Amid storied tales of John Lennon and The Undertones, Getintothis’ Chris Flack looks at the life and times of Terri Hooley, Ulster’s Godfather of Punk, brandy buff and Belfast’s worst businessman.
There is a great difficulty in writing about someone like Terri Hooley that I hadn’t considered. Much has been written about the man, probably enough to warrant a couple of volumes in bound, brandy-soaked leather. There is an autobiography, a film noted for being Mark Kermode‘s favourite film of 2013. There are TV shows and thousands of interviews. Terri has never been shy of the media.
A piece such as this is further complicated by the fact that I’ve heard all the stories, often different versions of them, often at 4am in Terri’s kitchen waiting for deliveries of fresh beer and brandy. After much deliberation and a slew of emails between editors it seems pertinent to start at the beginning and avoid this reading like an obituary.
There’s plenty of life in the old dog yet. Expect fisticuffs with John Lennon, undelivered Shangri-La merchandise, questionable contracts, Undertones, political overtones, beat-up vans, bands, bust ups, bombs and brandy chasers.
Terri was born in Belfast in 1948 to a political live-wire in the shape of his father and a puritanical protestant mother; it was, according to numerous accounts, a musical house. That description essentially sums up the man himself, filled with a political rage, a fervent passion and more music than any of us could ever explore.
One of Terri’s hallmarks is his glass eye which is frequently used as a party piece; he lost his eye in an unfortunate incident with a toy bow and arrow when he was six. They clearly made toys in a different way in those days. As Terri was whisked into an ambulance he heard, somewhere off in the middle distance, the Hank Williams song I Saw The Light and it is a track that has stayed with him for years. He has often said that rumours that he frequently put his glass eye in friends pints should be ignored, has anyone asked if he’s ever put it in his own pint? Huh?
By the time Terri made it to his teenage years Belfast was a different place. The Civil Rights Movement was emerging and the troubles were about to get underway in brutal fashion. Terri joined the Boys Brigade and managed to land his first gig as a DJ, that somehow managed to lead to record labels, parties, girls and illicit booze.
The Boys Brigade. Who knew? As first jobs go Terri’s was an unusual choice; he somehow managed to end up working in the photography department of a Belfast store. That his spot was right next to the music section was a blessing, that’s where the record collection got started.
In a time of free love, free drugs and plentiful sex and before the bullets and bombs, Mr Hooley lived the high life. The hippy 60s led Terri to the anti-Vietnam movement, CND and the peace movement. Invariably that led to folk music, a smidgen of reggae and some very fine weed.
Terri ended up DJ-ing regularly at the Maritime Hotel where one young pup started a band called Them. His time with the CND led to Terri and a few pals setting up the succinctly named Northern Ireland Youth Campaign for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament. Quite the moniker.
The NIYCPD hired a space in the World Socialist Party offices in Belfast as a base from which to lead the revolution. It ended up being an illegal folk club before long, Terri not being known for missing an opportunity to throw a party. Being an astute businessman all the proceeds from parties went to the anti-Vietnam movement and that, quite frankly, should have been an indication of Terri’s business ideals.
It’s around this time that Terri had what was to be the first of many unsuccessful run-ins with celebrity. After gaining entry to a Bob Dylan show to question why Dylan was still paying taxes when others such as Joan Baez had refused, he was given short shrift and told to fuck off.
That was to become a bit of a theme in the coming years. The City Council and Police made short work of the Folk Club with threats of legal action and eviction following close behind. Terri became the secretary of Belfast’s Blues Society and would organise frequent shows in Knights Music store in the city, though this, with alarming predictability, was shut down by the police for being held without a licence. 1967 in Belfast was hard work for a promoter. Or at the least a wannabe promoter with no clue what he was doing.
The swinging sixties were coming to a close and in Belfast they would end with a bang. Clubs, bars and pretty much anything of cultural value were stripped out as the city centre became a no-go zone. The city became ghettoised, families split down the middle and the walls went up. Terri and his pal Tommy decided, in 1970, in Belfast, that what the city needed was a pirate radio station. Harmony Radio was a live if an often-interrupted broadcast from a derelict house in the east of the city; the station played a bit of everything but reggae, folk and blues were the mainstay.
This, for the Scousers among you, is where our intrepid one-eyed muse gets a chance to talk to one John Lennon. Finding themselves in London on a tech search for the station, Terri and Tommy end up at a party in London’s Portobello Road. It’s here where our hero meets his hero. Now, I’ve heard various versions of this tale so I’ll try to find a line somewhere through the middle. Terri is stoned at a house party he can’t really remember. Given the increasing tensions in Northern Ireland it is a significant topic of conversation among the peace-loving beatniks and assembled revolutionaries.
Mid-party Terri and Tommy are whisked outside to a garage and shown what was said to be dozens of guns in a locked box. The message was that these were for “The Boys” in the IRA and could Terri and Tommy do a solid and get them shipped. Cue another round of fuck-offs and the conversation was abruptly ended.
The following day the pair found themselves invited to another party, Terri, joint in hand, gets into a conversation with John Lennon and things turn sour very quickly. At that time Lennon had been pictured at a rally carrying an IRA placard, the conversation turned to revolution and things got heated. Terri had had enough and if legend is to be believed, landed a not insignificant haymaker on Lennon‘s jaw sending him across the room. As you can imagine, Terri and Tommy were happy to get back to Belfast.
By the mid-70s there were almost daily bombings and murders on the streets of the city. In the midst of this Terri met his first wife Ruth, they were married quickly and quietly and I’m not sure that Ruth had any real idea what she was letting herself in for. Back to reality and Terri is still working in the photo department of Kodak in Belfast. He spots an ad for 1,000 singles going for the paltry sum of £40 and the rest, as they say is history.
Terri began trading from the back room of the house. He had a knack for finding rare records and this led to his business booming, as a result the house became a hang out for music heads and poteen makers, the parties were frequent, long and an annoyance to Ruth. The idea of an actual shop became a reality when a meeting with a fellow hippy led to the creation of a cooperative and renting a building in the city centre.
Given that much of the city was deserted they had their choice of locations. Why they chose the most bombed mile in all of Europe is anyone’s guess. The building on Great Victoria Street housed a health food shop, some revolutionary printers and the first of many locations for Terri’s shop, Good Vibrations. The business opened in 1976, a year that saw peace marches, dozens of murders, bomb attacks and punishment beatings. Quite the time to open a record shop.
As what was essentially the only place in the city for young people with a love of good music Good Vibrations took off in style. The parties were moved from the back room of the house to the shop and frequently ended up back at the house, much to the consternation of Ruth.
The printing press in the Good Vibes building began printing a fanzine, Alternative Ulster, its main topic was the emerging punk scene in Belfast. The Clash were due to play in Belfast on October 20, 1977, a nervous City Council decided that it would withdraw permission for the gig and it was pulled as a crowd of thousands were waiting to get into Ulster Hall. The riot that ensued was vicious and became a catalyst for punk in the city. The only real venue for the numerous punk bands of the time was the grotty Pound Bar.
Terri was talked into going to The Pound against his better judgement, to see a band called The Outcasts. He hated them. RUDI played on that night and Terri fell in love in an instant. As a reaction to the cancelled Clash gig RUDI wrote a song called Cops, it came with a chant of “SS RUC“, the RUC being the Royal Ulster Constabulary and wildly unpopular police force. The police, in their wisdom, decided to try to break up the RUDI gig, they were met with a room full of punks chanting “SS RUC“, were reminded that there was a civil war outside and made a hasty retreat.
It was the energy and enthusiasm that drove Terri to sign RUDI to his ‘new’ record label and a deal to put out a record. Gigs were organised, money was raised and RUDI were thrown into a run-down studio to record Big Time. The printing presses were thrown into action and the DIY record was released.
RUDI signed to Paul Weller‘s Jamming Records and their tale was cruelly cut short when Jamming came to an end. That was the end of RUDI, they pack up and headed home. Good Vibrations signed a band called Victim who swiftly moved to Manchester and signed to TJM Records and were never heard from again.
In an odd set of circumstances Terri’s next signing was The Outcasts. Terri still wasn’t a fan but reckoned what they needed was new gear to help their live sound. Terri, forever being the fool, bought the band a whole new PA. Good Vibrations‘ first album was Self Conscious Over You by The Outcasts. After its release Terri resigned as their manager because they were more than a handful at live shows and began to destroy everything in sight during shows. Not his greatest investment.
The punk vibe moved to The Harp bar. The Harp was for all intents and purposes a strip club that lived inside the ring of steel that wrapped around the city centre. Terri and others began to use the venue at night, the strippers were a tea time thing, and its now infamous punk gigs were born.
It is around this time that five lads from Derry City came to the attention of our friends at Good Vibrations. Terri had been handed a rough demo of The Undertones and decided to sign them in fairly quick succession. The Undertones had been turned down by a few English labels and were on the verge of quitting, Good Vibrations was their last roll of the dice.
The idea for a punk showcase in the hallowed halls of Queens University might seem foolish to most of us, but not Mr Hooley. The hastily named Belfast Musical Society was formed as a vehicle to get the booking arranged and Queens had no idea what they were in for. The Undertones were headliners and they were ably supported by RUDI, The Outcasts, The Idiots, Ruefrex, Rhesus Negative, The Detonators and about 3,000 litres of cider.
Queens University tried and failed to cancel the show when they realised what was going on, the withdrew their security who were replaced by the Belfast chapter of the Hells Angels. It didn’t end especially well.
The morning after should have been about rest and recuperation but The Undertones had return bus tickets and not a moment to waste. They were hurriedly plugged into a recording studio near The Harp bar and Teenage Kicks was born. Terri hightailed it to London with 200 copies of the record and was roundly ignored by every label and distributor in the city.
Terri had recently signed Stiff Little Fingers and Rough Trade had pre-ordered 500 copies of their Inflammable Material album, he thought he would have a chance with The Undertones at Rough Trade. He was essentially thrown out. In a last ditch attempt to get the record some recognition he managed to get into the BBC and leave copies of it in pigeon holes for the DJs. This is where John Peel enters from stage right.
If you consider that Belfast closed when the shops closed in the evening you can understand that the wireless became a bit of a life blood for most people. John Peel‘s show was a particular highlight. On his return from London, dejected, rejected and tired, Terri sat in the house for a few days avoiding the world and any mention of The Undertones.
On one of these quiet evenings toward the end of September 1978, with John Peel on the wireless, Terri hears the first few chords of Teenage Kicks. It’s said he didn’t hear the rest as the screaming outran the song.
Then the words that would forever change a few lives were uttered: “isn’t that the most wonderful record you’ve ever heard? In fact, I’m going to play it again”.
And with that The Undertones were sent to outer space, John Peel played Teenage Kicks twice in a row and Terri’s phone lit up the house. It was the first time a song had ever been played twice, back-to-back on the BBC. The rights to Teenage Kicks were signed over to Sire Records for the paltry total of £500, an autographed picture of The Shangri-Las and a few albums. The signed picture was eventually delivered in 2013. Terri needed £500 quid for a van for the other bands and that’s what he got. A giveaway if ever there was one.
Subsequent years saw Good Vibrations tours, local bands on local television shows and a renewed hope in the life of Belfast’s musical fraternity. It also saw the birth of Terri and Ruth’s daughter Anna, the new mother was besieged by punks and wild men from across the city. As part of the celebrations and the month long party that followed Terri recorded a song, Laugh at Me by Sonny Bono and formed a band for his public birthday party in The Harp.
Terri Hooley and The Geriatrics went down a storm. Terri’s Laugh At Me somehow ended up being released and reaching No. 1 in the alternative Irish charts and he managed to make some actual money. Dozens of bands, hundreds of gigs and a festival or two followed. Good Vibrations opened and closed on a dozen occasions, it moved frequently but sadly never really recovered to the heydays of the 70s and 80s.
More peace campaigns and marches followed, 1991 saw the latest release from Good Vibrations in the form of Tiberius Minnows and their single Time Flies which managed fairly significant airplay across the UK and Ireland.
Things for Terri started to slow down a little in the middle of 1993 as his heart started to fight back. That’s not to say that was the end, Terri married for the second time in the mid-90s and son Michael was born, peace was breaking out on the streets of Belfast and Good Vibrations was ticking along.
As peace broke out paramilitaries were regularly looking for other sources of income, protection money was the racket. You paid them £500 a week and they didn’t torch your shop, so came a telling moment for Terri. Having told the Loyalist leader Johnny Adair to fuck off with his demands for protection money Terri was attacked for his bravado by some of Adair‘s UFF thugs, a short spell in hospital led to some recuperation and some review.
Terri took to the Laugh at Me poetry shtick and began performing live with Jimmy ‘The bastard son’ Symmington, a young lad called Jonny Quinn and a few others on a rotating list. He was adored, so much so that they even managed to get booked to play in Berlin to a happy but confused crowd.
Good Vibrations wasn’t done either, the early shops begot Vintage Records begot Cathedral Records.
Cathedral Records was destroyed in a ‘suspicious fire’ and the art deco arcade where it lived has been at the centre of a political storm ever since.
After the fire Terri was essentially homeless as things with his second wife were not great, he was penniless and more than a little hopeless. A fundraising gig was organised and Phoenix Records was born, given that it was in an ignored arcade at the wrong end of town with no footfall it didn’t take long to expire.
Another round of fundraising and Good Vibrations was re re re re launched. Terri met the current Mrs Hooley and all is well with the world. That he has remained and out-drank most of his contemporaries is a minor medical, financial and social miracle.
Terri won the first OhYeah Belfast Legends Award in 2008 and that is where I first bumped into him. The afterparty for the awards was a drink-fuelled affair that went into the wee small hours. Terri was the last man standing. A celebratory Good Vibrations‘ anniversary gig was hastily arranged shortly after, The Good Vibes’ 30th birthday show was marked by a letter of gratitude from non-other than one Bill Clinton.
In the last ten years there has been an autobiography, the Good Vibrations movie, hundreds more gigs, some new Good Vibrations releases, a late night or two and a few health scares.
The Good Vibrations movie is a must see, with the stellar team of Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn, Glenn Patterson and David Holmes involved in its production it’s a thing of beauty, a story well told. Richard Dormer plays Hooley with all the camp exuberance you could hope for and the cameos, music and colour is pitch perfect.
Dormer as Hooley was responsible for one of the most surreal incidents of my life. I was standing at the stage door of a venue with Dormer, in character as Hooley, and Hooley, in character, as himself, just after we had put a show on where both had read from Hooleygan. It was too much, I lasted about five minutes.
As for Terri, well, he is still DJ-ing, still fronting gigs and playing the lark. The health may mean slightly less brandy and fewer rollies but the spirit is far from lost. The Good Vibrations‘ shop has been closed for a couple of years but no one is convinced he won’t try to open it again in his retirement.
Long may he reign.