The Town I Loved So Well

 

I have been very fortunate in my career. I have had hits over more than thirty-five years: rock, popular, Celtic; as an arranger, a producer, a composer and a performer. But, when it’s all over with, this is what I would like to be remembered for.” Before the first bars of music fill the theatre, the audience erupts into applause.

At most concerts the encore is a sweet conclusion; with Phil Coulter it is an anticipated highlight. For his fans it is an anthem: for Coulter, an autobiography and a prayer, THE TOWN I LOVE SO WELL is his signature and his benediction.

In my memory I will always see
The town that I have loved so well.
Where our school played ball by the gas yard wall
And we laughed through the smoke and the smell.
Going home in the rain, running up the Dark Lane,
Past the Jail and down behind the Fountain.
Those were happy days, in so many, many ways,
In the town I loved so well.

Internationally revered, Phil Coulter’s music reached from the Irish Pub to the opera stage. As an arranger and a composer, his music has been performed by such diverse talents as Elvis Presley and the Irish Tenors.

As a producer, he has helped to guide the careers of The Bay City Rollers and Sinead O’Connor. As a performer he has ecome an icon in Ireland and a guiding force behind the Celtic music revival.

Coulter’s music tells the story of his life. A story that began and will someday end, in the town that is the model for what the Irish refer to as “the troubles.” A town whose very name became a political statement: For the Protestant British it was Londonderry, for the Catholic Irish, it was simply Derry.

Childhood is usually a happy time, for the toils of life are still unknown and a bent for making comparisons has yet to develop. Life’s situation, whatever it may be, is the norm and is unquestioned. Only when looked back upon through the lens of time, is a judgement made on childhood’s quality.

The third son of an Ulster policeman, one of the few Catholics on the force, Coulter was born in February 1942., Along with his two brothers and two sisters, he grew up in a simple terrace home. His early years were shaped by the aftermath of World War II, memories of air raid shelters and the rationing of virtually everything. Fortunately, music was not rationed:
“The most valuable and valued, piece of furniture was the ...upright piano. Our house was always full of music. I learned the love of just playing and the pure joy of music.”

In the early morning the shirt factory horn Called women from Creggan,, the Moor and the Bog;
While the men on the dole played a mother’s role, Fed the children and then walked the dog. And when times got tough there was just about enough, And they saw it through without complaining:
For deep inside was a burning pride, In the town I loved so well.

Derry was an industrial town caught in an economic inversion, The jobs that had fuelled the war effort were gone and traditional work was hard to find. In many families there was a role reversal: Women became the bread winners, while the men were left to deal with idleness and a sense of worthlessness. It was a brutal test of character and the human spirit, a breeding ground for desperation and for genius; it was a crucible that helped shape the Irish character, nurturing writers, poets, playwrights, performers and composers.

Coulter attended a small school with a strong sense of achievement and a tradition for academic excellence. “This was your ticket out of there,” he says, “your ticket to better things.” While there he experienced one of his life’s defining moments when he addressed his schoolmates from the top of a stairwell: ‘to this day I can still remember all of the eyes looking up, and the faces... there was that feeling of being the local hero. It was such an intoxicating feeling. It has never left me.”

Coulter studied music at Queen’s University in Belfast. ‘Within weeks ... I started my own band and from that moment onward my fate was sealed.” He prepared himself for the future. “I spent my days being intense about Palestrina (an obscure Italian composer of the sixteenth century) and playing polyphony of the late 1600’: and my evenings being even more intense about Fats Domino and playing Rock and Roll of the early 1960’s.” By the time he graduated, he had written a couple of hit songs. It was time touse his ticket to better things.

There was music there in the Derry air
Like a language that we all could understand.
I remember the day that I earned my first pay,
When I played in a small pickup band.
There I spent my youth, and to tell you the truth,
I was sad to leave it all behind me;
For I‘d learned about life, and I’d found a wife,
In the town I loved so well.

In 1964 Coulter went to London where he played piano for some of the reigning superstars; Tom Jones, Jerry Lee Louis, Van Morrison and the Rolling Stones. He collaborated with Bill Martin on his first major successes: PUPPET ON A STRING and CONGRATULATIONS. The songs sold more than 10 million records. He wrote MY BOY for Richard Harris. The effort was only a mild success; but when the song was recorded by Elvis Presley, it became an international hit. Phil Coulter was established.

In the early seventies a new phenomenon appeared; the Teenybopper. In Coulter’s words, ‘record companies awoke to the fact that the kids who were buying singles were ten years younger than they used to be.” He became a songwriter and producer for The Bay City Rollers. They sold millions of records with songs such as REMEMBER and SATURDAY NIGHT. He wrote hits such as; HEARTS OF STONE and FOREVER AND EVER, for the bands Slik and Kenny.

In the late seventies, Coulter’s life and career took a subtle but defining turn., He produced several albums for Planxty, a pioneer in creating the phenomenon that became the Celtic sound. The fires of his heritage were fanned. He produced The Dubliners and the Furey Brothers. In the process Coulter became firmly attached to his Irish roots; “While Teenybopper music was good for my bank balance; Irish music was good for my soul.”

He composed new music in the age-old Celtic tradition; not chants and primeval rhythms, but melodic and spiritual music. “Suddenly, after all the centuries, it was cool to be a Celt.”

Irish songs frequently tell a story, often comic, sometimes poignant; so it is with Coulter’s music, a handicapped child, the death of siblings, the death of a parent, the destruction of your hometown. During this period, he wrote many of the songs that now define his music: SCORN NOT HIS SIMPLICITY, STEAL AWAY, GOLD AND SILVER DAYS and THE OLD MAN.

Meanwhile, life at home has also changed. In 1972 Derry had exploded onto the world’s stage An age-old struggle erupted into new violence: British soldiers shot and killed thirteen Irish demonstrators. An open rebellion ensued and the British army occupied the town. Coulter was devastated; in an expression of his anguish, he wrote THE TOWN I LOVED SO WELL.

But when I’ve returned, how my eyes have burned
To see how a town can be brought to its knees:
By the armoured cars and the bombed out bars,
And the gas that hangs on to every breeze.
Now an army’s installed by that old gas yard wall
And the damned barbed wire gets higher and higher;
With their tanks and their guns, Oh! my God! what have they done
To the town I loved so well.

By 1984 the transition was complete. Celtic music became his obsession. “It was my passion for Irish music that gave me the idea of one day getting around to making an instrumental album of my favourite Irish melodies.” Coulter entered a phase of life he calls tranquility. He gave new rhythmic treatments to traditional Irish melodies, added strings and rich arrangements, used pipes and whistles and the latest recording techniques.


He treated each melody with love, tenderness and reverent veneration. The result “Classic Tranquility” became the largest selling album in Ireland’s history. The follow up, “Sea of Tranquility” was an even greater success.

Increasingly Coulter dedicates himself to promoting his beloved homeland and spends a part of each year touring as Ireland’s Ambassador of Music”. He wrote “Ireland’s Call” for the Irish National Rugby team. His “Home From The Sea”, dedicated to a brother who drowned in a boating accident, is the official anthem of Ireland’s and Great Britain’s Lifeboat Rescue Services.


“Winter’s Crossing” and album in collaboration with James Galway, one of Ireland’s most famous musical personalities, commemorates the great famine and the Irish migration to America.

Although a flamboyant dresser when performing, frequently attired in a white suit, off stage Coulter is shy and unassuming; a man easily lost in a crowd.


Of slight build, his tanned oval face is crowned with thinning dark hair, a hit of greying sideburns, a narrow neatly trimmed beard and thin gray mustache. There is a devilish twinkle in his eyes and a perpetual smile on his face; his entire countenance radiates harmony and serenity. Tranquility has become both a career and a way of life.

A Phil Coulter concert is the modern musical equivalent of a fireside chat. Although performing in a theatre and dressed for the occasion, the atmosphere is more like an evening in the living room of a good friend. His presentation and husky voice are more that of a folk singer than a popular vocalist. He captivates his audience with a combination of song and spoken words and with his charm and personality.

After almost every number, he turns on his piano stool, faces his audience, swings his microphone into place and chats In his captivating Irish accent, he talks of life, of music, of what has happened during the day. He talks about his music and the stories behind his songs and lyrics. He speaks with -- not celebrities -- just people he knows or has met. He speaks of Ireland, of his love of his homeland and his people, of the problems and his hope and prayers that peace is finally at hand. It is an evening with a great artist; it is an evening with a friend.

Coulter was nominated for a Grammy for his album “Highland Cathedral”. Ironically, although his musical roots are as old as the Celtic tradition, he was nominated in the New Age category. “I won’t pretend that I don’t care if I win this award,” he said candidly before the ceremony, “I do... it would be a reaffirmation of my career ... and it would be recognition as a performer.” He didn’t win. His music doesn’t assault the eardrum, it caresses it... Today’s Teenyboppers - the Hip Hoppers - are not, yet, ready for tranquility.

Phil Coulter has brought tranquility to his life and to the lives of the millions who thrill to the beat and the music of the Celts. He continues to be a catalyst in bringing tranquility to his country and his hometown; and he will always be remembered - and loved - in the town he loves so well.

Now the music’s gone, but they carry on
Their spirit’s been bruised, never broken;
They will not forget; but their hearts are set
On tomorrow and peace once again.
For what’s done is done and what’s won is won;
And what’s lost is lost and gone forever.
I can only pray for a bright brand new day
In the town I loved so well
Usually he adds, “And please God, make it soon.

Benjamin Baird.

Image by Katie Harp

©2020 Phil Coulter