The musical wasteland that was the mid-seventies was a desolate place for many, but for a teenage Jake Burns, son of a Hank Wangford fan and aspiring guitarist, the sense of musical despair was only heightened by his Belfast location. ‘People were afraid to come to Northern Ireland, apart from Rory Gallagher who came every year, but generally British bands were obviously either frightened to come across, ignorant or couldn’t get the insurance,’ he recalls. ‘Realistically, it wasn’t the nicest place to go to: they had security gates around the city centre that were locked around eight o’clock in the evening which made the city centre a ghost town.
‘Our connection was either what we read in the mainstream music press or whatever we heard on John Peel. That was pretty much it. The huge difference was that if you lived in Manchester or wherever, there was a good chance that these bands you heard about would come and play in your town. In common with a lot of those places, though, there was the feeling that if we wanted this to happen, we would have to do it ourselves.’
Doing it themselves at first meant Highway Star, the school band Burns formed with friends Henry Cluney, Ali McMordie and Brian Falloon, when they discovered that working out the chords to -Sweet Home Alabama’ wasn’t hugely difficult. However, like many others, they found themselves subject to the changes emanating from London and New York.
‘I’d been bored with what we were listening to for a while: we all had,’ Burns notes. ‘Myself and Henry were moving away from all the heavy metal bands into Dr Feelgood and Eddie & The Hot Rods. Even bands that weren’t particularly pretentious were still bloody tedious by that stage. They seemed to have run out of ideas and they weren’t doing anything that excited me. I really had reached the point of -why did a song have to take ten minutes?’ Then we heard stuff on Peel and it was -blink-and-you-miss-it’.’ Cluney was the first to embrace the birth of punk. ‘We all had long hair, but one day he pitched up at my folks’ house, having cut his hair, changed his clothes and clutching three singles that he made us listen to,’ Burns smiles. ‘We bought up everything we could lay our hands on. While I thought it was exciting and it was fun, I didn’t see it anything beyond that. It was blessed relief from ten-minute guitar solos but I didn’t really see where it was going to go, any long term future. It wasn’t like the first time you heard Bob Dylan or Bob Marley.’