Irish musicians have had a broad, if rather diffuse, impact on the history of pop music. The relative social and geographical isolation of the Emerald Isle until well into the Sixties may have had a lot do with that. Since then there has been a smattering of superstars (Van Morison, U2, Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy), notable genre artists (blues-rock master Rory Gallagher, indie-rock darlings the Cranberries) and iconoclastic greats like Sinead O’Connor and the Pogues’ Shane McGowan.
Originally released in 2000, the entertaining and encyclopedic “Out of Ireland” was a three-part program produced for Dublin-based RTE television and its 158 minutes should satisfy even the most ardent fan of Irish popular music. Director David Hefferman starts with an overview of the country’s lively but derivative show bands that dominated the music scene while rock ‘n’ roll came to the fore in the Fifties and early Sixties. But the influence of the Beatles and other British Invasion groups on the other side of the Irish Sea could not be denied, though the response at first came in fits and starts. Tellingly, it was from a wide range of emerging acts, from the gritty garage rock of Van Morrison and Them (whose “Gloria” would be a starter-kit tune for innumerable bands to follow) to the lightweight pop of Gilbert O’Sullivan and Dana, whose candy-coated “All Kinds of Everything” won the 1970 Eurovision song contest.
A ten-minute clip of “Out of Ireland,” covering the punk years.
There is a lot to get to here and Hefferman gets to a lot of it, even if things here feel a little puddle-deep at times. He does counterbalance this tendency by returning to major artists like Van and Rory and U2, at various points and stages of their careers. One interesting point that gets echoed at different junctures is that many Irish rockers reached back past the show bands to find inspiration (even if by osmosis) to the greater example of traditional Irish music, literature, and storytelling. Morrison’s observational/impressionistic lyrics on his landmark Astral Weeks LP echoed James Joyce’s ability to lend grandeur to the everyday. Thin Lizzy’s first hit was a rocked-up version of the traditional “Whiskey in the Jar.” The progressive folk band Horslips dressed up archetypal Celtic themes in glam-rock finery while the Pogues spoke (both wildly and poignantly) to the modern Irish diaspora. There’s a keen sense that Irish rock often finds that bittersweet, happy-sad symmetry so typical of Irish culture.
This video of Phil Lynott’s “Old Town” (featured and discussed in the film) shows both the charismatic and troubled side of the Thin Lizzy frontman, who died at age 36.
The film, aptly sub-titled “From a Whisper to a Scream”, does well to ground this thematic thread from the Erie as a lightly-populated backwater to dynamic player in the global pop scene with regularly placed commentary from creative consultant (and editor of Ireland’s music magazine, Hot Press) Niall Stokes. This is esp. advisable when you’ve got a rhetorical road race of musical personalities like the flinty Van the Man, the sharp but soft-spoken Sinead, and the road-hogging conceits of the notably self-regarding Bono and Bob Geldof, who continues to over-estimate the pre-Live Aid influence of his band the Boomtown Rats.
The Cranberries’ lovely “Ode to My Family,” another video steeped in rich Irish ambience
Speaking of screaming, “Out of Ireland” also provides a good overview of the country’s contributions to the punk revolution, with segments on Belfast bangers like Stiff Little Fingers, the Undertones and the Blades (bands that really had something to yell about in that town during The Troubles) and Dublin’s Radiators from Space, whose guitarist, the late Philip Chevron, later joined the Pogues. There are also sidebars on important Irish-English performers of the era (Johnny Rotten, Elvis Costello, Boy George) and 80s bands that never broke out bigtime but are still plugging away, like the Saw Doctors and Hothouse Flowers.
Of course, U2 are still plugging away as well, and their international popularity does not seem to be waning anytime soon. A section towards the end of “Out of Ireland” makes the odd connection that the group’s gargantuan “Pop” and “Zoo TV” tours may be a more modern version of those old show bands (the stage show “Riverdance” is also edged into that category). I agree with that to an extent, but don’t see it necessarily as a compliment. But that’s put aside for Hefferman’s final point that although the lightly-populated island has put itself on the world music map it is no time for complacency. I think all can agree on that, even if it means overthrowing the “show bands” all over again.
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