Hall of Fame - The Undertones
Stuart Bailie profiles the pioneering Derry band
The first great era of The Undertones lasted from 1975 to 1983. During this time, they recorded four much-loved albums and a series of timeless singles.
The band came to the fore during the punk era, when fast, guitar-driven songs were common, but The Undertones were beyond such a fashion. They had a broader musical knowledge than many of their peers, taking their influences from American garage rock, from British beat acts like The Troggs, from the Shangri-Las and similar girl bands of the 1960s.
The Undertones were hip to the New York Dolls, and soon discovered The Ramones, another US act that heralded the new era. They actually chose the band’s name because it sounded like The Ramones. So while the band could play with the anger and energy of the day, their songs also dealt with humour and longing and regret.
Formed in Derry, the early band line-up included John O’Neill and brother Vinny. The latter made his exit, making room for the talented younger sibling, Damien. Mickey Bradley played bass and Billy Doherty was the drummer. Billy suggested a school friend called Feargal Sharkey, who already had some form as a traditional music singer. He would routinely carry off the winning trophy at the Feis, and one of these proud moments was later reproduced on the sleeve of the 'Jimmy Jimmy’ single. And yes, Feargal was an outstanding vocalist, with that high, emotional vibrato.
The band performed locally, finding a home of sorts for 18 months at the Casbah club, which they immortalised in an early, affectionate song.
In 1978, they were recorded by the Good Vibrations label, a Belfast-based project run by Terri Hooley that had already pressed independent singles for the likes of Rudi, The Outcasts and Victim. ‘Teenage Kicks’ was made for a pittance in Belfast’s Wizzard Studios, but the power of the song was undiminished. In London, the DJ John Peel was deeply moved by the EP, and he played all four tracks from the release on his Radio 1 show on September 9.
The band negotiated their own deal with American label Sire, and continued their hit rate with the singles ‘Get Over You’ and ‘Jimmy Jimmy’, their first Top Twenty hit in 1979. Their first album, The Undertones appeared in the same year, and it confirmed the band’s skill as street corner observers. Those songs often dealt with local characters, while the band’s fashion sense (Doc Martin boots, parka jackets, crew neck sweaters) reassured us that they were the real, credible deal.
After touring America with The Clash, they delivered another quality album, Hypnotised in 1980. It contained their most popular single, ‘My Perfect Cousin’, which reached number nine in the charts, and featured an amusing, low budget video, themed around the soccer game of Subbuteo.
The band set up their own label, Ardeck, for the 1983 album release Positive Touch, which contained ‘It’s Going To Happen’, a song that alluded to politics in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, musical tastes were changing, and even though their next album, The Sin Of Pride was ambitious and many-faceted, it failed to sell well in 1983. The band split in June of that year.
John and Damien returned to their garage band roots with a new band, That Petrol Emotion, which made some excellent albums plus a pioneering, indie-dance single called ‘Big Decision’ in 1987. John came home to Derry, where he involved himself with the Nerve Centre project and a band called Rare. Damien has recorded his own material for the Poptones label, while Billy featured in a band called The Carrelines. Mickey Bradley became a producer for BBC Radio Foyle.
Feargal Sharkey guested with The Assembly on their 1983 hit ‘Never Never’. His solo career continued strongly, and ‘A Good Heart’ topped the UK charts in 1985, followed by another top five release, ‘You Little Thief’. After two albums, Feargal Sharkey (1985) and Songs From The Mardi Gras (1993) he quit performing to work in the music industry, first as an A&R man, then with the British Radio Authority.
The Undertones, minus Sharkey, made several low-key live performances, before announcing a proper reformation at the Nerve Centre in 1999 with former Carrelines vocalist Paul McLoone. This led to a single release, ‘Thrill Me’ and a fine album Get What You Need in 2003. The band still play together on select occasions, to fond acclaim.
A documentary, Teenage Kicks: The Undertones was made in 2001. The presenter was the late John Peel, who had famously asked to have the opening lyric from ‘Teenage Kicks’ on his headstone.