You’ve probably been hearing about Belfast lately. I know I had. All ‘Snow Patrol’ this and ‘Duke Special on the Waterfront’ that and ‘Oh that’s just Rihanna shooting a music video’ – it felt like it was about time I listened up.
My iPod ticking with appropriate soundtrack (Snow Patrol, Two Door Cinema Club, Cashier No9) and even a dedicated , I take my ears on a trip to the Northern Ireland capital.
My first lesson, as I step off the train and onto the Belfast Music Tour bus, is that I have not been hearing Belfast lately – I’ve been hearing it for a lot longer than that. The capital has been making a contribution to music for decades, one in astounding proportion to its petite size.
Hence why deserves its very own tour. Against an impeccable soundtrack, the bus weaves by venues, hotels, city streets and quiet neighbourhoods, all the inconspicuous sites that went on to inspire some of the most powerful music of the 20th Century.
We look to the left to the site of the Ritz, where The Beatles played in 1963. Inspired in the audience that night was a young man named Gary Moore. Cue ‘Still Got the Blues for You’ – one of the most famous songs from the legendary late guitarist, singer and member of Thin Lizzy. The song gives me goosebumps as we drive on.
To the right a plaque marks the spot of the Maritime Hotel, where Van Morrison, part of the rhythm ‘n’ blues group Them, did his first gigs. His native city appeared often in his music – we sway gently to his song ‘Cyprus Avenue‘, named after a pretty tree-lined Belfast avenue, as we drive down it.
The beat goes on as the bus and stories ramble on; the legend of Ruby Murray is illustrated by a mural in her community, to the bittersweet sounds of her song ‘Smile’ performed by Duke Special. Crooner Brian Kennedy, fiddler Sean Maguire, and the McPeake Family (whose fans included John Lennon and Bob Dylan) all fill our ears and imagination as we pass the neighbourhood that nurtured and inspired them.
It’s refreshing to see through another thread of its complex history, one where ‘troubles’ is something a roadie has with a badly tuned guitar.
As driver Kevin puts it;
Music was a unifying thing. In the 70’s, it didn’t matter what religion you were, as long as you were a punk.
Talent attracts talent, and this native melting-pot music scene led to some the biggest names adding Belfast to their tour dates. The faces of Oasis, Paul Weller, Run DMC, The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Jeff Buckley and Primal Scream pout from the wall of fame in venues and . All scrawled with autographs and messages, Oasis’ reads “this is the Real McCoy”.
Our guide’s eyes twinkle as he divulges some of the building’s rock ’n’ roll lore. How in ’94, Jeff Buckley’s crew requested 20 sodas for his gig in the Limelight, presumably mixers for their whiskey. Instead of the expected soft drinks, in their dressing room they found trays of the local bakery’s best bacon sodas, cheese sodas and ham sodas. Apparently they even ate the lot.
The stories will continue when more big players arrive for the upcoming . Gazing along the countless rows of gleaming frames, I can’t help fearing they’re going to run out of walls.
There’s plenty more space in the of course, where the mothership of music megastardom, the MTV European Music Awards, will land in November. As the bus rounds the outside of the huge, modern stadium, I reckon the likes of Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Adele and Beyoncé will find plenty of room to hang with the rest of the city’s success stories.
Belfast Music Week will provide an all-singing, all-dancing, lead-up to the awards, with plenty of tricks up its own music sleeve. Our guide gets all breathy and excited as he reels off the Belfast Unplugged, Belfast Rocks, Belfast Electronica and the NI Music Awards events on the bill. I hope he doesn’t burn out by the time Sunday’s climatic EMAs rock’n’roll around.
We end the tour in the , part venue, part recording-studio, part music exhibition dripping with memorabilia. An ode to the artists that have gone before, and all sorts of nurturing to new talent. A CD is thrust into our hand. Oh Yeah Contenders; a collection of the city’s young talents and rising stars including The Wonder Villains, A Plastic Rose and Ram’s Pocket Radio.
Maybe we’ll be driving by their house on this tour in a few years. Knowing this town though, you’ll be hearing them well before that.
For everything Belfast Music, including the music tour, Belfast Music Week, the app and gig listings, press play on this: BelfastMusic.Org
Belfast Music Week takes place between 30 October – 6 November 2011. Have a drool at the online programme to see every gig and event happening in the run-up to the MTV EMAs.
Find out more about the MTV EMAs and all the events on our Belfast Music page.