Thursday, January 24, 2013

Belfield Punk Festival 1977

Sitting upstairs in the relatively quiet main canteen in Belfield today, it’s hard to imagine it as the scene of an event that altered the Irish music industry forever.

 In the summer of 1977, Belfield Canteen was host to Ireland’s first ever Punk Festival. During the gig, a fight broke out in which an eighteen year old youth was stabbed to death.

The concert, billed as the ‘Belfield Festival’, saw the cream of the crop of Ireland’s emerging punk and new wave talent.  Headlining were The Radiators from Space, a Dublin-based punk band fronted by Philip Chevron who later became lead guitarist with The Pogues. Their debut single Television Screen, released in April of that year made history by becoming the first punk single to make the Top Twenty anywhere in the world.

Next on the bill were Derry’s power-pop Punk legends; The Undertones who released their classic hit Teenage Kicks a few months after the gig.  Supporting were The Vipers, a Dublin punk and rhythm and blues band who had supported The Clash in their second Irish visit. Brian Foley, the band’s bassist later joined Paul Cleary’s power pop, mod influenced Dublin group, The Blades.

The next band on the line-up was Revolver, a prominent group on the late 1970s Dublin Punk scene. Their first demo, Bombscare Thoroughfare, was recorded in “a shopping centre in Crumlin” The band never made the breakthrough they wanted and broke up in late 1979.

The final band was The Gamblers, a group whose main claim to fame was that U2 supported them in The Project Arts Centre in May 1978.

According to Mark Perry, music journalist and founder of the UK’s first punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue, “the show attracted over 600 fans – an unprecedented figure”. The Irish Times put the figure at closer to 800. Perry is quoted as saying that ten minutes after the first band had started, a scuffle broke out in front of the stage, which, according to The Irish Times involved “about eight or nine people”. Michael Bradley, bassist from The Undertones, recalls that the fight was “over very quickly and the band played on”. Suddenly though, as Perry recalls, “the news crawled out on all fours – somebody (had) been stabbed”. An ambulance was called to take the injured man away. The show continued, albeit with a tenser atmosphere.

Shortly before The Radiators from Space were due on stage, their guitarist was surrounded by four bouncers and bundled into the dressing room. Rumours abounded that the individual who was stabbed was in a pretty bad way and someone had got the wrong impression that Pete Holidai from The Radiators had been involved in the fight. After “rough questioning”, he was allowed to go on stage with the band. During their set, the police arrived, stationed officers at all exits of the canteen and prevented the band from playing an encore. It was almost three o’clock in the morning. No one in the crowd was allowed to leave without showing identification and getting searched. The five bands were all forced into one dressing room where they gave written statements. At this point, word had gone around that the victim was in a critical condition in St. Vincent’s Hospital. An hour later news spread that the boy had died. The police finally allowed the bands to leave at 6.30am that morning.

The dead youth was indentified as Patrick Coultry, an eighteen year old from Cabra in North Dublin who suffered two stab wounds during the fracas.  The boy who killed him was only seventeen. Charged with manslaughter, he said in court that he “panicked during the row as he felt he was going to get beat up”. He also admitted that he had drunk excessively that evening.

The killing had an immediate effect on the music industry in Ireland. John Fisher, gig promoter at the time, remembers that before the stabbing “gigs in Ireland were pretty simple affairs, really. They were run mostly by enthusiastic amateurs with very little security … after Belfield, it became more regulated, more professional and safer”.

After the Punk Festival, the college authorities banned all gigs in Belfield for weeks after. This directly affected the Students Union which lost a much-needed income. The Radiators from Space found their gigs cancelled by promoters all over the country. The tabloid press wrote sensational, often fabricated stories on the inherent violent nature of punk rock.

For the musicians it proved to be long lasting emotional event as members of The Radiators from Space refused to talk about the night for years after, The Undertones, traumatised by the incident, didn’t play a gig outside the North of Ireland for over eighteen months. Gavin Friday, lead singer with The Virgin Prunes recalls the night’s significance – “I think that was the first murder at a rock gig in the British Isles”. As a result, music promoters found it much more difficult to organise gigs with the increased expenses of extra security and the personal insurance premiums.

It was a night that was formative in changing the face of the Irish music industry forever. Just how many students sipping their coffee in the canteen today know of the tragedy that took place a few feet away from they are sitting?   It’s true hidden history.