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Aidan Murtagh of Protex: "The Interest is a Great Feeling. I Never Thought I'd Have This Opportunity to Play These Songs Some Many Years Later"

Belfast punks Protex formed in 1978 as a direct result of the band members witnessing firsthand The Clash's now infamous visit to Belfast that later acted as the catalyst to the punk movement in Northern Ireland. After the band initially folded in 1981, Protex developed a cult following over the past couple decades eventually leading to the long-awaited Strange Obsessions LP in 2010. The reformed Protex released a new LP back in 2022 called Tightrope and the band continues to tour relentlessly overseas. Ahead of their U.S. tour in March, remaining original member and guitarist-vocalist Aidan Murtagh takes us through the history of Protex and what eventually led to the band's recent resurgence.

First tell me about The Clash's now infamous visit to Belfast during their Out of Control tour in 1977. Their show was canceled last minute and a riot broke out. Amidst all this chaos, was this truly the catalyst to Protex and the punk movement in Northern Ireland? I mean, your initial name was Protex Blue after The Clash song. 

Aidan Murtagh: The Clash were the first big punk band to come to Belfast at a time when no bands were coming due to the troubles, bombings, and shootings. Bands felt unsafe. The band were unable to play due to insurance difficulties and a riot ensued outside the venue. This event was important as it showed us all how many local punks there were in Belfast, before this no one really knew as due to the political situation most people remained in their own areas. So this united the punk "movement" as people got to hook up. Myself and my mates met Joe Strummer and Mick Jones after this and Strummer talked with us most of the evening, mostly about bands, music, and the Belfast political situation and its troubles. The next day we met all the band and chatted again. For myself and my mates this led us to start thinking about forming a band and writing our own material which we did a week or two later. In the coming months we again met The Clash several times at their concerts in Belfast and once in New York when Protex were playing gigs there and they were recording.

What do you remember most fondly about Belfast's original punk scene with bands like The Undertones, Stiff Little Fingers, The Starjets, The Outcasts, and Rudi? Were record labels seeking out bands in Belfast at the time and were there ever any opportunities that came to Protex? 

AM: The original Punk scene in Belfast in which we were involved was between 1977-1979 when we left Belfast to live in London having got a recording contract. The scene was small with new bands emerging every week. The main bands were the ones you have mentioned. We played frequently with Rudi and Stiff Little Fingers (just before they got their record deal and left Belfast) and also The Outcasts. The Starjets were the first local band to get signed but were never a punk band in my opinion, but a fantastic pop band. They were not part of the punk scene and had left Belfast just before this time. It was an exciting time for Protex since we played almost every weekend and we were learning how to write our own songs. We signed to Good vibrations after playing a gig with Stiff Little Fingers and Rudi. British Record labels got interested in Belfast bands after SLF and The Undertones got signed. We had interest from a few companies including CBS, but later we would sign to Polydor. The early scene was fun and was important for us in breaking the divide that existed between Belfast's communities during the troubles. It was an exciting time for new bands and a great time to be a teenager.

What were those early Protex shows like around Belfast? 

AM: The early shows were fun. We were all young and felt part of a new scene, it was also a reaction to what was happening at that time in our city. The paramilitaries did not like us much. There was definitely a feeling of change; it did feel like a new scene. We had that "us against the world" feeling.

I know you toured with The Boomtown Rats and did two extensive tours throughout the U.S. and Canada in the early 1980s. What was it like playing shows here compared to Europe? I love that clip of you guys playing "Don't Ring Me Up" at the Hurrah nightclub in New York City.

AM: When we got to the USA in 1980 the punk scene in the UK was starting to fizz out but, in the USA, and Canada there was still a healthy scene. I think we were received much better than in Europe and most of the promoters treated you better. Really it was a big adventure for us. We were still 18-19 years old. Watching that Hurrah Club footage tells a story. It was such a great time.

Why exactly did Protex pull out of the Adam and the Ants UK tour? Just not a good fit musically? 

AM: Adam and the Ants at the time were still a punk band and you are right, it wasn't a great fit for us as a support band. We were way too poppy and although we got a good reception, the audience at that time were pretty hardcore.

Talk to me now about the band's debut single "Don't Ring Me Up." How did its three songs come together and get picked up by Good Vibration Records, who were releasing singles from your Belfast contemporaries at the time. 

AM: "Don't Ring me up" was the first song I ever wrote at age 17. After Terri Hooley of Good Vibrations saw us play he asked us to come and record some stuff, so we recorded that and "(Just Want) Your Attention" and "Listening In" — the first three songs we ever did. It was released on Good Vibrations two months after the Undertones released the Teenage Kicks EP. It got a lot of air play locally; we earned a reputation as a good live band with a strong stage presence. We got some favorable write ups in the British press and soon after John Peel invited us to record a session (also Kid Jensen). So Terri took us to London BBC studios at Maida Vale to record. After Peel played it, there was a lot of interest from A&R guys from different labels as well as a growing interest in the Belfast scene which is how we got the deal with Polydor. 

What exactly was the deal with Rough Trade for the "Don't Ring Me Up" single release in London? 

AM: To meet demand in sales Good vibrations licensed the release to Rough Trade records as those guys really like the band.

How did it go with Polydor towards the original lineup's final years? 

AM: So some major labels expressed interest including CBS, Polydor, and United Artists. They were also interested in some other Belfast bands and so this resulted in A&R guys coming into Belfast. Soon we heard Polydor were coming to check out the Belfast scene with the view of signing one band in particular who will rename nameless. They went to that band's gig. They also came to see us play in Portrush and liked what they heard and offered a contract. The Extremists also got signed. The band that they were originally interested in signing did not get signed. The A&R person, who in later years became a friend of mine, later explained that he thought that our songs were stronger than some of the other bands. We were offered a five-year deal with a sizable cash advance. It was always our goal to leave Belfast through our music and tour and record and experience life away from Belfast. At 17-years-old this seemed like a great opportunity. I just had to convince my parents to let me. They did, god bless them.

After relocating to London, you put out three singles on Polydor: "I Can't Cope," "I Can Only Dream," and "A Place in Your Heart." Then there was the famously shelved record that was produced by Chas Chandler of The Animals. Why exactly did the band split after this?

AM: We relocated to London and played anywhere and everywhere and we recorded in Polydor Studios, RAC studios, and IBC/Portland Studios, owned by Chas Chandler, who discovered and managed Jimi Hendrix and Slade. We set out to record the Strange Obsessions album with Chas. We also went on a tour with The Boomtown Rats while working with rock 'n' roll guru BP Falloon. We were not happy with the results of the recording as we thought we could have got a better version of the songs so it wasn't released. We had packed so much into a few years. The punk/new wave scene was becoming dated as we came into 1981-1982. One of our band members decided to leave and return to Belfast and start a different career. We all felt replacing him wouldn't work and decided to call it a day.

Do you ever look back at your time with Polydor with any regret or things you wished happened differently for the band? Do you think Polydor was just another label trying to cash in on the punk movement? 

AM: The advantage of being with this major label was the cash advance that enabled us a lot of freedom to locate outside Belfast, to tour and experience new things and meet new people which included many of our musical heroes. They also had a large marketing budget helping with advertising in music publications. This offered us some freedom, but also restricted us in other ways. However sometimes I can't help thinking that a smaller label would have been more hungry and we would have worked harder for each other. We often got lost among the big giants of Polydor like The Who and The Jam and sometimes I can't help thinking they were in fact cashing in and trying to get a punk band from Belfast. I also think we were matched with the wrong bands – perhaps a tour with The Buzzcocks or The Undertones may have been more beneficial. The Boomtown Rats tour in 1979 was a great experience nevertheless and got us exposure and good press reviews.

Do you think the Mickie Most-produced sessions will ever see the light of day? 

AM: We didn't actually work with Mickie Most, we just used his studio and we met him every day for about two months. He dug our songs. When we were recording he was in the next studio with a band called Racey. The recordings that  we did in Mickie Most's studio Rak Studios were not strong and were left unfinished and felt over produced. I have a cassette copy o some of them, I don't think they will be released.

What's the band's relationship with Japan? I saw the reissue label 1977 Records put out your guys' Live in Tokyo show in 2014. I know American power pop legends Nikki Corvette and The Flashcubes are worshiped there, is that the same for Protex? 

AM: We were invited out to Japan to play two live shows and to do various interviews. It was fabulous and we would love to return. There is some talk about going there again, but nothing has been finalized. We have a great fan base and there is a big demand for our recordings, both past and current. 

What was it like reforming the band with Dave for the Tightrope EP for Bachelor Records? Were these a collection of songs that were shelved for a while and revisited or entirely new at the time? 

AM: Dave actually didn't record or play on that album. One year after we played SXSW, a few people asked me about new material. Up until then we played our old stuff, but clearly these guys were telling me that there is also an interest in hearig new songs. I wrote the EP Tightrope over a few months, recorded it in Belfast, and it was then released by Bachelor Records.  

Tell me a bit about your 2021 EP Don't Drag This On

AM: The title song is a new recording which is also on the Wicked Ways album. There's also some new versions of "Don't Ring Me Up" and "Shining Star" we recorded live in the studio. We also recorded a version of The Everly Brothers "When Will I Be Loved" as the closing cut. 

Take me through the recording of your latest album Wicked Ways. How did that record come together? 

AM: Those are all new songs plus a rework of "All I Wanna Do (Is Rock 'N 'Roll)." These songs have a rawer guitar sound than the Tightrope LP. The recorded process started just before lockdown and the process was held up because of lockdown, then we thought we could tour the USA with it when we released it but then there were visa issues. Last fall, we were lucky to air it on tour. 

What is it like seeing this renewed interest in Protex?

AM: The interest is a great feeling. I never thought I'd have this opportunity to play these songs some many years later. It warms the heart to know that our music still means something to some people and it's listened to. It's fun to play live and get the opportunity to travel and meet people. We get time to enjoy the performance aspect more and appreciate what we are doing. 

What is it like going back on the road and revisiting these songs over 40 years later?

AM: I am the only remaining original member, but the current line up includes guitarist Norman Boyd , drummer Gordie Walker, and bassist John Rossi. Gary Watson Boyd has played as a stand in on bass. David McMaster, guitarist from the original lineup, suggested we'd reform in 2010, but sadly departed a few years later due to family reasons. Andrew Curliss played for only a few months when we reformed too. Sing Sing Records tracked us down in Belfast, firstly by contacting the original Protex drummer Owen McFadden, who worked as a producer at BBC Radio. I was then put in contact with Sing Sing for the release. Initially there were mixed feelings about releasing it as we didn't think the recordings were as good as we could have been  that's why they were not released back in 1980. Some of the band members hadn't seen or heard from each other in 15-20 years so it was a bit weird. It had been a long time and things had changed, but the LP was finally released and got a great reception and was repressed a few times both on Sing Sing Records and Bachelor Records.

What are you looking forward to the most for the U.S. tour in March and what else is on the horizon for the band this year?

AM: We're looking forward to so many things. We are looking forward to meeting those who were at our last gigs again and meeting new people too. We are playing in cities where  we haven't played before so we are also looking forward to that experience. We will be playing a St. Patrick's Day festival in London when we return from the U.S.A. and we hope to play some dates and festivals in The Netherlands, Italy, maybe Spain, as well as some UK dates. We hope to fit in more time to record too. 

Check out Protex's upcoming tour dates below and stream their music here.


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