“WHEN I was a kid, we were an alternative punk band – we were at the edge,” chuckles Greg Cowan, singer and bassist with original Belfast punks The Outcasts, of the band’s annual Christmas gig.
“Now, all of a sudden, I’m 64 and I have a son, and it’s our Christmas show I look forward to. So there’s a certain irony there.
“You like to think you’re still a bit edgy and stuff, but I suppose we’re now up there with May McFettridge.”
Too much too young
He’s only half-serious, of course: formed in 1977 by Greg and his older brothers Martin (guitar) and Colin (drums), the ‘classic’ Outcasts line-up also included the late Colin ‘Getty’ Getgood on guitar. They released a series of classic singles and EPs throughout 1978 and had their debut album, Self Conscious Over You, released on Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label by 1979.
By the time they split in 1985, three years after Colin Cowan’s tragic death in a car crash, they had toured far and wide while documenting their quickly evolving sound via two BBC John Peel Sessions, 1982′s heavier/moodier Blood & Thunder LP and 1984′s rockabilly-informed mini-album, Seven Deadly Sins.
Having reunited around 12 years ago, the band – which currently features Greg and Martin alongside Buck from fellow Belfast punks The Defects on guitar and French drummer JP – are now punk festival regulars and are set to play their first New York date next year.
Yet it’s kind of a miracle that The Outcasts ever made it beyond Belfast at all, having begun their career in the days when punk was a dirty word.
With the Troubles in full swing, Belfast city centre’s ‘ring of steel’ made getting to and from every gig at punk-friendly pits like The Harp Bar and The Pound a mission – and, when they did get to play, The Outcasts quickly became infamous for the chaotic antics of their hardcore followers, nicknamed ‘The Locusts’.
It’s been well documented that Belfast’s punks revelled in their ‘outlaw’ status, united by an ‘us vs the world’ mentality, and, 46 years on from The Outcasts’ inception, it all sounds almost romantic.
From despair to where
While those turbulent early days of ‘Ulster punk’ have been entertainingly dramatised in the hit movie and stage musical Good Vibrations, The Outcasts’ frontman is careful not to get too nostalgic about the bad old days:
“See the amount of people who come up to me and go ‘oh, it’s not like it was in 77 or 78′,” he marvels.
“Do you know how bad Belfast was to live in back then? It was hell. There was no buses after 10pm at night, and taxis were a joke. There were no bars – the city centre closed at 6pm – and gigs were a bloody nightmare: you either had trouble from the people coming to see you or everybody else who was there.
“I kind of love this period now. I love dressing rooms and proper gigs, and audiences appreciating it – and not getting spat on. Do you have any idea how hard it is to explain to a kid that I used to stand on stage and audiences showed their appreciation by spitting on me?
“I can remember the first time playing the Ulster Hall with The Clash, I plugged in my guitar and turned around and, I swear to this day, I saw what literally looked like a wave of spit splashing down onto the stage all over us and our gear. It was horrendous.”
Greg adds: “I mean, of course you miss the energy of youth when you play, and we weren’t just a band back then: when we went away to play in France for the first time, there were 32 of us who travelled over together.
“It was more like a big gang, where we were just the guys who happened to play. So you do miss that camaraderie.”
Young at heart
It’s fair to say that The Outcasts have earned the right to grow old a bit more gracefully these days, with their annual Christmas hometown show (“I think this is our ninth year of doing it,” Greg advises) an ideal opportunity for veteran fans and newer recruits to enjoy a blast of old favourites like Self Conscious Over You, Justa Nother Teenage Rebel, You’re A Disease and The Cops Are Comin’, alongside 2020′s poignant pogo anthem, Stay Young.
Sadly, one song which has fallen by the wayside is futuristic sci-fi horror fantasy Clinical Love, an intriguingly robotic number from the first LP about a far-off era when bodily contact is tightly regulated: “2023 AD: germs and illness have been eradicated / physical contact is back-dated / except for the selected breeding few”.
“Can you imagine the joke about that was that 2023 seemed so far off in the future?” laughs Greg, who says they probably won’t be dusting it off before that ‘futuristic’ dateline finally becomes old hat.
“We do a lot of festivals and things all around the world, moreso this year than we’ve ever done, in fact, and you have to accept that you’re playing for people who have maybe waited over 40 years to hear all our – I was gonna say ‘hits’, but we didn’t really have any – all our better-known songs.
“I feel a little bit sorry for Martin, our songwriter. Every now and again he comes up with a great new song, but there’s just no room for it [in the set].”
Of course, Stay Young did make the cut a couple of years ago, but for the most part, The Outcasts enjoy just being able to crank out the old favourites wherever they are wanted – especially since they can actually do their earliest songs full justice these days.
“When we recorded those songs first time around, we could barely play and we knew nothing about studios,” Greg tells me.
“Yes, when you hear the records now, there’s a certain innocent charm to them. But I love the way we can actually play the songs today – the way that they were supposed to be played first time around.”