Bombs, bullets and Good Vibrations
Richard Dormer and Terri Hooley. Picture: Steffan Hill

When Terri Hooley, a scallywag music lover and self-confessed "old hippie", decided to open a record store in the middle of bomb-torn late-1970s Belfast, his friends and family thought he was insane.

Even more insane, it seemed, was the name he chose for his store. Good Vibrations harked back to some pot-scented halcyon time before the streets of Hooley's home town became no-go zones after dark and you could be shot at for your religious persuasion.

Good Vibrations became an anti-sectarian gathering place of sorts, a neutral zone where only one thing mattered: good music. Except it wasn't flower-bedecked, sandal-wearing hippies who flocked to Hooley's store - it was a new crew of peroxided, pierced, and leather-jacket-wearing punks.

With Good Vibrations, directors Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn - himself a Belfast native - have created a rollickingly enjoyable film about Hooley's seminal place in the history of Northern Irish punk, which spawned one of the all-time 70s classics - the Undertones' Teenage Kicks - and a handful of lesser-known bands such as the Outcasts and Rudi.

Hooley (Richard Dormer) is a hoot, a wonderfully charismatic character who combines the best of two seemingly incongruous eras. He's a hippie in that he cannot buy into The Troubles - he remembers a time when his friends were a ragtag rainbow of feminists, anarchists, socialists and pacifists, and now everyone is simply Catholic or Protestant - but he's a punk too, an anti-capitalist who's been transformed by the energy, anger and vigour of punk rock. Even when his little record store expands into a record label and he manages to get the Undertones on to Top of the Pops, he refuses to "sell out".

"The punk scene really did save a lot of people and that's one of the reasons there is a real warmth for Terri and the music scene at the time," Leyburn says of Hooley's legacy. "This is a story about the irrepressible spirit of youth and the power of music, even in the toughest places and times. Belfast needed punk. The stuff that punk bands across the world were singing about, the punks in Northern Ireland were living through."

While the Sex Pistols were wailing about the monarchy's "fascist regime", it was the Belfast boys who were quite literally dodging bombs and gunfire on a daily basis. There's a wonderful moment towards the film's end where Hooley runs on stage at a punk fundraiser to save his financially flagging store and yells: "New York has the haircuts, London has the trousers. But we have the reason."

Leyburn adds: "As Joe Strummer said, 'If punk was hard, Ulster was harder'. This scene meant more than whether or not the bands topped the charts, or whether you were wearing the right bondage trousers. It changed how people thought and how they went on to live their lives. A whole new generation of local bands and musicians cite Terri and Good Vibrations as an inspiration, so it still resonates decades later."

When John Peel - the first radio DJ to play Teenage Kicks outside Ireland - died in 2004, a number of Undertones lyrics popped up overnight, scrawled across the walls of Belfast's buildings. It was an indication of the respect people continued to hold for both Peel and the Undertones, whose lead singer, Feargal Sharkey, would go on to have a successful solo career in the 1980s.

While Good Vibrations has elements of drama - it doesn't shy away from depicting the violence that dogged Belfast's streets, the rise of neo-nazism, or Hooley's marital and financial difficulties - the film is imbued throughout with classically Irish humour. D'Sa says they didn't want to make a film specifically about The Troubles, although it formed the backdrop for the unfolding of Terri's story and influenced the direction his life ended up taking.

"There have been wonderful films made on the subject but usually they're looking at the story through the divide, or looking at things from one side or other," she says.

"But Terri's story transcends those boundaries and that's what makes the story so engaging. It's about people who tried to live other lives in a world polarised by the conflict. Terri didn't plan a mission or set out to turn himself into some kind of counter-culture hero. He improvised as the world shifted around him and created some magic."

The film captures the almost apocalyptic feel of 70s Belfast - a grim, desolate, crumbling city drained of colour and life - and contrasts that with the energetic vigour of a thriving underground punk movement. The moment where Hooley wanders accidentally into a punk gig and ends up drunkenly pogo-ing with a bunch of spiky-haired kids is both life-affirming and, clearly for Hooley, life-changing.

Several years later, after the Sex Pistols had imploded, Johnny Rotten rose from the ashes of punk to create a new band called Public Image Limited. In 1986 they released a song called Rise, which was ostensibly about South African apartheid. But it also contained the Irish blessing "may the road rise with you", and in its repeated final refrain, announced "anger is an energy."

It was a fitting assessment of what drew so many - Hooley included - to punk in the first place.

The West Australian

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