The songs he writes so well
Phil Coulter talks songwriting, Van Morrison, Derry, and Luke Kelly
“I’LL TELL you something, I mightn’t be in this business at all if it wasn’t for a Galwayman, Des Kelly,” Phil Coulter tells me during our interview on Tuesday morning. “He was the leader of the Capitol Showband who were the biggest in Ireland when I was a student in Queen’s in Belfast.”
Phil Coulter, composer of such iconic Irish songs as ‘The Town I Loved So Well’ and ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’; producer of The Bay City Rollers, Van Morrison, and Planxty; and co-writer of songs for Them and Shandy Shaw, is celebrating 45 years in the music business, but how does he owe it to the Galway guitarist and radio DJ?
“A RAG Week concert was coming up and I had a band, a trio,” says Phil. “It was known I was into music and one of the organisers came up to me and asked if I knew anyone who’d play it and I said ‘I’m your man’. We were writing songs and had released the single ‘Foolin’ Time’. That summer the band was working in Bundoran in the Great Southern Hotel, when the Capitol came through and I met them. Later on they called me to join them in a late drinking venue where they were having a session. Well I galloped there, these were heroes of mine.
“The following day they came up to the hotel to play golf and someone had passed a copy of ‘Foolin’ Time’ to Des Kelly. Later I got a phonecall from him, and it really was one of those phonecalls that change your life - I can remember it as clear as yesterday - and Des asked if it would be OK to record it as a single, which they went on to have a top five hit with. That was what started the whole thing going. Suddenly I was a songwriter. I was in the Irish charts. Des Kelly was the man that opened the door up and along with Luke Kelly I owe him a considerable debt.”
Luke Kelly’s renditions of Phil’s ‘The Town I Loved So Well’ and ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’, are, by any measure, the definitive performances of those great songs. Phil however goes further.
“They are much more than definitive,” he says. “When I was growing up I was exposed to Irish folk and trad and captivated by Sean Ó Riada. I got a grá for it, but my knowledge was limited but Luke had endless sources of songs. He had been in the UK with Ewan MacColl and had learned a lot from him. When I took over The Dubliners as producer, he was the one constantly nagging me to write songs in the folk idiom.
“That kind of song is cut from a different cloth and would handle more ‘grown up’ issues than say ‘Puppet On A String’ [Phil and Bill Martin’s 1967 Eurovision winner for Sandie Shaw]. This is real. This was about delving into your heart and feelings. I would have shied away from that were it not for Luke Kelly.”
Among Phil’s early folk orientated songs was ‘Free The People’ written in the immediate aftermath of internment in the North of Ireland in 1971, but as the violence escalated Phil was concerned to write a more considered summation of what was happening to his hometown. Taking his time - he admits it “took him a year” to write - he produced ‘The Town I Loved So Well’. “It was no accident that was sung by Luke Kelly either,” he says.
Almost instantly the song became an Irish standard - a thoughtful and poignant depiction of working class Derry life before ‘The Troubles’, its lines “the damned barbed wire grows higher and higher” and “With their tanks and their guns, oh my God, what have they done, To the town I loved so well” can still raise the hairs on the backs of the neck.
As Phil comes from a Catholic/Nationalist background, the song is often seen as giving voice to the experience of Derry’s Catholic population, and more generally Northern nationalists, but over the years, how have unionists reacted to the song?
“When the song came out first, people on the extremes of Unionism would have dismissed it as a rebel song, and that was before they even listened to it,” says Phil. “I was very aware it could have become a rabble rousing song, which then was the last thing we needed, but no, it’s been accepted for what it is, a love song to a city. It was the opening song for the Sons and Daughters concert, which was a two hour TV spectacular for the BBC for the Derry - City of Culture, and I performed it. If there was any perception it was a rebel song it would never have found its way on to that.”
Perhaps though, the ultimate vindication came during two events, separated by less than 12 months in the 1990s.
“I was at the All-Ireland final in 1993 when Derry beat Cork. It was the first time the county song was not ‘Danny Boy’,” says Phil. “The players had requested ‘The Town I Love So Well’ and sang it with great gusto, as did the Cork players and supporters. It was highly emotional for me. I had tears running down my face. I was sitting beside the head of programming for BBC Northern Ireland and the following summer, during the July 12 marching season, he phoned me, saying ‘Remember the last time we heard that song in the stadium?’ and how he was looking out of his office window onto the street below at an Orange band who were playing ‘The Town I Loved So Well’. ‘Some trick,’ he added.”
In conclusion, anyone who sees Phil as ‘middle of the road’ should listen to his ‘I Can Only Give You Everything’, the heavy-guitar, mod rock belter, propelled by a fat four note riff, which appeared on Them Again, the second album from Van Morrison’s band Them (later covered by The MC5) and revise their opinion.
“Van and my paths have crossed regularly since when Them arrived in London,” says Phil. “I was seconded to work with Van, partly as an arranger but also as an interpreter as no one could understand the accent! I played on a lot of the early recordings and wrote ‘I Can Only Give You Everything’. The Undertones have played it in concert and Micky Bradley [Undertones’ bassist] told me he considers it ‘the first punk song’. It confuses my critics when they realise ‘Mr Tranquility’ wrote that!”
Phil Coulter plays the Town Hall Theatre on Saturday February 23 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie