Liam Devers went to Gloucester, of all places, to un-peel the story of The Undertones.
The current trend for bands, whose heydays were long ago, is to tour a seminal album. It’s often the LP that stands as a manifesto for their entire career. Primal Scream regurgitated ‘Screamadelica’; Echo and the Bunnymen re-ran ‘Ocean Rain’.
Arguably lower on the musical food chain are Northern Ireland’s finest The Undertones who, after 35 years, have decided to tour their eponymous self-titled debut.
While waiting to meet their current frontman Paul Mcloone and long term bassist Michael Bradley, the record’s importance dawns on VF. Not only the impact it had on the punk scene, but its influence on British music: it is hard to imagine a world without ‘Teenage Kicks’, their great guitar-driven anthem and John Peel’s all-time favourite song.
Paul and Michael approach Gloucester Guild Hall from the stairs, apologetic after their plane was late, as a roadie fumbles with a crate of Guinness heading for their dressing room.
They exude the confidence you would expect from a punk band, but gone is the snarling Sid Vicious attitude and what is left are two grown up men. The signs of their past are still present though: Michael Bradley wears a pair of large claret Dr Martin boots with a beige Harrington jacket. The may not remain punk aesthetically but their burning passion and exuberance is intact, even if that snarl is released articulately and calmly. After 35 years, these guys still mean business.
The band formed in 1975 before punk had really taken off and their musical influences were formed historically rather than contemporarily. As Michael Bradley explains: “We learnt most of the songs from The Rolling Stones ‘Get Your Ya Ya’s out, their live LP from 1969, and took a lot from Doctor Feelgood, British R&B bands of the time and occasional singles from the 60s like ‘Badge’ by Cream. It was too hard to play though but we made the effort and it paid off.
“That was all until we discovered the Ramones and The Stooges in late 1976,” he adds. “I think it was around September time, we took a lot from the garage rock scene, then of course the Sex Pistols came along.”
There’s enough punk literature to consume as to What Happened Next. That’s why the conversation leaps 25 years to when the band had decided that it was time to reform, but they needed a new lead singer after the departure of Fergal Sharkey.
“We didn’t think it would happen,” Michael remembers. “The Saw Doctors asked if we would play with them. Myself and Billy [Doherty, drums] said yes initially, then John [O’Neill lead guitar] and Damien [O’Neill rhythm guitar] also said yes. So we then played the nerve centre in Derry and decided we needed a singer. We thought of Paul [Paul smiles intently at Michael], who I knew through radio and Billy through the fact they played in a band together for many years.”
Paul Mcloone picks up his version of events: “It wasn’t hard, initially daunting. You know a foolish person wouldn’t be trepidatious. It was amongst friends and wasn’t scary. I didn’t know Damian [O’Neill, rhythm guitarist] because he was living in London. I was in a band with Billy, knew Michael from radio and felt comfortable with them straight away. That really wasn’t the issue: the issue was how people outside the group would deal with it.”
When asked what the hardest part was for him, Paul smiles and puts it bluntly: “Hardest part is learning the words and I’d have an awful time learning the words now. I’m getting on a bit and find it hard to remember stuff,” he chuckles. “No, the hardest part was the anticipation of how the fans would react.”
How do you think the fans reacted? “People were really supportive about it and you get the odd negative comparison and occasionally you, still to this day, hear about Fergal. By and large it has been positive, which I am delighted about. I did a bloody good job I think.” He looks at Michael and sniggers.
‘The Undertones’ remains an important record. The foundation for a generation of successful bands, everyone from Green Day to Supergrass has sighted it as a major influence. Not a politically motivated record, it dealt with the hardships of growing up and teenage life. It was arguably the first pop-punk record and infused the quirky melodies of The Buzzcocks with hard-hitting truthful lyrics.
The band hope to emulate the success of bands playing albums in their entirety but worry about how short the set will be if they do so. “You say entirety, it’s about 30 minutes long!” Michael quips. “We’ll pad it out as much as we can. We do a lot of our other stuff – a lot of bands have been doing albums in their entirety.”
“Buzzcocks have done their first two; maybe we should do the first two albums like them.” Paul adds before Michael interjects: “after that we could do about an hour-and-a-half to two hours. You just do a whole pile of songs. It would be just to tiring for men of our age.”
What makes a perfect record? ‘The Undertones’ is timeless in an era of disposable music, standing the test of time, and it is near damn impossible to find a rock compilation CD without the track ‘Teenage Kicks’ kicking about alongside the likes of The Who or Led Zeppelin. So when asked about that secret ingredient to make a track or album eternally excellent, Paul thinks he has the formula: “the less produced music is the better it lasts. If you have music that is simple, it doesn’t date. I was listening to Billy Bragg the other day and it struck me that it can’t date.”
Michael interrupts. “The best Undertones music fits that model and that’s why I think it’s lasted so long, the universal themes in the songs last. That’s timeless in itself.”
The inevitable ‘Teenage Kicks’/John Peel subject crops up. John Peel loved the track so much he had the lyrics as an epitaph on his gravestone. How important was this record to the band? “Around about 1981 we were young and had no sense,” says Michael. “‘You rip your balls on barbed wire fence’ is the popular phrase I think.” This sends both into hysterics.
“We started saying that we hated the attention surrounding the track because we were young but now we realise how important it is to have an iconic song. It has a life of its own.”
Paul interrupts Michael at this point with a grin on his face: “Also it’s good because it still sounds great, it’s not like you were involved in ‘The Birdy Song’. It’s a great record and we’re proud of it.” They begin to laugh again.
The significance of John Peel on the band is enormous. He funded the production of their debut EP after they sent him a copy of their songs for his show. When asked about the impact John Peel had on the band, Michael takes the helm in a sombre fashion: “[‘Teenage Kicks’] still is his favourite song, he can’t change his mind!” They begin to both laugh. “Unless he has and he likes Elvis’ new record,” Paul adds, before Michael laughs again.
Do they think the music industry needs a new John Peel? “I don’t think so because a lot of people have caught onto his thing. He is irreplaceable. There is no one around in the 60s, 70s, an early adopter of punk, someone who never acted their age. So he can’t be replaced.
“There are so many radio stations you know, that there is no excuse not to hear great music. There are certain presenters, who would like to show it, but they’re trying too hard, they’re trying too hard to sound cool and worrying about what they say. You’re missing the point,” warns frontman Paul assuredly.
With the interview wrapping up, the wind howling outside and the roadies’ microphone tests “one, two-ing” down the hallway, there is time for one last question, the future of the band, where can they go after this tour? “There is a vague plan for next year, a space exists for a new record. We need to get our arses in gear and pull the finger out.”