In Perspective

Rory Gallagher and the Ghost of World Music Past

Rory Gallagher

Wheels Within Wheels


Rock’n’roll, like all good things, comes eventually to those who

wait. Thus Elvis was made flesh (and more and more of it as time and

alienating adoration gradually encroached into his mahogany and jumpsuit

domain) and dwelt amongst us like some sort of divinely gyrating antidote

to the cold-war rug-burnt climate of paranoia and “contentment”.

This same “rhythmic messianic template” seems the rule rather than

the exception. You need only contemplate the frayed sleeves of your record

collection (those pulsating, over/under-produced grails of homage to

resurrection through erection) to see this proudly adolescent-in-theme

process of overthrowing kings and slaves alike at work; from Elvis all the

way up to the Eminem, via the Beatles, Pistols and Nirvana and all their

snarling satellite offspring, you can follow the trail.

And if there ever was a land which demanded its very own musical

ejaculating prince, surely catholic-infested Ireland of the 1970’s – the

land into which I was born – stands head, shoulders and bent knee above the

rest. And it just so happens that that man’s name was Rory Gallagher.

Like Elvis, Gallagher burst onto the music scene in Ireland, along

with his legendary power-trio Taste, clutching onto the consoling power of

the blues with a purity and passion so evidently lacking from the dominant

cabaret show-bands of the era (in which Gallagher had begun his career).

Armed only with his trademark-in-the-making abused Fender Stratocaster and

an endlessly lumpy wardrobe stuffed with lumberjack shirts, Gallagher

released a slew of blues-based rock albums throughout the early 70’s,

culminating in the enduring Irish Tour of ‘74, which showcased not only his

unpretentious yet nevertheless scorching guitar style but also his

self-sacrificing showmanship (considering the bashful truth of his soul). It

is no wonder that the state-spectacle-issued youngsters in the front rows

can’t seem to slap their knees hard enough so as to satisfy their gape-jawed

joy at what is occurring on stage before them.

A colleague of mine met Gallagher backstage at the famed London

Marquee club in 1968, and still vividly recalls the painful, even

debilitating, shyness of the man (which makes his brash stage persona all

the more sacrificial). She remembers him sitting alone backstage, his long

hair shrouding his catholic-tinted blush as she vainly attempted to strike

up a conversation with the man she had long fantasized would one-day be her

lover. She also told me of how she was reduced to tears a full quarter of a

century later when she witnessed Gallagher’s final gig, which also took

place in London. Gallagher, clearly effected by his years of excessive

drinking (mixed with his increasing dependence on prescription medicine),

was having trouble living up to his hard-won, hard-touring reputation. Thus

the more bloodthirsty in the club that night began to berate the man who

single-handedly brought rock to the masses of the stimulation-starved youth of

repressed Ireland, eventually resorting to hurling abuse and objects at the performer. It was not a pretty night and Gallagher never played

again. Just a few months later, at just 47 years old, he was dead, resulting

from complications following a liver transplant.

And now, eight years later, comes Wheel within Wheels, a recording of

acoustic blues, folk and traditional which remained unreleased in

Gallagher’s lifetime and which reflects his long-held ambition to make just

such an album. First of all, this is an album which introduces a new term

into the cultish lexicon of Gallagher cover-bands and ageing groupies – eclecticism. Eclectic has never been a word which I would previously have

associated with the music of Rory Gallagher. Indeed his terrain has always

seemed fairly well plotted, forever venturing further into the now starving

constellation of the white-boy blues (White Stripes aside). But as Wheels

Within Wheels </i>begins to turn, one is soon confronted by a range of sounds,

the likes of which have rarely emanated from any recording baring the name

of the artist otherwise referred to as “the Kid”. Witness, for example, the

sweet and sour McCartney-like melody of the title track, tinged with worthy

lamentation and regret, or the optimistic Mediterranean flavour so joyously on display in “Flight to Paradise” to see this variety of

styles in play. But the curiosity of Gallagher does not stop there.

To me the very thought of a fine blues player, with a stirringly Celtic twang to his tuning, collaborating with a traditional harpist is

exactly the sort of musical idea for which I would happily hijack and fly

planeloads of boy bands into record company buildings, just so as to bring

attention to the real musicians in the world. “Bratacha Dubha” (Gaelic for

Black Flags), is a beautifully understated duet with harpist, “Maire Ni

Chathasaigh”, that mixes Irish moods with traditional English folk structure

in a way that speaks not only of a land and a people but also of a view of

them by one who has continued to imbue the finest of their traits and tales.

That is not to say that all is well in Gallagher town. For whilst this album truly does possess a high-octane propensity to grow on you just

as turkey-like layers seem to conglomerate on Michael Douglas’ scrawny neck,

there are a number of tracks to which I give the Rosie O’ Donnell-ass

equivalent of a wide berth. “Barley” and “Grape Rag”, which admirably features

the legendary Dubliners and the lead singer, Ronny Drew, whose voice sounds

like nothing less than a rusty spade being scraped across gravel, is perhaps

the best example of one such track. It does, in its favour, serve as a grand

reminder of the importance of having a goodtime as a musician and these

smoke and strong-whisky boys are certainly doing just that. But it sounds

altogether too cosy, even twee, I am horrified to say, for a blues man and

rebel-song singing bunch of rabble-rousers to be indulging in, for my tastes

at least. Similarly, better versions of “As the Crow Flies”, exist throughout

Gallagher’s live repertoire. Balancing that “Going to My Home Town” is a more than a bit funky and strut-worthy, it must be


But the whole crux of this album is to feature Rory Gallagher playing folk, playing traditional songs and playing them well. From oiled-up bottle-neck

renditions of “Amazing Grace” to a catgut-gumbo-jam called “Deep Elm Blues”, so

thick with deep-south evocation you have to practically pick the dragonflies

from your matted hair, this album delivers in spades, buckets and

well-crafted reams.

And that is really all there is to mention about Wheels Within

Wheels</i>. Just a bunch of exiled musicians getting it on with Rory in a hotbed

of folk and traditional songs that not only refuse to sleep easy, but

perhaps even seek to speak to the future based on the sweet, blazing pathos

of the past. That is the lasting legacy of folk and traditional and blues.

They give us signposts in a time of directionless sounds seduced by

streaming images designed to dazzle the eye and deafen the mind.

It is in folk, traditional and blues music which you can find the common echo of us all. For if you listen wide and far, from Ireland to Mongolia, from Bulgaria to America, common musical strands and whispers seem

to float quite fluidly between the strings and out of ancient storyteller

throats. The common heritage of the world is there for all to hear, without

the date-rape-like intrusion or sex-farm visuals of MTV.

And guess what? The same undoubtedly goes for Iraq. For tyrants may blessedly fall and ravaged populations may once again begin to sing, but one

who watches must also wonder honestly of the men (Donald Rumsfeld and co.)

who now lead the parade to celebrate the tyrant’s demise, yet who once were

so instrumental in sustaining his tyranny. Somehow the damning images and

sounds which might link us, with possibly incendiary results, to the

shocking truth of the past (in this case Rumsfeld’s official dealings with

Saddam in the wake of his worst massacres in the 80?s) have been excluded

from our sensory palate. So how has this effected the present and what will

such selective exclusion of certain sources of information mean for the

future of the bomb-dropping democracies? Will bad men reign with a cosmetic

grin? Will Britney’s cute but artless ass continue to spin and win?

Perhaps it is in the globally revealing blueprints of blues and folk and traditional music that we may once again recognise the sound of our own

common human heritage, which, try as they might, no power-brokering spinner of

the broken-record of truth may pull asunder.

Rory Gallagher’s album, Wheels within Wheels, cuts a swathe through rich musical vistas and terrains with such a singularly joyous

vision – it is truly music by and for the real world. Without perhaps realising

(or wanting to), Gallagher amounted, in my fuck-humble-pie opinion, to

nothing less than a revolutionary musical figure. Just imagine meticulous

craftsmanship, uncompromising musical tastes and, most heretical of all, the

lumpiest lumberjack shirt collection that Ireland, and perhaps the world,

has ever seen or heard.

-Paul Meade

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