Rory Gallagher and the Ghost of World Music Past

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
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
. 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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