Inciting a Hooley

GRANT SMITHIES
Last updated 05:00 15/06/2014

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Bold visionary or suicidal maniac?

It's early 70s Belfast, and there's Terri Hooley - a man with one glass eye, no money, far too many records and a taste for the drink - deciding, at the height of the horrific violence that came to be euphemistically called "The Troubles", to open a record store, right in the heart of what was then the most extensively bombed square-mile in Europe.

The streets? Largely empty, aside from police, soldiers and assorted armed thugs wearing balaclavas. The mood? Hostile, anxious, depressed. The soundtrack? Eerie silence, punctuated by sudden outbreaks of breaking glass, gunfire and distant explosions.

And in the midst of this rubble-strewn hell, what does Hooley call his record shop? Good Vibrations.

"Well, I was an old hippy," offers Hooley, now 66, on the line from his Belfast home.

"Good Vibrations seemed perfect somehow. In the midst of all the violence, it captured the feeling of the sort of utopia that was possible if everyone wanted it badly enough. But yes, people thought I was mad. The building didn't even have any windows in it, so we got it fairly cheap. It was on the second floor, and I had a sign with Elvis Presley on it down on the street, directing people up the stairs."

Hooley was once smacked in the head by John Lennon, and thrown out of a hotel room by Bob Dylan. He got steaming drunk with passing rock royalty, but spent what little cash he had recording hopeful young nobodies in obscure Irish punk bands. Somewhere along the way, he bankrolled one of the greatest punk singles ever recorded: Teenage Kicks by The Undertones.

Directed by Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn, a film based on Hooley's remarkable life and times opened in New Zealand this week.

The plot, in a nutshell? Emotionally scarred by distant parents, half-blinded by a childhood accident with a bow and arrow, a sensitive young Irishman seeks solace in music. During the 1970s, said music-lover declines to take sides when sectarian violence between Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups threatens to destroy his beloved Belfast.

Instead, he opens a record store where anyone and everyone can meet on neutral ground and bond over a shared love of music. Soon after, his life is changed by the rise of punk, and he sets up a record label to take the brash new sound of "Alternative Ulster" to the world.

"You know, I've cried every time I've seen that movie. It's a wonderful film, and very true to those times. They made a great job of it, especially the lead actor Richard Dormer, who plays me better than I play meself, though he can't drink nearly as much as I can."

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An amiable conglomeration of shaggy hair, huge teeth, boundless optimism and fake glass eye, Dormer is indeed the movie's strongest drawcard.

You're rapidly won over by his enthusiasm, even when his situation seems hopeless. There he is in the opening scenes, out DJing in a heavily-fortified Belfast bar, its front door monitored by closed circuit TV camera behind a barbed wire barricade. Understandably, hardly anyone ventures out through the dangerous streets to hear his records, but he's playing them regardless, just in case.

The only person on the dance floor is his future wife, Ruth, played by Broadchurch star, Jodie Whittaker.

It's a rags to rags story. Hooley's financial incompetence, enthusiasm for brandy and insistence that nearly everyone got into his bands' gigs for free ensured most of his ventures ran at a loss.

"Aye, that's true, but it's never been about money for me.

"My various record shops have closed down and reopened 13 times over the years. That first shop changed lives, though. People met their wives in the shop. Bands were formed in that shop. The place had a great atmosphere, which was a huge alternative to what was happening around us. It helped give people the idea that a different kind of future was possible."

These days, Belfast is relatively peaceful, and Hooley's celebrated as an eccentric elder statesman of the local music scene; a staunch pacifist who possibly saved many lives, his shop and label offering a creative outlet for the city's bored and angry teenagers at a time when they may otherwise have joined the paramilitaries.

Some of the bands Hooley signed to his label stank to high heaven. Others, including Rudi, The Outcasts, Protex and The Undertones, made records of lasting power and value.

"What can I say? Punk just struck me as perfect pop music. It was a case of, ‘well, you didn't listen to us in the 60s, so now you've got punk!' It was the hippy's revenge. Punk in London was a fashionable thing that lasted a year or two at best, but here in Belfast, it resonated deeply and it's never died."

While the movie focuses on Hooley's galvanising role in the Irish punk scene, he was a rabid fan of many styles of music. He ran folk and blues clubs during the 60s, collected soul and reggae singles, DJed on pirate radio, and entertained musical idols such as the Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks when they visited Ireland.

"We'd often hang out at my house, because a lot of the bars I used to drink in had been bombed. We'd sit around and drink poteen, which is like Irish moonshine. There were some good parties, is all I'll say."

Ever outspoken, Hooley fell out with a few of his musical heroes, too. In 1966, he was at a Bob Dylan show in Belfast, protesting the singer's silence on the Vietnam War. Dylan summoned him to his hotel room afterwards to see what all the fuss was about.

"I waited about 20 minutes and then had my audience with Bob. I started challenging him, mentioning other folkies who'd withheld taxes that might otherwise support the war. He said, ‘Well, I'm not a protest singer, so I suggest you f... off and never talk to me again!' "

Hooley also famously got into a fist-fight with John Lennon at a London party. There'd been rumours of Lennon donating cash to the IRA; Hooley took offence and, in his words, "chinned him".

Lennon hit him back, and Hooley claims the fight only ended when his glass eye was knocked out and rolled across the floor.

"It was self-defence, to tell you the truth. It was around 1969, and John was high on a substance I wouldn't wanna try, let's put it like that. And, you know - John was a hard man from Liverpool, so he gave as good as he got."

Even today, in his mid 60s, Hooley still gets himself into a bit of drunken bother with rock stars from time to time. During the filming of Good Vibrations, he missed the shooting of one key scene because he'd gone on a pub crawl with notorious hedonist Pete Doherty, lead singer of The Libertines/ Babyshambles, and ended up with a broken leg.

"What can I tell you? I was never an angel, which is why this film shows me, warts and all. But regardless of my bad qualities, I did some good things for this town. When punk took off here, it really changed the feeling of the place, and people stopped being so concerned with fighting one another.

"Back then I lived on the Armagh Rd, and you could tell who was who by where they walked on that street. If you walked into town on the left hand side, it meant you were a Catholic.

"If you walked on the right hand side, you were a Protestant. And meanwhile, Terri Hooley and his gang of happy punks always danced down the middle."

- Sunday Star Times

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