Most people know Belfast’s Time to Be Proud Records as a home for the eccentric and the eclectic: after all, where else could bands like 3D Shark, Stop Stop Start Again, The Dirt Byrds and Los Reyes co-exist?
Although forming in 2010, the roots of the label go all the way back to 1977 and The Harp Bar. So, I sat down with TIBP head honcho William Maxwell (formerly of Stop Stop Start Again and currently of Cupboard 55) for a second time (the first can be found here) for him to tell me his origin story, to give me a better understanding of the NI scene in between the Harp Bar and the Art College and how all of this still inspires him to create and promote music from NI.
Tell us a bit about how you got into music and what made you get on a stage for the first time?
In 1977/1978 (showing my age here!) I came across Rudi. Although I wasn’t at the gig in the Pound (immortalised in the film Good Vibrations), myself and a few friends who were already hip to punk went down to the Harp Bar and saw Rudi with The Outcasts and Stage B (Belfast proto-goth pioneers). Some night, and we became friends with Brian Young from Rudi (now of The Sabrejets) and he encouraged my fledgling band (Anarchy & The Fourth Reich) to get up on stage. As a result, we played the Cregagh Youth Club in 1978.
I’m sure that name went down well in East Belfast!
(laughs). We did ok. Our singer, Anna, was from London and was known in the scene as Greg Cowan’s (The Outcasts) girlfriend. We only played a few gigs as Anna went back to London and started a group there called Manufactured Romance (who had a minor indie hit with ‘The Time of My Life’. However, all of my friends (such as Paul Rowan) were playing music, so we regrouped as Déjà Vu late 1978. We were one of the first bands of our ilk to have a girl singer (the late Barbara Greer), us and Dogmatic Element from Bangor.
Who were managed by now successful author Colin Bateman.
Yes. We played with them in Bangor. Lovely people, but Colin Bateman wrote our first ever review (in the Bangor Spectator) and tore us apart, while praising Dogmatic Element! Of course, both groups had girl singers, so you can put two and two together on that one.
Déjà Vu split up in 1986 and, by this stage, punk had splintered and taken several interesting directions such as in Belfast where the Warzone Centre started that year. With you guys emerging from the Harp Bar scene, you’re often bracketed with the “77 punk” label. Do you think that’s fair?
It is fair but, to me, the original punk stuff was the likes of Rudi and The Outcasts. The later stuff (post 79) I wasn’t all that fussed about and we (my friends and I) started to pick up on the likes of The Sisters of Mercy and The Mission around 86.
Why did the band split?
The usual thing with Belfast bands: lack of financial backing. You can plough through for years and years and years, banging your head against the wall before everyone involved got fed up. But I still wanted to be involved in promoting music, so I set up a fanzine called Helden, which ran for eight issues, and we interviewed the likes of The Mission, The Alarm and Spear of Destiny. More importantly, this is where I first started to get the idea of releasing records and, towards the end of the fanzine, we started to do flexi disks and cassettes.
The first flexi had St. Vitus Dance (a local band whose singer, Noel Burke, later joined Echo and the Bunnymen as a singer) and Blah! Blah! Blah! (who later relocated to France). Carpenter Joe was on one. Another had Bam Bam & The Calling and Man Ray. Our cassette comp had Ruefrex, Lunatic Fringe and The Organisation on it.
Aside from Ruefrex, whose sound we all know, were all the bands on the comp playing jangly indie pop?
No. It was a real mixture: goth, roots rock, punk and some indie. I’m not really set in one area and try to listen to everything and anything. Ultimately, if I like it, that’s a good enough reason for me to put it out. That thinking explains the wide variety of Time to Be Proud releases.
So, you’ve put out some flexis and a comp on tape. Did you take the next step of pressing up some vinyl?
No as, around this time, I had gotten married. So, I didn’t start properly engaging with the local scene again until 1990, when I started a night in the Errigle Inn called The Monster Club. We altered the big lounge to make it look like a cave (kind of our version of Revolver, a show from the 70’s), and we had the likes of Therapy? and The Divine Comedy play our bills, with a compere each night.
One of them was Patrick Kielty and another was Jonny Fitzpatrick, who was notorious at the time for being on a local BBC Saturday night programme called The Show (which featured an early incarnation of The Hole in the Wall Gang and was created by the noted journalist/author Martin Dillon).
The night did quite well for a while but trying to sustain it became a problem as tastes change over time. Plus, I was still holding onto the idea of starting a label.
When you speak to people of a certain age about this period, they talk about how exciting it was as there were not many places to see alternative music in Belfast. Plus, the likes of Therapy? and The Divine Comedy took off around this time and it was arguably the first time since Stiff Little Fingers that a band from NI hit the mainstream. So, as someone who had now seen two generations of music come and go, did you feel that there was something special about this time?
Yes. The first time I saw Therapy?, it was obvious there was something brewing. They had their own sound, and they knew what they wanted. Same with The Divine Comedy (who started off as an REM type act). Both had to go to the next level and, unfortunately, it wasn’t here. So they had to go to London. It’s a shame but it’s the way it’s always been here. I call it ‘pockets of resistance’ in the sense that these bands are operating without a structured approach to the music business in this country, whereas if there was some form of organised structure, we could possibly sustain it.
Hence you setting up Immortal Records!
Yes, we started that around 1996. but it was never intended to be a professional label. Just an outlet for bands to release their music on and, if it helps them get to the next stage, then all the better for it. And we put out records by the likes of The Sabrejets, Leslie Rich And The Rocket Soul Choir and Terri Hooley singing ‘Big Time’! Again, very different styles of music. We did get a demo from an early version of Snow Patrol, when they were called Polarbear. Sadly, as they were based in Scotland, we had to turn them down as Immortal was intended purely for bands based in NI.
Immortal faded away in the early 00’s, and then Time to be Proud emerges nearly ten years later. What happened?
Life got in the way, until the end of the decade whenever I started playing again with my old friends Paul Rowan and Colin Fletcher under the name Stop Stop Start Again. Originally intended as a one off, the response we got meant that we continued on. This led to us putting on gigs, leading to a series of shows in the Black Box under the name ‘They Came from the East’ where the likes of us, The Defects and The Dollybirds played (the theme being that we’re all from East Belfast).
It was around this time when I became aware of you and SSSA.
Were you frightened of us? (laughs). The amount of people who thought we were scary…
Was that down to Paul as he definitely had an intense persona whenever playing live?
I would certainly say so. He was well used to handling crowds.
The first time I saw SSSA was in Ma Nelsons, and you managed to antagonise several people by mashing up ‘No Feelings’ (Sex Pistols) and ‘Believe’ (Cher)!
That was the point. There are a lot of people with their heads up their arses and differing perceptions of what punk is. We knew it would wind people up and, in the early days, quite a few did walk out on us. Towards the end of the band, it became a live favourite. But that was down to Paul being such a brilliant frontman.
Indeed. He seemed to be able to adapt to any particular situation. For example, SSSA played some Turbojugend shows and I always got the impression that you had never listened to Turbonegro beforehand. Yet I recall you going down well.
Yes, we played one in Dublin a year beforehand so we knew what to expect. Paul just told us to camp it up beforehand and it worked brilliantly.
Going back to Time to be Proud, what was the first release that you put out?
‘Number 21’ by The Dollybirds. It was through Colin Crooks (Graceland Conspiracy), as he was looking for a drummer and my son, Matthew, had just started to play drums. They teamed up and I was impressed by the songs, so it seemed like the best way to start the label.
Then came the ‘Time to be Proud’ cover EP’s, where local acts would cover the likes of The Outcasts, Undertones, SLF etc.
That was intended to be a compilation LP, but we got such an immense response that we decided to make them a series of EP’s. The likes of Foy Vance, Ricky Warwick and The Dangerfields all joined in on the fun and it helped raise the profile of the label.
Do you also think those EP’s gave some people a false perception of the label in the sense that it could seem like a re-tread of nostalgia, even though you had modern bands covering NI punk classics?
No, we had intended for the bands to have one original track as well (which are still lying in the vault). I would like to do something with those but, as most of the bands have broken up, it would probably be a bit pointless. A shame, but what can you do?
A year later (2012), you start getting involved in the garage scene. I believe you had tried to get The Penny Dreadfuls on the label.
Correct. We played a show together in the Black Box and were blown away by them. So we offered to put out anything by them but I think they had a few offers from other people and so we didn’t pursue it. But we ended up releasing stuff by The Groundlings, Los Reyes and Thee Dirt Byrds, all of whom I’m very proud of.
When you look at the NI scene today, how would you rate it compared to the mid 80’s whenever you started up the fanzine?
I think it’s the same, basically. Lack of venues, lack of a proper structure and, to be perfectly honest, an awful lot of run of the mill bands. There’s an awful lot of Americana and folk stuff. Where did the electric guitars go? Having said that, in a year’s time, it’ll probably be something else.
Over the years, I’ve heard people posit the theory that Ireland, North and South, is quite conservative (culturally speaking). Coupled with the lack of an infrastructure for bands, is it any wonder so many acts here follow whatever the current trend is?
I think there’s a case for that. The lucky ones move away and then come back when they’re successful. The rest run out of steam due to lack of opportunities as pubs find it easier to put on traditional music or singer/songwriters covering Ed Sheeran than take a chance on putting on original music. Of course, there’ll always be the odd type who will take a chance but such enterprises normally last a year or so.
With the label, it has been difficult to get interest in the wider world. I do think there is an element of ageism going on with this (although that has been a long-standing problem), but you’re also competing for space among many other releases (some of which have big marketing budgets behind them) so the smaller acts/labels are often overlooked.
So, with all of that said, what is keeping you motivated?
We have the 90th release from the label, with a few more scheduled this year which will push us over the 100 mark, one of which will be the new Dirt Byrds record. We’re forever on the lookout for new talent as well.
To finish up, what are your top 5 favourite releases on TTBP?
- Too Glam to Give a Damn by Stop Stop Start Again: Yes, it’s my band. But the songs and production are excellent and serve as a tribute to Paul.
- The Neon Teeth EP by 3D Shark: Quirky indie pop and they helped me achieve my dream of putting out two singles for the Northern Ireland football team!
- Everybody Hates Thee Dirt Byrds by Thee Dirt Byrds: Raw, raucous garage rock. Keith and John are lovely guys, yet they play such brutal music. I love it.
- Los Reyes by Los Reyes: Fantastic instrumental surf rock. I remember Mickey Bradley (Undertones) playing it on his show and they have a new one coming out this year.
- Everywhere in Belfast (is the Wrong Side of Town) by Crackhead Control: They’ve come along an awful lot, and this is just a great punk release.