Stiff Little Fingers make Inflammable Material

Jake Burns tells Francis Jones the band are still striving for perfect punk

The year was 1977. Punk, under the aegis of its self-proclaimed Svengali Malcolm McLaren and the impact of his scene progenitors The Sex Pistols, had reached its creative zenith. Permeating the national consciousness ‘Punk’ was a widely interpreted, oft misunderstood movement.

With their unconventional attire of black leather, bondage trousers and safety pins and the extreme sentiments and sounds, Punk was a source of alarm to the establishment. However, Punk went beyond the stereotype of monstrous negation that the press of the day were keen to portray. 

More than espousing nihilism, Punk was in fact a highly informed and politicised movement and one which was pivotal in initiating and bolstering groups such as Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. Punk showed the lie of the 1960s hippy dream, the message was clear,

‘Freedom was not in the mind or the imagination, but to be fought for in the here and now.’
Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming

Foremost amongst these politicised Punk groups was The Clash. 1977 was the year that Joe Strummer and co played Belfast. Amongst those in the audience were members of young local band Highway Star. The Clash gig inspired them to abandon the rock standards that were their stock-in-trade and concentrate instead on approximating the Punk/New Wave sound. A name change was required to affirm this change in identity and so Stiff Little Fingers were born.

The line-up consisted of Jake Burns (vocal/lead guitar), Ali McMordie (bass guitar), Henry Cluney (guitar) and Brian Fallon (drums). For the next few months the band gigged intensively bringing their note-perfect Punk covers to venues throughout the Province. In attendance at one such concert were local journalists Colin McClellan and Gordon Ogilvie.

Impressed by what they saw they encouraged the group to write their own material based on their experiences of life in Northern Ireland. This approach quickly paid dividends yielding the soon-to-be classics ‘Suspect Device’ and ‘Wasted Life’. ‘Suspect Device’ was played by John Peel and interest in the group increased dramatically. They continued to write their own material with ‘Alternative Ulster’ and B-side ’78 RPM’ released in October 1978.

After being courted and then rejected by Island Records, SLF decided to eschew the majors and signed to Geoff Travis’ independent Rough Trade, releasing their debut album Inflammable Material in February 1979. For a debut album on an indie label, Inflammable Material exceeded all expectations, landing at number 14 in the national chart and proceeding to remain in the charts for a total of 19 weeks.

However, the album, for all its success, would be the last time that the band would write so explicitly about the situation in Northern Ireland. SLF had received an alarming degree of negative press regarding their handling of the issue and were accused of exploitation and of preaching politics. They denied the accusations and stated that they were simply following that age old credo adopted by all aspirant writers, ‘write about what you know’. SLF, they maintained, were not telling you what you should think rather they were giving their take on events and leaving it to the listener to make their own mind up.

Inside Track’s Francis Jones talked to Stiff Little Fingers’ founding member, vocalist and guitarist Jake Burns regarding the making of seminal Northern Irish Punk album, Inflammable Material.

There is a real rawness to Inflammable Material. Was that the intention and, if so, how did you go about replicating that ‘as live’ feel on record?

It really wasn't that difficult to replicate the sound of IM live, as that's exactly how we recorded it! There were only about two guitar overdubs on the whole record. We literally set the gear up as if we were doing a gig and hit the record button.

The album is very much the product of angry young men. Where did that anger come from and who was it directed towards?

Pretty obvious really. We were all guys who had grown up through the madness that was Belfast in the 70s and we were sick of it. We couldn't make our feelings known by shouting on street corners, but by writing a song, we could.

Stiff Little Fingers were never more politicised than on Inflammable Material. What came first for you, the message or the music?

Always the music. Although, having said that, I never found it easy to write a ‘love’ song or some such. I guess because I was always a fan of people like Bob Dylan I wanted to write songs that ‘meant’ something to me specifically.

Inflammable Material coincided with the punk explosion in England. Bands such as The Clash and The Sex Pistols were staking their claim as spokespersons for a disenfranchised generation. How much influence did that have on SLF?

The Clash, in particular, were a huge influence. Mainly for their attitude and the fact that they wrote about their own lives. It struck a huge chord with me and led to SLF's direction. Having said that, I thought the photos they took in Belfast around that time were pretty ill-judged!

In the mythology of SLF, Gordon Ogilvie and Geoff Travis are prominent figures. What influence did they have with regards to Inflammable Material?

Gordon was like a fifth member of the band. We wrote songs together and he took care of the day to day management. It's impossible to over-estimate Gordon's part in the band's story. Geoff was the guy who saw something in us that other record people didn't. Thanks to his courage and vision we got the chance to make IM the way we wanted it made.

'Alternative Ulster’ has become an anthem for a generation; it seemed to point out another way for a people crushed by The Troubles. Did you ever envisage the profound impact and resonance that song would have?

No, not at all. It was written as a ‘song about having nothing to do’. In that respect, it was closest to all the ‘boredom’ songs that were part of punk's initial ennui. In fact, it was originally written to be given away free with the fanzine of the same name!

Looking back is there anything you would change about Inflammable Material?

Yeah. I wouldn't have put ‘Closed Groove’ on there. I never rated it much as a song anyway and I feel its inclusion actually detracts from the impact of the album as a whole.

Do you think Inflammable Material is SLF’s masterpiece?

No, although I know a lot of other people do. I don't think we have recorded a ‘masterpiece’. I hope we do, but if and when that happens we should call it a day. You can't beat perfection and IM is definitely NOT perfect!

Further Reading:
England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, Jon Savage, Faber & Faber (1991)
Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, John Lydon with Keith and Kent Zimmerman, Plexus Publishing Ltd (1994)
Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Lester Bangs, Serpent’s Tail (1996)