Phil Coulter is doing a live, on-line residence from Ratoath in County Meath and promises to give his fans as much of the full, live concert experience as is possible during lockdown. See: Phil Coulter plays The Venue Theatre, Ratoath, Co. Meath 1-3 October. For more information, go to Phil Coulter on Facebook.
In this wide ranging interview with The Irish World he explains why he turned to Facebook and looks back on his life, his time in London in the so-called ‘Swinging Sixties’, reflects on his greatest achievements – in life and professionally – and how it feels to me from the same Derry school that produced two Nobel Prize winners and one of Ireland’s greatest playwrights.
The times Phil loved so well
By David Hennessy
In 65 years in the music business Irish World award winner Phil Coulter has written songs for The Dubliners, Bay City Rollers, Cliff Richard, Sandie Shaw and Cilla Black. He even wrote for ‘The King’ himself, Elvis Presley.
Among his songs are the The Town I Loved So Well, Scorn Not His Simplicity and the 32-county rugby anthem, Ireland’s Call.
After months of little to no activity regarding live performances, Phil will return to the stage this week with three live concerts from the Venue Theatre, Ratoath, Co. Meath, building on the on-line social media success of Phil’s Lockdown Lounge.
Limited numbers can attend in person but the on-line, livestream audience is truly global.
He takes the view that while this is undoubtedly not a good time for performers or musicians – it IS time to innovate. not appeal for sympathy: “When our business fell off the edge of a cliff, you had two options.
“Either you sit in the corner feeling sorry for yourself or you have to adapt.
“You’re talking to an old dog here who had to learn some new tricks.
“In 65 years in the music business, I have had to reinvent myself a few times. This learning curve has been one of the steepest.
“Luckily in my team I have a couple of younger guys who were the first to encourage me to embrace this technology.
“We started concentrating on the Facebook page which, up until now, I paid no attention to it, I have to confess.”
Phil’s Lockdown Lounge saw him playing some songs, telling stories about his time in the industry and reading some chapters of his book.
These shows have built up over a million views over two months.
“Ten or eleven weeks we’ve been doing that. That tells me that this is the way to connect with my believers, my followers, my fans.
“We’re picking up believers from Buenos Aires to Namibia and South Africa to Malaysia and that’s a bonus.
“The real thrust for me in my presence online is to keep in touch with my own fans, my own believers, the people who have been loyal to me for all of these years and it’s a bonus for me if I can make some new believers in the great cyber world out there.
“You’ve two choices. Hence the venue in Ratoath, I’m not sitting in the corner waiting for people to give me credit or to give me a handout or whatever.
“I’m getting off my arse and doing something about it.
“I would be in what they call that vulnerable over-70s group.
“Here in Ireland we had to cocoon, meaning we couldn’t leave the property so the best I could do was potter around in the garden.
“For me, that was the most difficult time. Those first five, six weeks.
“Why? It was a blur. There was nothing to distinguish one day from the next.
“It was one Groundhog Day giving way to the next Groundhog Day and the small weekend giving way to the big weekend.
“To be honest in the morning, I was very grateful for my pill box because it told me what day of the week it was.
“I’ve really appreciated what we’ve been up to for the last ten weeks because it’s given me a structure.
“It’s kept my brain stimulated and it’s also kept me in touch with my fans, but the next stage must be to bring it up to the live stream concert.
“I know there are lots of guys stepping up to do those kinds of things from the front room or the garage or wherever but shame on me, as a veteran of the game, if I couldn’t raise the stakes.
“Having been in this game for so long, I’m old-fashioned enough to believe if you’re going to ask people to pay for access to a live stream concert, you have to up the game.
“You have to really step up to the plate.
“Instead of doing it very low key and casual from the house, we’re doing it from the Venue Theatre in Ratoath. It’s a charming little theatre that I played many times in Co. Meath.
“That’s the way we’re going to do it: proper theatre, proper stage, proper set, proper lighting, multi-cameras, television director.
“I want to keep faith with the people who are going to be buying the tickets.”
The last time Phil played to a room full of people, it was when he played The Town, I Loved So Well at the funeral of his good friend John Hume.
Phil and John knew each other as far back as secondary school.
“We went to St Columb’s in Derry, a place that has become famous because it has produced two Nobel Prize winners in John Hume and Seamus Heaney.
“That’s a boast that very few schools can actually match.
“Even the most expensive of public schools in the UK can’t boast that one.
“St Columb’s was a great breeding ground.
“Brian Friel was another product. Paul Brady was another product; Eamon McCann was another product.
“Hume was in class there with my older brother. He was about four years ahead of me.
“In those days John spent as much time in our house as he did in his own, so we have been friends since those days and stayed friends right through.
“As they were carrying his remains out of the cathedral at the very sad funeral of John Hume in Derry not so long ago, I just very quietly played on the piano The Town I Loved So Well.
“It was very appropriate as the send-off. When he passed, his friends and family were disappointed that, because of the Covid thing, we couldn’t give him the State Funeral with all the bells and whistles, but do you know what?
“In the event, what he got was like a hometown farewell to a local hero: family and close friends was far more fitting, far more appropriate, and far more what John Hume would have wanted.
“When I was playing, the John Hume that I was thinking about in those poignant moments was not John Hume the Statesman, not John Hume the Architect of Peace, not John Hume who brought about the Good Friday Agreement.
“I was thinking of my pal and my buddy and how the two of us had sung duets together of the Town I Loved So Well, usually after a feed of drink, it has to be said, in so many weird and wonderful locations, be it The White House, some dirty pub in Donegal or the Nobel Peace Awards.
“That’s the John Hume I was thinking about. He was a giant of a man. As a politician, you know he was, but as a human being, he was a fine man. He will be sadly, sadly missed.
“He’s left a great legacy behind not only in Derry but throughout the whole island.”
Phil is often asked how so many notable people came from that one school, he knows the answer.
“They ask me about St. Columb’s, and they ask me, ‘Was it the school for the very gifted? Was it the school for the sons of the well connected, the rich and the famous and the privileged?’
“I said, ‘No, no, no. It was the only school’.
“We didn’t think it was anything special at the time. What was drummed into all of us, and I’ve spoken about this down through the years with the likes of Hume, Heaney, Friel or Brady, was that if you had a talent, you also had a God-given responsibility to work at that talent.
“All of us had different gifts and have pursued different paths in our lives but the one thing we all agreed that we all had in common was a good Northern work ethic.
“The biggest myth in the music industry, perpetuated by a lot of talented people, is that because you’re talented the world owes you a living.
“The talent only gets you into the start of the game. It’s the hard work and the application and the doggedness that keeps you there and hopefully progresses you through it. Simple as that.”
Phil has seen the powerful difference John Hume made to their native Derry.
“Derry has become a destination. I was up in Derry visiting friends and family and I saw a sign outside the Guild Hall, ‘Tour buses Parking’.
“Well, when I grew up in Derry, tour buses didn’t come to Derry, tour buses left Derry to go anywhere else. Derry wasn’t a destination. They didn’t come to Derry as visitors.
“Now they are, and I’m delighted. Derry is enjoying a bit of good luck that has been coming its way for a long time.
“There are walking tours of Derry now.
“There is even a walking tour called The Town I Loved So Well that retraces the specific places I mention in the song. It’s a very different place now.”
A walking tour named after him would give most a sense of pride but Phil is in no doubt about what he believes his most impressive achievement have been – both professionally and personally.
“I was asked this question very recently which kind of focused my brain.
“The first question was, what was my greatest achievement in my 70-plus years on this planet?
“Well, my greatest achievement is to have brought nine kids into the world. That’s my greatest achievement.”
In song writing, Phil is most proud that Elvis sang his song, My Boy.
“Professionally, my proudest boast, I think, is that I’m the only non-American songwriter to have written a hit single for Elvis Presley. Because I’m of an age where I remember when Elvis burst on the scene and completely redefined what pop music was all about. I was there when that all happened. Pop music was turned on its head.
“Presley was the man. Iconic doesn’t even begin to describe him so when I was a kid growing up in Derry, I was listening on a beat up radio to Elvis Presley singing Hound Dog, Don’t Be Cruel, Heartbreak Hotel.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think he would be singing one of my songs.
“There are other songs of course that I have a soft spot for. If you ask me to pick one song that I choose to be remembered for, I think that would have to be The Town I Loved So Well.”
Written about his own life in Derry, The Town I Loved So Well was an attempt to reconcile The Troubles with where he enjoyed his childhood.
“It means a lot to me for different reasons. Not only is it autobiographical but for many people it defines an era in the North of Ireland. For many people it is anthemic.
“When I wrote the song, I wrote it about a specific place, a specific time and I mentioned specific streets.
“It was a great revelation to me to discover how the specific can become universal.
“At the last count, there was 50-plus different versions of it, and it had been translated into 15 or 16 different languages.
“It’s been a hit in a number of different countries.
“People listening in Copenhagen can still identify with the sentiment.
“When I sat down to write the song for the Bay City Rollers, it was geared to the charts, geared to the cash register, geared to the Top 20.
“When I sat down to write the likes of The Town, I Love So Well or Scorn Not His Simplicity, they weren’t.
They were songs that I wrote for me and I was fortunate to have Luke Kelly on hand to sing those songs.
“It’s a strange quirk of fate that the two songs that would be closest to my own heart would be those two songs, neither of which were big multi-million sellers.
“You can’t quantify the value of songs like that to a writer in terms of records sold or royalties earned.”
Scorn Not His Simplicity was written about his child who died aged four.
Phil also gets a rush of pride when his rugby anthem is played before an international game.
“The pleasure I get when I’m at an international rugby game and hear a full throated and a full housed Lansdowne Road singing Ireland’s Call.
You can’t quantify that in terms of how much it earns, the fact that the song’s passed into the public domain is what’s satisfying for me.
“When I wrote the song first there was a lot of begrudgery, ‘Why do we need this song?’
“There were conspiracy theorists who thought it was pushy Northerners trying to usurp the national anthem.
“When I hear it now being sung by a full house in Lansdowne Road, it tells me two things. One, that the song is okay. Two, that the begrudgers have finally been silenced.”
From Belfast to London – in the 1960s
In 1964 that, after finishing at Queen’s University Belfast, Phil moved to London.
He speaks passionately about those times.
He started work with a music publisher in Denmark Street and found in the middle of London’s Swinging Sixties music scene.
“When I got out of college, my first stop was to get on a plane to London. I lived there for 20-plus years. I know it well.
“I have a soft spot for London for one simple reason, I got my first shot in London. It’s been very good to me.
“I consider myself very fortunate on the timing. I learned my craft, the craft of song writing – and it is a craft that you have to spend time, and work, at.
“I learned that in Denmark Street, Tin Pan Alley for four years in the late ‘60s, that was the best learning ground you could ever imagine.
“In the ‘60s London was one of the places on the planet that you really wanted to be. There was a great explosion of energy, of talent, of youth.
“The stranglehold the Variety Club, and the long established and respected variety acts, had on music was slowly being broken people from the provinces like The Beatles, acts coming down from Scotland, acts coming over from Ireland, from Liverpool, from the Midlands. There was a great explosion of talent.
“There was a little greasy spoon café, the Gioconda, where all of us aspiring songwriters hung out.
“We didn’t have an arse in our trousers, but we had talent, we had more than that, we had energy.
“We had dedication to keep knocking on the doors.
“I’m talking about people like Les Reed and Barry Mason, Greenaway and Cooke and, Geoff Stephens. I was so lucky to be a part of it.”
This kind of scene does not exist anywhere anymore, he says.
“For a start off, it’s all fragmented. I would say 80 per cent of the music publishing in the UK was concentrated in one street, all of the music publishers had their offices in Denmark Street and where you get music publishers, you get songwriters.
“That’s all gone. The business is so fragmented now, it’s run more by lawyers and accountants than music people.”
Phil’s first address was just around the corner from a famous Irish venue that is no more.
“I lived about five minutes from the Galtymore in Cricklewood. The Irish ghetto, as it seemed to me, when I went over there as a rookie straight from college. I said, ‘I’ll stick with my own here’.
“I lived in Cricklewood for my early years in London.
“I used to bus from Cricklewood Broadway to the tube station at Kilburn, get the tube as far as Piccadilly Circus, come out at Piccadilly Circus and I would stand there, as a rookie recently arrived from Belfast, I would stand there for five minutes drinking it all in – the flashing neon signs, the red buses, the London trams and I would say to myself: ‘Sh*t, I’ve cracked it. I’m here. I’m in London. This is where it’s all happening’.
“Derry was down at heel, but Belfast was even worse.
“Belfast was, in my time in university there, very black and white, very grey, very joyless.
“Those were the days when on a Sunday they used to lock up the park, lock up the swings in case the kids could enjoy themselves.
“You couldn’t get a drink in Belfast on a Sunday. Everything closed at ten o’clock.
Against that background, arriving in Soho was exotic beyond words – all the cars, the smells and all the different people: I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven.
“For my first job, the company I was working for did record a number of the Irish showbands so I would often have to go to the Galtymore to check out the newest band that my boss had got his eye on.
“I’m a veteran of the showbands – playing in one part of the Galtymore and then the Ceili happening in the other part of the Galtymore.
“I remember going to see the The Dixies from Cork in there and I remember going to see Johnny Flynn in there.
“It was an education. The dancing, whether it be a bit of jiving or a sixteen hand reel…or it was just a good fight, there was never a dull moment.”
For years publishers asked Phil to write his memoirs.
“My pal Eamon Dunphy, himself a very successful writer, said, ‘Phil, you better start writing while you can still remember sh*t.”
Bruised, Never Broken was released last year. He says writing it was ‘bittersweet’ but that it also made him realise something poignant as he reflected on his time in London.
“I made a discovery. Having gone down memory lane, researched all those periods in my life, I’m asking myself, ‘What was my favourite? What was the one period that was special to me? What was the one period that still gives me a glow inside?’
“That was my years in London. Especially the early years.
“Those four, five years in Denmark Street when I was striving to get a break and to get into the music business.
“The whole thing of moving to London from the drabness of Belfast was a revelation.
“Not that Cricklewood was particularly glamorous but it was a hell of a lot more glamorous than Belfast.
“I’ve nothing but good memories of my time in London.
“I’ve nothing but good things to say about my life and how I was treated.
“I was often asked that question, ‘As an Irish person in London, were you looked down on or were you treated differently?’ The answer to all of those is no.
“I found nothing but welcome and warmth and hospitality.
“I’ll never have a bad word said about England, about London. Nothing but good things to say.”
Phil Coulter plays Venue Theatre, Ratoath, Co. Meath 1-3 October.
For more information, go to Phil Coulter on Facebook.