2011, Sees Black 47 reach legal drinking age – 21 years old – so we thought we’d buy founder and front man Larry Kirwan a large glass of Paddy’s and ask him to reflect on the last 21 years – the highs and lows of the band, politics, life, Ireland and America.
So Larry, if you knew what you know now back in 1989 would you do it again or would you have high-tailed it back to Wexford, to Bridie and the bank?
No, John, I’d do it again. Going back to Bridie and the bank just wasn’t an option anyway. There are things I would do differently in life, but in general I would do most things the same as regards Black 47. When you look back from a distance you see that your influences and experiences pretty much ineluctably pointed you in the direction that you took anyway. We always tried to do the right thing with Black 47 whether it was politically or pragmatically advantageous, so I feel okay about that. But in a way, as the Dead put it, it’s been a long strange trip – so much so that you just have to shake your head about it sometimes.
Seriously, 21 years together is a huge achievement for any band and especially having kept a pretty consistent line-up (4 out of 6 members are original) and having done the major label dance and surviving been hung out to dry by them – that would have crushed lesser bands – what keeps the band together, fresh and relevant today?
Well, again that comes from the array of influences and experiences. Most of us came from an improv background so we’re very used to making every gig a very different experience. Besides each member came from a very varied musical background. We’ve never done the same set twice in over 2200 gigs – no one knows just how many gigs we’ve performed but I would say it’s under 2300. That would set us pretty much apart from most rock-based bands. But it also means that each gig is a very different experience. So that tends to keep you fresh – even when you’re fatigued.
Chris Byrne (uilleann pipes) left the band in 2000 and Joseph Mulvanerty has been with us since then. That was the big change. But in the early days we didn’t have a bass player and most of our replacements over the years have been with that instrument. Back in the early 90’s we might use a bass player or not, depending on different circumstances. When we didn’t use one, Fred Parcells (trombone) and I (guitar) would hone in on our bass notes, so even that was a different experience and each of us still taps into it from time to time on stage.
I always expected that we’d get “dropped” by a major label and we did – but twice. I had a major label deal before with Epic in a new wave band called Major Thinkers, so I was in some way prepared for the hurly-burly of it with Black 47. We set up the band so that we could operate independently of the system. Daniel Glass, who signed us to EMI, got fired and we got the boot with him – all very normal – but we didn’t miss a beat. I remember the evening we got called into EMI to be told the awful news, and Chris and I went off and did a show with the band and barely mentioned it.
What amazed me was that Danny Goldberg signed the band within a year. We hadn’t let the grass grow under our feet but went straight into the studio and self-produced Green Suede Shoes. Danny heard Bobby Sands MP from the CD, was totally moved by it and straight away offered us a deal with Mercury. Then he got fired and we were adrift again. I think Dickie from the Bosstones might have told me we were caput with Mercury – they were on the same label – but again it didn’t take a feather off me. If you dance with the devil, you have to be prepared for a little heat. The trick is to continue to do your own thing and let the big company help you in whatever way they can. A lot of good money was wasted but we were always in creative control.
As regards relevant – well, we were always political, so whether it was the British problem in the North of Ireland, or the invasion of Iraq, we were very involved and took major stands. That doesn’t necessarily make you popular, and we suffered a lot for it from a financial point of view, but it sure as hell keeps you on the cutting edge. My real amazement is just how little other bands and musicians were interested in these long simmering events. From a sheer creative and songwriting angle, you couldn’t beat those two conflicts for drama, heartbreak and sheer cussedness – the backbone of powerful songwriting.
Then again, our people were getting hurt in Belfast and Baghdad, so we felt we had no other choice but to get involved. I wouldn’t have felt right about myself if I’d just been writing about Bridie and the bank. Besides, political writing has some major rewards: James Connolly was and still is a breakthrough in songwriting; I never hear Bobby Sands MP without being transported back to the streets of Belfast in early 1981. And I only have to play a track from IRAQ and the feeling of those crazy years from 2003-2008 comes tumbling back. Many American troops feel the same way.
All of these things help keep you fresh and, up until now anyway, relevant. I guess the day that ends, the dance will be done – but until then…
Larry, you mention two things that have been consistent in Black 47 songs – politics and historical figures.
With politics, you’ve worn your politics proudly on your sleeve and as you say you “suffered a lot for it from a financial point of view”, do you feel that being so vocal about the North or Ireland painted you as a bunch of “Fellow Travelers” in the eyes of those who control the media outlets in Ireland and basically doomed the bands chances in Ireland for success (when normally the Irish media would be falling over the hottest band in NYC)?
That whole aspect was never anything but a minor consideration. We always looked westwards rather than back at Ireland, we always felt that we were living in the city of Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Public Enemy and Television. If we looked back at Ireland at all it was to Sean O’Riada and the traditional music people. It’s not that there wasn’t good music coming from there, we just didn’t give it a lot of thought. As regards the politics, we were what we were, and to paraphrase Yeats, Was there another Troy for us to burn? We were political, though we never belonged to or followed any party – we were our own party and felt free to comment as we felt fit. We definitely didn’t feel as if the North of Ireland should be run from London. And we felt that we could present some of the viewpoints of the nationalist population of the North of Ireland. We didn’t agree with internment or trial without jury but, never, in any of our songs did we advocate violence. Neither did we think that you should thank the British Army for occupying Irish streets and terrorizing Irish people. But we were also full square against sectarianism. We always felt that these were very important stands and if they cost you commerciality, so what? That’ what we were and still are. But, really, what would Black 47 be without the political stands? A plain looking Corrs with drinking problems?
And with Irish historical characters you’ve written about – James Connolly, Red Hugh O’Donnell, Michael Collins, Bobby Sands and Robert Kennedy to name a few – what is your thinking when you choose to write a song about someone (are you interested in the person’s life story, what they stood for, to educate, or political idea)? Who else is out there that you would like to write about (Charles J Haughey)?
The characters have to be inspiring and stand for something. They have to really move me as a writer. I don’t write those songs as any kind of intellectual exercise – and they are not characters that I’ve just discovered. Usually, their memory or example or what they’ve stood for has been burning inside me for a long time. And that’s not just in the songs – but in the plays I’ve written also. I spent years working on Mister Parnell and if you really want to get to the heart of some of the characters in the 1916 insurrection then take a read of Blood. They’re both in a collection of my plays called Mad Angels.
But as regards the songs, Bobby Sands MP took me almost 15 years to write. It would have been a breeze to write some kind of trad song and notate his history, but I found it very hard to capture the times and the ethos of the man. I had to find a way inside his head – how does a person decide to make such an ultimate sacrifice? I found that way when I remembered he had a son. That was the link I needed and the song pretty much poured out then. It was actually maybe twice as long on a first draft and I edited it down to its present form. It may be Black 47′s finest recording. Anytime I hear it, I’m instantly back on those streets of Belfast in 1980-81 during the Hunger Strike. Amazing to think that it’s 30 years ago exactly now. I was touring Ireland back then with Major Thinkers.
James Connolly may be our best song because it’s the first of its kind. I had come from a background of writing plays. I wanted to take the Irish Sean-Nos form of traditional singing and bring it into the 20th Century. Not just to recount events as the Sean Nos form did, but to use modern psychology and method acting – where you use Stanislavsky techniques to become the character you’re acting. Instead of merely recounting Connolly’s history, I basically have to become him in the song – an ex-British soldier – and get to the bottom of why he’s about to give up his life for an ideal. I’m often asked what’s the greatest moment in B47 history – people often think it’s playing some prestigious gig or eing on Letterman, Leno, O’Brien; but no, it’s the first time we ever did that song in Paddy Reilly’s in 1990 and the silence that descended on that rowdy crowd, the first time we did it. Everyone in the room knew we had done something different.
The historical songs have to mean something – Red Hugh O’Donnell from Bankers and Gangsters is one of our best songs – and I’m thrilled to say so because it’s one of our latest. He had been a hero of mine as a boy. But he’s also just a bit too removed in time to be able to interpret him from a 20/21st century psychological point of view. I had given up on him until I took an interest in Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance in the war against the Taliban. He was assassinated by order of Osama Bin Laden on Sept. 10th, 2001. I couldn’t believe the parallels between him and Red Hugh – both nationalist, religious fundamentalists, fighting a losing war, surrounded by powerful enemies. By tacking into Massoud I felt able to channel another tragic and major figure, Red Hugh O’Donnell. I also wished to examine the paranoia of someone far from home who feels he may be poisoned by his enemies – in this case Queen Elizabeth of England. And he was right.
I won’t be writing about Charlie Haughey from a political/historical point of view. But he might fit into the Black 47 slightly rogue’s gallery. Who knows. You never know where the next song will come from. Right now, I’m trying to finish a new novel and a new play, so songwriting is on the back burner.