Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Undertones, Derry's Finest.

Some of us can look back and take pride in a local band that did it, that put out a killer album or two, or dropped an unforgettable single. You used to see them live, you might have even seen them in the street or your mate was pals with their roadie’s cousin. You know the score. Whether you’re from Alberta, Albania, Albuquerque or Alameda I’m sure some of you loved a band that was the pride and joy all your buddies and you. For me that band was The Undertones, Derry’s finest, the band whose lyrics are inscribed on John Peel’s gravestone, an outfit that came out of working class defeat at the start of the Thatcher years but produced music that embodied the mythical endless summer.

The Undertones; Feargal Sharkey, Billy Doherty, Mickey Bradley and the O’Neill brothers, Sean and Damian were from Derry, Northern Ireland, a city about 15 miles from where I grew up in the north of Ireland (the Republic, or the Free State as the old timers used to call it), they made fast, happy melodic music that bordered on punk but had enough power pop in it to steer it away from the anger that was a pre-requisite of those late ‘70s times. My cousin Gerry lived in Derry and he introduced them to me. He had a fair stash of now rare stuff by them because his father’s cousin was married to a guy called Paddy Rice who ran a store on Derry’s Carlisle road called Quaver Records (one of the first record shops that would bug out in over the years).

Anyway, Feargal and the lads were broke but trying to get a band together, get shows and hopefully get a record out. Paddy helped by letting Feargal use the store as an office, to send faxes, make important calls etc. Gerry was always hanging around and when the ‘tones’ finally got a record deal and starting putting stuff out, he was there with an open hand. And into this open hand would go green vinyl versions of “Jimmy Jimmy,” the original Sire pressing of the first album with the black and white sleeve, 45s of “You Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It)” though I don’t believe he ever snagged a 45 of the famous “Teenage Kicks” EP on Terri Hooley’s legendary Belfast label, Good Vibrations. On a side note, when Nirvana played in Belfast, Kurt Cobain ended up in hospital and reportedly said that he didn’t mind dying in Belfast, the home of Good Vibrations records.

Anyways, back to Derry. I would spend a few weeks in the summer with my cousin, heading downtown, where there were British army check points, armored personnel carriers, troopers in camo and all those other signs that God had given this part of Ireland to the British elite — they didn’t have an invoice from God but they had the hardware. Being young you ignore that kind of stuff, even though a few years later Gerry’s mother — my aunt — and sister were pinned down on a cross walk while an IRA sniper and British soldiers exchanged fire. Heady times indeed, but the best of times in some ways, and the craic was 90. And despite all this violence and darkness The Undertones music refused to succumb to it, refused to be seen as part of the cliched and stereotypical view of Northern Ireland. They offered hope and a respite from it all, even while it was beamed into your living room morning, day and night.

Gerry played me all these great records, and at the time, the summer of 1980, the Undertones’ second album, Hypnotised, had just come out on Sire Records, the American label that was home to The Ramones (who were adored by all my buddies who liked rock) and Talking Heads, who were equally revered. Hypnotized was and is a great record, a classic moment in that shift from punk rock to new wave. That album still brings me back to that summer, it was a hot one if I remember correctly, and songs like “Tearproof,” with its killer bass intro, “More Songs About Chocolate And Girls” and “My Perfect Cousin” hinted at a bigger idea of eternal summer in the youthful mind, ever shimmering, just out of reach, more of a feeling than a thought but with sounds to harness its floating vision to the ground.

And a line from the lyrics from “Teenage Kicks” is carved on John Peel’s gravestone, an eternal message from the grave of the quintessential taste maker, who loved the song the first time he heard it, and played it twice on the same show, around the time that Terri Hooley was hawking it to cloth eared record execs in London, only to be told that it was awful. John Peel knew otherwise and so did me and Gerry.


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