I know it’s only rock and roll but y’all like it, but let’s talk about books this week. Specifically, the raucous story of Ned the Bed, written by showband great Jimmy Smith.
Smith was the founder, leader and manager of the Mighty Avons, back in the heyday when showbands ruled the Irish music scene. I’ve often heard my parents talk about “the showband era” which swept through Ireland in the 1960s and ‘70s. Chances are, the very mention of the word showband conjures up vivid memories for a generation of Irish immigrants that have seen their 60th birthday come and go (how’s that for being diplomatic?)
My grandfather on my mother’s side worked the rural areas of Limerick with a clarinet as part of the Joe Farrell Band, and my father can recall the great craic seeing the local boys play in and around Tuam.
“Ah, that was music,” he sighed over the weekend as he fondled the book binding of Ned the Bed.
“There were five show bands working in Tuam at one time -- Johnny Flynn’s Showband. Jerry and the Ohio, Liam Ivory’s band. The Times, which had my cousin Walter Lynch as drums.”
With Smith at the helm, the Mighty Avons would go on to see major success all over the world, playing in such hallowed venues such as Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Albert Hall in London.
They made the British charts with a 40-week run of their debut record, one of the first Irish bands ever to do so.
Smith’s book Ned the Bed is a tale of the fictional Nova’s Showband and their leader, trombone playing Ned Brady.
Smith is a potent storyteller with a wicked talent for writing dialogue. Ned the Bed has movie written all over it, with characters that jump off the page and into the bed of a waiting groupie.
Ned uses his trombone to knock the strap off the dress of a hapless fan sitting at the side of the stage in the hopes that he could lure the lass to the couch-like row of seats on the back of the tour bus. Smith gives Jackie Collins a run for her money on the shags-per-page department.
“Back in the 1960s and '70s the showband boom was at its height, and to succeed in this very competitive business the band had to give 101% on stage to make sure the dancers had a good time,” explains Smith during a rollicking chat with the Irish Voice.
“Then afterwards, you had to be ever ready with a big smile, followed by, ‘Hello gorgeous, where did you spring from?’ If that approach worked, then along came the courting and in some cases the lovemaking, which a lot of the time was just plain shafting.
“Because time and space was mostly unavailable back then, most of it was done in the good old knee trembler fashion. Ned Brady took to all of this like a duck to water, earning at a very young age the nickname of Ned the Bed.”
Ned’s story is an impossible one to put down. You can see the storms of ego and power brewing within the band from a mile away, a dynamic made worse when the musicians score a minor hit that opens the door for tours of England and America.
There are hilarious stories in this book, like the time Ned has to fend for himself as a regular punter at a Belfast dance. He can’t get a girl to dance with him to save his life and gets taken down a few pegs when he discovers that without the trombone and the stage to assist him, he was just a loving legend in his own mind.
“It’s very realistic and I know so much about the scene that I was able to pump into the story,” says Smith.
“While it is fictional, I think it is the best possible portrayal of what life was really like on the road in one of these bands. I’ve read another book about the scene called Send them Home Sweating and none of it made sense at all.
“It was written by a non-show band guy interviewing people in the bands. A lot of what was written was third hand. I was in the middle of it all, and I think that makes this book authentic.”
Smith says his writing career began after his musical career ran its course. He went into the security business where there were plenty of hours doing nothing as a night watchman.
“I got a scribbler, put the time and date on it, and off I went,” he says nonchalantly. “I wrote the whole book by hand and would start each page with the question, ‘Where am I going to go next?’
“It took me four years and two centuries to do it. I started it in 1999 and then picked it up a few years ago.”
This isn’t Smith’s first foray into literature. He wrote a popular political satire thinly described as a kid’s book called Animal Mountain in 1989. It was about former Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey as a hedgehog.
“You’d have to drop money at him and he would roll in it,” Smith says.
Animal Mountain is indicative of the anti-establishment vibe you pick up when you talk to Smith. Though he is a spry, optimistic storyteller, he’ll tell you that he has been burned so many times over the years by many a shady music business character.
Ned the Bed’s sharpest words are reserved to describe the characters trying to separate the lead singer from the fictional showband.
“There are plenty of people in the music business who don’t know musical notes,” he says sarcastically. “They only know pound notes. I lost every penny I had doing the right thing for the bands I was associated with.
“There was always someone whispering in the talent’s ear when they got big enough. ‘Smith can take you no further. I can make you a star.’ I learned the hard way that you have to copyright the name of your band and you must lock up the lead singer in a contract for at least five years.
“Don’t blame the singer when he makes you wrong; blame the vulture. Many people with no talent whatsoever made it in the music business by riding the back of the lead singer. Contracts are the only thing that keep the vultures away, and believe you me, there’s a vulture on every pole in the music business!”
The showbands were a cultural lifeline to the rural west of Ireland. Their covers of songs from Buddy Holly, Jim Reed and the Beatles might have been the first time some people heard those songs.
Though the stories are racy in spots, Ned the Bed provides the reader with a critical piece of musical artifact from a bygone era.
“No one has any interest in Irish showbands anymore, and it is a sin how the Irish music business is more interested in the international acts than the home grown ones,” he laments.
“RTE puts on these talent shows and they are awful. There’s this brand new station in Ireland now dedicated to classical music. I like that kind of music as much as the next man, but there aren’t that many classical music acts running around the back roads of Ireland trying to make a living.
“The showband era consisted in its heyday of 5,000 musicians and another 5,000 roadies and bus mechanics employed to support it. That’s a lot of people employed by the show bands and there is still a market for it. There are more talented country guitarists in Ireland than there are in Nashville, but the radio stations think it’s uncool to play this music.”
You’re only a few pages in before you realize that Ned the Bed is too cool for words! No Irish beach blanket should be without Ned this summer.
Ned the Bed is available on Amazon.com. Smith will launch the book at a party at Paddy Reilly’s (519 Second Avenue New York; 212 686-1210) Thursday, July 15, from 6-8 p.m.
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