Buzzcocks declared that “what was once unhealthily fresh is now a clean old hat”. Reinventing themselves as Magazine, they became one of the first post-punk bands, and on both sides of the Atlantic the term “punk” moved out of fashion, as new wave arrived.

A particularly dismissive Irish journalist felt confident in proclaiming in early 1978 that “Punk is dead! The chains, the razor blades and the safety pins have either been sent to the scrapyard or put in cold storage for the next such passing movement or craze.”

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Donal Fallon: Donal Fallon is a historian, writer and broadcaster based in Dublin. His work has appeared in History Ireland, Spiked, Jacobin and other outlets. He is editor of the Dublin history blog Come Here To Me (www.comeheretome.com).

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