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Sunday, 23 August 2015


One year on from the passing of the wondrous broadcaster, a reminder of his fine book "Heads"


My review of this book appeared in Fortnight in March 2009.

HEADS – A Day In The Life
By Gerry Anderson
Gill & MacMillan

Many books have been written, words spouted, poems recited and songs sung about Ireland, the Irish, the history, the trouble and strife of the Emerald Isle, with politicians talking about talks, who is going to shake hands with whom, which side is right, which side is wrong and all that shamrock and roll of toing and froing on the rocky road to peace and civility.  But not enough has been written about ordinary existence, about the mundane and general stuff that happens on the streets in humdrum life.  There are many strands to the humdrum, no doubt, and “Heads” by Gerry Anderson lifts the lid on a paradoxically trivial but important strand of Irish culture – the jobbing music group, trivial in that they mostly swam in the shallow end of the entertainment pool and important because these bands had huge followings and brought some sparkle into people’s dull lives.

It would have been nigh on impossible to have lived in any part of Ireland in the 1960s without some brush or other with the concept of showbands.  These ensembles were the main form of live and lively entertainment in dance halls around the country.  They provided a touch of glamour and excitement as they belted out cover versions of chart hits and back catalogue favourites, earning substantial amounts of money in the process.  Many of the lead singers were regarded as major pop stars and, as a result, grabbed their share of magazine covers and wall posters in the process.  They were proper bands with guitars and drums, of course, but also brass sections to jazz things up and produce their own walls of sound.  They were, in short, incredibly successful and amazingly popular.

By the early 1970s, the showband sheen was beginning to dull down and it is in these dying days that Anderson recalls the sleazy, slimey, degenerate side of Irish show business life in this heady memoir.  It seemed in those days that the scurrilous behaviour of musicians was exclusively an American affliction, a sort of San Francisco syndrome, but in Ireland, there was also an underbelly of mischief on the highways, by-ways and off the beaten tracks in amongst the gigs and audiences.  This is a story that needed to be unearthed, a missing piece of the Irish cultural jigsaw puzzle.

Gerry Anderson’s “day job” now in Northern Ireland is to fill an hour and a half of daily morning BBC Radio Ulster air with banter, meanderings, discussion and good music, and he has done this very successfully for a couple of decades.  He is considered to be a local radio legend and there are not many in Ireland who would disagree that he is an extraordinary broadcaster.

It is his life on the road with a band called The Chessmen, playing in lower league rural, and therefore sometimes draughty and sometimes smelly, halls, barns and sheds, that forms the substance of a bawdy tale of itinerant musicians with muscular tastes in women, booze, drugs and, every now and again, music.  These were the dying days of showbands with most musicians playing because they had to earn money somehow rather than play for the love of the music.  It seems to have been a time of drudgery and despair over professionalism and glamour and it is clear from the narrative that Anderson loved the thought of being a musician but hated the concept of showbands and the hassles of performing the same routines and endless cover songs night after night after night.  Interspersed with his recollections of incidents and obvious embellishment of many memories, Anderson is not shy in expressing his opinions about a variety of subjects and his devoted following of radio listeners today might be shocked at his frequent use of coarse language, a necessary inclusion if the honesty of the story is to be upheld, but a side of the man that is not normally heard.

Gerry Anderson progressed from the Irish showband scene to a short spell with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, but before long he was back in Ireland looking for a new phase in his life.  There are more stories still to be told but “Heads” is a wonderful journey through the badlands of Irish entertainment and pulls no punches in laying out a rough guide to life on the road.  Anyone hell-bent on a popular music career could do worse than read this story if they want to understand that showbusiness and the pursuit of fame is not all gloss, glitz and glamour.  It can have a dark side but, let’s be honest, hell is a lot more interesting than heaven.

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