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Two documentaries – a life apart.

March 26, 2019

On Tuesday July 18th 1967, as a fifteen year old,  excited at the start of school summer holidays, I sat down to watch a BBC documentary on Dickie Rock, lead singer with Dublin’s Miami Showband.

I had a special interest in this film because  the year before, on my first “teenage holiday”  to Ireland, I had fallen in love with the glamour and energy of the showband scene, the dancing, the live music, the emotional completeness of it all  especially for a fairly sheltered teenager.

Each night, in the Hydro Hotel Ballroom in Kilkee, Co Clare, I would hover by the stage – alternately watching the powerful bands in action,  their brass sections, their Binatone echo chambers, the  stage craft of their performance, or dancing nervously, and in a horribly gauche way, with any girl I felt would  not turn me down.

During the day, if I heard the band were rehearsing, beach and sun would be ignored, and I’d be there in the empty ballroom, asking questions, singing along, wrapped in the music and the rehearsal process.

For all this was “the swinging sixties”, this was as close as I would ever get to “the happening scene”. Most of the attraction came from the accessibility of the lads in the bands: they would chat to you, show you chords, share lyrics. For a shy teenager, it was a brilliant experience.

The scene was invisible across the Irish Sea, outside of Irish communities, and I laboured manfully to explain to my progressive music mates at home that the showbands provided much more than just a set of top ten cover versions.

So, watching the BBC documentary, I was delighted to see the phenomenon getting a proper airing in the UK. The angle taken was that the Miami were “Ireland’s answer to the Beatles”. This was the usual description for any highly popular band of the time, but, in this case, there was some justification – in the screaming crowds, their reaction, and the band’s position on the country’s music scene.

Less than three weeks later, Sunday August 6th, back in Kilkee again, we were sitting chatting to other guests in the hotel lounge at the Hydro, when the subject of the Miami came up. I enthused about the programme I had watched three weeks before, and one of the other guests said, “Would you like to see them?”

It was the sort of tease adults would often offer to youngsters in those days, and I laughed knowingly as I said: “Oh yeah!” like you might agree to the offer of dinner with Paul McCartney.

However, I wasn’t as clever as I thought.

To cut a long story short, the man speaking was Dr Carney from Dublin, and he was Dickie Rock’s GP. In addition, the Miami were actually playing in Kilkee that night, about three hundred yards from where we sat. This was all news to me.

We got in the doctor’s car and he drove around the bay.

There was a huge Marquee set up in a field on the edge of the town – it is actually the GAA pitch now – there were cars and bicycles parked haphazardly everywhere, and the tent glowed like a space ship landing on an alien planet.

People were surrounding the marquee, trying to find a way in under the canvas flaps. A fair bit of drink would have been taken, but not to the obsessive amount you would tend to find these days.

The music from within floated upwards and was hard to catch, but the sense of excitement  would almost flatten you. The Miami were in town; this was a big occasion.

The gig was clearly sold out, but Dr Carney approached the guys at the entrance, said a few words, and then turned and ushered us in.

In a lifetime we retain some memories in a vivid and intractable manner. They are not always the major moments – they are sometimes rather recollections of  events which have resonated to lasting effect. So it was with the Miami in Kilkee.

My reaction was no doubt a reflection of the time in my life, the start of a much anticipated holiday, and a love of music and live performance. In addition it was my first time at a marquee dance.

We were hit by a wave of noise, heat, and movement.

There are wellness treatments you can get now  based on sensory deprivation – you float weightless, blindfolded, and deaf,  in a tub in darkness, and luxuriate in the calm caused by the muting of your senses. That night in the Kilkee marquee was the exact opposite of  that.

Had it been a cartoon, my eyes and mouth would have been wide open, my hair standing on end.

The tent was a breathing mass of people. The band were playing a slow dance – Anita Harris’ popular hit “Just Loving You”-  so the crowd was swaying rhythmically as the couples  tried to find space to slow dance to the music. The lads on stage were luminous in the lights, moving in harmony, delivering the sound.

Dickie Rock spotted the Doc and nodded to him.

As the set ended we followed the flow to the side of the tent and headed nearer to the stage. Dickie bent over and said a few words to Dr Carney who obviously explained who we were. The singer looked up and waved to us. I self consciously gave a thumbs up. So soon was this after my viewing of the television documentary, it almost felt as if I’d stepped into the screen. I wasn’t sure it was actually happening. After all, half an hour ago, the thought that I’d ever see the Miami would never have entered my head, now I was sheepishly smiling at their lead vocalist.

Band leader Paul Ashford gave the sign and they commenced the next set with a full on version of their current Number One hit – “Baby, I’m your Man.”

It’s not the greatest song ever written, but it starts with a  wall of brass  that is exhilarating, and that got the crowd up and dancing before the first couple of bars were completed.

Back in those days, there were probably few better experiences than seeing a band play their current number one song live.

The sound level almost took me off my feet. I’ve seen The Who live half a dozen times or more since then, and I presume, in terms of wattage there were times when they were much more powerful than the Miami in Kilkee – but in my head it has never felt like it.

The crowd, which had been a swaying mass when we entered, was changed into a rolling surge. Dances being alcohol free in those days, the danger of an accident was limited – it felt exciting rather than dangerous. We moved to the side out of the way of the dancing throng.

My eyes were transfixed by the sight and sound of a band at the top of their game in full flow. Then I realised the whole wooden floor was moving. Up and down it went in time with the beat, and, on the edge of the tent, we were bouncing, pushed up off our feet without making any effort.

If ever I saw a band and a crowd at one – musically, physically and emotionally, it was that night. If you said: “I went to a dance and saw the Miami” you wouldn’t even be capturing one per cent of the experience.

Eventually, with a wave to the singer, Doc Carney led us out into the night. I don’t think it is hindsight to suggest that, even at that second, in the mud of the field and with my ears ringing, I realised it was a moment I would never lose.

Of course, time moves on. Along with the fashion,  and my age, my musical tastes changed – but I retained a love of live performance and attend concerts still, as I have done all my life.

What I didn’t know that night was that this was the apotheosis of the Miami in many ways. The Showband Scene was at its height and there were lots of agents and promoters looking to make as much as possible while it lasted. A month later three of the band left to form the Sands Showband and the iconic Miami line up which we had seen was no more.

The showbands themselves went into decline as discos and rock bands started to attract the young and the showband crowd grew older. It is the way of popular music, and though thousands were sad, it was really  the loss of their youth that affected them rather than the bands themselves. For the musicians and promoters, cabaret, country and western, Las Vegas or “real life” beckoned. Ireland moved a little more shakily into the later 20th century.

The Miami, however, carried on, now more a group than a classic showband, and with a few further changes in personnel, but still beloved to thousands.

I was always glad I’d watched that documentary on the band, and got to see them live. One of the great joys of life is being in the right place at the right time.

On July 31st 1975, I was spending my final Summer at home, and  had enjoyed my last “family” holiday in Kilkee. Degree and teacher training completed, I would start my teaching career in two weeks time.

I could see the upset on my mother’s face as she woke me up.

“It’s the Miami  – they’ve been blown up!”

She had been with us in the marquee that night, I could see the tears in her eyes.

We were getting sadly accustomed to being woken with sad news from  the Six Counties, but, even so, this was a piece of information that stunned me. It was unheard of for entertainers to become embroiled in the Troubles in this way. And, of course, the Miami still inhabited that special place in my head – slightly apart from my mainstream musical interests, more a visceral reminder of what it was like to be fifteen and on holiday and buzzing for the future.

As was always the case, there were statements produced from hither and yon, the “facts” of the case were relatively quickly revealed – the bomb being planted, the explosion, the shooting of Steven,Tony, Fran, and Brian. Nothing seemed to make sense about the whole vile incident, but folk were too shocked initially to question what was being reported.

As it happened, none of the lads in that minibus had been on the bandstand that night in Kilkee, but that hardly mattered. I had still followed their music, admired Fran’s voice, Des’s writing, Tony’s guitar playing, Brian’s brass section. It didn’t seem possible that three of them  were gone – and in such a way.

Because I had no idea what else to do, I wrote a poem: “Good night, God Bless, and Safe Home”, the traditional Showband farewell. The line I remember, over forty years later, is a reminder of the awkwardness of my emotions: “When the Banbridge devils made the banshee scream”  It remains a clumsy collection of words, but I still can’t find better.

Last night, I watched another documentary on the Miami Showband.

This Netflix production, based on Stephen Travers’ brave and long commitment to his band mates in finding out exactly who was behind the atrocity and why it was planned, was a clear and concise explanation of the events of July 1975 – with telling involvement from the two  band members who were there and survived, and from those involved in the conflict on all sides.

The bass player’s willingness to reach out to the different elements who were involved – and the agreement of  some of them to take part  – is inspirational and gives a scent of hope. Having followed the story over the decades, I learned no new facts during the documentary – but it will, however, be eye opening to those less aware of the situation during the Troubles. However, I was given cause to reflect again on the aftermath of the event, and the ripples of misery it spread out, far beyond the immediate grief and trauma of those directly involved, their friends and loved ones.

We know, of course, that those who take up arms for a cause are frequently blinded to all that exists beyond that cause – and maybe that demonstrates how three innocent musicians could have been slaughtered, without a thought for the thousands of memories tarnished or the music muted.

As the documentary pointed out, even at the height of the Troubles, music was a release for those who went to dances or concerts or sessions. Physically and emotionally, it was a reminder of the positive beauty that could come from human creativity and skill, and a chance to live in the moment – for the beat, the lyric, the  moves. And if this was true for folk in the Six Counties, it was also true, albeit on a less frantic level, for folk elsewhere.

When Fran and Brian and Tony  were killed, and Stephen and Des injured, that escape route through music – whether from the strain of the Troubles, or, for the rest of us, from the mundane worries of everyday life, was compromised. The sheen on the glitter was dulled, and, with it, so were the memories we had.

For eight years after the gig in the Kilkee marquee, whenever I played a record by the Miami, or even heard their name mentioned, I could be, however briefly, that starry eyed fifteen year old in the marquee, enveloped in a new sort of magic of the band’s making – eager for what life would bring, still looking on the world as a place of hope.

After July 1975, just two weeks before the start of a happy teaching career, any mention of the Miami no longer took me to the pulsating joy of a tent in a field on the edge of Kilkee, but to a lay by on Buskills Rd a few miles north of Newry, with a shattered minibus, and the poignant echo of “Safe Home” in a  hedgerow as charred and ripped as the band photos scattered on the scorched earth.

I had celebrated that Miami gig in 1967 as my being in the right place at the right time, and now I was left with the lifelong realisation that life also delivers the tragedy of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You could call that growing up – but only in the sense that half drowning is learning to swim.

I understand and admire Stephen Travers; for his need to get to the truth rather than blame, for his hard work to try and achieve a revelation of the truth of what really happened that night – and why it could have happened.

I hope he is successful: he deserves to be, and his bandmates, alive and dead, will benefit from his brave commitment, his love, and ongoing determination. I cannot begin to imagine the pain he and Des and  drummer Ray Miller, and the band’s  loved ones, have endured through the years.

But the impact of those murders resonated far beyond that lay by and those most involved. For me, and thousands of others of my generation, who were touched and enlivened by the music of a band called the Miami, the future was changed and the colours of our lives would never be quite so bright again.

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