bill bodkin interviews legendary new york band Black 47 as they prepare for their upcoming show at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J. …
It’s hard to categorize a band like Black 47 into one, distinct musical genre — and that’s what makes them so special. The band, born in the heart of New York, are a perfect reflection of the Big Apple’s musical melting pot. They’re mainly known for incorporating the sound and soul of New York punk rock with the rollicking rebel spirit of Ireland, home of lead singer Larry Kirwan. However, listen to their entire catalog, or just sample it from their new “best of” compilation A Funky Ceili, and you’ll hear the sounds of jazz, hip-hop and reggae permeating through their whiskey-soaked punk sound.
Pop-Break’s Bill Bodkin spoke with Kirwan about the genesis of Black 47, New York punk icons, how the band has maintained its popularity all these years and about their Memorial Day Weekend show at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J.
Pop-Break: Can you talk about the fateful night back in 1989 at Paddy Reilly’s Pub in New York City when Black 47 first played together. What inspired you guys to get together that night?
Larry Kirwan: Actually, the first gig we played was up in the Bronx in a bar whose name I’ve forgotten. I heard that the place was dynamited some years later, which might give you an idea of what the times were like up there. It was a very tense performance — we were providing music for a benefit that featured the Northern Ireland Civil Rights leader Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. Amazingly, as we were playing the reggae-type original “Desperate,” someone shouted out, “Play something Irish!” That was when I said — a later much quoted line — “I’m Irish, I wrote it, that makes it Irish.” Basically, though, Chris Byrne and I had felt that since The Clash had broken up, Marley was dead, no one was doing anything political in music anymore — we thought we’d have a shot at it.
PB: Can you explain the name Black 47, which I know is a reference to the Irish famine, but why choose this historical reference as the name of your band?
LK: It relates to 1847, the worst year of the Irish Potato Famine. It’s somewhat like the Jewish saying, “Never Again!” We were political and made no bones about it. Having been in bands with hard-to-say names, I also felt that having a color and a number would simplify things. We were resolved back then to making sure that the British problem in the north of Ireland come off the back burner in American life. A big ambition, but we played our small part.
PB: The sound of Black 47 is so unique — it incorporates so many different styles of music. Why make the decision to incorporate all these sounds into Black 47′s catalogue? Why not just be a straight-up punk band or play just traditional Celtic music?
LK: Well, we didn’t actually make that decision; it was more that people joined and brought their particular influences to bear on the band. Many of us came from an improv background, so I guess that helped. Then again, I’ve always been interested in doing things in an original manner and trusting the musicians to really shape the songs. Besides, what’s the point in doing something that so many others have done so well?
PB: What is exactly is a “ceili?” And can you talk about the story behind your hit song “Funky Ceili?”
LK: A “ceili” is either a form of Irish dancing or an event where such dancing and music is the feature of the evening. The song actually began as an attempt to ensure that young people take care to use birth control when having sex. In Ireland, birth control methods such as condoms were illegal when I was growing up. Because of that, so many young women became pregnant. I wanted to have a song that would give that message but not in a preachy form. I must have screwed up because that message never came through and the song is now more an uproarious celebration of life. But I suppose these things happen, look at Bruce’s “Born in the USA.” Still, I don’t regret “Funky Ceili” becoming what it is — the song gives so much joy to people. You can’t beat that.
PB: On the song “Staten Island Baby,” you worked and sang with legendary New York music icon David Johansen of The New York Dolls. How did you come to work with him, and can you talk about the experience of working with him?
LK: Well, I’ve seen David since the early Dolls days and always admired him. We both have shows on Sirius XM, so I became aware of his tremendous knowledge of music — it actually blew me away, because I thought I had a decent understanding of many types of music — but David was so far ahead of me, he made me see just how little I knew about certain forms. After I wrote the song, I knew he could do it so well. The idea in the album New York Town was to show what music was to write songs about pre and post 9/11 and to feature at least one song from each of the boroughs. David being from Staten Island was an obvious choice. I have to say that I learned so much from watching him perform it in the studio and helping to direct him (it always increases your own knowledge and experience both in music and theater when you work with a consummate musician or actor). He works like a dog when he’s recording a vocal and is very self-critical without being neurotic. He just really wants to get it right. I’ve said before I learned more in those two hours with David than many people have learned in a year at a conservatory.
PB: With over 20 years of recording and performing live, what do you think it is about Black 47 that has kept people coming out to see the band, buy your records and support you guys?
LK: Probably the passion and that we say what we like and do what we like regardless of fashion or convention. There’s no filler with the songs — every song has to fight its way on to an album. Also, they all say something and are constructed in such a way that the musicians can stretch them in all ways without losing any of their original core. And the musicians! Jesus, these Black 47 guys can and do play anything. Each night is fresh. We’ve played over 2,300 gigs now and never repeated a set.
PB: You recently released a greatest hits/best of compilation entitled A Funky Ceili. How hard was it just choose 18 songs that you felt best represented you out of all the songs you’ve performed in your career?
LK: Actually, it was a collection of upbeat material. I got the idea while driving back from Boston from a solo gig one night. I couldn’t stay awake, couldn’t find a decent radio station and had no uptempo music. So, I began to think of Black 47 songs that could fit that category and came up with 30 or more. Then I whittled it down to 18, and that’s A Funky Ceili. People tell me it’s a good one for a party or for a long drive. Tally ho!
PB: On May 19, you performed at The Joey Ramone Birthday concert at Irving Plaza in New York along with former members of The Ramones. How much of an impact (if any) did a legendary musician like Joey Ramone have on your individual career and Black 47 as a whole?
LK: It was a lot of fun and made me realize even more the importance of the Ramones’ legacy. I was actually at CBGB’s the first night they played the venue. There couldn’t have been more of a dozen people present. I used to see Joey around the streets of the East Village. He was always accessible. He loved Black 47 and wanted to produce the band. He didn’t really have much musical influence on us but certain of his characteristics rubbed off — in particular, having no wall between himself and fans. Joey was many things to many people, but to me he was a real gentleman.
PB: Can you talk about the literary tour you’ll be doing in Ireland this summer?
LK: I take over a group of people to Ireland every year and show them a very different side of the country than the usual tour. I tend to favor the literary and political sides of the country; hence, we’ll be visiting the Yeats Summer School in Sligo for an evening and I’ll do a solo show there. But also, I take the people off the beaten path and show them the Ireland I know so well. People make friends almost instantly. We’ve even had three marriages arise from the tours. I think that speaks for itself. There are a few seats open for this one beginning in late July. [Go to www.black47.com for details.]
PB: We’re a Jersey Shore-based site, so I have to ask this one. Over Memorial day Weekend, you’ll be playing the legendary Stone Pony in Asbury Park, a venue that you’ve played many times. What is it about Black 47 and that room that’s special?
LK: We’ve done a show or two every year there since 1992, I believe. I’ve always loved the Shore and particular Asbury Park, maybe because it’s had its ups and downs. Black 47 always seemed to fit in effortlessly. There’s something about great rooms, Tipitina’s in New Orleans and Toad’s in New Haven spring to mind — the room adds some ineffable quality to your music. Perhaps, it’s because so many great bands have play there before you. Whatever it is, there’s always a magic in the air when Black 47 hits that Stone Pony stage. I hope you’ll all come.