In the coming weeks and months, Kirwan and IrishCentral will look back album by album on the history of Black 47 and the ups and downs that came along the way. Today, we start with the first cassette “Home of the Brave.”
But first, a note from Larry:
Since I had major memory gaps from my years playing with Turner & Kirwan of Wexford, Major Thinkers, and Chill Faction, I decided to write down my impressions of Black 47's career soon after we had released each album. This has proven invaluable as time often polishes over many of the inevitable crags and quakes that attend a rock 'n' roll life.
Black 47, being political, opinionated, rarely seeking or taking advice, and consisting of six individuals of varying tastes and experiences, very much plowed its own furrow, and always seemed to be creating or reeling from some controversy or other.
In retrospect, we did it our way and didn't give a goddamn what anyone thought about us. Although we were great friends, I don't think we even cared too much what we thought about each other, the music was all-important, and a certain magic happened when we hit the stage together.
In almost 2,500 gigs over 25 years we never repeated the same set, and each song was open to interpretation depending on mood, inspiration, level of intoxication or sheer fatigue. In fact, I don't remember a bad gig. No matter how rough things were, there was always a chance to turn the tables, and we inevitably did.
Listening now to “Home of the Brave,” the very first song we recorded, less than three months into our 25-year career, I'm struck by just how assertive and original it sounds. For better or worse, I can't think of anything else like it.
Think of how the patrons of various bars in The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island felt when that snarled lyric hit them at considerable volume, for we invariably opened with it in those first months of our existence.
It was basically a throwing down of the gauntlet. This is what you're likely to hear for the next four hours and if you don't like it well too bad, and there's a much nicer band in the pub next door!
We never acknowledged applause but then we rarely received any. Nor did we rehearse - we worked out new songs onstage - Chris Byrne's maxim was "a night spent practicing is a night not playing," and since you got paid for playing... it all made perfect sense. Right up until we disbanded in Nov. 2014, we very rarely rehearsed.
Say what you like about the band, we were all good improvisers and passionate to the extreme. You also had to have a refined sense of humor and not take yourself too seriously. But in those early days up on Bainbridge Avenue, it was war and we were fighting for our right to make original music with controversial and politicized lyrics.
I hope you enjoy this series; please feel free to add your comments and indeed contradict at will. What days we had - and the nights were even better! - Larry Kirwan
“Home of the Brave”
Black 47 did its first gig in the Bronx in October 1989. Some of the originals performed were “Desperate” and “Too Late To Turn Back.” Within weeks I had written five or six more, two of which were influenced by those first nights up on Bainbridge Avenue - “Home of the Brave” and “Paddy's Got a Brand New Reel” (with a nod to the one and only, James Brown).
Another was called “Green Card” - a reggae type number - which had the temerity to suggest that an undocumented Irish girl might marry a Jamaican guy to become legal.
Of course, the song was tongue-in-cheek and it wasn't one of my favorites anyway but, to my amazement, I discovered that the "new Irish" took a dim view about being the subjects of any song which was not self-glorifying.
Still, I didn't lose a lot of sleep over the matter but felt that we should get some kind of recording out on the streets as soon as possible. So, Chris Byrne and I pooled about $500 together and I took it to a friend of mine, Joe Johnston, in whose studio I had done some recordings for modern dance. Joe's rate was $30 per hour but we settled on $25. With reel-to-reel tape costing around $200 that left us with about 12 hours to get something down.
We chose 4 songs, “Home,” “Paddy,” “Too Late” and a cover of Dominick Behan's “Patriot Game” which was causing a stir in the bars (I had programmed in an odd 6/8 urban beat that sent the venerated song in a whole different direction. Dylan fans might care to note that Bob lifted the melody for “God On Our Side” from “Patriot Game” - which might suggest why he is so testy when Dominick's name is mentioned in the wonderful movie, “Don't Look Back” - he probably didn't know that Dominick himself had lifted it from an old traditional air, “The Merry Month of May”).
At first, the odd beat even confused us; we would be forced to let the drum machine play a couple of sequences to get the feel and then pray we were coming in on time.
As regards this first recording, I would go in first, lay down the drum machine track then play electric guitar over it and sing the lead vocal, with a weather eye tuned to the clock. Chris, an officer in the NYPD, would arrive down from Midtown North, straight off the job and lay down pipes, whistle, bodhran and vocals.
Fred, who had recently come aboard, as usual, knew exactly what he wanted to play on the trombone. Then, my old comrade from the band Chill Faction, David Conrad would bring in his swooping 5 string bass and nail the song to the wall. I also remember Mike Fazio (also from Chill Faction) adding electric guitar and lute. Eileen Ivers dropped by one night with Joanie Madden and they jammed together, to great effect, on Home and Paddy.
This must have been shortly before Christmas 1989. Around that time, I received a call from Janet Noble, a playwright friend of mine. Her play, “Away Alone” - about illegal Irish emigrants - was due to open in the Irish Arts Center and her director Terry Lamude was looking for some incidental music. I dropped off the finished sides and some vocal-less rhythm tracks and Terry very skillfully inserted them in his production.
“Away Alone” became quite the hit in the Irish community. The songs had an immediate in-your-face quality and contributed to the raw Bronx-like atmosphere. The play immediately added to our "legitimacy."
People who had dismissed us as a crowd of wankers now tended to see us in a different light. To jump on the bandwagon, we titled the cassette, “Away Alone” and, to further fill it out, I wrote and recorded a rather dirge-like anthem, coincidentally called “Away Alone” which, I'm glad to say, appears to have completely disappeared.
On New Year's Day 1990, Thomas Hamlin and Frank Gallagher - Galigula from the song, Rockin' The Bronx and soundman for our old group, Major Thinkers - were out for a walk and decided to drop by my apartment to say hello.
Frank had moved back to London and was working for Frank Murray, manager of the Pogues. By coincidence, the two Franks were forming a new record company and when Galigula dropped by I was making copies of the cassette. He took back a copy to London with him.
Some days later, I get a call from Frank Murray offering to have our cassette be their first release. As simple as that! However, Frank Murray didn't like “Away Alone” as a title. Voila! “Home of the Brave.” The cassette was pressed up but, right before its release, Frank's daughter was badly hurt in a swimming accident. Frank scrapped the company and gave us the cassettes.
However, we remained good friends. Now Frank Gallagher, being the dogged Scotchman that he is, persevered and arranged some dates for us in London in December 1990. Chris, Geoff, Fred and I went over and did three pub gigs and two opening slots for the Pogues.
The first was their Christmas 1990 show at Brixton Academy with Kristy McColl, among others.
At that time, Fred quite often taped our shows. He did this for his own head, if not edification, and would just place his walkman on the soundboard before going on stage; for economy, he invariably used the cheapest 90 cent normal bias tapes.
When we got back to NYC, I borrowed the Brixton tape and was intrigued by it. You could hear the crowd booing us as we took to the stage and screaming for "Shane, Shane, Shane!" At the time, I was in no mood to be booed by a crowd of half-assed Londoners, so I turned the amp up to the proverbial 11, added full volume to the distortion pedal and gave these Shaneatics the benefit of a thunderous open E Major chord. That blew eardrums, if not minds, and settled things down considerably. By the end of the gig, the crowd was civil - if still unconvinced of our budding greatness.
Some of the songs we did that night include “Rockin' The Bronx,” “Free Joe Now,” “Paddy's Got a Brand New Reel” and, because it was some kind of John Lennon anniversary, “Liverpool Fantasy,” a song from a play of mine of the same title, which segued into “Get Up, Stand Up” by Bob Marley. We included these songs on the cassette of “Home of the Brave.”
So, to the best of my memory, that tape had three different incarnations: 1. Away Alone. 2. Home of the Brave (Frank Murray's version) and 3. Home of the Brave/Live in London. The tape sold mightily at gigs and helped finance our next recording which would be the Black 47 Independent CD.
Do you have any photos of going to see Black 47 or any memories of their shows that you'd like to share with us? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Black 47" in the subject and we'll include them in Larry Kirwan's collected history.
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