- 13 Aug 20
Happy 62nd Birthday, Feargal Sharkey! To celebrate, we're revisiting Bill Graham's classic interview with The Undertones – originally published in Hot Press in 1980.
Good evening and welcome to the Downtown Kampus at the Cork Arcadia where the road crew are winding up the audience, parodying the pompous and flabby overture tapes favoured by bands of inflated self-importance. It isn't The Undertones' idea. They don't even know what gonzoid tape their soundmen will spring each night but it compliments their own self-deprecatory attitudes.
So in swift and anti-climatic sequence, we get the Portsmouth Sinfonia's debasement of the William Tell Overture, Black and German funnies, David Johansen bawling 'Detroit' like he was addressing the United Nations of rock fans and, less unnaturally, also 'Sprach' and 'Blue Danube'. But there are no smoke bombs, no dry ice and The Undertones don't drive on stage on Harley Davidson's. And here they come, just watch them now.
From the first song, it is apparent that The Undertones are now a tuff and tested touring band. They are tight, they are determined and no perceptible cues are missed, nor intros muffed. These Undertones are no longer altar-boy upstarts from beside the Foyle.
Just a scintilla of that early naif magic has thereby been lost. It was the primary source of their early unique attraction as the best youth-club band this island has produced but everybody must grow up and The Undertones can't be shackled with the role of playing and re-playing Peter Pan for ageing rock fans. They can't always be the boys they write stories for. The Undertones have visibly matured; so can their audience.
But most essentially, they still haven't lost the knack of communicating almost one-to-one with their audience. The Undertones are still their fans, still "us", not rebellious older-brother substitutes imposing from a pedestal. They're hardly more lustrously dressed, they could have clumsily fallen off the scooters on their way to the concert, they must have sneaked on stage through the back door.
Damien O Neill does wear a Ramones T-shirt but that's their one concession to rock coutour. (And besides Damien is an avid Ramoniac.) Otherwise, The Undertones' only possible fashion leader is Mickey Bradley, as the O'Neills and drummer Billy Doherty keep their heads down and concentrate on their roles as power sources.
Feargal Sharkey may be their generally accepted ringleader but Bradley's his affable straight-man, garrulously competing for commentary space between songs. Mickey dresses like Derry's respectable ace skinhead, dolled up for a wedding reception or a family day-trip to Buncrana. Regulation rounded blue jeans, spat and polished brogues and a mohair jacket with which he soon dispenses before the stage sweat eats the armpits. Most clubbable, most convivial - aye, he's one of those nice guys who make demon political canvassers.
And the good vibrations are reciprocated. There's 1,800 souls packed into the Arcadia, among them some dedicated day-trippers from Dublin, System X and a dozen scarcely less famous. And let none aver that the musical inclinations of Cork people remain in a time warp: The Undertones can do no wrong tonight, although the greatest enthusiasm is for the more recognisable gems from the first album, Jimmy Jimmy, and also of course Teenage Kicks. Tonight, a pack is sealed between the citizens of the two second cities.
I'm equally unknowledgeable about the new material from the second album but the hook of 'There Goes Norman' has lodged into my consciousness even as I write this. And then there's 'My Perfect Cousin'.
It's typical of the wised-up short story lyrics The Undertones have perfected. Feargal's introduction has me laughing. "Everybody," sez he, "has a perfect cousin their mammy's always comparing them with," and he hasn't to say more before the cheers of identification arise.
For it's in topics like insufferable relatives that The Undertones score. Other bands deny and refuse to document the pressures of happy and unhappy families and locate their lyrics in abstraction and fantasy. The Undertones don't play for students who have a pad of their own and who don't have to worry about parents prying and peering round the kitchen door when boy and girl are doing everything but talking about the weather over a night-cap of cocoa.
Their lyrics are indeed underestimated as also their perceptive puckish humour. Who else would have the irreverence to think of 'More Songs About Chocolate And Girls'?
So The Undertones power on to encore time. Then these scrawny, sinewy flyweights win three knockdowns and Feargal reappears as the champ, garbed in a woollen dressing gown. (He'd stripped off his T-shirt for 'Male Model'. Coincidence or . . . hmm . . . do The Undertones really and completely disregard artifice?).
And besides exhilarating versions of 'True Confessions', 'Mars Bars' and 'Here Comes The Summer', The Undertones climax with their two sucker punches, 'Get It On' and Gary Glitter's 'Rock 'n' Roll Parts I and II'. They always finish with the anthems.
(Next day Feargal Sharkey agrees that they should be put out on disc, perhaps on a live double B-side but says that manager Andy Ferguson is reluctant for them to record anything that will lose them publishing royalties. I suspect Ferguson will be persuaded.)
The audience leaves sweatless and next morning John O'Neill listens to the road crew's tape and truly confesses, "I never knew we were as good as that." He isn't alone. Neither did I expect a performance of such vigorous precision.
I also make a personal reassessment. Whatever my previous enthusiasm for The Undertones both live and on disc, I realise I've always had an inclination to think of The Undertones as plucky contenders but not winners, as a band liable to be crushed beneath the irresistible mills of the industry. After the Arcadia, such charitable attitudes seem condescending. Clearly this is an older, harder, wiser band whose resilience I've underestimated.
Their position in our poll above the Rats, Gallagher and Lizzy wasn't, as I half-suspected, a fluke of fashion or voting. The Undertones' performance and the Arcadia audience seal their election. There's an unforced trust, an uncontrived communication between band and audience. These people are going to grow up with The Undertones.
* * * * *
Late the next morning we all clamber into the minibus for the cross-Munster drive to Limerick. The journey is quiet and unexceptional, but I don t believe it's only due to the possibly inhibiting factor of this journalist. The Undertones haven't learnt the games by which bands defeat tedium. Perhaps they don't desire to.
Certainly, they're the hardly the first band one would invite to a debauch by the Tiber. There's one six-pack of Harp between the eight of us, a bottle of wine that doesn't get drunk and no wild, wild women travelling on either. So Feargal Sharkey reads a book about Victorian murder mysteries in Glasgow, Mickey Bradley finally scours the Sunday papers, John O'Neill and Billy Docherty stare wordlessly out of the window and Damien O'Neill listens to his favourite Ramones.
And with such predilection that when we stop in Charleville for lunch we all wait in the van as the sonic fusillades of the brudders Ramone blast up the main street till the final chord and baritone comment, "This has been rock 'n' roll radio."
And this is a rock 'n' roll interview. Two actually, because there is a scrappy collective session over lunch before I later sit down with Feargal in the lounge of Limerick's Glentworth Hotel.
In this one respect, there has been no change in the band. The others are as disinterested as ever in interviews, so as per usual Sharkey undertakes the responsibility. Yet his role as spokesman doesn't mean he should be overly distinguished from the rest of the band. Strangely, for such an articulate and outgoing vocalist, he doesn't even have a part in their lyrics.
But if it's hard to discern the real balance of influence within The Undertones, Feargal Sharkey's father was and is prominent in Derry trade unionism and the negotiating canniness of his daddy appears to have been passed on to the son. Feargal admits to taking more interest in their business affairs than any other member and speaks of them shrewdly and informedly.
Which doesn t make him The Undertones' leader Mick Jagger or Bryan Ferry-style. But it might make him their shop-steward, the spokesman for his fellow-workers.
And if Derry's latest cottage industry haven't yet achieved Abba-like status within the city's economy, their export record is most presentable. Feargal reckons their debut album is closing on the symbolic 100,000 figure and the only debit on their balance sheet has been the annoying habit of their singles to stall at the outskirts of the Top 30, despite the generous critical judgements accorded them. In that regard The Undertones have suffered the agony and been the XTC of 1979.
Now they drive round Ireland and attract more friends than could have been predicted even six months ago: 4,000 over their first three dates in Cork, Galway and Limerick is a figure their senior bands could wisely ponder.
So why not start with a touring question. How was your American expedition? "What can you say about America?" says Feargal, trying to gather together his confused recollections and he refers back to an earlier conversation about Mid-Western punks who were tantalised by the Led Zeppelin elpee and a safety-pinned punkette they encountered, who was off to Genesis the next week.
"It was Joe Strummer who got us on the tour," Damien reminds me, adding fervently that, "The Clash were great." Feargal agrees: "I'd never met Joe Strummer before the tour and I was just going over expecting to do our bit and then go home and that would be it and we'd have no involvement with The Clash. But when we got touring, they really changed my mind. They were really dead-on. I couldn't get over it."
Their initial suspicion about The Clash is typical of their innate caution about London and Londoners. They don't have any residence in the city, just crash in manager Andy Ferguson's house when required. Most of their free time is still spent in Derry and Feargal asserts that an intrinsic policy of The Undertones is "keeping clear of cliques". He adds: "One of the reasons we keep going back to Derry is that it keeps us down to earth and drags us back to normality. If we stayed in London, we'd just become a part of it all and change drastically, just like every other band seems to do when they leave and move over to England."
As an example and with some unhappiness, he mentions Protex: "Like they're only about 17 but they've changed so much in the past couple of months, it's ridiculous. As people just. It s crazy."
Or another youth happy to be caught in a gilded cage, Richard Jobson of the Skids. "A year ago," Feargal remembers, "The Skids came down to see us playing the Marquee and I was talking to a couple of them afterwards and, at this time, they were unheard of and they were really dead on. And then I saw Richard Jobson a couple of weeks ago and it was just the big baggy trousers and the hair greased back and it was all 'look at me, watch out boys, here I come'."
But whether you like it or not, maybe audiences expect larger-than-life figures on stage, demand heroes?
"Some people do, but it's just the type of us that we won't be. A couple of weeks ago in a teenybop magazine, they slagged me off because I wasn't a high fashionable guy. And they ended up saying, 'Nice sound, shame about the body'. Well fair enough, if that's their attitude, let them batter on. We won't worry about them."
It's a line indicative of the resolve The Undertones have been compelled to find since they signed to Sire. I'm curious about the changes they've been through since, interested to discover how their early shining idealism has dealt with the harsher pressures of new experiences.
Feargal's answer is both honest and pragmatic. If it appears unidealistic, remember The Undertones' background. They come from a city with a history of the highest rate of unemployment in this island, where within living memory, men who wanted to work could spend ten years on the dole. The Undertones had the traditional reasons for starting a band, self-expression, kicking up a racket and so forth. Now that's changed and the new reason, undisguised, is . . .?
"Well, I suppose what has come into it is money. There's no doubt about it. We make a lot of money out of it. It's an easy way of making money. We've probably made more money in our last year than my father made in his lifetime, working as an electrician. That can't be avoided. It's an easy job."
It's a circumstance that led to some unusual changes in the generation game.
"Like," says Feargal, "there were times when I'd get pissed off with the whole thing and I'd go back home and I'd say 'I'm fed up with this.' And my parents would say that I was 'bloody mad, look at the bloody money you're making - go on and do it for another year.'
"And I'd try and sit and talk to them about all my ideals and all the reasons why I don't want to do it because it's getting too serious and it's getting away from the original ideals and that's why I want to pack it in. And they can't see that and they'd say 'look at the money you re making, stick at it for another year and then you'll be laughing.' Everybody in Ireland has that opinion."
And whatever twinges of conscience Feargal may continue to have, I don't believe he'll ever want to return to an electrician's trade. Just like soul music for American blacks, rock for The Undertones is a road out of the ghetto. Pop and pugilism: Derry has its boxer too. Remember Charlie Nash.
If The Undertones aren't yet as well regarded as the world championship contender, Feargal agrees they're not now seen as brats to be avoided: "But now, because we've done something they still don't come up and say 'we're really proud of you' but they don't get it in for you because we started a band."
For a while last summer, it appeared The Undertones had inspired a number of protigi bands who might follow their trail. The Melody Maker's Harry Docherty was back in the city for a marriage and predicted the emergence of a second generation of Derry bands - but Feargal sadly believes that the traditional problem of a lack of suitable venues has put back the stopper on such hopes.
Billy Docherty mentions the Sect as a band to be watched in the future but as of now only their tour support the Moondogs have climbed out of the swamp.
As the only name Irish rock band, with the exception of Horslips, to continue residence in Ireland, The Undertones opinions on recent developments can't be uninformed. But Feargal is not one to predict a renaissance. He's happy that there's competition to the showbands but of the Southern bands, he's heard through Dave Fanning, he doesn't think there's one that's particularly outstanding.
"Most of the bands I've heard are doing things a thousand other bands are doing in London. There's none that stands out head and shoulders above the rest."
In fact he's suspicious of the Dublin scene. Partially - and this he's prepared to admit - it may be the product of a series of bad experiences. Because of the Stadium bar, The Undertones can't play there this tour; their first appearance coincided with the Belfield stabbing which led to the Gardam considering Billy Docherty as a suspect and sending round the RUC to upset him and his parents; and at their second Dublin date at McGonagles, they pulled but two hundred people whilst Ian Dury was simultaneously drawing 4,000 to the Olympic. Even when they appeared at the Dalymount Festival, Feargal has an anecdote which both reinforces and summarises their attitudes to the city: "We'd just come off stage and we were going through the bar to the dressing room and this guy was propping up the bar and he said something about a 'great set we played'.
"A young guy and he was sitting propping up the bar all afternoon and he hadn't seen us. He was there when we went on stage and he was there when we came in because I was the first in.
"And that to me is the total attitude of Dublin. It's all so artsy-fartsy and cliquish. More so than in London although in a different way. People think they're something special 'cos they're in a band and they really think they're huge and massive. What's Dublin or what's London? They're just towns in the middle of a country. All you're doing is making records and the Americans and the Russians can come in and wipe us out next week.
"And they're all sitting there, really primed up and self conscious, just because they're in a band. It's really nothing."
He again admits they may have been unlucky in their experiences and that there could be exceptions he hasn't encountered but it's obvious these are opinions from which he won't be shifted easily. Those who disagree can best do so by their playing.
One topic can t be ignored - the forthcoming album. Scheduled for spring release, it was recorded last year in Holland, again with Roger Becharian as mentor. It follows The Undertones' policy of economical pop and will have 15 terse tracks but unlike many second albums, it doesn't find The Undertones overplaying with effects, overdubs and studio technology. Instead Feargal believes "it's simpler". Also its tracks will average between 20 to 30 seconds longer.
One reason for his self-satisfaction about it is the increasing independence of each member of the band. "I think we probably worked better on it than on the first because now we re not on top of each other at home as we used to be. We're more in our separate environments and go and do different things."
There's also a development in their musical tastes. "A year ago," recollects Feargal, "we'd all sit around listening to the New York Dolls albums," but now each is more inclined to follow his own choice. For instance, John O'Neill often goes clubbing to sample disco sounds. That might just mean future diversification in The Undertones' music however much it still may be built on the same hard pop foundations.
The same growth is evident in their approach to business. Arriving in London, The Undertones must have appeared yokels and easy marks. Feargal won't deny their initial mistakes. "When we first signed to Sire, we were overwhelmed that anyone should take an interest in us and there were sums of money in the contract that we thought were massive. But then as we went along, we learnt how the thing worked and how much we needed to survive as a band and we discovered we weren t in as good a position as we thought we were."
They renegotiated their contract, although after Sire attempted some smart and standard intimidating ploys. It didn't faze them and Feargal (who says he "enjoys chaos and kicking up a fuss, I'm from a hyper-active family") wasn't over-awed. It's all down to "logic" and commonsense, he implies. But he also admits he finds the business "nastier" than even he cynically expected.
Realism, determination and a wise sense of the value of their roots, these are hallmarks of The Undertones. So many bands deny their background and escape into unreal alternative universes. That will never be a problem for this lot.
The Undertones are not imageless. Later Colm Henry will complain to me about their unphotogenic qualities, while Feargal has earlier confessed that only Jill Furmanovsky has so far achieved effective shots of them. They'll also half-humorously bemoan the lack of girls who wander backstage, albeit that on-stage Feargal wears a silver chain from a Birmingham admirer and a girl shoots on stage at Limerick to kiss him. The Undertones are aware how their short-term defects are changed into long-term strengths. Respect is a gilt-edged commodity: they're becoming male models in a different manner from that which they first desired.
So we make our separate ways to Limerick's Savoy for the show. It's tenser than the night before, a release of aggression rather than a celebration due to a combination of discouraging circumstances, primarily the result of a seated venue and a crew of unprofessional, over-aggressive bouncers. (Of whom, more elsewhere.)
But again communication and lift-off are achieved. Again, The Undertones recruit a further band of loyal constituents.
Feargal Sharkey says that if The Undertones sustain they won't be foolish enough to be replaying 'Teenage Kicks' if they last till thirty. That makes them very useful friends for their fans. There'll be no generational illusions or nostalgia from them.
I take my leave, buy two Mars Bars for the memory and we drive back to Dublin. And I think at work rest and play, The Undertones are going to become very familiar with these southern roads. This first Irish tour of the eighties has set down the law for those who follow.