Music lover and DJ extraordinaire John Peel, who died last year, had one pop song that he regarded above all others. At his personal request it was played at his funeral, and its opening line (‘Teenage dreams, so hard to beat’) is inscribed on his gravestone. The song is ‘Teenage Kicks’, the first single released by the Undertones.
Formed in Derry in Northern Ireland in 1975, when most of the group were still in their teens, the Undertones were part of the explosion of guitar-based bands that became known as punk. Although not as widely known today as some of punk’s household names, over the course of four LPs and 13 singles they managed to notch up a number of top 20 hits before going their separate ways in 1983.
So far so commonplace, but what made John Peel – and thousands of others – think they were so special? Much of the answer can be seen in a film, recently released on DVD, called Teenage Kicks – the Story of The Undertones. The film is a documentary, presented by Peel, that tells how the band came together in a most unpromising time and place for pop music – Derry at the height of ‘the Troubles’. Combining in-depth interviews with live footage and videos, it goes on to show how the circumstances from which they emerged shaped the group and their music, and eventually contributed to their split.
Derry was a city where Catholics were systematically discriminated against despite forming a majority of the population. Living conditions in the Catholic Bogside district, where most of the band were from, were poor and cramped. Unemployment was a fact of life. In fact, the singer, Feargal Sharkey, was the only member of the group who had a job (delivering TVs for Radio Rentals).
By the mid-1970s Derry was a centre of the IRA’s military campaign against the Northern Ireland state. Anyone would think that music made in this atmosphere would be raw and angry, bristling with political rage. But the Undertones were nothing like this. Their sound was ‘very sweet and beautiful’, according to Eamonn McCann, the Derry-based socialist journalist who championed them in the Irish music magazine Hot Press and who appears in the documentary.
In fact, no one would ever believe that a band from Derry could sound like they did. Influenced by the New York Dolls, the Ramones (especially), 1960s girl groups like the Shangri-Las and psychedelic outfits like the Chocolate Watch Band, they were powered by the two guitars and songwriting acumen of the O’Neill brothers. And they had something special in frontman Feargal Sharkey, who sang every note in his singular Derry accent. The twin guitar-attack, Sharkey’s voice, and the snappy lyrics of John O’Neill set them well apart from most of their peers.
On one level, the Undertones seemed to be about anything but ‘the Troubles’ – ‘Teenage Kicks’, a heartfelt celebration of young lust, was followed by ‘Here Comes the Summer’, whose title says most of what you need to know about where the group were at during that period. They were a wonderful paradox: a brilliant and apparently apolitical band from one of the most politically conscious places in these islands. But their stance wasn’t universally popular, least of all in certain parts of Derry. When one of their friends painted the band’s name on a Bogside wall, someone else added the word ‘Hang’ in front of their title. It’s still there today, proof that Derry could be ‘both oppressed and oppressive’, as Eamonn McCann puts it.
However, as the Undertones grew in popularity they began to believe they had a responsibility to at least try and comment on the political situation. Gradually their songs began to reflect what was going on around them, albeit in an oblique way. John O’Neill, the band’s main songwriter, explains how this process occurred. At the time, he was listening to a lot of soul, and in particular to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. He says, ‘We thought we really should try and write something about what’s going on.’
This culminated in ‘It’s Going to Happen’ (1981) which is many people’s favourite Undertones song. Though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from a first glance at the lyrics, the song’s subject is the hunger strikes of that year, when IRA prisoners refused food in an attempt to win treatment as political prisoners. It reached the top 20 and the Undertones appeared on Top of the Pops the same night that hunger strikers’ leader Bobby Sands died, with guitarist Damien O’Neill wearing a black armband. He says in the film that afterwards he worried that he might have alienated some of the group’s fans, particularly Protestants. This was a particular problem for the group since, despite being Catholics, they appealed to both sides of the community in Northern Ireland.
The film brilliantly captures the spark and energy of the Undertones’ live shows, especially their early gigs at Derry’s Casbah Club. But as their fame grew, touring and playing live brought pressures of their own. In particular, while some of the band were delighted with the chance to leave Derry, others were unhappy at being separated from their loved ones. These personal difficulties were exacerbated by the increasing artistic and musical differences between the O’Neill brothers on the one hand, and singer Feargal Sharkey on the other. Eventually, in 1983, the Undertones split, ostensibly torn apart by the pressures of touring. But there’s more than a hint in the film that the tensions involved in producing meaningful songs, while at the same time trying to maintain a pop sensibility, became too much in the end.
Feargal Sharkey went on to score considerable chart success as a solo pop artist, with hits like ‘A Good Heart’ and ‘Listen to your Father’. Sadly for socialist Undertones fans, he now heads New Labour’s Live Music Forum. Meanwhile the O’Neill brothers formed That Petrol Emotion, a much more openly political band, though with an indie/dance edge. Also fantastic live, they were student favourites through the late 1980s and into the early 1990s.
The Story of the Undertones is a great film about one of the best bands to come out of Ireland. If you’re a music fan, get it and see how, in spite of the most unfavourable circumstances, five kids from Derry could get together and make unforgettable pop music.
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