Still Getting Their Kicks
Undertones founder John O’Neill ponders the Derry band's continued longevity as they gear up for a series of 40th anniversary celebrations
It’s hard to believe that The Undertones’ 'Teenage Kicks' – legendary DJ John Peel’s favourite song – burst onto the airwaves thirty seven years ago. Or that The Undertones, the progenitor of Irish punk, are about to celebrate their fortieth anniversary.
That the Derry band still tours every year, playing some of the biggest pop and rock festivals in Europe, attests not only to its enduring popularity but also to the enjoyment that its five members still take in thrashing out killer riffs and singing, as only these Derry punks can, of love, relationships and summer days.
For the man who wrote 'Teenage Kicks', guitarist John O’Neill, The Undertones’ longevity surprises even him. 'We certainly didn’t expect to still be doing it,' says the fifty eight year-old songwriter. 'Like any band when it starts off you’re just doing it for the fun.'
Back in the mid-seventies there wasn’t a lot to be cheerful about in Northern Ireland. 'It was such a horrific time,' recalls O’Neill of a brutally torn society. 'For us there was just football and music, you know? There wasn’t anything else to do.'
Luckily, O’Neill, his brother Vincent (the band’s guitarist soon to be replaced by sibling Damien), bassist Michael Bradley, drummer Billy Doherty and singer Fergal Sharkey, put most of their energies into the latter past-time.
'Music was our life,' says O’Neill. 'We timed it so well with punk happening; it just chimed with all the things we were feeling ourselves.'
Though the teenage angst that fuelled the band’s early music has been replaced by middle-aged wisdom, The Undertones still relish the live arena as never before. 'When we go on tour it’s like reliving our youth,' enthuses O’Neill. 'Anybody who sees us live can see how much we enjoy it and I think that translates to the audience. We’re playing better than we ever have.'
The next chance for Irish fans to witness The Undertones’ stomping energy is in St. Columb’s Hall, Derry, on December 27, and for O’Neill, there’s nothing quite like a hometown gig to stir the blood.
'There’s always something special about it, you know? It’s like a big family event. You know most people in the audience and the children of our friends are there. It is a very special atmosphere. People come from all over whenever we play Derry because they just love the atmosphere so much.'
Time has certainly marched on in Derry, as elsewhere, from the heady, early days when The Undertones were learning their stage craft in The Casbah, a small but important music venue in Bridge Street. 'Well, obviously the whole music industry has changed, the way technology has taken over. I’ve been to a couple of weddings this year and it’s just one man with a drum machine,' says O’Neill, with perhaps just a hint of nostalgia.
'There are bands in the conventional sense of drums, bass and guitar but it’s hard,' O’Neill acknowledges. 'There’s a band who are coming up called The Gatefolds, who are a really great band. If they’d been going in the ‘70s or ‘80s they would definitely have been signed by a major label – there’s no doubt about it. Now they have to put out their records themselves and do their ordinary day jobs and just do music as a pastime.'
Technology has changed and so too have the means of earning a crust. Long gone are the days when records sold in the millions of units and a hit single was all a band needed to catapult it to fame and fortune. 'Live gigs and merchandise are definitely more lucrative than record sales, that’s for sure,' says O’Neill. 'If the Clash or the Sex Pistols were coming out now they probably wouldn’t sell as many records as they did back then.'
Perhaps largely for this reason The Undertones haven't recorded an album of new material since 2007's critically acclaimed Dig Yourself Deep, though O’Neill cites geography as a major barrier. 'It’s quite difficult with [singer] Paul [McLoone] living in Dublin and Damien in London, so getting together to rehearse and work is not that easy. We keep talking about getting another record out. There are a few songs knocking about and hopefully we’ll try and record them.'
The Undertones' story could very easily have run into the ground in 1983 when singer Fergal Sharkey left the band, but after a-sixteen-year hiatus the call of the stage proved irresistible to the other founding members. And, as O’Neill relates, it was a return born of a sense of collective ownership of the music.
'Obviously we were really aware that Fergus not being in the band was a bit of a problem in the sense that he was who people identified most with,' says O’Neill. 'But we wrote all the songs so we felt we were entitled to reform the band. They were our songs.'
The unenviable task of replacing Sharkey fell to Paul McLoone, though as O’Neill relates, the chemistry was immediate. 'When we were thinking about reforming we knew that it made sense to get someone that we knew and Paul was from Derry. He was brilliant. We knew the first time we were in rehearsal with Paul that it was just perfect and it’s worked out that way.'
McLoone has, without a doubt, brought his own inimitable sound to The Undertones. For many years now, he has also presented a successful radio show that promotes lesser known, up-and-coming singer-songwriters and bands who maybe struggle to get mainstream exposure elsewhere.
Having been in that boat himself, O’Neill is keen to share his wisdom with any young, aspiring musicians just starting out. 'Obviously you hope you’re going to get a career from it but do it for the love of the music and work and work and keep working,' he urges. 'The more you play the better you get. It’s like anything really – the more hard work you put into something the more benefits you get out of it eventually.'
Nor should any new band feel that some venues are beneath them, after all, The Undertones' first gig took place in, of all places, a Scout hut. 'Oh aye, yeah,' remembers O’Neill. 'Fergal was one of the Scout leaders. There were a few friends and Scouts and local people from Creggan, you know?'
It sounds like a lost scene from 'Spinal Tap, but if The Undertones were bottom on the bill beneath an exhibition of reef-knot artistry O’Neill isn’t saying.
He does, however, extol the virtues of constant gigging to young bands starting out, regardless of the circumstances. 'That’s how you learn. You only become a better band by playing live in front of people. You can rehearse all you want but it’s not the same thing as playing in front of people.'
Forty years on, with dates for the anniversary tour filling up a lot of 2016, fans will inevitably wonder if Fergal Sharkey might play a part in the celebrations. Clearly, however, the prospect is a remote one.
'Fergal just severed all ties with us when we broke up. He just went his own way,' says O’Neill. 'The reality of it was always that as tensions arose within the band towards the end it was obvious he just didn’t want anything to do with us anymore and I don’t think that’s changed really. I don’t even know what he’s doing now to be honest.'
Unlike punk contemporaries Stiff Little Fingers, The Sex Pistols and The Clash, The Undertone’s music was rarely politically barbed and even the significant changes in Northern Ireland these past fifteen years or so haven’t drawn O’Neill down the song-writing path of cutting socio-political commentary.
'I have tried but I’ve never really been able to do it,' he openly admits. 'When I’m writing I always try to be instinctive and let the song write itself as much as possible. They always just seem to be about relationships. It’s easier for me to write songs about individuals and personal things.'
Writing from the heart has arguably set The Undertones apart from many of the punk bands who strutted their stuff at the tail end of the 1970s.
'Reading England’s Dreaming [Sex Pistols and Punk Rock], the Jon Savage book on punk, you realize just how contrived the Sex Pistols and The Clash were. We were very naive and idealistic,' says O’Neill of his then teenage bandmates in The Undertones. 'There was no pretence. You wore your heart on your sleeve. That’s just the way we were then.'
For O’Neill, however, there are some regrets. 'We got signed up after 'Teenage Kicks' came out and the record label obviously wanted us to make records that were going to be hits. Some of my favourite bands from that era are bands like Gang of Four, Josef K and Joy Division – the more avant-garde and less commercial bands.
'I sort of wish we’d had a bit more confidence in ourselves to push boundaries a bit more. I definitely regret trying to appease record companies a bit too much.'
The band’s early gigs in the days before they were signed, before fame and the weight of commercial expectation, still trigger happy memories. 'We do talk about the early days in The Casbah,' says O’Neill. 'They were probably the most special.'
Forty years on, there is remarkably perhaps, still juice in The Undertones’ tank. 'Every year I wonder if it’s going to be the last year,' O’Neill laughs. 'We do a two-week tour every year and all the other shows are mainly at weekends.
'The summer is obviously busy with festivals but I don’t think anybody would want to do it full-time. The way we do it keeps it fresh for us. It’s more honest; we’re doing it for the right reasons.'
The Undertones play St Columb's Hall, Derry on December 27 and Limelight 1, Belfast on May 20, 2016, as part of a full UK and Ireland anniversary tour. Tickets for St Columb's Hall are on sale from Cool Discs on Foyle Street, and from Ticketmaster, Katy's Bar and www.limelightbelfast.com for Limelight 1.