One of the UK ’s great unsung guitar heroes Rory Gallagher’s badges of office were his plaid shirts, his weather-beaten Fender Stratocaster and his lifelong addiction to touring. Gallagher was so well regarded by his peers that at various stages in his career he was invited to join the Rolling Stones, Free and Deep Purple, but preferred to continue ploughing his own unique furrow - sadly Jimi Hendrix being asked what it felt like to be the greatest guitarist in the world and responding 'ask Rory Gallagher' is an urban myth, although given the quote's ubiquitous spread it's clearly very believable. A master of the musical style previously known as R&B (that’s proper old skool rhythm and blues not the anodyne Simon Cowell endorsed slush masquerading as R&B today), Gallagher also drew from country, indigenous Irish folk, good old fashioned rock’n’roll, and was unquestionably a massive influence on the entire Irish rock movement. But first and foremost Rory lived to play the guitar (although he could also turn his hand to alto saxophone, bass, mandolin, banjo, and sitar).
Born on the 2nd March 1948 in Ballyshannon and raised in Cork, like many before him Gallagher picked up the rock 'n roll bug at an early age when he saw Elvis Presley before moving inexorably onto Lonnie Donegan, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Jerry Lee Lewis (many of whom he went on to record with). Joining a professional show band whilst still at school he soon formed The Impact and headed for Hamburg in the mid-1960s. By ‘67 he had formed Taste and headed over to London finding immediate success at London's Marquee Club and picking up fans like John Lennon along the way. It wouldn’t however be until the end of the ‘70s, when he finally went solo, that his career really began to fly and following intensive touring around Europe, in support of his eponymously titled debut album, he released Live In Europe album (’72) which hit the top ten in the UK (ultimately going gold), highlighting his hurricane force live set and his oft copied but seldom bettered bottleneck pyrotechnics.
1973 saw the release of Blueprint and Tattoo and at the end of '73 he once again toured his native Ireland – a tour that was documented on the Irish Tour '74 album and filmed by Tony Palmer, a film that is still well worth watching if the opportunity arises, Gallagher being one of the few artists who would actually play in Ireland during the troubles. In the years that followed he would accept invitations to play with a galaxy of rock’n’roll luminaries and make television history as the first ever artist to appear on Germany’s Rockpalast, a show that was transmitted live to some fifteen countries with an estimated audience of 50 million. This was Gallaghers peak and sadly he would never again scale such towering heights commercially – although albums like Calling Card (’76), Stage Struck (‘81) and Fresh Evidence (’90) prove he subsequently lost none of his skill and passion even if the sales were disappointing – however he continued to tour successfully due to his explosive live performances, performances which would remain the mainstay of his career right up to the European Tour of 1995 which was cut short by the illness that would ultimately lead to his death on June 14th due to complications after liver transplant surgery. He was just 47 years of age.
Leaving behind a large and impressive body of work Gallagher newbies should head straight for the double CD retrospective Big Guns (Sony/BMG) which comprehensively touches on everything from his late ‘60s trio Taste right up to Fresh Evidence the last album released in his lifetime some 20 odd years later. Next port of call should then be Live In Europe or Irish Tour '74 both of which expertly capture the sort of frenetic energy you might have experienced at a Rory Gallagher live show and you really can't go wrong with any of the first four studio albums Rory Gallagher, Deuce, Blueprint or Tattoo.
Perhaps the best addition to Rory's post 1995 recorded output however is the Kickback City boxset a themed 'best of' collection (studio and live) which includes a short novella by Ian Rankin, illustrated by graphic artist Timothy Truman, and a special narration of the story by actor Aidan Quinn. Housed in a deluxe hardcover book style package including 3 CDs, the 44 page novella The Lie Factory and 4 ‘crime’ scene postcards the whole shebang was overseen by Rory's brother Donal, who was happy to answer a few questions about his brother beginning with the various stories over the years claiming that Rory could have joined Cream, Deep Purple, the Rolling Stones and more, are these all true?
Donal: "Yes, at the time of Cream's demise, there were talks between Rory's then manager and Robert Stigwood about the possibility of Rory teaming up with Jack and Ginger but Rory stopped the conversation from being pursued. Deep Purple wanted Rory after Tommy Bolin's demise [as] Rory had toured America extensively with Deep Purple together with Fleetwood Mac in '73/'74 - and Purple's bassist Roger Glover produced Rory's Calling Card album. Then in January '75, following the departure of Mick Taylor, Rory was approached by Ian Stewart on behalf of the Stones, to see if he would be willing to work with the band (I took the call in Ireland.) Rory agreed to fly to Rotterdam and recorded with the Stones for three or four days, but the band were vague about their intentions, there was a lot of ambiguity in the days before text and email.
In addition, Canned Heat were another group, this followed the passing of Al 'Owl' Wilson. I've also read that Paul Rodgers was keen to have Rory with Free.”
Total Music: Is it a little frustrating for you that Rory is now held in such high esteem – with a huge list of high profile rock stars name-checking him - since his passing when he struggled to sell records towards the end of his career?
Donal: “Rory didn't struggle to sell albums, in particular his later records, however, he didn't receive his deserved credit, but this is quite a common thing (i.e. Hendrix before his demise ). Bereavement promotes many emotions and you would want the person to hear their praise. But in his time Rory had been praised by John Lennon, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, so no problem.”
Total Music: Kickback City is a terrific looking package, tell us how the idea came about and how it all came together (was Rory a crime novel fan)?
Donal: “One of Rory's passions was crime novels, at one point my brother was keen to set-up a monthly magazine devoted to new publications and crime/espionage writers. For some time, I had considered that there may be a thread that might be woven through Rory's 'crime' influenced songs. Later, when I came across Ian Rankin's Question of Blood novel, it made me aware that Ian's detective Rebus was into Rory’s music, so I wrote to Ian [and said] that if one day I put a Rory 'crime' album together might he consider writing some sleeve notes and his reply was positive.
I was also made aware of a comic Grim Jack and an episode [where] the super-hero prevents an assassination attempt on his guitar buddy - a battered 'strat' playing guy called Jim Lanyon, who was drawn in as Rory's image. I contacted the artist Timothy Truman and confirmed Rory was [his] guitar hero.
Having framed up an album plan (with input from my son Dan) I travelled to Edinburgh to propose the idea of a 'new' Rankin short-story, which we would then have Truman illustrate - all done in the classic pulp-fiction style.
On reading the story Ian had written, it was clear it was more elaborate than I had expected and I felt it would make an excellent audio disc. To that end, we approached actor Aidan Quinn and he agreed to narrate Rankin's work.
This brought the arts of music, writing, drawing and drama together and a real labour of love.”
The Kickback City boxset is out now on Sony/BMG and a 1987 concert performance DVD Live In Cork is also out on Eagle Rock, you can keep up with all things RG at the official website