As the Sex Pistols screamed Anarchy in the UK, The Clash complained about the lack of Career Opportunities, and the Buzzcocks complained of Boredom, just across the Irish Sea, budding punk rockers had something else to protest about; The Troubles in Northern Ireland
As an English teenager growing up in the South East of England, I was largely unaware of the true scale of the Troubles. Northern Ireland seemed a long way away and even when the bombings came to London; it was somebody else’s war. Oh the naivety of youth!
It wasn’t until the early nineties that I even got a flavour of what it could have been like at the height of the Troubles. Travelling to Belfast in a taxi on a business trip, the driver delighted in telling us about the car-jacking’s where paramilitaries would commandeer taxis to be used in the shootings or car-bombings. Even then, as you drove between communities you noticed the flags, bunting and painted kerbstones pronouncing on which side of the divide that particular community sat and the taxi driver, apparently, had to choose his route accordingly.
To put things in some kind of perspective, here’s a short montage I found on YouTube, which gives just an idea what it must have been like to live in Northern Ireland at that time.
Stiff Little Fingers Vs. The Undertones - Poles Apart
So how would two emerging bands, one from Derry and the other from Belfast, both having grown up in the shadow of the Troubles, deal with this in their music? They dealt with in two completely different ways, of course. As sectarianism divided communities so how to address the Troubles divided the two most famous Punk bands to come out of Northern Ireland; The Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers.
The Undertones, whilst not entirely ignoring the Troubles, took the view that there were other things in life as well and their songs took on an almost Buzzcocks style, addressing ordinary teenage issues with fast paced but tuneful ‘Pop Punk’. In their own words; songs about chocolate and girls! And, in the process they came up with probably two of the best known British punk tunes of all time Here Comes the Summer and Teenage Kicks.
In the meantime, Stiff Little Fingers tackled the Troubles head-on. With racing, heavy guitars reminiscent of early Clash, and the grating vocals of Jake Burns, they pulled no punches with Alternative Ulster, Wasted Life and even Barbed Wire Love:
“I met you in No Man's Land / Across the wire we were holding hands / Hearts a-bubble in the rubble / It was love at bomb site / All you give me is barbed wire love….”
A dig at the Undertones perhaps as there was certainly no love lost between the two bands, Stiff Little Fingers accusing the Undertones of ignoring the Troubles and The Undertones accusing SLF of exploiting or cashing in on them. They were two bands, poles apart in musical style and in sentiment, but both producing some of the classic punk sounds of the time.
Stiff Little Fingers
It was Gordon Ogilvie, their manager that first suggested that they write songs about the Troubles and nearly all of their early material was written on that subject.
The band was brought to the attention of a wider punk audience by John Peel who regularly played their first single, Suspect Device, on his late night radio one show and, in 1979 the band released their first album and possibly one of the best punk albums ever made, Inflammable Material which reached number 14 in the UK album charts. The success of Inflammable Material inspired their move to London, a move which in some quarters, was considered a sell-out as they continued to write songs about the Troubles but from the relative safety of mainland UK.
Stiff Little Fingers split after six years and four albums, but reformed five years later in 1987 and are still recording and touring today with Jake Burns still at the helm.
Fergal Sharkey and his distinctive lead vocals stayed with the band through to their demise in 1983. During this time, the band gradually moved away from punk and explored other genres including rock, glam rock, soul and Motown. The undertones split in 1983 and Fergal Sharkey went on to a brief but commercially successful solo career. The undertones reformed, without Sharkey in 1999 and continue to record and tour today.
Whilst the main focus of their songs were every day teenage issues, they did write songs about the Troubles on their 1981 album, Positive Touch, including the tracks Crisis of Mine, You're Welcome and the single It's Going To Happen a single inspired by the Hunger Strikes.
In their punk time, The Undertones released many punk singles that have now become well known mainstream tunes and have been used in advertising campaigns (Here Comes the Summer in a Sainsbury’s TV add) and, heavens forbid, even covered by One Direction (Teenage Kicks in 1Ds Red Nose day release). Here’s how it should sound!
Stiff Little Fingers Vs. The Undertones
It’s a difficult call! Inflammable Material, Stiff Little Fingers first album, is one of the most powerful punk albums made. The subject matter, the hard and fast punk style and Jake Burns’ grating vocals really made you feel you wanted to get up and do something about the issues in Northern Ireland. You can really feel the angry cry of “I’m sick to death of this crap” from four teenagers living through the Troubles.
On the flip side, the Undertones wrote some of the most memorable and catchy punk tunes of the time, which are still played on the radio today. I can’t see SLF’s Wasted Life being used in a TV advertisement for Sainsbury’s!
Both bands had their part to play in the development of British Punk music, even though they were both outside of the core London Punk movement that focused around the Sex Pistols and, to my mind, Stiff Little Fingers were never given the full credit that they deserve. Having said that, you only have to hear the opening of Teenage kicks and those memories of the 1970’s just come flooding back.
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