That Petrol Emotion

'Criminally under-rated' 1980s band returns, and Joe Nawaz loves every minute of it

The words 'criminally under-rated' are criminally over-used to describe any number of bands who slipped through the net of public consciousness with barely a whimper. But enough about Snow Patrol, I refer of course to That Petrol Emotion, who for one mad moment in the mid-1980s looked like becoming U2 without the irony bypass.

Springing from the frothy ashes of The Undertones, TPE laid out a musical agenda that was both more political and considerably darker than the perky bubblegum confection of their much celebrated antecedent. The brothers John and Damian O’Neill from the Undertones were joined by a slew of talented countrymen including wonder-drummer Ciaran McLaughlin, guitarist Raymond Gorman and of course the charismatic and hyperactive yank, Steve Mack.

First album, the drolly named Manic Pop Thrill released in 1985 is still one of the great debuts of the decade and more brilliance followed in the ensuing seven or so years that they were together. Alas, being critically loved didn’t add up to shifting units and while lesser fools got to guest on Saturday Superstore, the ‘Petrols’ had to make do with playing to half-empty student unions.

All of which leads me nicely from preamble to review, because That Petrol Emotion are back minus John O’Neill but plus a tight, taut and tinnitus-tickling live set.

It’s in the sadly half-full confines of the Spring and Airbrake on a dank Monday night that they give a performance that resoundingly reclaims the word ‘blistering’ from the world of podiatry.

Steve Mack is a wiry ball of energy, an emaciated amalgam of Jagger and Curtis, jumping, jerking, writhing and scything through all the ‘hits’. The band, similarly, tear through each song with the enthusiasm of speed-addled teenagers. In spite of, or maybe because of the dearth of punters, the band simply get stuck into their considerable set like they’ve nothing left to lose: the last gang in town playing on whether you care or not.

And what songs they have. From the keening pure pop of 'Hey Venus' to the happy-clappy lyrically biting 'Big Decision', you can see why the ‘Petrols’ have been accused of influencing bands such as the Stone Roses, The Manics and even earnest old Radiohead. The rhythm section of McLaughlin and bassist Brendan Kelly, as well as uncannily resembling Malcolms McDowell and Tucker respectively, also underpin every track with a rattling power that shakes the venue and the audience from any residual torpor.

For those of us young enough for TPE to have always been musical history, it’s a thrilling spectacle as the words 'criminally under-rated' hove into view once more. There’s a clear reverence for the band – and it’s almost touching at times to see rose-tinted specs misting up with the emotion that only a first love or reformed music legends can engender.

After the gig, fans hang about and rather than slip into the shadows the band happily mingle and chat. The compulsively kinetic Steve Mack, who barely broke sweat all evening, is still hyper and doling out button badges to slightly awed punters who gratefully take them like he’s handing out fivers.

Terry Hooley is also there, of course, holding court and dropping names with the élan of the truly butterfingered and generally entertaining all and sundry.

After confirming Terry’s anecdote about falling asleep during the recording of the ever so slightly legendary 'Teenage Kicks', the disturbingly youthful Damian O’Neill jokingly offers me a tenner for a good review. At least I think it’s a joke, but for the record, the tone of this review is unswayed by promises of fiscal remuneration. Let’s see what next week’s post brings anyway…

The band’s gig the following night is in the Nerve Centre back in their spiritual homeland, which my Derry friends assure me will be packed to the proverbials. That may be so, and it’s nice to see that TPE are at least prophets with honour in their own land, but it’ll take something mighty to beat tonight’s gig.


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