The Story so far of Black 47...
On St. Patrick's Day, 1985, I chucked in rock and roll forever.
I returned to the theater and, for the next four years, wrote, and directed or produced five plays (published under the title Mad Angels). In the summer of 1989, while on a tour of Eastern Europe with the poet Copernicus, we played an unauthorized concert in Prague for Havel's dissidents. Over 12,000 people showed up to defy the authorities. It was a small victory but it made me realize that rock music could still effect social and political change.
Back in New York, I walked into Paddy Reilly's, a dilapidated saloon. Chris Byrne was playing uilleann pipes with a local folk group, Beyond the Pale. I sat in for a few numbers and afterwards we got to talking about the lack of content in contemporary music. He told me he was a cop and loved The Clash and rap music. I have no idea what I said to him but six hours and some gallons later, we formed Black 47.
Chris had a brainwave! Why not fulfill Beyond the Pale's dates? This was a lot easier said than done since Irish bands did four or more sets a night. But nothing ventured - nothing gained! I had a batch of originals and wrote out some skeletal arrangements; I also plundered my memory for anything from the reggae of Marley to the thrash of Belfast's Gloria. Chris supplied a legion of jigs, reels, slides and hornpipes which I barbarized with feedback and boombox beats. Then girding our loins, we headed to the Bronx and disaster.
Our first gig was a benefit where we opened for political activist Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey. I was playing electric guitar, programming a drum machine and Chris was wailing on the pipes, various whistles and bodhran. We laid into the audience with a fury inspired by fear of failure. After about fifteen minutes, someone roared out: "For Christ's sakes, play an Irish song!" To which I replied, "I'm from Ireland. I wrote the song, that makes it Irish. So shut the fuck up!" Thus was Black 47's reputation for confrontation born. Fighting words, indeed, but not particularly pragmatic, as we were fired from that and every succeeding gig. After four months, things were looking bleak. We had exhausted New York's large selection of Irish bars. But the word had spread that there was a band, unlike any other who played original music and refused to patronize their audiences. Round about this time, Paddy Reilly's bar was doing so badly even the cockroaches were jumping ship; as a last resort, we were hired for a three week residency.
Finally, we had a central location; our small followings from the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens arrived en masse and we turned the joint on its ear. From that night on, we never looked back and we have since taken our music, message and attitude to many's the kip, brothel, pub, club, concert hall and stadium in the U.S.
I had worked with Fred Parcells in various bands and when he heard about Black 47, he showed up with his trombone. A graduate of The New England Conservatory of Music, he had played everything from big band to country. We still haven't asked him to join --I suppose it's a bit late now. But I still remember the thrill of hearing the pipes and trombone play their first mournful / exhilarating line together. A Celtic / New Orleans marching band on-stage in the Bronx? Where would it all lead?
Geoffrey Blythe is from Birmingham, England. A founding member of Dexy's Midnight Runners and sideman to many, including Elvis Costello, he is a fanatical saxophonist as well as a brilliant arranger. He had recently returned from London and his wife mentioned he was going up the walls for want of a gig. I told her to send him on down. He jumped in off the deep end and instantly added muscle, flair and experience to an already innovative brass/pipes section.
Back then, we advertised as a four piece and occasionally Fred would take romantic and/or musical sabbaticals. Needing an extra member, I often called Thomas Hamlin, my old drummer from the Major Thinkers. Hammy had also quit rock and roll and was experimenting with African and Latin rhythms. This brought an entirely new dimension to the band - as if the poor punters weren't confused enough already. One day, on Fred's return, the intrepid percussionist announced that he wasn't leaving. Thus we became five.
We have been complimented by many wonderful bass players. Andrew Goodsight joined in February, 1995, replacing Kevin Jenkins who left following the van crash outside Providence, RI. (see Green Suede Shoes for Details.) Andrew has brought a rare enthusiasm, as well as formidable musicianship, to the band. Thank you, brother.
Those first years were a daze of sweaty, sexy, booze-driven marathons. Luckily, we were all experienced improvisers because when you're doing over 200 gigs a year, there is little time and no inclination for rehearsal. I would write the song, suggest an outline and we would perform it that night. Over the next weeks or months, we would perfect our parts. Since the arrangements are porous, the songs are constantly reinterpreted - each player has the freedom to "take it away" should the spirit move him. We didn't use set lists, we bopped till we dropped and gave 110% each and every night. The low and the mighty rubbed shoulders. It wasn't unusual to see Joe Strummer, Neil Young, Liam Neesan, Brooke Shields, Danny Strummer or Matt Dillon lift glasses with revolutionaries, cops, barmaids, politicians, gay activists, bookies and a dizzying kaleidoscope of New Yorkers.
We released a CD and it sold by the bucketful. The word spread to Boston, Chicago and San Francisco and we toured regularly. Our first big break came when John Anderson of Newsday wrote a three-page uncensored article on the band which almost got us all killed. The lines snaked around the corner of Reilly's, and a multitude of record companies showed up, eager to categorize, compartmentalize, sign, seal, and deliver us to the great American public.
Ric Ocasek materialized one night and claimed he could fulfill the songs better than the Independent CD. We cut Fire of Freedom in a frantic three weeks, released the single Funky Céili, did a video and were added to MTV in two shakes of a ram's tail. We were covered by every magazine from Playgirl to Time and hit the road in search of Fame and America. Every pundit in the music industry said we should stop playing Reilly's for fear we'd be known as a bar band. But we had other things on our mind, like feeding our families by playing regularly, staying close to our roots and keeping independence because, in the long run, it's not where you play, it's what you play and how.
When it comes down to it, it's the songs that count! It would have been simple to do a Fire of Freedom Part 2. Perhaps, it would have been safer. But then there were new themes to tackle, new heroes to invent or rediscover, and new sounds to paint with. On Home of the Brave, songs like Oh Maureen, Blood Wedding, Black Rose, Road To Ruin, Too Late To Turn Back and Danny Boy deal with characters who peopled the urban frontier of the lower east side I used to live in; while Big Fellah and Born To Be Free concerned giants like Michael Collins and Paul Robeson. Time To Go was Chris Byrne's powerful songwriting debut on a major label.
We have since recorded 5 more CDs: Green Suede Shoes, Live in New York City, Trouble in the Land, On Fire and New York Town (will be released on Feb 10, 2004). Each of those released was a critical success and all still sell both in stores, at gigs and on the web. Green Suede Shoes contains some of my best songs. With that album, I tried to go back and capture the raw energy of our first years in the city and I think it shows. Most of the songs became immediate live favorites but the one I am most proud of took me over fifteen years to write. It's called Bobby Sands MP. I think it's also one of our finest recordings; I only need to hear it for seconds before I'm transported back to the psychotic streets of Belfast in those awful days of the early 80's when ten young men were about to die for a political principle. It's a constant reminder to me, at any rate, that peace is a fragile thing and should be treasured as well as fostered.
Live in New York City was recorded in Wetlands on St. Patrick's Day 1998. It has become a particular favorite on campuses and I feel is responsible for a lot of the band's popularity in colleges and high schools throughout the country. If you want to feel the speedy, irreverent pulse of New York City in the late 90's, just close your eyes and listen. That's what it was like and you are there.
Trouble in the Land is our best received album since Fire of Freedom. Some say it's the most mature. I wonder? With songs like I Got Laid on James Joyce's Grave and Bodhráns on the Brain? While it doesn't eschew politics - songs like Bobby Kennedy, Touched by Fire and the title track still keep the flag flying - still there is a considered feel to Blood Is Thicker Than Water and Fallin' Off The Edge of America. It contains one of my all time favorite Black 47 songs - Tramps Heartbreak and the radio favorite, Susan Falls Apart.
ON FIRE is another live selection of our best songs. It was recorded at The Knitting Factory or Wetlands (I'm writing this from the head and don't have the notes in front of me.) It contains another of my favorite songs, Our Lady of the Bronx which had been on the first EMI EP released in late 1992. Also, listen out for a scorching version of Johnny Byrne's Jigs, dedicated to our late studio engineer/soundman who is always with us in spirits.
New York Town will be released on Feb 10th, 2004. It's an album dedicated to the city that took me in (in more ways than one), gave me a home and provided a fertile field for Black 47 to grow in. Some of the songs deal with 9/11 and its affect on the band and the city. One that's already reaching beyond cult status is Mychal, dedicated to a late friend and fan of the band - Father Mychal Judge, OFM, chaplain of the NYFD. Orphan of the Storm commemorates the hero of American Wake (from ON FIRE)and outlines his life in NYC before 9/11. The cd contains performances by Rosanne Cash, David Johanses, Suzzy Roche, Eileen Ivers, Mary Courtney, Roz Moorehead, Christine Ohlman and Ashley Davis.
In fourteen years, we've played well over 2000 gigs all over the USA, Europe and South America, did all the major TV shows, closed down the town of Hoboken, appeared in movies and had our songs on their soundtracks, rocked Shea Stadium three times, been shot at, crawled from van wrecks, blacklisted, banned, fired and rehired, sold a ton of CDs, been written about by every paper and magazine that matters and yet we've never even considered watering down the political and social ideals, the determination to be original and the black sense of humor that inspired us on that first fateful evening when we rocked the Bronx.
Not for nothing have we been called "the house band for New York City," We've now moved to Connolly's of 121 W 45 Street for our Winter Saturday residency (call 212-597-5126 to make sure we're not on the road). The Daily News called our Saturday gigs "a rite of passage for all New Yorkers;" and we like to think that there's a little New Yorker in everyone. If not, we'll put it there! See you around.
- Larry Kirwan