Shane Croghan gets out the safety pins for Outcasts by Choice, which screened at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.
Outcasts by Choice, directed by father-daughter duo Paul and Kate McCarroll, is a snapshot of Belfast punk in the late ’70s, as well as something of an insight into a lesser examined facet of the scene, the ageing process.
The film kicks off with the riotous energy of the band it documents, introducing its protagonists against the tumultuous backdrop of a city fissured by political and cultural conflicts. “If one city was born for punk, it was Belfast”, is a declaration heard early on and it’s hard to argue against this statement, as archive footage shows bands like The Outcasts providing an outlet for the youth of Belfast in the late ’70s.
Archive, photographs and interviews with members of The Outcasts, both founding and current, detail the beguiling story of a group of angry young men and their dedicated followers, affectionately referred to as “the Locusts”. Violent, chaotic gigs are soundtracked by out-of-tune instruments and it’s hard to believe that the charming, soft-spoken men in the interviews are the same hell-raisers that seem to have been barred from, or kicked out of, half the venues in Northern Ireland.
It’s in this contrast between the young Outcasts and the modern-day incarnation of the group that Outcasts by Choice finds one of its most interesting narrative threads, what happens when punk grows up? Founding members Greg and Martin Cowan, along with their new band-mates, Raymond Falls and Petesy Burns have mellowed considerably in the near-forty years which have passed since the band’s formation. Martin, who was noted as much for his violent tendencies as his musical prowess in the group’s heyday, has channelled his energy into fitness. Twinkle-eyed Petesy teaches Tai Chi. Peaceful moments, like Martin strumming an acoustic guitar, or Petesy practising Tai Chi on the beach, reflect an inherent tenderness that was concealed by the incendiary behaviour of the young Outcasts in earlier scenes.
The more contented Outcasts haven’t lost sight of their identity though, they’ve merely diversified their understanding of what constitutes the spirit of punk. Rebellion is embodied in freedom, a righteous sense of self, uninhibited by the constraints imposed by society, and in pursuing this idea of freedom, separate from the anger of their youth, The Outcasts are enjoying their renaissance, both on and off the stage. From bars in Belfast, to a boat in Berlin, the band have lost some members, gained others, grown wiser and learned how to tune their instruments. Along the way they’ve clung tight to their identity, coming to understand who they are and what they represent, and they’re more comfortable with that than ever before.
Outcasts by Choice is a labour of love, produced on a shoestring budget, and it provides a fascinating glimpse into a scintillating period in Irish music history, whilst retaining the DIY spirit that ignited the punk scene in the first place. This ethos was preached by the directors in their Q&A after the screening, as they urged that any prospective artists should “just go out and make something”. Much like The Outcasts, Paul and Kate McCarroll followed their own path in pursuing this documentary, unfazed by their lack of financial clout, or influenced by a desire for commercial success. The duo have an obvious affinity for their subject matter and it’s there for all to see in the finished product.