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Why we've got the pill to thank for our showbands

Belfast Telegraph

By Eamonn McCann

Thursday, 10 January 2008


It was contraceptives which gave birth to the showbands. So suggests Derek Dean in The Freshmen Unzipped, a startling, vivid account of life on the road in the Sixties and '70s with the band from Ballymena.

Derek turns the conventional narrative on its head - or, rather, on its feet. He dismisses the notion that a sudden, magical efflorescence of cover-bands in spangle suits summoned a repressed generation to sweat and romance in breeze-block ballrooms at the edge of town.

What happened instead, he insists, is that the pill became available: " Women, equipped with their little secret, silent partner-in-joy, decided that it was time to let rip. They headed out in their thousands and where they went the men followed."

And, everywhere, troupes of fellas who fancied themselves as technicolour dreamboats, formed showbands to meet the demand.

Some were dreadful, some were decent, the best were brilliant, and the Freshmen were the best of them all.

Behind lead singer Derek, from Strabane, there was Sean Mahon, who "played the trombone like a man making love to his adoring wife," Davy McKnight, a boogaloo drummer from Belfast who laid down such rhythms you'd believe " pagan demons would be abroad looking for new converts," Ballymena man Torrance Megahy, bass, playing "'keep your feet on the floor because I'm lighting a fire with these b*stard notes' sort of stuff," Damian McIlroy, guitar, from Downpatrick, who took melody lines on flights of insanity that crash-landed into the amps, Maurice Henry from Ballymena, bandleader (hence the designated hometown), who kept order and "blew with soft lips" into sax and euphonium, and Billy Brown from Larne.

Each one could have filled in as lead singer, and sometimes did. Their speciality was three-part, four-part, five-part harmonies, a blast of voices ranged across octaves, that weaved and meshed into beautiful noise. They were the only band anywhere which routinely took on the Four Seasons, the Fifth Dimension, even the daunting intricacies of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, and came out triumphant. I recall standing under the stage at Borderland and marvelling that that was Big Derek McMenamin (his prose name) from the same class as me in St Columb's in Derry.

The school gets a fair touch here, and by fair I mean totally justified. Derek ditched Catholicism on the sound basis that a religion represented by some of the sad brutes we had for teachers couldn't be worth staying part of. 'Unzipped' - a reference to trousers - killer doses of alcohol and wanton and then wanting more sex were the orders of the day (don't believe the official line of ham sandwiches after the gig and a decade of the rosary from Fr Brian Darcy to bring all home safe.) The book is eloquent on the tightening of the times leading into the Troubles and on the tragedies, some very close-up, which followed.

Most of all, it's a song of praise and a soft lament for Billy Brown.

One day there will be a monument to Billy in Larne. Not that only Larne can claim him: "He was out of the north-eastern port, but his spirit wafted across the oceans from New York's East Side, or maybe Basin Street, New Orleans. Somewhere in the ether it encountered a Celtic upswing from the Scottish Highlands and lingered with it a while ... "

Billy played piano - "Music jumped from the belly of the piano and you could feel the breeze as it danced past your face and climbed up the walls and walked across the ceiling" - as well as guitar, clarinet and sax.

He was a singer, a songwriter, a painter, an artist in stained glass, a writer on nature and conservation, a family man, a genial companion, sharp as a razor, wildly funny, generous to a fault. He wrote in every style.

His punk anthem, Never Seen Anything Like It, was John Peel's and the NME's record of the week. He created one of the great masterpieces of popular music, Cinderella. Released as a single on some obscure label 30 years ago, it was given half a dozen plays on Radio Eireann, and then disappeared.

Billy wrote it towards the end of his time performing, sang it reflectively, voice caressing the melody, like a man who knew that he had been blessed by being bound for greatness but had somehow allowed the world to short-change his soul.

It was about a fellow from a band, in Larne, or maybe Drumshanbo, who's offered a ticket for a production of Cenerentola, the Cinderella story.

"I'm a one-finger piano player/Never had much time for music's heavy side/Might have listened to Beethoven/Or played some Chopin in my time ... I wish you coulda seen me/Diggin' Rossini ... I fell in love with Cinderella/Magic princess really stole my heart/Well, maybe not exactly in love with Cinderella/But with the girl who sang the coloratura mezzo-soprano part ... "

"If you die before hearing Cinderella, you have lived in vain," writes Derek. Which might be a little extravagant.

A little.

Billy died in 1999, and is buried in Glasnevin cemetery

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In Loving Memory of Grant Gallagher: Sept. 21, 1990 - Nov. 18, 2006