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On the 16th June 1978 on a wet miserable day in Belfast,  Damian O’ Neill - 17, Michael Bradley - 18, Feargal Sharkey - 19, John O’ Neill - 20, Billy Doherty - 19, The Undertones - Derry’s one and only punk band recorded the Teenage Kicks E.P. for Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label.  The group had been going since ‘75 and although having built up a small dedicated following through their legendary Casbah shows back home, they  were more or less ready to break up (something they excelled at for their entire lifespan) as they seemed to be getting nowhere.


Doing an E.P. was deemed to be better value for money and the group felt, if nothing else, that making a record would be a  final document of their own existence, something they could always cherish and be proud of and  maybe one day could even end up in a similar rarities compilation L.P. like Lenny Kaye’s ‘Nuggets’.


Incredibly of the 4 songs recorded that day the title song ‘Teenage Kicks’, written the previous summer by group leader and main songwriter John O’Neill, wasn’t originally going to be on the record.  Billy explains  - “None of the rest of the group wanted to record ‘Teenage Kicks’ - I had to persuade them to do it.  The reason they didn’t want to do it was because of the very reason we started the group - if anything reeked of commercialism or anything obvious, we’d do the reverse of that, even if we knew it might cut off our noses to spite our face.”


John  -  “It was called ‘Teenage Kicks’ E.P. not ‘cos we thought it was the best song but ‘cos it was to be our epitaph for all those years .... at least we were the first band in Derry to bring out a record of all our own songs and we were gonna leave it at that ...”


Far from being their epitaph ‘Teenage Kicks’ E.P. proved to be merely the beginnings of a career that produced 4 L.P.s and 13 singles.


Back in ‘78 none of this would’ve been possible if it hadn’t been for one man... that man was John Peel who first played ‘Teenage Kicks’ on 12th September 1978 and subsequently captured a nation’s heart... ‘Teenage Kicks’ is virtually synonymous with John Peel, the man is rumoured to have blubbered like a baby upon first hearing of the song and of course has publicly stated that it’s his all time favourite song.


Typically modest, John O’Neill tries to explain the appeal of the song  -  “I always think that even though I’m credited as the person who wrote ‘Teenage Kicks’ it’s the actual sound  of that record that makes it, the actual song’s not particularly great, it’s the actual sound that makes it brilliant.”


Thanks to John Peel’s championing of the record (he was known to have played the song twice in one show) and boosted by fellow Radio 1 D.J. Peter Powell making it single of the week, The Undertones soon became the prize interest  of numerous record labels and still managerless, the group opted to sign a worldwide deal with Sire Records (how they ‘negotiated’ with Sire supremo Seymour Stein is a story in itself ...)


Sire quickly repackaged and re-released the E.P. culminating in the group’s first Top of the Pops appearance.  “One week we were buying these people’s records, the next we were speaking to them!”


However their second single ‘Get Over You’ brought the group back down to earth  as it  failed to break the top 50.  A particular favourite live, this killer New York Dolls influenced song suffers due to Roger Bechirian’s smooth saccharine production debut.  The tune and Feargal’s vocal delivery are excellent but the rawness and energy that was captured in ‘Teenage Kicks’ is sadly buried in the mix.


No such problems though with their debut L.P. which was released in April ‘79  -  the original sleeve cover depicted a deliberately unflattering drab black & white shot of the group sitting on a wall which further emphasised their ‘ordinariness’.  It had a hand-made tackiness about it but yet was so perfect because it was the antithesis of the supposed ‘glamour’ of being in a pop band.


Inside was a truly wonderful, confident pop debut from a band who had meticulously crafted and sweated the songs from their Casbah days.  Thankfully Bechirian lets the band simply be themselves whilst adding some deft touches from the mixing board.  Almost every song deals with doubt, deceit, yearning and infatuation and is delivered at break-neck speed Ramones-style with an abundance of hypnotic hooks and Feargal’s floating vibrato.  “It was that pop thing, we originally had no intentions of making an L.P. we were just gonna bring out singles like T.Rex or Gary Glitter” explains John,  “I also remember the intention of the first L.P. was to try and  make it like MC5’s ‘Back In the USA’, that twin guitar thing”.


Family Entertainment  ‘So you think you’re so clever, never in doubt ...’  The perfect opener to ‘The Undertones’, this sordid tale of domestic woe skips along to an infectious hook that hammers you into submission.


The Girls Don’t Like It  Damian “We wanted a sort of Shangri-La’s opening to this song so Roger, who was working with Lene Lovich at the time, got her and an American friend to do the honours”


Male Model   Michael  -  “I’m proudest of the fact that it was the first song to mention “Freeman’s Catalogue”.  Since then of course there’s been “Freeman Nelson Mandela” and “I Want To Break Freeman”  -  but hey, we were the first.”


Jimmy Jimmy  The first single from the L.P.  This gave The Undertones their first top 20 hit.  Michael  -  “Possibly  the greatest photograph of all time to appear on a single sleeve.  It’s also the song title that’s always shouted  after the various members of the band who still walk the streets of Derry.  I still haven’t a clue what the story line is.”


Here Comes The Summer  This seasonal sizzler was released in July ‘79.  If you listen carefully you can hear Feargal singing ‘My record’s stuck’ at the fade out.  Michael  -  “I still convulse in anger as I remember the Great Hairy Cornflake himself, Dave Lee Travis, accusing us of plagiarism on Radio Fab’s ‘Roundtable’ in the summer of ‘79.  Jerry Keller’s “Here Comes Summer” is completely and utterly different.  His song doesn’t contain the subtext of oppressed youth attempting to live a normal life in the middle of an urban guerrilla war.  So there.  And he didn’t have a funny sleeve like we did.”


“You’ll never get pop at the Casbah Rock”.  ‘Casbah Rock’ is just a snippet of an early demo tape recorded in Mrs. Simms shed in Derry back in ‘77.  The song’s a rather scathing attack on the Casbah because of the horrible rock bands that used to play there.  But of course the Casbah was also more famous for giving The Undertones their first break .....  Whatever happened to gratitude?


Mars Bars  Originally the b-side of Jimmy Jimmy.  “There’s glucose for energy, caramel for strength,  the chocolate’s only there to give it the right length...”  Damian  -  “A confectionery classic.  Why didn’t Mars use this for their T.V. advertising campaign?”


Music press reaction to ‘The Undertones’ was nothing short of adulation and lauded the band with critical superlatives  -  ‘More perfect pop’  -  NME,  ‘Teenage Dreamland’ - Sounds,  ‘A competitor for Abba’s Greatest Hits’  -  Melody Maker.  Subsequently the L.P. entered the top 20. The original L.P. was  re-packaged to include the first 2 singles.


Asked why The Undertones never considered writing songs about N. Ireland in those early days John replies “ It’s funny but the political thing never even crossed our minds at the time.  Music was an escape.  I was definitely wrapped up in the whole rock ‘n’ roll thing ... to me Punk Rock was like the ‘50’s all over again, the thing was so attractive  that talking about what went on in the North seemed  ... for old people.”


On the 9th October the group released the wonderful “You Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It?). “Bow down to John O’Neill, King of the most infectious guitar hooks...” Based on the simplest of guitar riffs this little gem was complimented on the flip side by The Chocolate Watch Band’s psycho-punk classic ‘Let’s Talk About Girls’. Damian  - 


By the end of what had been quite a momentous year their new found success was proving to be a bit of a dilemma to the group  -  originally their adoption of the ‘anybody can do it’ punk ethos had served them well and enabled them to belittle their recent achievements down to good songs, good luck and timing, but if their first record was the embodiment of all that was refreshingly honest about them, was it still possible, one year later, that they could still retain their youthful ‘innocence’?


John explains “You see, up till then we had no concept of it being a career really, we didn’t have any long term aspirations of making a living out of being in the music business.” 


In an interview with Ireland’s Hot Press at the time, Feargal tries to put it all into perspective “We’ve learned quickly, we’ve had to learn quickly and if I’m honest a lot of the fun has gone out of it, the real fun we had when we first started, now you realise you’re in a different kind of job.”


Their second L.P. ‘Hypnotised’ was released on 21st April 1980.  Originally titled ‘15 Rockin’ Humdingers’, it was recorded in Holland again with Roger Bechirian.  “Hypnotised” proved to be a mixed bag of tricks  -  although not as immediate as it’s predecessor, it was nevertheless a lot more imaginative and  retained all the melodic inventiveness and infectious hooks but you can tell with some songs that the formula was beginning to wear thin. It’s easily discernible that the group’s playing and Feargal’s singing abilities had improved and more importantly there was an obvious maturity and sensitivity on songs like ‘Wednesday Week’, ‘Tearproof’ and ‘The Way Girls Talk’ (in total contrast to the more puerile adolescence of ‘My Perfect Cousin’ or ‘There Goes Norman’) which hinted of a direction change and better things to come.


The L.P.s opener, Damian’s ironically tongue in cheek “More Songs About Chocolate and Girls’ suggests a group on the defensive - “Sit down, relax and cancel all other engagements, it’s never too late to enjoy dumb entertainment”  Damian -  “I guess this was my paranoid way of trying to defend what we were doing, especially with all the inflated waffle and shite that had been written about us in the past year ...You see I think we were all expecting some sort of backlash which surprisingly didn’t happen”


Wednesday Week  The second single from ‘Hypnotised’ and arguably the finest track, shows a gentler, more subtle side to the band that most people unfortunately forget about.  John’s gorgeous song is reminiscent of mid-60’s Kinks or Beatles and is the perfect vehicle for Feargal’s tremulous tonsils.


The Way Girls Talk  “I never kissed a girl before, too shy to go outside the door”  Another heart-wrenching weepie penned by the soulful John and complimented nicely by the sparse arrangement plus some neat Epiphone guitar work from Damian. In an interview with Sounds at the time, John explains “Northern Ireland has a very macho thing  -  boys have to be boys, and girls have to be girls  -  that’s a rotten attitude, I’d like to try and change that.  None of our songs make girls inferior.” 


Hypnotised  The title song which has overtones of Gary Glitter, an influence throughout the L.P. , especially evident in Billy’s drumming.   Michael   “A torturous process writing this one.  In the middle of recording our second L.P. in Holland we suddenly discovered that we only had 8 songs.  (How you ‘suddenly discover’ this lack of material is beyond me) After the producer threatened to get a former pub rocker to write us some songs, we scarpered back to Derry and came up with this and six other classics.”


Tearproof  Michael - “Apparently I co-wrote this.  If that means adding a bass bit in the middle then let those royalties roll.  Originally called ‘Parking Meter’ - a rocking good title, eh?  One of the many classics written in the ‘pit’ - Damian and Vinny’s sumptuous bedroom.  Since re-named the Brill Bedroom.”


My Perfect Cousin  -  “He thinks that  I’m a cabbage, cos I hate University Challenge”   Michael  - “He still doesn’t talk to me after 13 years.  I personally blame Sharkey for revealing the identity to a Daily Mirror journalist. Not a bad song  -  a bit awkward in construction and chords but good words.  The song that broke the Human League - if only they had the decency to admit it.”


The expected backlash of ‘Hypnotised’ never materialised, quite the contrary in fact  -  it was as critically acclaimed as the first L.P. and with the benefit of a top 10 hit,  ‘My Perfect Cousin’, regular appearances on T.V. and their excellent live reputation, the group’s  profile increased  and resulted in ‘Hypnotised’  resting in the top 10 album charts for a month. 


It seemed the band could do no wrong.  The music press loved The Undertones because what they got was the genuine thing compared to punk’s other ‘hangover’ bands ( such as Sham 69 or Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers) where insipid cliches and posturing was all that was on offer.  It was their self-effacing unpretentiousness, their refusal to dress up (half mast trousers, Doc Martens and Feargal’s now legendary parka jacket - all normal Derry street attire at the time), and most importantly their unquestionable reputation as a great singles band (recalling perhaps a more innocent era of the sixties) which seemed to win over even the hardest of cynics.  ‘Hypnotised’ whilst not faultless was a great pop record. Infinitely wiser to the more cynical aspects of the business they were in, the question remained whether the band were now  prepared to escape from their ‘Teenage Kicks’ image and more importantly, would they be allowed to .....?


In December 1980 the group made a shock announcement that they were leaving Sire due to ‘irreconcilable differences’. The band weren’t happy with Sire’s  lack of promotion, especially in America and miraculously managed to get out of their deal  through some skillful negotiating tactics by their manager, Andy Ferguson.


It wasn’t until April 81 that the group announced that they were setting up their own label, Ardeck, and had signed a worldwide licensing deal with EMI.  One month later, on the 5th May the band’s 3rd L.P. ‘Positive Touch’ was released.


‘Positive Touch’ showed a group attempting to shed it’s adolescent past. It was a brave and ambitious piece of work which doesn’t always succeed and must surely have confused those fans expecting the urgency of the first two L.P.s. Nevertheless it was still very much a pop L.P. with John contributing what was arguably his finest set of songs as well as Damian and Michael’s wonderful “It’s Going to Happen!”  John explains in an interview at the time “The new L.P. is definitely a lot more personal.  There’s a lot more thought in the songs.”  Also notable was that the songs revealed a new complexity and a wide breadth of musical versatility. 


It’s Going To Happen!   This buoyant  top 20 pop single got the group off to a good start with  rave reviews.  Damian  -  “the original lyrics to this were about The Hunger Strike, a hugely emotive subject at the time which will always be embedded in peoples memories.  Ireland has a sad and bitter history of hunger strikes so the “ It’s Going To Happen” chorus  came from that but the verses were shockingly cornball so  Michael wrote new lyrics.  Still, I’m quite proud of this song, it’s my favourite D.O’Neill / M. Bradley tune, the brass middle bit was my nod to Dexy’s Midnight Runners.”   Michael  -  “ I still get asked ‘what was supposed to Happen?’  Don’t ask me, Damian wrote the chorus.  I wrote the verses during my ‘mysterious stream of consciousness phase’ i.e. don’t worry about it not making sense as long as it rhymes.  Some peoples favourite single, according to rumour.”


The Positive Touch  John  -  “I just got the whole idea of the song from a  film about someone who was a hypochondriac .... it’s just about someone who can’t handle life.”  Michael  -  “A great title, strange song.  In the hands of a better bunch of musicians who knows what could have been made of it.  Alright then, a better bass player...”


You’re Welcome  John  -  “I had a friend who just came out of prison and his girlfriend had been waiting for him all the time.  I just thought of the idea of a girl waiting for someone .........”


When Saturday Comes  Undoubtedly one of the highlights from ‘Positive Touch’.  Pop psychedelia at it’s best.  Also provided the name for Britains best football fanzine.  John  -  “I just put all these lines together that I thought sounded good but at the same time I wanted to give the idea of paranoia, plus it was always a big thing about the weekend being so good and I just wanted to have a song where the weekend wasn’t so good.  The song sounds a bit like ‘Paint It Black’ so I tried to get away from that with an Animals kind of sound on the organ.”


Forever Paradise  “Seventh heaven with a different face, another time in a difficult place ...forever paradise” This haunting tune was the last song on ‘Positive Touch’   emphasising how far the group had gone from the days of ‘Jimmy Jimmy’. Beatles influenced,  the strange end section was done spontaneously with everyone sitting around at the controls pushing the faders up and down at random.  Damian  “I’ll put that weird bit down to the influence of too much tea.”


Despite hugely favourable reviews and a top 20 hit with ‘It’s Going To Happen!”, ‘Positive Touch’ peaked at number 17 in the album chart before slowly disappearing out of the top 50.  Disappointed the group undertook their biggest U.K. and European tour ever and  released the sublime ‘Julie Ocean’ in the summer.


Julie Ocean  Not entirely happy with the L.P. version, the group decided to re-record the song with new producers Hugh Jones and Dave Balfe.  John  added a new tremolo guitar part which extended the original one and a half minute stark version to 3 minutes of shimmering delicate pop. It’s his favourite Undertones single and he wrote it with Postcard band Orange Juice in mind.  Despite a Top Of the Pops appearance (it proved to be their last) ‘Julie Ocean’ only reached number 41.  The public’s rejection of ‘Positive Touch’ was a severe blow to the group and it certainly wasn’t  the auspicious start that EMI were hoping for. The Undertones had a loyal hardcore following but in a pop world then dominated by more visual bands like Spandau Ballet and Adam and the Ants the group seemed drab in comparison.  Writing great songs simply wasn’t good  enough any more.  John  “ We suffered from our lack of an image, we’d always tried to behave and dress like most people yet it seems that the bigger the image the more people go for it.  Music fans seem to want heroes.”


From here on in things only got worse for the band.  They spent the rest of ‘81 and ’82 trying to write songs, building their own 8-track demo studio (an unmitigated disaster) and  failing to find a sympathetic producer for the next record.  Damian  “ We definitely lost a bit of the spark ...I don’t know but I tend to think some of us simply got too complacent sitting at home in Derry, priorities had changed and we didn’t tour for nearly two years which was a huge mistake.  Relations between John and Feargal were deteriorating.”


The Love Parade    In October 82 the group released this sixties inspired song.  Michael  -  “We were in a restaurant in Manchester when we saw the sheet music for an obscure 1920s song called ‘The Love Parade’ (hey, it’s all part of the creative process).  We wrote this above Chambers Refrigeration Services in Abercorn Road, Derry in January 1982.  It was supposed to be written in the style of ‘Nuggets’.  I remember a lot of effort went into the recording sessions.  It was only after we released it that I discovered the 1920s ‘Love Parade’ wasn’t that obscure at all.  Certainly not as obscure as ours.”  Damian  “I have horrible memories of Feargal taking two days in a Camden studio trying to sing this. The rest of us nipped down to the pub where  we met Madness.  I was sorely tempted to ask Suggs to come and sing the damn thing.”


‘The Love Parade’ wasn’t the comeback hit the group badly needed.  It wasn’t until March 1983 that the group’s fourth and final L.P. ‘The Sin Of Pride’ was released.  If ‘Positive Touch’ hinted at sixties psychedelic influences then the bulk of the songs on the ‘Sin Of Pride’ had a sixties soul / Tamla Motown feeling. This change of emphasis had delayed the recording sessions resulting in some lack of spontaneity and enthusiasm. Of the 20 songs recorded  some of them sound laboured not helped by Mike Hedges / Undertones ‘kitchen sink’ production (girl backing vocals, strings, brass and endless keyboards)  which resulted in a slick but often cluttered production. This was worsened by the evident friction between Feargal and the rest of the band and EMI’s insistence on the inclusion of weak songs originally destined to be B sides.  However the L.P. does have it’s wonderful moments.  ‘Love Before Romance’  (not included here due to lack of space) and the wonderfully ethereal ‘Soul Seven’ being two exceptional tracks.


Soul Seven  ‘A tide of emotion that’s supposed to show’. An apt title, this song flows beautifully due to a sparse arrangement and a fine vocal performance by Feargal.  John’s backward guitar in the last verse adds a subtle edge to this song.  It’s rumoured that there are two neglected John O’Neill ballads, even better than this one, in the Undertones vaults. 


In keeping with tradition the ‘Sin Of Pride’  received excellent reviews and the group’s reputation as the ‘best live band in the country’ never faltered, but unfortunately great reviews never sold  records. The end came rather suddenly in Sweden just two months later when Feargal told the band he had had enough and wanted to quit, much to the relief of some of the others who also felt the same.  The group played their last tearful headlining show at London’s Lyceum and issued a hilariously ironic press statement citing that the reason for their demise was due to the group being on the verge of international superstardom and that it wasn’t an attractive proposition.  Sadly, in reality the group were broke and ended up trying to auction off their equipment to clear their debts.  An ungracious end to the greatest pop band Ireland’s ever produced.  Michael  “It was great being in The Undertones.  It was about the best thing that could happen to us at that age.  Mind you, it would have been better being in The Beatles”.


Extracts from:

“Teenage Kicks” The Undertones Story © 1993 Leslie Wesley

 


Extracts from” Teenage Kicks”

The Undertones Story

©1993 Lesley Wesley