2015 BOOK OF THE YEAR
Brian McMahon Brand New Retro
2015 BOOK OF THE YEAR
Brian McMahon Brand New Retro
It is only natural that the 1916 Rising Centenary has seen the launch of, literally, countless books, exhibitions, tours, talks, radio and TV programmes. Yet, as Niall Hope’s review of From Pogrom to Civil War: Tom Glennon and the Belfast IRA indicates, what makes history interesting, important and relevant are the real life stories of everyday people. That was also what I learned from Michael McCaughan’s insight into R.F. Foster’s book, the Vivid Faces: the Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, about the Rising: it’s all about the people. It sounds simple enough, yet sometimes we only learn about the great people (generally men) and the great moments in history. It is as if they came from nowhere. This is clearly not the case.
It is clear that sometimes everyday people find themselves in extraordinary times, or at extraordinary moments. To me, history’s great task is to help us understand not just these moments and events but the people and their everyday lives.
That is why I think that Brian McMahon’s Brand New Retro is not only a brilliant book; it is also a really important one. It is a lavish tome: hardcover, 208 pages, meticulously researched and beautifully designed. It is very clearly a labour of love. It might even be a work of art. I should make it clear that I don’t know who the author is, just in case this fountain of praise makes it sounds like I do. He is behind the brilliant blog, Brand New Retro, which has consistently uncovered and displayed gems from Ireland’s rich, bizarre and unusual popular culture history. It is one of the three Irish culture internet sites that I have learned the most from. The other two are the equally brilliant, Come Here to Me site, and the equally meticulous, Irish Rock.org site. The book Come Here to Me: Dublin’s Other History (Fallon, McGrath and Murray) was my previous ‘book of the year’.
Back to Brand New Retro. Why do I rate it so highly? Here is one reason: I have spent so much time reading it and looking at it, and only now, for the first time, have I noticed that the stool on the front cover is glossy. Now that is care and attention. As I said, a true labour of love.
To understand the Irish music industry, we need to know the details of the small bands, the unknowns; most of information, naturally, comes from the big stars. That skews our perception of the industry and how it works. And here we have pages of material on the little bands, the might-have-beens, as well as the early features on the future stars. For example here we have pages from the incredibly important Black and White fanzine. U2 and the Blades were featured in 1979 and the magazine champions both of them. What is key about the early Irish music fanzines of the punk and new wave era is that they positioned local acts on the same playing field as international acts. The fanzines (Raw Power, Heat and Vox were the best designed) were not just writing about how much they loved local bands. They were also writing (and interviewing) the international acts they loved too.
This is really important. They were placing the local acts alongside the best new international acts. The fanzines were champions of a global music sub-culture: and very importantly for the local scene, they were stating that local Irish acts belonged to that global scene. This was revolutionary. The fanzines clearly argued that a new youth culture was challenging the accepted order, a youth culture with a Do-It-Yourself attitude, and Ireland was part of it.
And here, McMahon’s pages reproduced from Black and White invite the reader to consider how in same issue included articles about the Virgin Prunes, reviews of the Dead Kennedys, Fad Gadget, Cabaret Voltaire and bootlegs too. This was not the mainstream. The book’s section on Music and Showbiz, over 40 pages of images, really brings home how the local music scene developed. It also captures the creative spark of Irish youth, even in the 1960s when Ireland was very remote from the global music industry. It also captures some of the bizarre local offerings from the Irish music industry. Brand New Retro includes ads for Michael Landers: the ‘five-year-old singing sensation’ whose parents decided to send him touring the music venues of the land. It is worth noting that the politician, Oliver J. Flanagan, argued strenuously that it would be a violation of his rights to prohibit what many saw as exploitation of a child.
The local music industry was shaped by domestic and international factors and the book includes images of early Rory Gallaher, Phil Lynott, RTE Guides, Big Tom and the Mainliners, DC Nien, Joe Dolan, nightclubs, discos, early gay rights campaigns, as well as visits from Madness, The Specials, Depeche Mode and Rod Stewart. The latter remind us that the second wave of ska, originated in Britain, was a huge cultural force for Irish youth in the 1980s. Ireland was at the crossroads and this is well documented here.
The sections on Sport, Readers’ Lives, Lifestyle and Fashion also show Ireland at work and at play. Brand New Retro then is not just a series of snapshots, or a scrapbook of ‘how things were’. It is a vibrant document of a changing society. A society being challenged by forces from inside and outside. And as McMahon makes clear in this incredible collection, popular culture was often a means by which accepted practices were challenged. This was a world where Youghal Carpets were a source of national pride and Cork possessed a competitive cosmetics firm. Take a bow, Melinda.
It was a land where people were consumers, increasingly young people. As we see here, they were urged, cajoled and persuaded to buy Dingos jeans, Clarkes shoes, Glen Abbey tights, and Dulux paints. And they might even get Green Shield stamps with those purchases.
If the book is a shrine to love it is features a fair share of heartbreak. While some forces advance youth culture, there will also be others who will exploit it. The 1971 magazine advertisement for Hibernian Insurance, for example, features a crying, vulnerable young mini-skirted lady. The emotive headline reads: ‘Sue won’t be going to the dance tonight’. Why? Because heartless thieves have broken into her flat. She made the mistake of not having insurance and she now dabs her eyes with a hankie amongst the strewn remains of her possessions: including a box of Weetabix, coat hangers and boxes of matches. Presumably the Gardai were now looking for well-dressed, breakfast-hating, non-smoking criminals.
McMahon points out how the advice given in Ireland’s ‘problem pages’ generally consisted of: ‘discuss with a priest’ or send off for that special book from Easons (book shop)’ (p. 179). But this highlights how prominent the clergy were in Irish cultural life during this era. Yet, this was often in under-documented and surprising ways.
Some of the most startling images are the early 1970s covers of the magazine, An Gael Óg (the Young Irish). They evoked music, fun, freedom and even boys and girls having fun together. The poignant drawings, which must have been cool in their time, feature a young man playing records as well as a young woman playing guitar with concentration. Listen to, and playing, music was a source of pleasure. Another cover features a young man and woman singing, notably she is the guitar player. One even features what appears to be a joyously happy telephone conversation between a young man and young woman. Perhaps the most surprising image though, is of a young couple on a motor bike. The mountain scenery in the background looks familiarly Irish. Yet the smiling young woman holding onto a young man as the motorbike transports them together was not the traditional Irish establishment image of a rigid separation of the sexes. In one of the book’s many surprises I learned that the magazine was published by the Christian Brothers order whose vice-like grip on Irish education has been well documented, often chillingly, elsewhere.
The book perfectly encapsulates an ever-shifting cultural terrain. And it is clear that the consequences of these shifts were important. The gleeful images shine with important examples of struggles over consumerism and commercialism; uniformity and self-expression; as well as craft and identity.
A fun book. A beautiful book. An important book. Everyone who wants to understand Ireland’s history should get their hands on it.
Michael Mary Murphy