- 20 Mar 01
Tony Clayton-Lea talks to Stiff Little Fingers Jake Burns and manager Gordon Ogilvie
Caught In A Car
It was supposed to have been a train, but arrangements changed at the half past eleventh hour. The two hour journey up to Belfast was relieved by memories flashing through my mind as quickly as the shifting scenery. The scenery, at times, was breathtakingly beautiful, but for some reason the memories beat it hands down. They concerned one group of people, a band of merry men, with whom, hopefully, I shared a common ideal. If not that, then, at least we, all of us thought that their music and songs were a cut above the rest of what was happening. At least.
Their music and songs the whole story began a long time ago for them and for me (and thousands like me). Dreams come flooding back as I pass each dual carriageway on the straight and wide path, so allow me the selfish privilege of losing myself in nostalgia and sentiment. Join me if you like, but don t feel scared I m a good driver.
Can you remember the first time you heard Suspect Device and Alternative Ulster ? What a stupid question, of course you can. What about the first time you saw them on stage, standing nervously behind microphones, looking at you with a mixture of bewilderment, amazement, and fright? That s another stupid question. Of course you can!
You know how you felt, and what you felt then, but it seems that in the current climate of inclement attitudes, memories get muddled, once precious musings are disposed of down brain drains, and are forgotten about in the onrush of more sartorial and august things to think, do, and say.
Just who is fooling who?
Caught In A City
The view as you approach Belfast is impressive, to a certain degree panoramic, and somewhat industrial. Not a wisp of barricade smoke, or a sniff of petrol bomb assail the senses. (Interesting to note, that in Belfast, petrol bombs are thrown, whereas in London, they conspiratorially change into Molotov cocktails.)
It s only when you enter the city itself that you notice anything untoward and socially askew. Soldiers are all over the city centre, their rifles lying lazily against their torsos; security checkpoints are on most streets and revolving metal doors are situated at what are, one would imagine, quite strategic vantage points.
For me, a virtual stranger I hadn t been to Belfast in almost ten years it was a vaguely scary place to be in. Everything seemed alright, the sun was shining, the streets were crowded, yet it seemed as if a false calm was being exuded. There was a feeling of I m not quite sure. I was glad to be there (for obvious reasons) but I was more than pleased to leave.
Hitting the city centre, I unsurely made my way to Caroline s Music Centre, where, tens of minutes previously, Stiff Little Fingers had been signing autographs, chatting to fans and generally doing what Rock Stars do y know, smashing plate glass, snorting Vim, screwing lamp posts, that kind of thing.
The purpose of my short visit to Belfast is to talk to Gordon Ogilvie, manager of SLF, and to Jake Burns, lead singer, wearer of glasses, and detester of airplanes. Gordon is the serious one, Jake being slightly more, er, flippant (thank God).
Gordon Ogilvie is 31 years old, of average height, has a long fringe of black hair that he occasionally pushes back onto his balding pate. He has bad taste in shirts (almost as bad as my own). He doesn t look like a typical manager of a very well known band at all.
Ogilvie originally hailed form Southport, a seaside resort more famous for retired majors, nannies, tea and crumpets in the afternoon, than anything else. It was while working for a national newspaper as its Belfast correspondent that he first came into contact with Stiff Little Fingers.
Mr Ogilvie, through his association with SLF, both managerially and as co-lyricist (to a degree more about that later), has come in for quite a bit of journalistic flak. He has been accused of manipulating the band through a series of political poses, of puppeteering them through a sequence of headline grabbing events: the photograph on the Alternative Ulster single sleeve, the use of overtly political lyrics regarding the North in their early songs. That, and his reported severe Svengali role as the band s manager, conjure up a picture of a proper hard-nosed bastard. He isn t.
Caught On A Tape
Gordon and I face each other in the Guinness paddock area of the Europe Hotel bar. He appears decidedly at ease, chomping on a wedge-like tongue sandwich, and sipping his ice-chilled glass of transparent liquid. He chooses his words carefully, gathering momentum as he goes.
I ask him does he regard himself as a fifth member of the band?
"Jake has often said that, and I, in a sense, would agree with him. Not on stage, obviously, that s slightly different. Jake once said to me Y know, you re the fifth Stiff Little Finger, and I said, Ahh, there are only four fingers on my hand, so I must be Stiff Little Thumb. Sometimes people say I stick out like one."
It s easy to see why. His whole manner, sedate and conservative on the surface, would seem to be totally at odds with the antics and rowdy rigours of your average rock band. But then, perhaps he said that with tongue sandwich in cheek.
"You see, the point is, that what I think people don t understand, is that it started like that. I met these blokes, and, okay, there s an age difference, but I got involved in that kind of music at the time. I was listening to a lot of new stuff which really excited me, and while all the people of my generation were going oh, it s loud and it s boring, the same things that my dad said about the Rolling Stones.
"Anyway, I met these guys, and I thought they were incredibly talented, and I thought that I d really like to get involved, and it was on a sort of friendship basis, and eventually they talked me into doing the business side of things, the side I like the least, trying to keep books, and all that kinda stuff. So it was more like that from the start. Jake in particular, he was the first one who I knew, and subsequently the others."
How did he get to meet them?>
"I went to see them play because I was looking for a new kind of band. I was sick to death of the scene in Belfast, everybody was doing Van Morrison covers, and all that kind of thing.
"I had no idea, no, no ideas of managing any band at all. I went along, because at that time, the thing that I was really enthusing about was the first Clash LP, and I thought to myself, well, yes, what I really like about it is that it s very real, it s very down to earth, it s very much about their own lives, and not nonsense about cruising down LA freeways, or whatever. But if they ve got it bad in London, then what about the kids in Belfast, why haven t they got any bands around singing about their lives.
"so I started looking around, not actively, you understand. Anyway, I saw this handbill on a board and recognised the name, cos I had the song by the Vibrators. And I thought, aahh, that sounds as if it s in the right sort of area. I went to the Glenmackin Hotel, they had a stable which was converted into a kind of coachhouse suite, and that s where the band were playing. They were one and a half hours late, somebody s van broke down. I just chatted to the kids there, people like Gavin Martin and Brian Young of Rudi, and I think one guy from the Outcasts, not sure about that one, mind. It was like everybody you met seemed to be in a band, and I got really excited about it, and then when they played, I thought Jesus . What really impressed me was the professionalism of it.
"I remember saying to Colin (McClelland, who co-managed the band in the early days) that night, that if they re a garage band, they ve certainly been practising in a garage for a long time.
"Er, I didn t feel that I wanted to take them over. I didn t feel that I wanted a slice of the action. I just felt that I d really like to be involved if that was the thing that was going to happen. I also thought that Belfast being what it is, quite apart from the troubles, is that it s separated by sea, anyway, from the London scene, and they were really going to have problems about getting known like they could play for years and nobody would ever hear of them. I thought, well maybe, what I could do is help them get a big of publicity, and maybe use contacts, that kind of thing, and that s all I remember saying to Jake, that probably after three months, I ll have done all I can for you and I ll back out."
At this point, I m just priming myself to ask another question, when the impatient bugger interrupts me. He obviously has no sympathy for stuttering interviewers.
"If I had ever thought at that time, that three years later, I d still be doing it, and that I d quit my journalistic career, I d have said, there and then, either wise up, or if I d really believed it, I don t want to know, and backed off it, cos I didn t have any idea whatsoever of making it a big career, or it changing my life at all."
Conversation centres around the controversial (at the time, probably forgotten about now) lyrical content of Inflammable Material. Several of the songs contained overtly political lyrics alluding to the state of events, not only in Belfast, but throughout Ulster. I ask did he, as a non-native, feel justified in supposedly writing lyrics about something which could only affect him peripherally. It would appear to be a somewhat sore point with him, as he demonstrates clearly and unequivocally.
"What you have to remember, in fact, is that I didn t write certainly all the lyrics, and the songs which people talk about with the political small p are probably Suspect Device , Alternative Ulster and Wasted Life . Well I wrote two lines of Alternative Ulster , wrote something like six lines for Suspect Device just the intro and the outro, and I didn t write anything at all on Wasted Life . The only songs that I wrote that were all or the majority of the lyrics were totally non-Belfast songs White Noise was one, Closed Groove was another.
"I mean I m not trying to justify it by saying it wasn t really me, it was Jake Burns or Henry . I remember Jake came to me with a song called Alternative Ulster , and he said I don t like the chorus, but we were very much in sympathy with what we were trying to say. If you re asking me, do I ever feel that I foisted my opinion on Jake Burns, my answer to that would be nobody foists anything on Jake Burns . He just isn t that kind of guy.
"So, yeah, I would feel that any criticism levelled at me for lyrics would be unjustified, but I can understand it, I don t feel bitter about it, because people see my name y see, the band are very upfront about it. They said if you write one word or you suggest an idea which we then write an entire song around, and you have nothing more to do with it, then we think that your name should be there, because people ought to know that somebody else is involved. It could have been very easy just to put Fingers behind everything, y know, and not own up to the fact that this ageing geriatric had anything to do with it. I mean, I can understand.
"All they (one assumes the music press) knew about me was: (A) He is the manager, and (B) he worked for the Daily Express, so they probably think I m sort of frothing at the mouth, a middle class white racist, and, em, sure, it didn t click. I can understand about people being suspicious, cos let s face it, at the best of times, in all other realms, never mind music, Belfast is a bloody minefield, and I ll be quite straight with you, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to find any band and hype them to death with pictures of barbed wire and battlements and soldiers and blood on the streets and so on it probably would have sold a couple of hit singles, and then they d have died the death."
Like most managers, it s Gordon Ogilvie s job to be shrewd, and although he states that he dislikes the financial side of the business, he certainly shows no signs of lacking in economic or business acumen.
"I hope I m not putting my foot in it by saying that we re quite financially well off for the next couple of years, even if we don t sell another record."
As regards his publicity motives, as an ex-journalist he is more than aware of media exposure, and has undoubtedly used his knowledge of newspaper machinations and contacts within the press to further the progress of the band, especially at the beginning of their career, which is surely a crucial time for a band as they need that initial push into the public eye. I m not saying that without his keen sense of awareness for press coverage Stiff Little Fingers wouldn t have made it so quickly. Surely the sheer strength and power of their first two singles would have done that, no problem. However, his presence and his belief in the band most assuredly helped, and both he and Stiff Little Fingers would have to agree with that.
He is as integral to the creative side of the operation as ever. He continues to collaborate with them on the lyrical aspect of the songs, although to what degree is not made fully clear. As a lyricist, though, he remains observant, aware, and to the point in itself an important part of what SLF are about.
On the strictly management side, however, he doesn t come across as anything other than a guiding hand. He doesn t seem at all dictatorial or ruthless in his requests to various members of the group. If anything, his approach would appear to be a paternal or brotherly one it s apparent to anyone that all five are friends.
Together they make an acceptable, if slightly incongruous, partnership. Stiff Little Thumb? Maybe, but if that thumb wasn t there, the hand on which the four fingers remain would look equally out of place. Frankly, Gordon Ogilvie is not your entrepreneurial, megalomaniacal, money-grabbing louse.
Caught In Conversation
Jake Burns, looking somewhat bedraggled, unkempt and unshaven (oh these dirty smelly musicians) walks into the hotel bar and plonks himself down beside me. At the start, he s in a filthy mood, but this soon disappears in direct proportion to the emptying of his pint of lager.
Seemingly the first gig on the tour, at the Ulster Hall, was abominable. Bass strings broke, snare drums broke, nerves broke, and Jim Reilly smashed his kit at the completion of the set. When asked how Jim could afford to do this irresponsible act of needless violence, Jake blithely replies, "He gets them free.,"
Oh, yeah, well, fair enough.
It s well over two years since I ve been in such close proximity to Jake. We met before at one of their very early gigs I m sure he doesn t remember me, but he does remember the gig itself. He tells me how they were threatened by the head of the local IRA ironically enough, a butcher by trade; how their van broke down, their gear humped in by people going to the gig; the utter chaos of it all.
"If some guy had come up to me than, and said I m from the IRA, I d have said, fair enough, you can shoot me later, just give me a hand in with the gear, will you?"
Jake s humour is in direct contrast to the (not always) sober and sombre chat of Gordon. Opposites attract, and the two personalities get on tremendously. Talking about the small, disgustingly intimate gigs with which they began leads to asking Jake how they feel about playing larger halls.
"the smaller ones were more chaotic, that s for sure," he offers.
Gordon: "It s something I wouldn t really know about, but looking at it from the outside, in an odd sort of way, I mean like the Hammersmith Odeon, there s no contact with the audience. On the other hand, you have the Glasgow Apollo, which is just as big, yet it has an incredible atmosphere, you can actually see the band feeding off the audience."
Jake: "90% of that is down to the place itself, I mean, now, it s a question of having to play those places because of the amount of people who want to come in, or else you wind up doing something like 365 nights down in The Frog and Gutbucket."
Gordon: "I would hope that if it ever got to that stage (i.e. megastardom), that we d still rather play, as it were, one week at the Rainbow than one night at the Wembley Arena."
Along with changes in stature has come musical development. Go For It sounds radically different from their debut, Jake?
"Basically, you find it very hard when you re working from inside the band to see all the change, because to me it s fairly natural, but yeah, sittin down and playing all the albums back to back, you can see
"I think we play a bit better now. I think there s a lot more thought going into what we do now. There again, that s probably a bad thing in a lot of people s estimations, because, when we first started it was, like, Oh, no, here we go, wham bam type of thing. Nobody gave a second thought to the musical side of things. Now, it s a lot more structured, which is good from my point of view. I find that now, I can put a lot more into it. In fact I concentrate a lot more now just writing music, rather than providing the words. On the first album, I wrote a lot of the words, quite a few on the second, and I haven t written any on the third."
Gordon: "It s true in that sense, in that you didn t write a word, but what I think what s happened, as a sort of transposition, is that er Jake stays in the same flat as me. So if he has an idea for a song, or I have an idea, we talk about it, so we know what we re doing. I end up writing down the words, and, more than likely, Jake ends up looking at them, and saying, Shit, I couldn t sing that, and throwing them back at me to have another go."
Who do the preponderance of ideas for the songs come from?
Jake: "Mainly, Gordon and myself, but Henry is very much a separate identity in a songwriting sense. He still lives in Belfast, so he tends to write songs on his own so it s only when he s got a very fixed idea of what he wants to do that we get to see it. Now, Ali is the genius when it comes to arranging, he really can be very clever. Melodies tend to be my department. I m the tunes man, Henry writes the rackets, Ali puts them in order, and Jim fucks them up."
What about the actual content of the songs?
Jake: "Now, it s a lot more interesting, because we re not just writing about one set situation. We write about many things."
Gordon: "We write a lot of songs about people we meet, the kids who come backstage, and that feeds in. You could get cut off from real life and not just the strength of SLF, but the strength of most rock music has always been about real life, not fantasy stuff.
"Like, I love the sound of Spandau Ballet but God knows what they re singing about. What we re trying to do is to keep plugged in, to keep our feet on the ground. We don t write about another eight days on the road and here we are in yet another motel, cos that s all been done before and who the hell wants to know about that anyway it s boring. At the same time, you have to avoid, y know, getting hold of today s Daily Mirror and saying, Well, what issue shall we write about now , cos that way lies death. Tom Robinson knows about that, he just painted himself into a corner. He became the receptacle for every liberal conscience issue around, and people pulled him apart. People use you like that."
Jake" "I don't think people use us like that, because we re not as attractive a proposition as, say, Tom Robinson was. I think people are a bit wary of us, because we re not quite so friendly."
"I just want to keep it clear," Gordon adds, "that, more often than not, the ideas that I have are very likely to get chucked out, cos I have to accept the fact that I haven t got to go on stage to sing them. Sometimes I think I m over-paranoid about it. I ve said to Jake or Henry, Are you sure this is what you want the song to say , and we d go over it, cos otherwise it could be very dangerous."
Jake agrees: "Any ideas that he has had, that we haven t agreed with, we, like he said, just give them back to him. There is no way at all that I could I mean, it s not even a question of wanting to, or of him wanting me to. There s no way I could stand up on a stage and say or sing anything that I didn t really believe in. Like we said earlier, the best thing about the band is the fact that we sing about the things we believe in, and I think the minute you start changing that, you start to change the whole fibre of the band."
While Gordon goes to take a telephone call, Jake and I lift the conversation to a more elevated and elevating level. I ask how come he hasn t gone hoarse yet?
"I don t know," (laughs).
Do you ever get temperamental, y know, the typical rock star artistic licence thing?
"Fuck off, I m not talking to you anymore."
Do Stiff Little Fingers have a role in contemporary music?
"Our role is to upset as many people as possible."
I suggest to Jake that SLF don t upset as many people as they might like.
"Well, we re not trying to be obnoxious just for the sake of it. What we re trying to do is to upset people by pointing out hypocrisies within themselves."
Gordon has arrived back: "Challenge is probably a better word than upset."
Jake thinks differently: "No, I quite like the idea of upsetting people."
Gordon: I like challenging people. It s very difficult to say what SLF mean. I mean, we re small in comparison to, say, Adam and the Ants., but there again, we sell a damn sight more records than other bands. We do have to accept, though, that we haven t broken through into Radio One material."
The importance of this lack of commercial recognition not only passes me by, but also seems completely immaterial to how I feel about the band and their music. I don t care if Stiff Little Fingers don t chart with every vinyl release, couldn't give a fiddlers. I do care if Stiff Little Fingers feel that they have to chart, for whatever reason. To prove something? To whom?
Gordon, for the Nth time pulls on the reins. "It s important that people should know that Stiff Little Fingers are not going to go away. We have established ourselves, we re going to be around for a long time, and if that annoys people, well, sorry."
Jake is one of the most instantly likeable people I ve ever met. It sounds old hat to say that relative fame and fortune hasn t changed him, but I believe it s true. The only difference between talking to him now, is the change of surroundings. From the Gem to the Europa Hotel. It had to happen, we knew it would. Jake Burns is humorous, intelligent, and sincere, and although an undercurrent of naivety flows through, he has an awareness that goes beyond his 23 years. A curious but appropriate paradox.
That much said, I jut hope too idealistically for my own good, perhaps that Stiff Little Fingers will carry on piercing my head, in the same way that U2 pierce my heart. I will follow Stiff Little Fingers and no fashion or trend or false attitudes will prevent me from doing so.
Caught in a trap?
TC-L: "Do you ever get fed up playing Suspect Device ?"
Jake: "We don t play Suspect Device any more.
TC-L: "Jesus, why not?"
Jake: " Cos we re fuckin fed up with it, that's why."