Protex were one of the great pop-punk bands from Northern Ireland during the first rush of punk/new wave. To me they were just as exciting as the Undertones, SLF, the Outcasts and the brilliant Rudi. Don’t get me wrong,I loved those bands, but I loved Protex just as much. I remember my brother buying me the compilation album, 20 Of Another Kind and playing the Protex track, I Can’t Cope, over and over.
Protex proved that Irish bands could match the best of the new wave across the water (the compilation also included the Jam, the Cure, and Sham 69…but our boys were as good as any of them at that moment). Patrik Fitzgerald and the Xdreamists were also on it and showed the power and variety of the Irish bands of the punk/post-punk era.
Protex were full of passion and energy and great new songs when I saw them wow the punk rockers in Blackpool. I wanted to know more and the band’s Aidan Murtagh was kind enough to answer my questions.
Were you into music before punk came along?
I grew up listening mostly to Slade, T. Rex , Dr Feelgood and Thin Lizzy and The Beatles. My older brother had a great record collection and in our house we often heard Lou Reed’s Transformer album. Bowies Aladdin Sane and Hendrix.
The films “That ll be the day “and “Stardust” had an impact on me – I got a love for rock n roll , particularly the Everly brothers ,Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. Eventually got to see The Everly Brothers twice and Chuck once.
Where did you get your records?
I bought my records mostly in Sounds Around, owned by Ivan Martin, the DJ, also at Caroline Music and then when punk came, I went mostly to Good Vibrations record shop.
Did anyone encourage you to play music?
My brother and his mates played guitar and I was excited when I first heard an electric guitar being played in our garage. It was my brother who first taught me a few chords.
I’ve been playing and singing in bands from 14 years old – mostly at youth clubs and at the odd disco. At that time we played mostly Dr Feelgood , Thin Lizzy and Status Quo as well as a few 50s songs.
Any outstanding gg memories?
My first gig I attended was Rory Gallagher in the Ulster Hall in The Early 70s – just after The Blueprint album I think. It was at the height of the Troubles and no bands came to Belfast. It was electrifying. Later got to meet him as a fellow musician in London several times.
Equally memorable was seeing the original Dr Feelgood with Wilko playing at Queens University – I saw them twice. That would have been a few years after seeing Rory. Protex played with Wilko and The Solid Senders at The Marquee, Wardour street in summer 1979.
What inspired you to write songs?
Punk came along with a DIY attitude and I wrote my first song – Don’t Ring Me up which was released on Good Vibes. I suppose listening to it today I can hear Everly brothers, Buddy Holly on speed – people used say this in the early days but I didn’t get it – I was hoping they’d say The Buzzcocks or the Clash. I suppose I can now see it’s a rock n roll song.
How hard was it to get the early gigs for Protex?
It was difficult to get gigs in Belfast back then, especially if you were a punk. Belfast wanted cover bands or Blues bands. Terri Hooley put shows on and was good to us. The main venues were The Pound and Harp Bar. We also did The Dark Space 24 hour event in Dublin at The Project Arts Theatre. We played Mc Gonagle’s in Dublin and later The Cork Arcadia with U2. Later we broke away from The Harp bar in Belfast and did our own tour of youth clubs across the divided city. When we got a recording contract we moved to London. We were one of the first Good Vibrations bands and one of the few to get signed.
You toured a lot with the Boomtown Rats. How did that come about, what were those gigs like?
The husband of our American manager was from Dublin and had managed The Boomtown Rats before Fachtna O’Kelly. Protex needed a high-profile act to tour with. We had our minds on the two biggest pop acts at that time – Boomtown Rats and Blondie. We were unsuccessful with Blondie but got on to the Rats tour. They were at their peak with I Don’t Like Mondays at No 1 in the charts.
The tour was good experience for us and developed us in many ways. B.P. Fallon was also on the tour with Protex so we learned a lot from him in terms of the media side of things as well as presentation. It was a bit of a crazy time for us teenagers.
The Rats were all very supportive. They were a few years older and wiser and it was a good opportunity for us to meet press and media and other bands, celebs and be right in the centre of “The Music Business” and to form an opinion of that business.
Geldof, Paula Yeats and all the Rats were all very good to us . We met a lot of Irish bands and players at the time.
You also toured with Adam and the Ants. Any stand-out memories of those gigs?
The Adam and The Ants tour, I don’t have a lot of memories- I recall Adam Ant was a great guy , very much Punk at the time and their audience were maybe too hardcore from the Protex power-pop. We decided to come off that tour after several dates.
In hindsight I believe a tour with the Buzzcocks would have suited us better than any of the above. There was talk at the time about this but it never came off.
We played two tours of North America including some Canadian dates and that was fantastic. When we arrived in New York it was a breath of fresh air for us, as in the UK in the early 80s thing were changing with skinhead ska and then new romantics. In the New York clubs we were surprised at the reaction we got. The scene was very strong at that time and there were so many clubs. We played Hurrahs, Max’s Kansas City, Tier 3, Irving Plaza to name a few – all the punk clubs we had read about . In the audience at theses pubs and clubs were members of The Ramones and in Max’s, Johnny Thunders. I got to hang out in CBGBs but we never gigged there.
It was nice to return to play New York in recent years too with the current version of Protex. We have a great audience there, and it was in Brooklyn that Sing Sing Records released our Strange Obsession album (after 30 years or so). Today most of the Protex interest is outside UK and Ireland. We just appeal to different markets I guess.
Chas Chandler produced your album. What was that like?
Working with Chas Chandler was a great experience – I was a huge Slade fan and had asked our A and R guy at Polydor to get a producer who would make the same noise for us. Chas was a tough Geordie and had loads of stories about how he discovered Hendrix , about the Animals , Slade and about the Beatles and the swinging 60s. He owned the old IBC studios which he renamed Barn Studios- Status Quo, the Animals, the Beatles, the Small Faces, Slade etc all recorded there so that was a special place to be. He made changes to two arrangements of songs. Otherwise he let us fire ahead. To be honest he wasn’t really in touch with the new wave or punk thing – but was seen as one of the great record producers of the time. Back then it didn’t seem a big deal to us. We were a bit pissed off as he worked us from 9am – 5pm! We had been used to working previous to that in RAK studios with recording sessions until 4/5am……However – the Strange Obsession album end result – Protex in 1980 felt at the end of the recording that we could have done better and we weren’t entirely happy at the time.
Did you feel part of a scene at home or when you moved to London?
I think once we had left Belfast we kind of thought we were out on our own. It cut the Good Vibrations tie and still feels like that today. History has now been re- written. I remember it differently.
When we reached England, we were part of the music business and we didn’t really feel part of a punk movement as such- the whole landscape where we were now was new wave /punk bands but it didn’t feel like a “movement” the way it did in Belfast. We just saw ourselves as PROTEX and felt a rock n roll/punk/ power pop band and just wanted to write songs and play gigs. It was always about the music and attitude of playing the music.
The recent performances and the new songs prove that Protex a very much alive and relevant. In fact, as much as I loved the early singles, the new material feels even stronger.
It’s great to get the chance to play and write again. Once I started playing I realized how much I missed playing and how much I get out of it.
Having come through the years and the experiences, it’s now a bit weird being the only original Protex member left, but I’m getting used to it. I’ve got great players even if the attitude and musical back-grounds differ. We are older.
I still write songs as before and remember every song I write is a Protex song – trying to keep to the original sound. The important thing is that we are not simply a nostalgia band, many people we meet ask us about new songs and that’s important. It keeps the creative thing going. We meet many good bands at gigs and festivals.
Do you remember your favourite bands from back then?
Favorite bands from back in the day – I think my fave would be the Undertones. We played with them many times when Feargal was about, always great live. We played many times with SLF in the Pound in Belfast before they left Belfast. Early Rudi were great and their impact in Northern Irish punk is totally under-estimated.