VARIOUS ARTISTS – Shellshock Rock: Alternative Blasts From Northern Ireland 1977-1984

From the team that brought the world the fantastic ‘Big Gold Dreams’, a lavish box set exploring the corners of alternative music from Scotland, ‘Shellshock Rock’ provides a similarly loving look back at the punk and post-punk sounds emerging from Northern Ireland during the late 70s and early 80s.

The anthology takes its name from a documentary film from 1979, featuring footage and interviews with Stiff Little Fingers, The Outcasts and others. It’s hugely fitting, then, that the film takes pride of place within this box set, especially considering it has never had an official video or DVD release outside of Japan. Decades after the fact, despite the best quality release it’s ever likely to get, the footage isn’t visually sharp. It hasn’t been cleaned up much at all; various specks and film damage are present throughout, but that certainly won’t spoil your enjoyment. Within its world of washed out colours and fuzzy filmstock, any grain imperfections seem to add to various things of historical importance. Containing footage of young fans and musicians at the Harp Club – birthplace for some of NI’s DIY punk outfits, record buyers at the legendary Good Vibrations record shop, some amusing vox pops, including a lad of primary school age saying he only knows Boomtown Rats (to the interviewer’s disgust), it’s a genuine time capsule. An early scene with a young man explaining how punk has allowed some Protestants and Catholics to come together when and where talks have failed is especially poignant and still relevant decades later.

Aside from some cool, raw footage of a few Belfast punk bands – including some great bits and pieces featuring The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers – this documentary is essential viewing for a brilliant interview with Good Vibrations owner Terri Hooley who gets rather excited when talking about the first independent punk singles to come out of the city. “We’ve blown the secret”, he says, with a big grin, explaining how recordings in NI no longer need to be “controlled by EMI”. For those who’ve grown up in a technological world and with the internet allowing people to independent sounds digitally, this will surely seem quaint, but this footage really gets across how ground-breaking this would’ve been in the late 70s.

Joining this excellent documentary, three CDs of audio material provide an equally interesting listening experience. …And in many ways, that’s the greatest thing of all about this set. With a wealth of obscure 7”s collected within, it features a lot of stuff that rarely finds itself on punk compilations. There’s even a good chance that over half of the selections will be unfamiliar to anyone not from Belfast and the surrounding areas. It’s only fair that a few more obvious picks from Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones can be found on this journey, but thankfully that doesn’t mean potential buyers get fobbed off with ‘Teenage Kicks’ and ‘Alternative Ulster’ for the thousandth time. However, since the potency of its message has dictated SLF’s ‘Suspect Device’ one of the scene’s most vital recordings, it would’ve been odd not to include it. Hearing it with a lot of unfamiliar material is actually an effective reminder of how angry it is – and it still sounds superb. Beyond that, ‘Shellshock Rock’s main aim is to give a voice to Northern Ireland’s lesser championed heroes and the should’ve been stars, and in doing so, does a brilliant job.

A pair of tunes from Midnight Cruiser combine mod-ish cool and a punky energy, with their single ‘Rich Bitch’ showing off some great buzzsaw guitar sounds, with its superior b-side pre-figuring the skinny tie brigade of 1979. Both tracks are impeccably played, cranking a lot of tension inside two and half minutes. Some straight up r’n’b with sharp edges showcases Cobra as Belfast’s answer to Dr. Feelgood and provides a superb listen, though they’ve got nothing on shortlived punks the Tinopeners who managed to nail the fuzzy Misfits-esque sound by the time Glenn Danzig and company were barely off the starting blocks. Shifting between the post-punk mechanics of ‘Chairs Missing’ era Wire and the buzzing punk sounds of early Ruts, Electro-Motive Force (the original EMF!) contribute the great ‘Spidermen’, a lurching and angry arrangement that could’ve possibly sounded a little dated at the time of its 1982 release. With punk and post punk having made way for new romanticism and synthesizers, Electro-Motive Force were three years out of time already, but hearing the track so many years after release – and in the context of a box set loaded with great material – it sounds like a raggedly recorded classic.

Familiar to anyone who’s seen the 2013 Hooley biopic Good Vibrations, Rudi are represented with a pair of absolutely cracking tracks. The obvious choices ‘Pressure’s On’ and (cast iron classic) ‘Big Time’ have been sidelined in favour of a couple of equally good tunes. A session version of ’14 Steps’ shows them to be fine players with its souped up new wave sound. The melody that drives the track is fantastic, as the relentless muted notes have a real energy (and almost sound like an indirect influence on The Edge and early U2 tunes like ‘The Electric Co.’). Even more melodic, ‘When I Was Dead’ now sounds fairly tame in punk terms, but its three minutes tap into a flawless punk/new wave crossover sound – if the tune doesn’t get you by the first chorus, the shameless collection of vocal “whoahs” surely will. Two tracks by The Defects demonstrate a tight band more in line with the second wave of punk and, decades on, come across as merely generic, but if the shouty end of the genre appeals to you, there’s more than a chance you’ll find some enjoyment. Control Zone apply similar levels of anger to some far better music. Whether absolutely nailing the sounds of ’77 (‘Johnny Johnny’) or attacking heavy handed club security (‘Bloody Bouncers’), there’s something about their coiled sound that sounds like a decent snapshot of “real” punk, even if one of their tunes seems desperate to inject vague rockabilly traits.

A should be classic, Starjets’ ‘Any Danger Love’ flaunts a classic old style punk vocal on the verse but balances any raucousness with a timeless power pop chorus. A genuinely catchy single, they sound like a band that should have been as big as The Undertones, but commercial success was limited to a sole single. Salvation was to come for vocalist Terry Sharpe during the following decade when he’d make some of the 80s’ finest pop with The Adventures, but for Starjets, this number is a fascinating glimpse at what could have been. A much warmer power pop sound sits at the heart of No Sweat’s ‘Start All Over Again’, a radio friendly tune that, despite flaunting occasional vocal meters befitting of Phil Lynott, sits somewhere between The Jags and The Vapors. It’s brilliantly played; at the point where you’ve become attuned to the pop melodies and punchy bass, it turns itself on its head to include a sharp guitar solo that sounds as if it were lifted from an old Stranglers tune and also finds space for some taut garage rock keys. Almost out there on their own, Cramp add some interesting quirks to an otherwise straight up post-punk sound: the rhythm section busy themselves like a loose approximation of Minutemen’s George Hurley and Mike Watt, while an electronic drum boom hints at the disco era in a most unwelcome way. Somewhere within, a great song manages to escape and the more melodic touches are so tight, it’s almost a disappointment when things shift to a purer punk sound for a middle section.

A brilliant pop tune hidden under shrill guitars, Strike’s ‘Teenage Rebel’ is utterly joyous; it’s one of those tunes where a lust for life tries to masqerade as teenage angst and fails, but ultimately gives the listener an earworm that’s on a par with Flamin’ Groovies finest, while Rod Vey’s ‘Metal Love’ also brings essential listening with a buoyant tune that sounds like a less middle aged New Musik fused with a weird robotic vocal and reedy sax. In terms of the new wave, it would’ve sounded vaguely futuristic in 1980. Years on, it sounds a little silly but also wonderfully nostalgic.

Elsewhere, the legendary Outcasts are represented with ‘Self Conscious Over You’, a raw and empty sounding slab of punk that’s unafraid to share its Belfast accent; The Moondogs are every bit a match for Stiff Little Fingers when it comes to pure punk energy; Stage B flaunt some great bass playing on ‘Light On The Hillside’, an otherwise tuneless mess where the vocals are buried under cheap sci-fi effects and Protex show how sixties garage rock is a great launching point for classic punk on their ‘Strange Obsessions’, a track that deserves to join The Clash’s ‘White Riot’ and Buzzcocks’ ‘Fast Cars’ in the pantheon of pogo-worthy classics. Those looking for something a little dirtier, Duggie Briggs Band should hit the spot for greasy rock ‘n’ roll fun. Far from the novelty suggested by its title, their 1977 single ‘Punk Rockin’ Granny’ is a beast of a tune, often sounding like Dr. Feelgood colluding with The Cramps. One of their later compositions, 1978’s ’42 Hours’ casts them as sounding far more like pub rock fly-by-nights, but it’s pleasant enough. Among a small number of less fortunate tracks, Pretty Boy Floyd & The Gems sound like a wasted glam band stepping up to the punk mantle; never sleazy enough to be as cool as New York Dolls, nor angry enough to go toe to toe with the NI scene’s best punks (‘Sharon’, one of their offerings on this box set, seems like little more than tossed off crassness, decades on) and Lenny & The Lawbreakers genuinely sound like a bunch of piss taking chancers with a country tune that gets amped up to punk speeds and delivered with an irritating high pitched voice. Naturally, with over seventy tracks there are a few duds, but rest assured, they’re really few and far between.

Despite being marketed as a companion to Cherry Red’s ‘Big Gold Dreams’ box set and subsequent anthologies looking at music from Manchester and Sheffield, ‘Shellshock Rock’ actually has a much closer companion in their 2019 set ‘1977: The Year Punk Broke’. Except it’s better than that…and certainly more niche. The inclusion of the original ‘Shellshock Rock’ film is every reason to add this box set to your collection, but most of the accompanying audio is insanely good…and surprisingly consistent in terms of archive recordings. If you’ve got any interest in punk’s first wave and/or historically important music documentaries, you really can’t go wrong here.

Further reading:

1977 – The Year Punk Broke
Big Gold Dreams – A Story of Scottish Independent Music 1977-1989

June 2020