When I hear someone say, “I Love the sound of an Irish Band” I make a few assumptions. If the person is significantly older than me and/or playing an acoustic instrument I figure they mean one of the Irish Folk groups like The Chieftains, the Clancy Brothers or the Irish Rovers. If the person is around my age and/or playing an electric guitar, I guess they’re probably talking about U2 and Thin Lizzy. If the person talking shows no sense of humor, they’re probably talking about Sinead O’Connor. Me, I’ve got an ear for it all (almost all!) but my favorite Irish Band today exists only in fiction. If you want a fast read that keeps you grinning for days (or a film with a killer sound), let me introduce you to The Commitments.
The time is the late 1980’s and Jimmy Rabbitte has a reputation around Dublin as a man who knows his music. He buys every record that comes out, reads every trade paper and never misses a pop music show, even the ones he despises. So when his buddies, Outspan Foster and Derek Scully think their three day old band needs a new direction, it’s Jimmy’s advice they go after. “Dump the synthesizer, the name and the extra guy in your group” says Jimmy and concentrate on why you want a band in the first place. Are you looking for money or girls?” Well, no, though either of those would be nice. “Are you looking to do more with your life?” Yes definately. “Well, be more” says Jimmy. “Be The Commitments: the Irish Band that plays Dublin Soul.”
Off they go, learning the breaks in James Brown and Wilson Pickett records and wondering occasionally what Jimmy means by “Dublin Soul.” Almost all of the story is told in dialogue with Jimmy looking for the right kind of side men (and women) and lecturing his novice musicians on the kind of pop music trivia (why art school was a decent background for the Beatles but the kiss of death to Depeche Mode) that brings out the music expert in many guys. Think of him as an Irish cousin of the three guys in High Fidelity. Jimmy’s mission is helped along by an old horn player named “Joey the Lips” and jerk named Declan who (unfortunately) sings like the late Joe Cocker. The band becomes a powder keg of talent, egos, swearing, silliness and lust and it’s a hard race to guess which will fuse will light first.
The book is a delight, partly because each of the proto-musicians takes themselves so seriously (for example the synth player announces he’s planning to “go out on his own” after he’s been dumped. Like he had a choice.) and partly because no one else does. The Irish accents are audible in the novel’s prose and the novel overflows with swear words so people with tender eyesight should look elsewhere but the humor is constant as well as the affection. The book became a hit.
The movie adaptation did too and spawned a killer soundtrack and stage show, although it’s hard to find the film online. (I read somewhere that some conflict with the rights has kept the film off of streaming services.) I finally had to buy the DVD for myself. As it is, “The Commitments” is one of the few properties I’ve enjoyed on the screen as much as I did on the page. It’s the tale of every working-class kid who thought music might be the answer when he wasn’t too sure of the questions. It’s not your average Irish story. But it has some brilliant music.