Thursday, July 15, 2010

W Axl Rose and the first Bailies and Roses in Ulster

I was a teenage "metaller". My hair never got too long (my mother threatened to cut it in the middle of the night; my black Status Quo t-shirt mysteriously vanished in the laundry...), but I bought my copy of Kerrang! every Thursday morning at Page One Newsagents in Newtownards, had a tab at a dingy record shop in North Street in Newtownards called Music World, and bought my first guitar aged about 14 - a Yamaha acoustic that Graeme still has.

I was 15 when Guns N Roses hit the airwaves, and I was the first one in school (as far as I can remember) to buy Appetite for Destruction - on black audio cassette. Up until then, I'd never really got into the Iron Maiden and Metallica that my friends were into. But this was different - brilliant songs with melody and power, with anger and a fire that you'd never get from permed Bon Jovi or Def Leppard in a billion years. Appetite was like a musical petrol bomb (or, for those of you who know it, it was "a molotov cocktail with a match to go"). The video for Welcome to the Jungle had newsreel footage of Belfast riots - and the music media and UK tabloids went into overdrive. That summer I remember being chastened at a Christian youth event by a total stranger of around the same age as me because I was wearing a Guns N Roses t-shirt, who he loudly declared to be "the most immoral band in the world". (I think he was annoyed because he only had a Marillion t-shirt on...) Right enough, the amount of swearing on the album was unprecedented at the time (I'm not condoning it, but it added to the atmosphere around the band and just increased their notoriety), but it was the force and magnetism of the music that gripped me - Izzy Stradlin's rhythm guitar, Slash's lead guitar breaks, the quality of the songwriting... and of course the unique voice of their singer, W. Axl Rose, who could sing in about three different registers. His real name was William Bruce Rose, with the surname later changed to Bailey, and then back to Rose again. In a summer when the UK charts were topped by the likes of Rick Astley and the Pet Shop Boys, Appetite for Destruction was my soundtrack for 1987/1988. It signposted me towards Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Exile"-era Rolling Stones, and other great classics - real bands with guitars, bass and drums. No synthesisers, sampling or overdubbed nonsense. Appetite went on to become the best selling debut album of all time, selling 28 million copies. When they released their next album, a 4 track acoustic EP called "GN'R Lies", I tuned my Yamaha down a semi tone and mastered the EP's hit single "Patience".

Guns N Roses' epic double album - a far more polished release entitled Use Your Illusion I & II - was released on the same day in 1991 as Nirvana's Nevermind. Their singer Kurt Cobain soon replaced Axl Rose at the top of the rock music tree, with Nevermind selling 26 million copies to date. Earlier this year Cobain's roots were traced to County Tyrone.

Fast forward 23 years and next month Guns N Roses (well, Axl Rose and a completely different band) will play in Belfast for the first time. At 38 I'm too old to be bothered going, and too skint to spend £55 on a ticket anyway. But when I heard they were coming, I remembered an old article which said that Rose had grown up as a member of a Pentecostal church in rural Indiana, and was of Scotch-Irish descent. He's in the Wikipedia list of Scotch-Irish Americans, and in the band's heyday was often pictured on stage wearing a long kilt. (Incidentally, another band I was really into at the time was superb Atlanta five piece The Black Crowes. I bumped into the two founder members and brothers, Chris and Rich[ard] Robinson, in the Virgin megastore in Belfast on the afternoon of their first concert here. In a magazine interview at the time they also said they were Scotch-Irish).

So what about Axl Rose's family tree? I don't know if he's ever traced his roots (Axl, if you're reading this, I can recommend the Ulster Historical Foundation as your best starting point!). In general terms, the first Bailies to come to Ulster from Scotland were tenants of Sir James Hamilton. In 1613 a William Bailie was one of the twelve burgesses of Bangor, later some Bailies settled at Inishargy (north of Kircubbin) and some sailed across Strangford Lough to Ringdufferin. Some later travelled to Hamilton's lands in County Cavan where they founded Bailieborough. There was also a Scottish settler called George Rose who had moved to Ulster sometime before 1641 and became a tenant on Sir Foulke Conway's estate at Lisburn. Around the same time back in Scotland a John Rose is recorded as writing Latin poetry for the King.

Nowadays in our house it's my oldest son Jacob who cranks up the Guns n' Roses (he's one of the Guitar Hero generation, who is now playing the real thing. His mates have guitars too and it's a billbate*), but the other day we played Sweet Child O' Mine together - me on the acoustic rhythm guitar and him doing the Slash impersonation. He has clips of himself on YouTube. I've posted one below of him playing along to the original.

So when Axl Rose arrives in Belfast in August, maybe he'll be yet another American descendant of that first generation of Ulster-Scots, walking in the footsteps of his forefathers.

And, with over 34.5 million views on YouTube, the original:

* I can't find the word billbate in any Scots dictionary, or The Hamely Tongue. Maybe it's unique to Ards Peninsula Ulster-Scots.


Colin Maxwell said...

My {mither} threatened to cut my hair as well in the middle of the {nicht}although when I see some of the photies o' me when I was about 16, I must wonder what "too long" meant. About 18 months after I got saved, I decided that it was time to conform to the more sociably acceptable "short, back and sides"
I remember coming down Isoline Street in East Belfast, and another lad in my home street asked me if I had "joined the force" i.e. enrolled in the RUC! Not for the first time was I considered to be a copper. Up in Altagelvin Hospital, yet another somewhat friendly boyo chatted me in the lift and then suddenly threw in the Provo question: "Where are you stationed?" Trying to "catch me out" I suppose. So there you go. Long hair can keep you out of an early grave.

Fair fa' ye

Unknown said...

Mark - Brilliant guitar playing by Jacob, however to be a great guitar player he needs to grow his hair! At least shoulder length.

Billbate - well when I played football for Rosemount in Greba, we used the term bullbate, probably means the same thing or perhaps the pronunciation was just the difference.