The Undertones: ‘At that time we were so sick of the Troubles we didn’t want to sing about it’

The Undertones
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Four decades since their first album, The Undertones are still touring. Duncan Seaman reports as they head to Leeds.

Punk rock had been and gone by the time The Undertones stepped into a recording studio in west London to make their first album in 1979, but the flame it had ignited in five young musicians from Northern Ireland burnt brightly in the adolescent excitement of songs such as Teenage Kicks, Jimmy Jimmy and Here Comes The Summer.

Forty years on, as the band prepare to revisit their debut record live to mark its 40th anniversary, lead guitarist Damian O’Neill says he has “nothing but lovely memories” of those sessions at Eden Studios in Acton.

“We had been playing live in a little club called The Casbah in Derry, so we had all those songs written and performed and, you know, punk rock, after all, is three chords mostly, so when we went into Eden Studios we knocked them off pretty quickly,” the 58-year-old wryly reflects.

“It was great. I think it took about a month altogether – a couple of weeks recording and then mixing. The drums and bass are mostly live, I would say, then we probably would have redone the guitars. If anything was good then we left it. We didn’t have to rearrange anything.”

O’Neill credits producer Roger Bechirian for adding the “pop touches”.

Awful things happened and it became normalised. Getting searched going into town, road blocks and bombs going off and hearing shooting. Our escape from that was forming a band and singing about unrequited love.

Damian O’Neill

“I think he came up with the intro to Jimmy Jimmy, which was a feedback thing and a lovely little touch. But the structure of the songs were as they were when we played them in The Casbah. I don’t remember having to change much. The only one that sticks out a bit, which I kind of regret we did now, is that awful version of True Confessions, it’s kind of disco-fied. What were we thinking? It’s a shame because it lets the album down a bit. We should have re-recorded the original version that’s on the Teenage Kicks EP, that would have worked.”

For the guitarist the album, however, “definitely” captures a certain moment in his young life. “The exuberance, the excitement, we were all still teenagers, more or less – I’d just turned 18 in January ’79. There’s a youthfulness for that album alone. I think by the next album, Hypnotised, we’d kind of grown up a little bit more. It’s probably my favourite record still, the first album, because it’s got that freshness, which is wonderful.”

The Undertones were formed in 1974 by Damian’s brothers John and Vince with friends Feargal Sharkey, Michael Bradley and Billy Doherty. Damian joined two years later, replacing Vince. Damian remembers Derry at the height of the Troubles being “very bleak”.

“The older you get the more you realise we were all very affected by it without realising [at the time], perhaps scarred in a way,” he says. “Awful things happened. Nobody in our respective families got killed or anything, nobody got put in jail, but you lived it day to day, and it became normalised. Getting searched going into town, road blocks and bombs going off and hearing shooting.

“But we didn’t want to dwell on that. Our escape from that was forming a band and singing about unrequited love. At that time we were so sick of the Troubles we didn’t want to talk about it or sing about it.”

It wasn’t until their third album, Positive Touch, that they “felt confident enough” to address the situation in songs such as Crisis of Mine and It’s Going To Happen. “We wanted to be more subtle,” says O’Neill. “We didn’t want to be polemic about it. Stiff Little Fingers were doing their bit, which was fine, but wanted to be more subtle.”

Before punk crossed over to Northern Ireland in 1977, The Undertones’ main influences were largely bands from the 1950s and 60s, “American especially”, and “British glam – T.Rex, The Sweet, Slade”.

“We loved 50s rock ’n’ roll and doo wop and 60s girl groups – The Shangri-Las, The Chiffons – and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Then we graduated to New York Dolls, MC5, Iggy and The Stooges, East Coast America.

“So there’s a big pop element to us, from the 50s and 60s,” O’Neill says. “Especially from John, my brother, who was the main songwriter and leader of the band, really. Teenage Kicks sounds like it could have come from 1959/1960 with different production. Collectively we loved all those girl groups and early rock ’n’ roll stuff.”

The Undertones’ self-titled first album came out in May 1979, reaching number 13 in the UK charts. In the same year they released four singles and toured the US with The Clash. “They offered us the full six weeks but we only did two weeks because The Undertones being The Undertones, there were arguments about us being away for long, very un-rock ’n’ roll,” O’Neill says. “To this day I really wished we did the whole tour with them.”

By the time the five-piece arrived in the Netherlands at the end of the year, O’Neill admits they had run out of material. “We suddenly realised whoops, if we’re going to make a career out of this we had to quickly come up with things as well as tour, so that caused a bit of a panic. Luckily we had a bit of a writing spurt. What helped John was me and Mickey coming up with songs as well or co-writing with John and then Billy would contribute as well, so he wasn’t totally on his own, even though he as under a lot of pressure.”

Between 1980 and 1983 the band released three more albums before splitting when The Sin of Pride failed to break the top 40. “It’s the weakest album by far,” O’Neill says. “We took a year off, more or less, in ’82 and that was our big downfall because we didn’t play live and so we forgot how to be a band, that was what killed us, really. By the time we were recording the fourth album we weren’t communicating very well, especially between Feargal and John, they kind of fell out.”

Sharkey went on to forge a briefly successful solo career while the O’Neill brothers formed That Petrol Emotion, who came close to having a hit several times over the course of the next 10 years.

The Undertones reformed in 1999 with a new vocalist, Paul McLoone. Over the last 20 years they’ve released two albums and toured the world. “Paul was in a band with our drummer Billy, so we knew he could sing,” says O’Neill. “It was only supposed to be two shows but because that went so well we thought ‘Well, we’ll do a few more’ and here we are 20 years later still playing.”

On their latest UK tour the band will be accompanied by Neville Staple, formerly of The Specials. “We’ve done a couple of shows with Neville over the last few years, playing with him at festivals,” O’Neill says. “He’s a super nice guy. We were thinking for this tour we should get somebody really good to support and our manager suggested it and we were blessed that he said yes. We weren’t sure because it was shortly after his grandson [Fidel Glasgow] was tragically killed, we thought maybe he’d say no, but I think maybe he likes to be on the road to take his mind off it.

“I’m looking forward to it, it’s going to be great.”

The Undertones and Neville Staple play at O2 Academy Leeds on May 10. theundertones.com