- 02 Feb 21
42 years ago today, Stiff Little Fingers released their debut album, Inflammable Material, on Rough Trade. It went on to become the first ever album to hit the UK Top 20 on an independent label. To mark the occasion, we're revising Bill Graham's classic interview with the Belfast band's lead singer, Jake Burns – originally published in Hot Press in 1982.
"Sound like an old fucking hippie?" Jake Burns suddenly interjects with evident self-mockery mid-way through a dissection of the Oi brigade. We both cop on and own up.
Sound like an old hippie decrying the failure of his generation's ideals; that's the comparison upon which we both immediately concur. The inference may be inevitable; this interview is conducted in the self-questioning shadow of the Jam split. Stiff Little Fingers too have arrived at that point of self-examination.
Furthermore if Burns' opinions be representative of the band, they feel only scorn and dismay for the Oi merchants whom Burns berates as cynical manipulators xeroxing and distorting once potent ideals. Currently unable to achieve the Old Punk crossover, Stiff Little Fingers don't like their New Punk company.
Certainly Burns' ruminations aren't the usual promotional bloom and bluster. Perhaps the timing of our interview is responsible for Stiff Little Fingers arrive in Dublin at the end of a tiring six-week tour, an experience always likely to prompt reflection.
But Burns' thoughts question even the rationale of the band. They aren't the self-piteous ramblings of a confused, addled musician in his cups - rather they're a frank exact analysis of the circumstances that the group must surmount. Jake Burns openly admits that Stiff Little Fingers are undergoing a painful process of maturation that finds them questioning both their role and their relationship to their audience. To his credit, interviews aren't usually so candid to the tape-recorder.
Stiff Little Fingers' latest album is titled round a typical Ulster pun: Now Then... Our conversation revolves around the conflict between the NOW of adult responsibility and the THEN of punk revolt. Jake Burns isn't pretending that he's not grown up.
"I hesitate to use the word: a concept album," Burns says as he seeks to explain the motivations behind Now Then, "but it is about growing up, our attitudes to now and then, how your attitudes change to people. I think we found that everybody in the band was a bit more reasonable, if that's the word.
"We found that we actually listen to people's arguments rather than just reject them as we very definitely would have during Inflammable Material days. We did feel we were dealing with that type of subject through all the songs so that's how the title came up."
It is not the most natural or easiest stance for former punks. From its earliest American inspirations in the Sixties like the Seeds, punk has an automatic, self-destruct mechanism. Punk always spurns professional standards and burns hard and brief, with unreasonable demands. The thoughtful lyrics of Now Then owe nothing to either discouraged nihilism or millennial ranting. Are a rational sensible Stiff Little Fingers an absolute contradiction?
Certainly, they're crucial steps of experience removed from their audience. Do they feel elder brothers to their audience, I probe?
"Oh yeah," Burns responds unhesitatingly. "You want to see some of the kids who come along. I mean you're talking to twelve-year-olds after the show. There was one gig, the Manchester show, when some kids came up to us and they couldn't have been more than six or seven. I'm talking to them and I'm thinking I'm old enough to be this kid's father."
Uncle Jake, the punters' guardian angel; it isn't a characterisation that would have appeared possible even eighteen months ago. And as indicated earlier, Uncle Jake isn't taken with the fodder fed them under the banner of New Punk.
In fact, he's downright scathing: "I can't stand them. I find listening to them and looking at them, the whole thing, really sad. I feel all those groups, in particular someone like The Anti-Nowhere League, are really cynical. The whole attitude seems very much 'Let's make a quick buck', it doesn't have any of the idealism that we all had, rightly or wrongly, way back when.
"The whole thing just seems so stagnant and pointless to me."
The suspicion is reciprocated. According to Burns, the new brook think Stiff Little Fingers are "boring old farts", a dismissal that the new reasonable Jake Burns can even understand, even as he argues the superior merits of Stiff Little Fingers' achievements.
"Which is fair enough. If that's the way they feel about us, that's the way they feel about us. But I find with those bands that they just do what we or the Damned or the Clash did three or four years ago.
"I suppose the main thing today is bands into escapism," he muses. "I mean, even these new punk bands, I don't like to call them 'new punk' but I suppose that's what they are, even those bands are writing songs that are totally pointless. They don't seem terribly concerned with the world around them or if they do, it's just an incredibly violent attitude to it."
Stiff Little Fingers definitely feel out of step. When I ask Burns what now motivates the band, he admits he's troubled with a striking honesty.
"How do I justify Stiff Little Fingers to myself? I can't; I don't really," he answers. "It seems very much like a memory at the moment. It's weird looking back on it because we don't play any track but one off the first album and that's 'Johnny Was', the one we didn't write.
"We're making really conscious efforts to get away from it because we don't see it as relevant anymore because a song like 'Alternative Ulster' has become a singalong now which is now as it was written as.
"Where to now? I don't really know. The whole motivation behind it now, and this sounds awfully sad, is that we've been doing it for so fucking long, I can't imagine doing anything else. I can't say I'm not disillusioned because I am - because I think it's we, not the Jam, who should have been playing Wembley Arena.
"That's not sour grapes but I feel we should have done a lot more than we actually did, or - " and he changes out of the past tense - "we have done up to now. I think because we got, I won't say saddled with, but we were always referred to as the last flagship of punk rock, it blinkered a lot of people to what we were doing."
Burns' frustration stems from those early great expectations. As they interviewed producers for Now Then, they discovered too many with the simple-minded aim of recreating Inflammable Material. Finally they settled for Nick Tauber who also produces Toyah. Says Jake: "He was the first one who said he liked the music."
The most surprising track on Now Then is 'Price Of Admission', a ballad introduced by an acoustic guitar. I've to be convinced that Burns' Park Drive vocals have the range to carry such a melody but the lyrics perceptively examine the cost of casual infidelities that can wreck a musician's relationship.
"It came about basically through seeing the attitudes of people in rock bands to women," he explains. "One night I sat up and I was very drunk and I managed to wake up everyone in the flat by banging away with the guitar till three in the morning."
Now with misunderstanding bedevilling the band's image, it's "drastic steps time" says Burns. "We're shoving out 'Price Of Admission' as a single in the hope that people will sit up and say 'Jesus, I didn't think Stiff Little Fingers sounded like that.'
"The encouraging thing on this tour," he adds, "is that we have been playing 'Price Of Admission' and it's been going down well. It's one of our best-received numbers in the set which astounds me. Because when we first did it, I was shaking putting my acoustic guitar on in front of all these rabid pink-haired things. I thought they're going to stand and howl all the way through this. There were a few shouts but generally by the first two bars of the song, they had all shut up which was amazing."
The response was more encouraging than some that greeted 'Talkback'.
"When we put that out as a single," complains Burns, "we got such an amount of stick from the hardcore fans. 'There's brass on it and it's almost got a disco beat, what are you doing?' Well, you know it sounds best like that boys! That's why it's there. If we did it 1-2-3-4, heads-down, last one to the bar buys the drinks, it would sound absolute gank.
"For what was meant to be music that was to change things, it's become incredibly stagnant."
Alternatively take Stiff Little Fingers' predicament of paying the professional cost to be boss. As Jake Burns now realises, "when you start off, it's fun, it's a giggle, you enjoy doing it and you can't actually believe that someone's going to pay you for doing it. Then the first rush of success comes and you can't believe that because it's a wonderful feeling. But I think the rot sets in when you immediately realise that you've got to record another album. You're now contractually obliged to record it and from that moment on, it's work.
"Up until then, it was fun. It was just this great big balloon and the balloon was going to break any day but you were having a ball while it was going. And then you suddenly realise, 'well, I've got to do this'. Like this morning, I woke up and thought 'what am I doing in Belfast. I've got to be in Dublin.' Nothing I would have liked better than to say, 'Oh, fuck that,' roll over and go back to sleep.
"But I couldn't. It becomes a job and you do have to accept that to a certain extent, you are professionals and people pay you, kids shell out whatever, #4 or #5 for a ticket, so it's up to you to go out there and put on a show.
"It's very hard to draw a line between what you were doing for fun and what is now a job. That's one of the reasons we're touring much more at the moment, because we actually enjoy touring. For some stages of the tour, you get back that original instinct, you say 'fuck me, that's fun' because you get that instant acceptance from the audience."
So we leave Stiff Little Fingers in a state of lucid heart-searching. It's rare to meet someone in this game who doesn't reach for the automatic hype-pilot, who evenly recognises their problems. Perhaps Jake Burns would have played that scam three years ago but now his refusal gains him an added respect from this journalist.
We put away the tape and take the lift to the hotel lobby. I say, "you're too sensible for this business, Jake."
He says, "well, at least, I'm not working in Mackie's."