The Diamond Rock Club is a 200-capacity venue located above the Diamond Bar in Ahoghill, 3 miles outside Ballymena (and 3 miles from my house). It has been going for 17 years and is essentially the labour of love of one man – Derwin McFarland. I’ve been to many gigs at the DRC, I’ve played there & shared the odd late night car journey home with him from a gig somewhere further afield. I know he is man of many passions, music & football being but 2 and he indulges those passions at every opportunity. But I’ve never really sat down and had a long discussion about origins of the place, how he keeps it all running etc. So, I caught up with him at his local and asked him.
What made you start up a music venue, in Ahoghill of all places?
It’s really because of my love for Mama’s Boys (Heavy Rock trio formed by the 3 McManus brothers from Fermanagh). As a teenager in the 80’s, I followed them all over, and eventually we got on chatting terms. But then Tommy’s death [from Leukaemia] ended Mama’s Boys. Pat (lead guitarist) formed a new band Celtus who did well for a while, but eventually came back to live in Fermanagh and gave up music for a while. When he did start again, he didn’t want to tour, so all the gigs were in and around the Border towns. It was a long hike to see him and after one of those gigs, I asked him, if I got a venue organised would he come and play in Ballymena? He said yes, so I went round all the pubs/clubs in Ballymena trying to find a suitable venue. None would even consider letting a room be used for a bunch of long-haired rockers. So, I tried my home village of Ahoghill and asked then owner, Eugene Kelly, if I could use the upstairs room at the Diamond Bar. He said ‘yes’ and that was how it began – 17 years ago.
So, how did it go from a one-off gig to what it has become?
The first 3 or 4 gigs were all Pat gigs. The response from the public was good and so I contacted another local Rock name – Ricky Warwick (The Almighty, Thin Lizzy, Black Star Riders), to see if he was interested. He played and it really took off from there. I would contact bands I loved via the new phenomenon of MySpace. The first non-local act we had was Tigertailz. By then we had renovated the room to put the stage where it is now, moved the bar, put in better toilet facilities. It was done on a very small budget; I did an awful lot of the donkey work myself in the evenings with the help of some pals, like Tony Parkinson, who still help out at the club now.
The list of famous names from the halcyon days of Rock music that have played the club is mightily impressive. It’s hardly believable that you have brought members of Whitesnake, Thin Lizzy, Scorpions, White Lion, Mr Big, Cinderella, Love/Hate, WASP to a 200 capacity club above a pub in Ahoghill. These are people that had top 10 hits when I was growing up. What strikes me is how enthusiastic these guys are and how they seem to have genuine affection for the club.
Yeah, I always say ‘we get them on the way up and the way down’. The artists are realistic about the stage of their life & career. I’ll try to be humble when I say this, but one of the reasons why agents started calling me to book their artists was word got out on the musicians’ grapevine as it were, that the DRC was a well-run club, that artists were respected, looked after and that the crowds were respectful & enthusiastic. The artists want to come, play their music, sell their CD’s & T-shirts and make an honest living. They can do that at the Diamond because unlike some other venues we don’t take a percentage of merchandise sales.
The other mainstay of the type of bands you put on are local artists. Is this a conscious thing on your part and what is your opinion on the strength or otherwise of local music?
I have said this many times – N Ireland has more talent per head of the population than anywhere. The strength of local Rock bands is immense, and there is something for everyone because there is such a variation in style. Last weekend we had Stormzone play their first gig since Lockdown was lifted. They are a band with 6 albums behind them and have done shows all over Europe including some of Europe’s biggest festivals. So, having them play here isn’t charity or a drop in quality – far from it. And my original motivation for opening the club – to listen to the bands I enjoy, hasn’t changed. If I didn’t enjoy them, I wouldn’t book them. And if I didn’t have the DRC, I would be going to Belfast to see them play.
Having seen & dealt with so many local bands, have you any advice for them?
Do it because you enjoy it – don’t do it thinking you will become stars or make a lot of money because that only happens to a very small percentage of bands, especially for Rock bands these days. So, write, record or play live because you enjoy it, otherwise it will only lead to disappointment. Look at it like a hobby you take seriously & are happy to spend money on, like golf or following a football team. Anything that happens over and above that is a bonus.
And in terms of how to go about getting gigs in places like the Diamond?
Well, I have to like your music – so make sure that is good. But also, and this may sound unfair, but you must support the venues yourself. If you are local to a venue, make sure you go to other band’s gigs there – this is good for networking anyway, which all bands need to grow their audience, but it makes promoters/venue owners more likely to hire you. When we have a larger name band playing, I get inundated with calls asking for a support slot by bands who have never set foot inside our venue for any gig. It may seem unfair, but who am I going to give that slot to, someone I don’t know or to a band whose members I know because they’ve been to gigs here?
I’d also add that in terms of gigging bands need to be sensible & organised. By sensible, I mean don’t book too many shows too close together in the same area. I make sure when I am booking bands that there isn’t a show booked somewhere on the same night that will be in direct competition with our show. There are only so many rock fans who go to gigs – don’t cut the small cake even smaller.
17 years, dozens of gigs – you must have some personal favourites?
As a Marillion fan, having both Fish and Steve Hogarth, the two men who have sung with my favourite band, play at my venue is very pleasing. The Hogarth gig is the standout. The whole day was just great. I picked him up early that morning and he wanted to go to the club to get set up around lunchtime. He set up, played a couple of songs, then asked me what songs I would like to hear. Every time I suggested a song, he played it…then another and another…until the next thing we knew it was 8pm and there were people queued down the side of the building waiting to get in. To be honest, I wanted to keep Steve all to myself and not open the doors. But, then the gig itself was magical.
I know from experience that there have been very few bad nights at the club, but were there any times when things didn’t go right?
There have been a couple – one of them most people may be aware of i.e. the Ginger Wildheart incident. Before that though there was a night when the Virgin Mary’s were just about to go on and Ballymena suffered a massive power cut. My father and I had to get a generator, rig it up & get the musical equipment and a couple of lights working so they could play. But yeah, the Ginger Wildheart Incident.
Typical me, I was away on holidays at the time, so I missed the most infamous night in Diamond Rock Club History.
It was a real disaster. I was warned he could be temperamental especially if he was drinking heavily. He arrived morning of the gig & as I do with all our acts, I picked him up, left to the hotel to rest, then brought him to the venue. He was sober and in great form… until he took to the stage. Then he foolishly asked if anyone would buy him a double Bushmills. He didn’t factor in the generosity of N Irish people. So, several double Bushes arrived onstage and, again, foolishly he downed them rather quickly. So, the gig was going great and, as with many of our solo performances, there is quite a lot of storytelling in between songs, which our crowds usually really enjoy. But as the drink kicked in, the stories got longer & more incoherent, which strained the patience of many of the fans and one fan shouted something along the lines of “F.F.S. Ginger would you ever play a song?” Ginger took exception to this and asked me to give the man back his money and tell him to leave. The man in question accepted this and was waiting for his lift at the back of the venue.
But Ginger finished his set before the man left, literally set his guitar down, left the stage and went straight for him. He assaulted him and he fell back and hit his head. The police got involved and I believe he was arrested back at his hotel and charged. It was bad for Ginger, it was bad for the man, who hadn’t done anything to warrant the attack. In terms of the Club, it was only the second incident of violence we have had at the club. That’s some going for any establishment selling alcohol over a 17-year period.
The thing that annoys me about it personally, is that news of it went round the world like wildfire – I even got a call 4 hours later from Jizzy Pearl (Love/Hate) in L.A. asking if it was true what he had heard. You must understand, I had tried for years to get our gigs listed or reviewed in most of the music magazines & papers only to be met with almost universal total indifference. It’s like if it isn’t happening in Belfast, Dublin or the mainland UK it doesn’t exist – but as soon as there was trouble, they were all ringing me looking for a scoop. I didn’t give them the time of day (he used another saying, which means the same but is a tad ruder). But of course, papers write what they like.
I suppose the other bad time was the Pandemic. How did you cope with that?
Well, this is where we are lucky in that because of how we are set up, we don’t have staff on a payroll or overheads to pay while we were shut, unlike many other venues. Without getting too political, the way the hospitality industry & arts were treated was abysmal – it was as if they didn’t matter. Last year we tried to have a few outdoor gigs using a temporary stage in the carpark. At that time, it was just about in the rules to be outdoors with restricted numbers. But the hoops we had to jump through were numerous, sometimes didn’t make sense and could be changed at the drop of a hat.
I was at a couple of those gigs and they were indeed great and to my mind anyway, might be a bit of an idea for future Summer gigs?
My thoughts too, we have installed a permanent stage and outside bar for a few gigs this summer – the first one being – fittingly enough – Pat McManus playing Mama’s Boys, which should be a great show. We have also started holding some of these gigs at an earlier time. This allows those coming from Belfast to use to the train service to get to and from the gig more cheaply.
Have things recovered to pre-Pandemic levels?
Not yet. We’ve had some well attended gigs but there are still former regulars missing who for whatever reason don’t feel ready to come out yet and be in a crowd situation. We have also sadly lost at least 2 regulars to Covid and nearly lost another. This has touched everyone, but in different ways. Some are desperate to get back to normal and some are scared to do that, and now we have a cost of living crisis which makes coming out to the club, ticket, taxi, drinks etc a very costly luxury – not as costly as other venues, but still costly.
Are you hopeful for the future?
Well, there is no doubt the demographic at the club isn’t getting any younger and although there are young Rock/Metal fans out there, they seem to have a different relationship to music and maybe aren’t aware of the quality gigs we put on here – be they legacy acts or local acts. But then we have had changes to the regulars 2 or 3 times over the past 17 years so you never know – a new generation of regulars could be around the corner.
But I don’t run the place to make money and have never taken a penny out of the club for myself. The money gets ploughed straight back into the club, be it for refurbishments or simply the upfront costs of bringing bands from overseas. Some gigs we make a decent profit on but those just pay for the ones that aren’t a success profit-wise. But the way I’ve always looked at it was, I am a fan of all these acts, so if we didn’t bring say, Dan Reed, over to Ireland for a leg of his European Tour, then I’d have to spend money anyway going to a show of his on the mainland.
It’s a lot of work personally and I must thank my friends Tony Parkinson, Paul Cannon, James Surgenor (and others in the past) who have helped me make the club work, as well as the current owner of the Diamond Bar, Andy Millar. But it’s still fun. I still get a buzz on gig-day and while that lasts, and people keep showing up, I will keep doing it.
With that Derwin heads for home. He has an early flight the following morning to England where he plans to go to about 5 gigs (3 of them Marillion) & a football match. That just about sums the man up.
You can find out all the latest news and events coming up at the Diamond Rock Club here.