Dancehall Days: When Showbands Ruled the Stage, Michael O’Reilly, Gill and Macmillan, 326 pp, €29.95, ISBN: 978-0717164608
I was too young for the showband phase of Irish music, which was at its peak between about 1960 and 1966. My only direct experience of a live showband was in 1969 during a family holiday to a seaside hotel at Courtown Harbour, Co Wexford. I was a reluctant teenage participant on this trip and all memories of the holiday have been forgotten except for two things. It was the week of the first moon landing and secondly, I somehow ended up in the local Tara Ballroom where Dickie Rock and the Miami Showband were appearing. I’ve no idea what I was doing there as I knew very little about the showband scene except for the odd programme on television and hearing Brendan Bowyer and the Royal Showband singing the Hucklebuck on the radio. Nothing about the night features in my memory except a compelling vision that on all the walls of the hall were large signs saying “No Close Dancing”. At the time this was mystifying to me for although I was a fairly uncommunicative teenager, I had been to some mixed school parties and a few “hops” at the local parish hall and, in my vague adolescent way, it was clear to me that the whole purpose of dancing was to get as close as possible.
However, by 1969, the height of the showband boom had passed and, although there were still plenty of bands and dancehall activity, young people were now getting the latest music from radio and television, with regular music shows on RTÉ. Many were also watching programmes like Top of the Pops and Ready, Steady, Go and listening to the John Peel radio show on the British channels.
But looking back, in its heyday the showband phenomenon in Ireland was a quite remarkable phenomenon. In the early 1960s there were over five hundred showbands ‑ and four hundred and fifty dance halls ‑ around the country. The most popular bands, such as Brendan Bowyer and the Royal, Dickie Rock and the Miami and the Clipper Carlton, were playing to audiences of two to three thousand people on a regular basis. Clearly this was statistically a highly popular form of entertainment, even if it was not always musically on the highest level. On one St Stephen’s night it was estimated there were over seven hundred thousand people out at dance halls, a quarter of the population at the time.
Before the showband era music at dances had normally been played by an orchestra, with the musicians playing sitting down behind music stands and individuals only standing up briefly to play a solo and the bandleader speaking occasionally to introduce the songs. But the arrival of showbands in the second half of the 1950s changed all that, with band members dressed in matching sharp suits and performing little dance steps on stage. Lead singers were given a dominant role and sometimes developed flamboyant stage acts. The Clipper Carlton band from Strabane is credited with being one of the first to put the “show” into showband in the late 1950s when they included a section in their act called Juke Box Saturday Night. This involved comedy sketches and songs, wearing costumes and sending up popular, mainstream artists. While clearly this went down well at the time, from the perspective of a twenty-first century audience (who can see it on a YouTube clip from an RTÉ tribute show for the Clipper Carlton) it all looks quite amateur and old-fashioned.
By the early 1960s many showbands had created their own particular styles, while remaining adaptable and versatile. Brendan Bowyer channelled Elvis but he also sang sentimental ballads. The Freshmen performed Beach Boys harmonies ‑ extremely well. Musically, the showbands were like jukeboxes: they played rock ’n’ roll, country and western, skiffle, waltzes and ballads, essentially acting as cover bands singing all the popular hits. At their heart, they were about performance. The rise of the showbands and the emergence of huge dance halls also constituted a social revolution. While Seán Lemass was modernising the Irish economy and opening it up to outside players, the showbands imported into their acts the external influences of rock ’n’ roll, rhythm and blues, country and western and other US and UK musical styles. As the dancers had never seen the real acts the next best thing seemed impressive enough. At the same time many young people were now earning steady wages and were able to afford to go dancing on a regular basis. Dancers travelled in hired coaches forty or fifty miles from where they lived; the luckier ones had their own cars or access to a lift. As Vince Power says in his book on the showbands, Send ’Em Home Sweating: the Showband Story, this money and transport changed the geographical patters of Irish courtship: “Youngsters cycled to local dances in the fifties and drove to ballrooms miles away in the sixties.” Young people were no longer restricted to meeting neighbours and friends at a dance in the local parish hall. They could now travel well outside their own areas to dance with entirely new partners from a different county. Relatively speaking, the distances may not have been that far but in terms of the relationship possibilities it was like a foreign holiday.
In rural areas the dance halls themselves were fairly basic buildings quickly thrown up all over the country on the edge of towns (or sometimes in the middle of nowhere) and were designed simply to pack in as many dancers as possible. One writer has memorably described the style as “breeze block pebbled Irish garage architecture”. It was different in the cities, where the dances took place in existing ballrooms that were often fine old buildings, like the Town and Country Club, the Metropole and the Four Provinces at the top of Harcourt Street (later the Television Club) in Dublin.
The showband craze made some people, mainly showband stars and dance hall owners, very cash-rich. In financial terms it was a miniature Celtic Tiger-type boom with the cash flow from one dancehall being used to fund the building of others. Bands split up and formed other bands. At their peak, leading bands were earning much more than the equivalent pop artists in the UK and were more used to acclaim and adulation. Because dances were banned by the Church during Lent, many bands went to England for this period and were equally successful in the big cities there. Vince Power tells of the time Brendan Bowyer and the Royal played Liverpool when the Beatles were the support act. Afterwards Bowyer’s friendly advice to Paul McCartney was that his group should stick together.
The big showbands, and their lead singers particularly, were superstars, earning what now seems like huge money. The top bands could demand a cut of sixty percent of the take at the door. For example, in 1967, out of the thousand pounds collected from two thousand dancers paying ten shillings (50p) each, the band would get six hundred pounds ‑ at a time when the average industrial wage was less than the equivalent of £12.50 a week. For eight members in a band each one would be getting about six times this amount for just one night’s work.
As well as being liberating for the audiences, being in a showband was also liberating for many teenage musicians. Although most bands included some skilled musicians, many covered up their limited musical ability within the overall stage show. The arrangement allowed enthusiastic young people to practise their budding musical skills within a group context and earn some good money. Some of these teenagers went on to have highly successful musical careers. When he was fourteen, Rory Gallagher answered a small ad for a guitarist and joined the Fontana showband in Cork. He was soon was playing two or three nights a week in Cork and the surrounding counties and going directly to school after getting home in the early hours. It wasn’t necessarily his kind of music but he was getting paid to play and to hone his skills. Leo O’Kelly was the same age when he joined the Tropical Showband in Carlow and by the age of sixteen was playing both in the showband and in a psychedelic group called The Word. By the time he fell out with the showband in 1969 over of his long hair he was an experienced performer. So he headed for Dublin, met Sonny Condell and they formed the very successful progressive folk duo Tír na nÓg. Even Van Morrison started, at the age of fifteen, playing saxophone with a showband in Belfast called The Monarchs because he knew he wanted to be a professional musician and knew that that was where you could earn some money.
All this excitement, innocence and banality is gloriously captured in Michael O’Reilly’s book Dancehall Days: When Showbands Ruled the Stage. In a series of wonderful black and white photographs he covers the period from 1961 to 1970, charting the peak of the showband era and the beginning of its demise. From a shot of the soberly dressed dance band the Viscounts Quartet broadcasting from RTÉ in 1961 to a picture of members of the Royal Showband leaping in the air in 1968 to Dana being greeted by a large press pack (and her music teacher ‑ a nun) on her return to Derry after her Eurovision win in 1970, the transformation of the popular music scene in Ireland into a form of mass entertainment is revealed in all its quirkiness and splendour.
Not surprisingly, the photographs mainly feature showbands, and the chronological order demonstrates the importance of performance in the showbands act. As the 1960s go by bands move from wearing standard matching suits and ties to more extravagant outfits ‑ white jackets with the band’s name emblazoned on the breast pocket. Some of the fashion shoots involving musicians, it must be said, show a certain lack of sophistication. One features two members of the folk group Emmett Spiceland and a couple of models with a petrol pump, while another shows a model and a member of a showband standing on a heap of rubble. The Freshmen appear, dressed up in what appear to be some sub-Chitty Chitty Bang Bang costumes for an episode of RTÉs Twenty Minutes With series. In the early 1970s a band called the Royal Earls blacked up, put on wigs and wore African dress for their performances, changing their name to The Zulus. There is, incidentally, no picture in O’Reilly’s book of this misconceived attempt to stand out.
One thing O’Reilly’s photographs do show is that even if getting close was sometimes forbidden for the dancers, there was no such prohibition as regards the performers. Many of the photographs portray what seems to be a fairly innocent repressed sexuality in the relationship between the young women and girls and the band members, particularly the lead singers. In one shot Joe Dolan is holding the microphone and singing while dozens of teenage girls stretch out their arms to touch him. As the caption says he was singing to “an adoring crowd”. In another picture a band member holds on desperately to the arm of the Times showband singer Jimmy Swarbrigg as he is being dragged off the stage into a sea of fairly determined-looking women.
O’Neill’s pictures reveal the importance of RTÉ television, the sole national broadcaster, to the development of the showbands’ identities. An appearance on either radio or television more or less guaranteed a huge audience for the band and a national following in the dancehalls around the country. Many of the photographs in the book were taken in RTÉ’s studios and the new-fangledness of TV itself is shown by the way they present the mechanics of programme production, with half-built sets, microphones, cameras and other technical equipment as well as the musicians performing.
The magazine that O’Reilly was taking the photographs for, New Spotlight, was at the time the main specialist music magazine and understandably it focused on the most popular music, showbands. In 1967 the magazine sponsored the New Spotlight Night Out on Monday nights in the Television Club on Harcourt Street, with a showband as the main attraction and generally a folk group doing the guest spot in the middle of the show. It is herethat O’Reilly took some of his most dynamic photos of the bands in action.
Though showband music has been criticised as derivative and damaging to the development of music in Ireland, the movement was so large and ubiquitous that it created spaces in which other kinds of music and musicians could survive. In the 1930s jazz had been demonised as the “devil’s music” but it was kept alive by musicians who also adapted to whatever trends were popular and profitable at the time. One of O’Neill’s earliest photographs, from 1963 shows jazz pianist Jim Doherty accompanying English clarinettist Acker Bilk. Also pictured is Noel Kelehan, another fine jazz pianist, who was musical director of the Late Late Show and Keith Donald, one of Ireland’s leading saxophonists, is shown a number of times as a member of the Real McCoy showband.
But it is other emerging forms of music that are the most interesting sideshows to the showband movement. Beat groups and later rock bands, as well as folk groups and more progressive acoustic bands, all manage to appear either with showbands or on the same television programmes. While there were lively beat group, folk and traditional music scenes, all with active fan bases and a network of clubs and concerts, the numbers involved did not come anywhere near the huge showband following and the money earned was either minimal or non-existent. So it is not surprising that such groups had connections to the wider showband scene. O’Neill’s book has pictures of many of them either appearing as “fill-in” acts in the dance halls or on RTÉ. Sweeney’s Men, the seminal Irish traditional folk group, are pictured doing the guest spot for a showband at the Television Club in 1968. This was the kind of slot which group member Andy Irvine remembers, no doubt with a shudder, as “one of the most hellish experiences available”. By the end of the decade, the influence of UK pop music is reflected in photographs of bands like Freddie and the Dreamers, theTremeloes, the Troggs and The Move. In one of the few shots that is not actually posed or on a stage, a very young Phil Lynott, then of Skid Row, is pictured with Pat Egan, a New Spotlight columnist, sitting at the counter of what the caption says is “Dublin’s hippest burger bar”, the Wimpy in Lower Dorset Street. The rock revolution that was on its way.
The shots of musicians who appeared on Irish television also record some of the more specialist or progressive acts that were not going to get an invitation onto the dancehall circuit. There is a youthful Afghan-coated David Bowie in full “Space Oddity” pose and two of Ireland’s more off-beat groups, the music and poetry combination Tara Telephone and Dr Strangely Strange, Ireland’s answer to the Incredible String Band. In these photographs O’Neill is actually recording the reasons why the showband phenomenon was reaching its end. Here were musicians not simply playing other people’s music but writing their own songs and developing new musical styles.
For a period in the second half of the 1960s Harcourt Street was the place where all these musical influences could be heard simultaneously. At the top of the street was the Television Club, where many of the showbands played regularly but also had folk acts as their support groups. In the same building were the Eamonn Andrews Studios, which recorded many of these acts, as well as the beat groups and others. At the other end was the Five Club, where beat groups and other more modern acts performed. Across the road was the “95” Folk Club, occupying the basement which had formerly been the Green Tureen restaurant, site of the infamous and gruesome Mohangi murder case in 1963. In its later guise as a folk club, this basement became well known as a place where many of the Dublin’s most important folk acts, that would in later years become nationally and internationally famous, appeared. Leo O’Kelly of Tír na nÓg has described how he came up to Dublin with his psychedelic band The Word to play the Five Club and in the break ran across the road to the “95”, borrowed a guitar from Andy Irvine and played some songs over there.
One of the most intriguing photographs is from the New Spotlight Poll Concert of 1970, where the flamboyant UK DJ Tony Prince, in a white jacket and bow tie, stands with his hands up in the air beside a meek and youthful Dolores Keane who is wearing a tweed skirt and twin set. Here is the juxtaposition of commercialised pop exhibitionism, which is about to reach a peak in the 1970s, with a singer rooted in Irish traditional music. It is the latter that would have a lasting impact in the following decades.
One writer, Fergal Tobin, has called the 1960s in Ireland the “Best of Decades”, a time when the country opened itself to outside influences and entered the modern world. People felt more prosperous and optimistic and many sections of society became more liberal and willing to question traditional values. The showband phenomenon was part of this as it provided a doorway to different kinds of music and different kinds of relationships. The dancehalls were places where people set out to enjoy themselves and what this looked like is brilliantly captured by O’Neill’s photographs. Inevitably the showbands’ time passed, many other forms of original music emerged … and the dancing definitely got closer.
Jeremy Kearney was one of the organisers of the Foxrock Folk Club in the early 1970s and is writing a book on the club and the contemporary social and music scene in Dublin.