Songs That Made Life In The Cages Easier: Sultans of Swing

Beano Niblock with his musical memories of jail time. It featured in Long Kesh Inside Out on 16 July 2012.


Around mid 1978 we in Compound 21 were in the formative stages of a kind of perestroika—well—at the least the UVF version.  The special category system had been granted nigh on 6 years and the loyalist side of the jail was probably at its fullest. 

Apart from 21, 19 and 18 were also in existence to house sentenced prisoners.  A large percentage was life sentence men and there were many serving very long sentences.  We still got the odd trickle of men coming through who had been sentenced after the cut off date of March 1976, but by and large, it was the same old gubs we looked at each day.  The militaristic regime was starting to give way to a more relaxed environment ... something welcomed by most. Although we still had our inspections and parades, the obligatory lectures and classes had gone.  Education had taken over and by the next year the Open University would see a new dawn in the edification of many of the men.

On the whole the body of prisoners relied heavily on the television ... and to a lesser extent the radio ... to provide the bulk of the entertainment.  There were those who had their favourites ... documentaries ... wild life programmes ... avid news watchers ... those who watched anything ... including The Dot ... and contrary to popular belief I don’t remember anyone standing for the Queen at the end of the night … Well ... not outside their cubicles anyway.

Football of course was the thing that assured most seats on bums although thinking back now it’s a wonder we were able to differentiate between two teams who looked like they were playing in slightly different shades of grey kits.  Such were the delights of black and white televisions.  Music played a major part in everyday life behind the wire and the whole array could be heard during a 24 hour period.  There were only a few music programmes on TV around this time and of course Top of the Pops would have been the most popular.  Thinking back to those days and to the drivel that adorned the charts I firmly believe that the only motivation for watching TOTP could have been to see Pans People ... or perhaps they were Legs and Co by that stage.  For those who had an alternative genre to sugar coated pop there was always The Old Grey and the dulcet tones of Whispering Bob.

 In July 1978—in between Argentina winning the World Cup and us preparing ... bulling and shining for the 12th day ... a new short lived programme appeared on ITV.  A late night “progressive and asthetic” show ... seen as an alternative to the TOTP generation.  Revolver aired on a Sunday evening and had the comedian Peter Cook as a co-presenter.  Great things were predicted but sadly the plug was pulled after only 8 shows.  During that short run though we were lucky enough to catch acts like Ian Dury … replete with Blockheads … a new and exciting Jam … Elvis Costello … Siouxsie … Kate Bush and many others who previously we had only caught a glimpse of.  The acerbic Cook may well have been the reason for the brief run as I recall he could be very disparaging towards some of the acts.

 In our hut ... the middle one ... Messines ... there was quite a few of us who considered ourselves to be music aficionados.  We exchanged NME’s and Melody makers and lent each other the new albums ... to be played during your allotted time on the record player which sat in the study hut.  If memory serves me the most played albums around July 1978 were Bat out of Hell and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours which had came out the year before.  Street Legal by Dylan had only came out and it’s fair to say that it became another one that “done the rounds”.

On one of the first may well have been the first in fact … a dozen of us sitting watching ... had our ears well and truly pricked with the introduction of a “new” band.  Dire Straits.  Even the most knowledgeable amongst us drew a blank here, so didn’t know what to expect.  Being late at night the television was turned down to a very low level of volume ... to placate those who went to bed early.  Even still, when Mark Knopfler starting picking and strumming his was through Sultans of Swing we collectively knew we were hearing something different … a new rawness ... a departure ... and something that heralded a vibrant, burgeoning talent.  The lyrics, on first hearing were a divergence from the saccharin sweetness of what was being served up in the Top Forty … after all John Travolta and Olivia Newton John were firmly planted at the top of the pile at this time with Rod Stewart on their coat tails with the Scottish World Cup anthem.  The lyrics delivered in a sexy gravelly tone, were street wise and immediate.  There were instant comparisons to Dylan and other memorable singer songwriters of the time. 

Those who weren’t seated with us for Revolver, soon appeared.  The peeked out through their cubicle curtains … they shuffled in behind us clad only in Y Fronts.  Before the song ended most of the guys in the hut had gathered.  Save those who were sleeping or the ones that couldn’t see past Jim Reeves and Charlie Pride.  The rest of Revolver that night was tendered inconsequential and was lost in a babble of approval and a chorus of buy the album ... of the same name ... at the earliest opportunity.  Bobby Hat — the hut OC — poked his head out the curtain … not to join in the revelry ... but rather to tell us all to “turn that TV and get into bloody bed."

It being a Sunday many of us wouldn’t have visits for 6 or 7 days.  And being a time before mobile phones the done thing was to write a letter to inform your folks to have the album in your next parcel.  This was done as a matter of urgency — many writing letters that night — for fear of being the tube that didn’t get the album.

Frankie C went one better.  He put his name down in the welfare book and got a phone call out to his Mum ... who was able to get the album on Monday morning and have it brought up with the papers the same day.  How we were tortured that night ... when he refused to let any of us hear it …. Get Yer Own!! 

One by one as we got our visits and parcels we got the album ... LP’s they were called in those days.  And one by one we trooped out to the study hut to take our turn on the ancient Danzette … we even carried our own needle too … so we couldn’t accuse the previous participant of gathering a fur coat on the end of the communal needle.  Sultans of Swing was an anthem that summer.  It inspired those hitherto guitar buffs to go back to the drawing board ... or in some cases the Bert Weedon manual.  First thing in the mornings the ablutions echoed to the refrains of the chorus ... hummed and sang.  Today it is as relevant as ever … at least to me.  It still retains that immediacy that made me shift in my hard plastic sheet all those years ago, and sagely nod my head in recognition of something special.

“They don’t give a damn about any trumpet playing band-
It aint what they call Rock and Roll……..”


  1. Ok, false alarm, good article. You meant 'Albums that made life easier' not songs because I just had a panic attack and flash back to some seriously bad singing that was not easy to listen too -I wasn't always banging my cell door as a means of cheering or that I wanted out ...

  2. Brilliant! Someone else that remembers "Revolver" with Peter Cook. I loved it! I remember when Suzie Quatro came on it and (as she did) before her song yelled: "hey ya all wanna go down to Devil Gate Drive"? And the audience, to a man and woman screamed back: "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO" she stopped the music and repeated it, and the audience did the same again, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, Suzi then carried on with the song but with a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp! Brilliant! Really funny.