Stiff Little Fingers

NI punk godfathers convert the unconvinced with a blistering homecoming gig

As a newcomer to Stiff Little Fingers, I had my reservations about attending the June 13 gig at Queen’s University’s Mandela Hall.

My Italian girlfriend is something of a punk connoisseur, and had introduced me to Stiff Little Fingers via their song ‘Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae’ a week before the gig.

Like most music lovers, I adore The Clash, but have never been a follower of punk in general. The album version of ‘Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae’ did little to change my tastes. 

‘I’ve always had an aversion to the Northern Irish accent in Jake Burnssong,’ I argued. ‘And anyway, it’s 2008 for God’s sake. My wallet is full and the Troubles are a thing of the past. Punk is dead. Long live our stable economy!’

Inside, the Mandela Hall is buzzing. Spiky punk hairdos point the way to the bar, where middle-aged revellers exchange stories of bygone concerts and look forward to the gig of the century.

‘The Clash are the be all and end all for me,’ I admit to one English reveller, whose girlfriend bought him the ticket and who has travelled from Essex for the gig.

I do not for one minute expect a violent reaction. Nowadays, most of these punks own semi-detached residences and people carriers. Topping 80mph on the dual carriageway is as violent as they get. 

‘I agree,’ he answers. ‘The Clash were good, but Stiff Little Fingers are better. Don’t laugh, I’m serious! You’ll see.’

We enter the auditorium to the stamping of heavy boots and the waving of heavy fists. What had I expected? An aging four-piece well past their prime? An endless stream of predictable power chords? The cracking of arthritic joints and the sickly scent of Old Spice? 

All of the above, I suppose. But then I hear ‘Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae’, the live version, and my opinion of Stiff Little Fingers changes forever.

What surprises me is the band’s crystal clear sound. Surely I've heard it before - on MTV, on the radio, on my own Goddamn CD player. Green Day, you charlatans! You have deceived a generation!

Over the next hour and a half, singer and chief songwriter Jake Burns, guitarist Ian McCallum, drummer Steve Grantley and bassist Ali McMordie get the Mandela Hall to its feet and keep it there.

The pace never wanes, even after two encores. Their expertly crafted songs just keep on coming. ‘Wasted Life’, ‘Suspect Device’, 'Alternative Ulster'. 

‘But these songs are as good as anything the Clash ever produced,’ I yell to my girlfriend over the din. ‘Why didn’t you tell me about them before?!’

There are almost too many highlights to mention. After all these years, Stiff Little Fingers are as tight as ever (a listen to their early live recordings allows me, a novice, to make this statement). Individually, they play their parts with unerring gusto and verve.

McMordie is (much to my amazement) as committed and charismatic as The Clash’s Paul Simonon has ever been. McCallum and Grantley constantly surprise with licks and rolls that contemporary Northern Irish bands can only dream of executing.

And as for Burns, the frontman par excellence? He towers over the audience, and yet he’s as much a part of it as anyone else. 

‘I first wrote this song for George Bush senior,’ he tells us during one of his frequent dialogues. ‘But tonight we play it for his murdering bastard of a son.’

Stiff Little Fingers have taught me a thing or two, and surely that's what punk is all about. They've taught me that Northern Ireland can produce music of world class quality. They've taught me that punk has more to offer than hollow rhetoric and a counter-cultural dress sense. They've taught me that punk is far from dead. Long live punk! 

Lee Henry