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Rory Gallagher: the remarkable story of a blues brother's hot streak

Rory Gallagher in 1974
Rory Gallagher in 1974 (Image credit: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)

From the minute he convinced his devoted mother to act as guarantor for the hire-purchase agreement on an exorbitantly priced red ’61 Fender Stratocaster in 1963, Rory Gallagher knew exactly what he wanted do. 

The 15-year-old told her that this was his guitar for life. And it was. The battle-scarred instrument would outlast its master, a man who became one of the hardest working, most celebrated purveyor of incendiary white blues of the last 50 years. 

At his peak, Gallagher was untouchable. Between 1971 and 1974, he released six powerhouse albums – Rory Gallagher, Deuce, Live In Europe, Blueprint, Tattoo and Irish Tour ’74 – that showcased a musician whose dedication to his craft was matched only by the devotion of his audience. 

A committed square peg who resisted any round holes that came his way, he revelled in his anti-star status while simultaneously craving a bigger kind of recognition. 

“Rory was always thinking more about his place in history than living a regular adolescence,” says his brother Donal Gallagher, who curates Rory’s estate. Today Gallagher might not be mentioned in the same breath as the Holy Trinity of British blues-rock – Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton – but his legacy is undeniable. 

The Irishman’s towering skill and singular approach chimed with everyone from Billy Gibbons and Slash to U2 guitarist the Edge and ex-Smiths man Johnny Marr, while Joe Bonamassa – a confirmed acolyte who has covered Gallagher’s Cradle Rock – describes him as “the Rocky Balboa of guitarists”. 

It would be a fitting description, were it not for one thing. Rocky Balboa was a fictional boxing hero. Rory Gallagher, on the other hand, was as real as it gets.

Rory Gallagher was born in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, in 1948, and raised in Cork. His father sang and played accordion in local bands, while his mother had been a member of a theatre company. The young Rory got his first guitar at the age of nine, and his listening tastes gravitated from Lonnie Donegan to Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy. 

He was a confident guitarist, albeit one with a rebellious streak. One appearance at a school talent show provoked the ire of the Catholic brothers who ran the establishment. The reason: Gallagher had covered Cliff Richard’s chaste 1959 hit, Living Doll

“The brothers felt that Rory had played the devil’s music,” says Donal. 

Like every young Irish musician who came of age in the early 60s, Gallagher served his apprenticeship on the showband circuit, playing covers of popular hits. 

“I only joined a showband because there was nowhere else to go with an electric guitar,” he later explained. 

Frustrated with the vice-like grip of the Irish Federation Of Musicians, who controlled every aspect of the country’s showband circuit, Gallagher decided to take control of his own destiny. In 1966, he walked away from showbands and his own group, blues-rock power trio Taste, arguably the first Irish rock band. 

Within two years, Taste had to London, where they signed with Polydor – no mean feat for a band from Ireland. Two primal studio albums followed (1969’s Taste and 1970’s On The Boards), and for a while, they looked like being the natural successors to Cream, even supporting that band at their farewell shows at the Albert Hall. But a bad management and diverging musical directions convinced Gallagher to move on. 

Taste played their final show at Belfast’s Queens University on October 24, 1970. It was a hard decision for the guitarist – “I don’t like to think about it too much, because it upsets me,” Gallagher later said of Taste’s split – though, typically, that didn’t stop him making it.

It was in Belfast that Gallagher began searching for a new band. He soon found two players he could work with: drummer Wilgar Campbell and 17-yearold bassist Gerry McAvoy, whose own band, Deep Joy, had supported Taste. Ironically, Deep Joy had split up on exactly the same night as Gallagher’s former group, just down the road in Ulster Hall.

“I first met Rory when he came to live in Belfast,” says McAvoy. “He was known as a bit of a character because of his long hair. He was a bit outlandish but at the same time he was very polite and pleasant. I didn’t realise he was headhunting me and Wilgar. There was no beating about the bush. He asked if I would be available to come to London that weekend for a bit of a blow.”

Not one to drag his heels, Gallagher moved fast. In January 1971, the trio got acquainted via series of intense jams in small basement rehearsal room in Fulham. By late February, they were in the studio, recording Gallagher’s first, self-titled album. If Rory was feeling pressured to prove himself after the demise of Taste, he wasn’t letting on, even to his bandmates. 

“He would never talk about things like that,” says McAvoy. “You had to read between the lines with Rory. He obviously knew that he was taking a risk because Taste was on the verge of becoming a major band. I honestly think that he just wanted to be his own man, and it worked.” 

Free from the constraints of the intra-band democracy of Taste, Gallagher was free to run the show as he wanted, writing all the songs and producing the record. Not as raw as his former band, it mixed the solid blues of Sinner Boy and Hands Up with more diverse influences, from the folksy, Pentangle-style musings of Just A Smile to the rough-hewn, outlaw country-influenced It’s You, which added steel guitar and mandolin. Most startling was the jazz-influenced Can’t Believe It’s True, which featured Rory – a huge fan of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy – on haunting saxophone. But Gallagher was a bluesman at heart, and central to it all was his guitar. 

He was no virtuoso singer, and his vocals were rough around the edges (“His range, when he tries hard, is virtually nil,” said one critic), but the array of sounds he squeezed out of his trusty red Strat were loaded with rawness and emotion. More than anything, he wanted to capture the visceral energy of a live show, as McAvoy found out.

"I was pissed off because I had made a mistake on Laundromat,” recalls the bassist. “But to Rory it didn’t matter as long as it had the feel. To Rory, feel was everything.” 

The album was housed in an uncharacteristically subdued cover, featuring a moody black-and-white photo of Gallagher. It was designed to reflect his love of old jazz albums, as well as deliberately contradicting any preconceptions held over from his time in Taste. 

The shot was taken by celebrated photographer Mick Rock, who also worked with Syd Barrett and David Bowie

“At college I was enamoured with the English romantic poets,”says Rock now. “I saw Syd in that way and I also saw it in Rory. He was handsome, had a thick mop of hair and that certain cavalier spirit about him. He was a very photogenic and charismatic person. You couldn’t take a bad picture of him.” 

The cover made it crystal clear that this was a Rory Gallagher solo album. When one journalist enquired if having his name alone on the cover meant that Gerry McAvoy and Wilgar Campbell were just sidekicks, Gallagher’s response was telling. “It’s not as Hitlerite as that but I know what I want and I’m prepared to stand or fall by my own efforts,” he said. “I have to retain control now – later I should be able to let go.”

By the time Rory Gallagher was released in May 1971, the trio had played their first live shows, a series of dates in Europe. The first gig, at Paris’s Olympia Theatre, was sold out and filmed for French TV. Other shows in were less successful. 

“We did a couple of shows in the north of France and only a handful of people turned up,” says McAvoy. “But that was OK. Our attitude was if we put on a great show then next time twice as many people will turn up. And that’s generally what happened wherever we played.” 

It was onstage that Gallagher and his band truly came into their own. The normally retiring frontman transformed into a hyperactive performer, channelling the energy and passion of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and John Coltrane. His musical instructions to his bandmates were almost telepathic, resulting in incendiary shows that were exciting for the people onstage as they were for the people in the crowd.
“It’s a never-ending problem for me selling live music across in studio,” he admitted. 

With Gallagher’s hands firmly on the purse strings (McAvoy claims that he was paid £200 for his work on the album and a weekly wage of £25) the early tours were basic, to say the least. Everybody travelled in a transit van driven by Donal Gallagher, a set-up that would continue for a few more years. But it did have its advantages: it meant that the band could make a show at short notice.

The debut album had been poorly received in some quarters (American journalist Lester Bangs had described it as “one of the most noticeably vacuous releases of the season”), instigating a fractious relationship with the press. But, crucially, both the record and the live show had connected with the public. 

Gallagher had found himself dubbed ‘The People’s Guitarist’, though it was a two-way relationship. With his uniform of denim jeans, flannel shirt and battered trainers, he looked exactly like his audience, and his audience loved him for it (it was a look that was revived during the grunge era; not uncoincidentally, Courtney Love confirmed that Kurt Cobain was a fan of Gallagher). But Rory had a junkie-like dependence on the feedback from his crowds, drawing strength and confidence from the adulation.

By mid-1971 he was on fire, and the band were booked for seven months of non-stop touring, though their first American jaunt was nearly derailed thanks to a drugs charge hanging over McAvoy and Campbell. The pair had been busted for a miniscule amount of hash in Belfast while still members of Deep Joy. Gallagher was unaware of this potential stumbling block, which was just as well. Though he was a drinker, the guitarist was ardently anti-drugs, and would have undoubtedly fired them if he found out. 

“Amazingly we were cleared,” recalls McAvoy, who remains convinced that the drugs had been planted. “But Rory didn’t know about it.” To the immense relief of the rhythm section, they made it to America unmolested by the law. As well as introducing Gallagher to a new market, their US dates – where they played with Little Feat and Frank Zappa – opened the band’s eyes to the pulchritude that was on offer. But while the band were delighted to find that their crowds were almost 50 per cent female, Gallagher refused to take advantage of the situation. 

Though his Celtic good looks and boyish smile attracted the attention of groupies, the guitarist would disappear to his room after shows to read, watch movies or listen to music. His approach to life, like his approach to playing guitar, was almost monastic. “Rory enjoyed the atmosphere and vibe of America and loved the company of women,” says McAvoy. “But that’s as far as it went. I don’t really know why. It was just his way.”

Unwilling to kill the momentum, Gallagher and his band began work on their second album, Deuce, as soon as they returned from America. Sessions took place at Tangerine Studios in Dalston, a run-down part of East London. Thanks to its cavernous echo, the studio was usually favoured by reggae artists, though there was one unexpected sonic downside: it stood next to a bingo hall, which meant the band had to work out-of-hours to avoid the cries of “Two fat ladies!” seeping through the walls. 

Released in November 1971, just six months after the debut, Deuce incorporated Celtic influences amongst the tight blues workouts, notably on I’m Not Awake Yet. Elsewhere, Don’t Know Where I’m Going was an homage to one of Gallagher’s more unlikely heroes, Bob Dylan. Gigging before, during and after the recording of Deuce, the band had little time to celebrate its entry into the charts at a respectable No.39. 

Over the years, the album has attracted a legion of famous fans, from Judas Priest’s Glen Tipton and Kiss’s Ace Frehley, to late comic genius Bill Hicks who claimed that he wore out several copies. 

Johnny Marr was another devotee. “Deuce was a complete turning point for me,” the former Smiths guitarist told Guitar magazine in 1997. Marr has admitted that, as a teenager, he tried to emulate the look of Gallagher’s increasingly battered and weather-worn red Stratocaster on his own instrument – with the help of a blowtorch and a chisel in woodwork class. 

Given his dedication to playing live, it made sense that Gallagher decided that his next release would be a live album. The only snag was that Polydor were having none of it – live albums didn’t sell, and he was still a relatively new artist. Less bullish musicians would have backed down, but not the stubborn Irishman. It was a battle of wills that could only have one winner. Released in May 1972 and featuring an iconic cover shot of Rory brandishing the red Stratocaster he’d asked for when he was 15, Live In Europe was the guitarist’s third album in a year. 

Cheekily rechristened “Live In Luton” by certain band members after one of the less glamorous places it was recorded in, the record captured the explosive power of Gallagher’s live show. The opening cover of Chicago bluesman Junior Wells’ Messin’ With The Kid and closing band showcase Bullfrog Blues would become synonymous with Gallagher’s live set, while Bob Dylan unsuccessfully tried to enlist the guitarist to re-record traditional song I Could’ve Had Religion after hearing his version here. 

Live In Europe would be Gallagher’s most successful record yet on both sides of the Atlantic, but the band’s ferocious work rate was taking its toll on Wilgar Campbell. The only member of the band with a family, he found the strain of touring too much and began missing shows. The final straw came when he bailed out on the day the band were to due to fly to Ireland to play a gig that was being recorded for a TV broadcast. 

Luckily, a stand-in was close at hand. Rod de’Ath was the former drummer in blues outfit Killing Floor; he was also Gerry McAvoy’s landlord. Gallagher’s agent called de’Ath to see if he’d be up for flying to Ireland at short notice. 

“Rory’s mum picked me up in a taxi at Cork Airport and we flew down to Limerick,” says de’Ath, an eccentric, eye-patch sporting character who was rumoured to have died in the early 90s. “I didn’t realise until I got there that the show was being filmed. It was RTE’s first colour transmission. Apart from Taste, I hadn’t heard any of Rory’s albums before.” 

With de’Ath behind the kit, the band snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Back in London, Campbell would return, but he only managed a few more shows before having a complete breakdown (he died in 1989, after suffering liver problems brought on by alcoholism). Rod de’Ath stepped in once again, although he couldn’t tell if he was a full-time member of the band. 

“We did shake hands,” says de’Ath, who would play with Gallagher until 1976. “I don’t think he did that with Gerry.” 

“I was never officially asked to join the band,” the bassist confirms. “Rory was always playing his cards close to his chest. Giving nothing away.”

By the time Gallagher recorded his third album, Blueprint, in December 1972, several things had changed. Fired up by de’Ath’s exuberant drumming style, the guitarist had expanded his power trio format to a quartet with the addition of Belfast-born keyboard player Lou Martin. 

Gallagher’s own personal circumstances had changed too. He was living as a tax exile in the Belgium town of Ghent. It was there that he befriended Roland Van Campenhout, a bohemian musician who played guitar in the band Blue Workshop. McAvoy suggests that there was chemistry between Gallagher and Van Campenhout’s girlfriend, Christine, a model who was apparently besotted with the guitarist. But nothing came of this, nor any other potentially serious relationships in Gallagher’s life. 

McAvoy’s view is that the guitarist was too single-minded in his dedication to his craft to let himself be distracted by women. “In my opinion, the real reason for Rory’s reluctance to let anyone into his life is that he was too simply focused on his music,” says the bassist. 

Blueprint was a rushed affair thanks to Polydor’s insistence that they needed a record to put out early in 1973. But the benefits of the expanded line-up were apparent on opening track Walk On Hot Coals, which began as a jam on Howlin’ Wolf’s Shake For Me, and the ragtime-influenced Unmilitary Two-Step. Another song, Daughter Of The Everglades, was inspired by both a trip to the swampy bayous of New Orleans and a story that Gallagher had read about an unrequited long-distance love affair. With the guitarist feeling like he was cramming the djinn of his skills into the constricted bottle of the blues, the album was the sound of him spreading his wings.

“There’s not a lot of blues on it,” says McAvoy. “Rory was developing as a writer. He was getting more information in his head. It came from touring, seeing things out there. Rory loved old black and white movies.” 

The band returned to America on the back of the album. Having toured there since his days with Taste, he had amassed a loyal following that would ensure his music – and his working-class approach – resonated with later generations. 

“He would play in shows in places that were off the beaten track, like Portland, Oregon, where the blue collar audiences were,” says Donal Gallagher. “That’s the reason that he was popular with the grunge movement.” 

“Our work rate was extraordinary,” says de’Ath. “And Rory’s standards were very high. He pushed himself. When he suffered from exhaustion during my time, the only way we could get him to cancel a show was to say that I was ill. I got a bit peeved about that.” 

It was in America that Gallagher crossed paths with Lou Reed, when they introduced by Mick Rock at New York glam venue Max’s Kansas City. This odd couple promptly retired to a corner and began chatting about feedback. 

“They would have got on,” says Rock. “Rory wasn’t a bullshitter.” 

Although he was a Stateside headline act, Gallagher never totally cracked America. Donal Gallagher puts this down to his brother’s stubborn resistance to toeing the commercial line, which found him down some golden opportunities to raise his profile. “Robbie Robertson was a huge fan of Rory and wanted him to be in The Last Waltz,” says Donal. “But he turned it down because of gig commitments.”

I n July ’73, the band should have relocated to Cork to rehearse for their fifth album in three years, Tattoo. It was the first time Gallagher had worked on an album in Ireland since the Taste days. 

“That was the happiest I’d seen him,” says Donal. “He loved going back to Cork, but it was getting impossible for him to walk down the street, so we hired a boat club on the river where he could relax and eat home-cooked food. They rehearsed the album there, and it was well-honed by time we got to London.” 

As on past albums, Tattoo’s nine songs were inspired by Gallagher’s own life. Opening track Tattoo’d Lady recalled the fairgrounds and freakshows of his childhood, while Living Like A Trucker – complete with Stevie Wonder-inspired clavinet – reflected his experiences on the road in America. But Gallagher would never discuss his inspirations or subject matter with his bandmates. 

“I asked Rory before we started working in Tattoo if he could write down lyrics for me so I would have something to work from,” says de’Ath. “But he never did. I don’t know what he was thinking.” 

In fact if the subject didn’t involve music, books or film, Gallagher rarely connected with his band on any deep level. “I remember once we were having a chat in my room and he asked me about spiritual matters,” says Rod. “He asked me what the Godhead means and the whole thing about reincarnation, Buddhism etc, because he knew that I’m really into that stuff. We were both drunk and I remember him getting quite agitated and storming out shouting, ‘That’s blasphemy!’” 

Gallagher was also growing increasingly frustrated at not being able to capture the energy of his live shows. During one session, he threatened to “chuck the tapes in the dustbin”. It was no ideal threat – he would go on to shelve whole albums in the future.

“He was a live performer,” says keyboard player Lou Martin. “He didn’t like the studio because he was playing to the walls and wasn’t getting any feedback from the audience. But he had to do the albums for the record company.” 

“Rory could have done with a coach to discipline him,” says Donal. “He would work himself into a frazzle and what should have been an enjoyable experience wasn’t.” 

Onstage, it was another matter entirely, and Gallagher understandably jumped at the chance to record another live album. But this one would be different: it would be recorded in Ireland. At the time, in late 1973, Northern Ireland was in the iron grip of sectarian violence. The previous year, the Provisional IRA had killed more than 100 British soldiers and carried out roughly 1300 bombings; Loyalist paramilitaries had responded by carrying out their own campaign of violence. 

Not surprisingly, bands based in mainland Britain were unwilling to play Northern Ireland. Gallagher was having none of it. He made sure the band played Ireland every year; the tours would always include forays into the North to play for audiences starved of rock during The Troubles. 

“We were one of the only bands to play Belfast,” says Lou Martin proudly. “Thin Lizzy wouldn’t do it because of the aggravation. But Rory insisted on it.” 

Despite such bravado, it could have been a huge risk. As a high-profile musician, Gallagher was a potential target, and the fact that there were Englishmen on their crew didn’t do anything to lessen the risk. Gerry McAvoy’s own family had moved to England after his father was nearly killed in a bomb blast. But Gallagher opted to plough on regardless. 

There was a loyalty to his Irish fans on both sides of the border which transcended religious and political differences, and the feeling from his fans was mutual. Plus the band had caught wind that interested parties would ensure their safety. 

“I was from Belfast, Gerry was from Belfast and there was co-operation from ‘The Organisation’ to make sure the concerts went OK,” says Lou Martin.

“We were taken care of very well,” confirms de’Ath. “The hotels that we stayed at were carefully chosen, without going into too much detail.” (Neither man is willing to go into more detail about ‘The Organisation’, though we can presume that they’re not talking about the British government.

The resulting album, Irish Tour ’74, remains the highlight of Gallagher’s career. Recorded in Belfast, Dublin and Cork, it finally nailed his live performances on vinyl. 

While the sound quality is variable – partly due to the fact that they couldn’t get insurance for Ronnie Lane’s Mobile Studios in the more troubled areas – the album never loses its primal, raw urgency. It’s the sound of a band leaning out over the precipice – something Gallagher deliberately encouraged, making up the show as he went along. 

“His attitude was, ‘If you don’t know my music, what the hell are you doing here?’” says Rod de’Ath. The tour was filmed by documentary maker Tony Palmer, who worked with The Beatles and Frank Zappa. Originally made for TV, it was given a full theatrical release. 

The film presents a balanced view of the political climate in Ireland at the time, along with the fans’ total devotion to a man who had become a cultural hero as much as a musician. Always concerned with remaining “a musician, not a politician”, Gallagher went out of his way to appear neutral on all matters political. 

“He was being pressurised all the time,” says Donal. “Everybody wanted the big quote. It’s fine for people outside of Ireland to comment, but if you were being a part of the healing process by playing to both sides and having musicians from different persuasions in your band, it wasn’t going to do anybody any good to make pronouncements.”

Released in July 1974, Irish Tour ’74 gave Gallagher his sixth Top 40 album in the UK, and cracked the all important Billboard Top 200 in the US. But it also marked the end of an era for the guitarist. The band moved from Polydor to Chrysalis and a world of bigger budgets. They recorded two more albums as a fourpiece, 1975’s Against The Grain and 1976’s Calling Card

The latter featured Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover on production duties, though it was an unhappy experience for both parties. It would also be the last album to feature Rod de’Ath and Lou Martin. 

“Maybe it was time for a change, I don’t know,” says Martin. “I couldn’t get into his head and what he was thinking about.” 

The world was certainly changing, and Gallagher was ready to change with it. The arrival of punk had a dramatic effect on the guitarist, who reverted back to the more focussed three-piece format. 

“He was very up for the whole punk thing,” says Donal. “He loved the whole attitude and it really hurt him when he got labelled as part of the old guard.” 

He even witnessed the Sex Pistols’ infamous final show at San Francisco’s Winterland in January 1978. 

“He said, ‘It was probably the worst gig I’ve ever seen and the best gig I’ve ever seen’,” recalls Donal. 

But the punishing schedules took their toll. Gallagher’s drinking escalated, eventually reaching full-blown alcoholism. He also began to experience stage fright, a fear of flying and bouts of physical exhaustion. He dealt with his problems by turning to prescription pills, soon developing an addiction to them as well. As he rarely socialised with anyone offstage, no one had any idea how many pills he was taking. 

“Even as a kid Rory had a tendency to be a little bit of a hypochondriac,” says Donal. “He was almost delighted to be sick as he’d get a tonic or a tablet.”

By the 90s, Gallagher had become marginalised by both the record industry and music fans. Although he gigged constantly, the gaps between albums became longer and longer; he released just two albums in the 10 years before 1990’s Fresh Evidence, his final release. 

Donal Gallagher recalls his brother’s social life in his later years revolving around the studio, the canteen and the bar, where he’d run up “terrifying bills”. 

“He’d run himself into the ground, and by the time the album was finished he would be verging on a nervous breakdown,” says Donal “And then he would have to go out and do PR for it before touring to promote. He was 24/7.” 

Gallagher’s lifestyle eventually caught up with him. On 14 June, 1995, the guitarist died from complications following a liver transplant made necessary by his reliance on alcohol and pills. He was buried in Ballincollig, near Cork City. Thousands of people lined the streets of Cork to bid him farewell with an ovation. 

The tragedy of his early death doesn’t overshadow his talent or his legacy, much of which stems from the six albums he made between 1971 and 1974. He has since been honoured with a statue, stamps and even a street named after him, not mention the conventions that are regularly held in his honour all over the world – public acknowledgement of an intensely private man. 

“If I look back now I think ‘Jesus, how did he manage to cram in all those albums between ’71-’74?’” says Donal. “If something is done without a fad or a fashion then it can’t be pigeonholed into a certain era. It’s timeless.”

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 170.