KYOTO – For a small country, Northern Ireland has produced a lot of punk.
Similar to Fukushima Prefecture in size and population, this corner of the U.K. gave rise to acts such as The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, Rudi, Protex, and The Outcasts in the 1970s, at the same time as it was tearing itself apart in a long and bloody battle known as the “troubles.”
Punk, though, was a safe space, a way of getting your kicks, and getting kicked, but steering clear of sectarian violence.
One of the first gigs The Outcasts — which kicks off its maiden Japan tour in Kyoto today — ever performed was in a loyalist bar in Belfast in 1977.
Martin Cowan, 63, one of three brothers in the original lineup, tells The Japan Times that it was a baptism by fire.
“There was a lot of paramilitary people in the pub and we were sort of booed off,” Cowan says. “In those days in Northern Ireland you’d be asked to play the national anthem, ‘God Save The Queen.'”
The problem was The Outcasts couldn’t play it, and even if the group could, it’s doubtful the audience would have even recognized its version.
A melee ensued, but The Outcasts fought back.
“My dad was a boxer and he had always taught us to fight back no matter what. We always fought back,” Cowan says. “But sure, that’s where we got a bad reputation as well.”
Away from the staunchly sectarian pubs, Cowan says venues such as The Harp Bar in central Belfast, ground zero of the punk scene in Northern Ireland, were a “place for Catholics and Protestants to come together.”
Cowan and his brothers Colin and Greg, along with Colin Getgood, formed the band in early 1977 when they were still teenagers.
But before they even had a band, the Cowan brothers had started to dress like “homemade punk rockers.”
“We’d go out around Belfast, but everywhere we went people hated us, you know, because of the way we looked, and they’d start to pick fights with us,” Cowan says.
It was from these rough and tumble beginnings that the brothers banded together and came up with their band name: The Outcasts.
Growing up, Cowan says he was inspired by a wide range of acts — Ramones, The Clash, David Bowie, Iggy Pop and The Stooges — but it was when he heard the Sex Pistols he “reckoned it was music we had a chance of playing.”
“We couldn’t really play,” Cowan says of the band’s early days, but he acknowledges that forming a punk band set them off on a “different direction.”
“Everybody was getting involved in paramilitaries and in the ‘troubles,'” he says. “I didn’t want any part of that. We wanted to look for a different direction.”
Cowan is nothing if not honest about The Outcasts’ humble beginnings: The group practiced at the family home which drove the neighbors crazy. Its first demo track, “You’re a Disease,” was recorded at a country and western studio outside Belfast.
“It was terrible,” Cowan says. “The producer hated us. We couldn’t play, we were out of time. They were laughing at us.”
But that demo wound its way to Terri Hooley who had started up Good Vibrations, the Belfast record label that had signed The Undertones.
With Good Vibrations, The Outcasts released its first album, “Self Conscious Over You,” in 1979.
Similar to The Undertones, the music steers clear of the bitter politics and internecine conflict the band was living through. Rather, Cowan, The Outcasts’ songwriter, mined the universal themes of teenage angst, love and rebellion during the band’s eight-year run.
At a time when good news was scarce, punk was one of the rare bright spots in Northern Ireland.
John Peel (1937-2004), the hugely influential BBC Radio 1 DJ, had shone a light on the scene when he picked up The Undertones’ single “Teenage Kicks.” The Outcasts recorded three studio sessions with Peel and toured the U.K. and Ireland from the late ’70s into the early ’80s, but Cowan says his cohorts weren’t interested in leaving Belfast.
In 1982, Cowan’s younger brother, Colin, died in a car accident, and by 1985 the band decided to call it quits.
After a long hiatus Cowan’s other younger brother, Greg, floated the idea of reforming in 2011 for a party marking his 50th birthday. The group played the event and the place was “rammed.”
“Everybody enjoyed it and we got a real buzz off it,” Cowan says. The following year the group was asked to play Rebellion, the biggest punk festival in the U.K. For the past few years the band has toured regularly in Britain, Ireland and continental Europe.
The Japan tour is the first long-haul trip for The Outcasts. It came about as a result of a collaboration with Secret Mission Records, founded by Daniel McNellie, who also runs Pop! Pizza, a music venue and pizza joint in Kyoto, and arranged to put out an album of remastered singles for the band.
“I’ve been a big fan of The Outcasts and the whole ’70s and ’80s Irish punk scene in general since I was young,” McNellie says. “So I wanted to put together a nice collection as a double LP and throw in all the bells and whistles if I could. I reached out to Martin and he was open to the idea.”
Released last month as a physical set, “The Outcasts: Tell Me The Whole Story” sold out in a week.
“I think the band is going to be in for a big surprise here as well, as it is definitely more well-known in Japan than, say, in the U.S. and is definitely regarded as legendary among the ’70s punk fans here,” says McNellie.
As to why that era in the late 1970s was a golden age for punk in Northern Ireland, Cowan thinks being cut off from everywhere else had a huge impact on sound and attitude.
“No bands ever came to Belfast, except maybe for The Clash a couple of times,” he says. “We developed our own sound. The whole scene was different. Even in Belfast the scene was different. And I think because of the ‘troubles’ you felt more like a family with the other bands.”
The Outcasts play Pop! Pizza in Kyoto on May 2 (acoustic gig); Socrates in Kyoto on May 3; Namba Bears in Osaka on May 4; Three in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo on May 5; Shelter in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo on May 6.