Terri Hooley travels from "Teenage Kicks" to Good Vibrations

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It’s a brilliant bit of filmmaking. Terri Hooley is listening to a recording he’s financed by a young band from Derry, in Northern Ireland. We don’t hear the song—we just see Hooley’s epiphanic reaction as he hugs a pair of boxy vintage earphones to his head, mouth agape, experiencing “Teenage Kicks” by the Undertones for the very first time.

“Yeah, that was amazing. It was just like in the movie,” says the man himself, calling the Georgia Straight from his home in Belfast. Hooley is known as the godfather of the punk scene in that city—a place far more in need of genuine youth revolt in the grim late ’70s than either London or New York—and his screenplay-ready life story has been turned into a feature film brimming with equally euphoric moments. Superstar Brit critic Mark Kermode, in fact, was famously moved to tears by the brash, overamped biopic.

“It’s very rare that you’d get a movie of anybody that’s still alive,” Hooley offers, his voice almost identical to that of actor Richard Dormer, who plays him as a sort of holy fool in Good Vibrations (opening Friday [January 3]). Or perhaps that should be Hooley fool. He’s fresh from a trip to the pub, where his friends have gathered to celebrate his 65th birthday. “So I’m a bit animated,” he says.

Here’s the thing about Terri Hooley: he should be dead. A garrulous radical in the ’60s—“I was the 17-year-old chairman of the Northern Ireland Youth Campaign for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, and I was that hippie until I discovered punk,” he says—Hooley refused to take sides when “the Troubles” split his homeland (and all his friends) into warring sectarian factions in the ’70s.

“It’s been 13 years since anybody’s tried to assassinate me in Belfast,” he says, casually. “It used to happen to me every month that people would be attacking me for bringing all the kids together.”

The reggae-loving DJ’s great crime was to open a record store, called Good Vibrations, in the most bombed-out street in the city. Gradually, Hooley discovered and helped nurture an underground punk scene that had created its own redoubt from the violence. In one of the film’s most ecstatic scenes, he confronts the despised Royal Ulster Constabulary as they try to shut down a punk show. “Excuse me, officer,” says the defiant new convert. “I’d like to report a civil war outside.”

Hooley’s next step was to create the Good Vibrations label, which is where one of the milestone singles of the era comes in. “Not one record company in England liked it!” he recalls, about rushing off to London with a fresh 45 of “Teenage Kicks” in hand. “I went and got trashed with friends from Belfast and I said, ‘I’m never coming back to London to do this again. Nobody understands this record.’ ” That all changed when BBC DJ John Peel finally clapped his ears around the adolescent, three-chord classic—an event covered in intoxicating detail in the film.

These days, Hooley is the same man he always was. “I’m still going out to do deejaying in Belfast on a Thursday night and wondering, ‘Is anybody gonna turn up?’ ” he says with a hoarse laugh. “Now that I’m 65, I get a free all-Ireland train and bus pass, I can go and DJ all the festivals for nothing. This is a big day for me!”

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