In 2016, OUTCASTS BY CHOICE garnered much praise and adulation as it bounced around various film festivals globally. Film Ireland described it as “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” – pretty much the perfect elevator pitch for the documentary.
For those who missed it, the father/daughter directorial tag-team of Kate and Paul McCarroll have finally independently issued OUTCASTS BY CHOICE as a DVD release via loudfastloud.com. This documentary originated with the filming of a 2012 Outcasts gig at the Button Factory in Dublin. Paul McCarroll, a lifelong fan who first interviewed the band for a fanzine in 1979, saw the potential in using this live footage as a stepping-stone for a greater historical and philosophical document. The directors then set about conducting interviews with the wise and the willing, probing four-decade-old memories and questioning how those life-changing events manifest themselves inside and outside of the band to this day.
Although the reformed Outcasts trade exclusively on an archive set list, they seem to be increasingly active with touring, rekindling old alliances and generally respecting what their legacy did for them in their absence. Forever the band of inalienable ethos, the Outcasts ambitions were to do right by their audience, provide inspiration and be a part of something in Northern Ireland, not take the bait and chase an asphyxiating Polydor deal to London. This afforded them an extra few years of existence at home, and while some of their later musical tangents proved divisive, there was definite courage in retaining a strong punk identity locally and not being subservient to the diktats of the business elsewhere.
OUTCASTS BY CHOICE sets itself up by addressing the social climate of the late 70’s in Northern Ireland that surrounded the band and many others. While it’s a well-trodden path in any documentary of the era, it’s absolutely unavoidable, and individual takes from various bands are always compelling. From the offset, it’s notable that Martin Cowan and Raymond Falls make a rare contribution to the discourse – Greg Cowan has always seemed like the voice-of-record for the Outcasts so the expanded perspective from the band’s core is most welcome.
This narrative is supported by anecdotal and boots-on-the-ground evidence from a cast of friends, wives, fans and Locusts (a name given to a mob of their most rabid supporters) throughout, and no documentary of the era could really exist without the omnipresent Terry Hooley. So intertwined was he with the Outcasts for a period that they were referred to as “Terry Hooley’s little darlings” by other bands. His positive and chirpy demeanour sometimes mask that extra generation of context and insight which would ultimately help so many young punks in Belfast and beyond.
The Outcasts, by their own admission, definitely benefited from the happenstance of geographical notoriety, attracting more press attention than they probably deserved. This meant that quality footage of the band existed as a valuable part of the story. Some of the larger English counterparts of the era have a Top Of The Pops appearance in their archives as animated proof of existence, but watchable footage of a more local/regional type of band is a rarity. Clips of a recording session from SHELLSHOCK ROCK, and the Good Vibrations Festival at the Ulster Hall in Belfast in April 1980 (along with other much used footage from punk documentaries of the era) energise this documentary where the visual element may have otherwise relied heavily on ephemera. It’s not a massive quantity of material, but it more than serves its purpose.
The documentary continues out beyond the familiar embryonic Good Vibrations era into Outcasts lore – reputation of band members, run-ins with the Black Catholics in Dublin, the air of menace that clung to their enthusiasts (the locusts) leading to inevitable ousting from Good Vibrations. This is followed by a focus on the death of drummer Colin Cowan in a car crash and homage to the more recently deceased Getty (September 2016).
From here the documentary takes a somewhat premature leap forward and the remaining 35 minutes are pretty much “And then, decades later…”
The later narrative focuses on the roundabout way the Outcasts reformation happened – Firstly, via Shame Academy (a punk covers band formed to celebrate the launch of Northern Ireland Punk book IT MAKES YOU WANT TO SPIT featuring Greg Cowan, Brian Young from Rudi and & Petesy Burns of Stalag 17) – and secondly, the bona fide reformation for Greg Cowan’s 50th birthday. Rebellion festival and a slew of offers around Europe follow this and the Outcasts were suddenly a fully functioning band again. There is, of course, superb footage from the 2012 Live in Dublin DVD, and gigs in Lyon and on a boat in Berlin augment all of this.
The final 20 minutes or so look at the Outcasts as people – They talk about their lives, what motivates them and what they take from punk as still relevant to them. The final scene of Petesy Burns doing tai chi on a beach with his mantra that “…it’s not hard to be a punk, it’s not hard to have respect for people, it’s not hard to have respect for yourself and go, well, I can have another life here…” is heartwarming and a perfect way to finalise everything.
The one thing conspicuous in its absence is a reasonable dissection of the group’s recorded output. As part of the Good Vibrations era of the Outcasts, details of SELF CONSCIOUS OVER YOU and early singles are comprehensive enough for a documentary of this length, but BLOOD AND THUNDER (arguably the band’s iconic work), SEVEN DEADLY SINS and the various EPs that progressed their sound into the 80s in such a fascinating way are simply passed over. This seems to be a repeated problem with a lot of music documentaries, especially those related to punk. Formative years, influences and debut releases are nicely bundled up in detail, myth and legend – then years or decades of “mid-career” are swept by in 10 seconds or simply ignored.
But, given that OUTCASTS BY CHOICE is a documentary more of a personal nature, it is understandable that the filmmakers went with a flow derived primarily from interviews and the focus on punk as a philosophy to the band is ultimately the direction this takes.
Running time 1:15hrs