Inevitably, the comparisons occurred. Who the fuck are these guys? They’re just Paddy versions of the Ramones, that’s who. Huh? Joey, Johnny, Marky, Dee-Dee and Paddy?
First listen says, yeah, that’s a good call: Three-chord manic melody. Million mile singalongs. Subject matter about such no-brainers as chocolate and girls. No- brainers, that is, unless you are teenagers who think about such things. Unless that’s what matters to you. And it did to teenagers everywhere. No-brainers unless you wanna escape for awhile, not from a New York Bowery, but from a violence-ridden Northern Ireland. And Irish teens did. And this band rose above it all and did what they did best – wrote great songs. Fuck the comparisons.
And that, folks, is the humble beginning of one of Ireland’s finest punk bands, nay, BANDS ever. Derry’s favorite sons – I give you the Undertones.
Formed in 1975 in Derry, Feargal Sharkey, John O’Neill, Damian O’Neill, Michael Bradley and Billy Doherty’s average age was all of 15 years old. By the time this bumped up to 18, in 1978, they would have their first hit.
Legend goes that the UK’s influential punk DJ, John Peel, was so taken aback with the title cut to the Derry teens “Teenage Kicks” EP that he not only played the title track twice on the same show, but to this day, he lists that cut as his all-time favorite. One can see why. From the moment the tune starts, you know it’s gonna be a corker, and then Feargal adds his never-duplicated vibrato talents and off it roars.
Peel championed the song and the EP, which led to Radio One calling it “Single of the Week” which then led to the “Top of the Pops” appearance. It all happened so quickly that John O’Neill who wrote the tune said “One week we were buying these people’s records, and the next we were speaking to them.” It was this wide-eyed youthful surprise, and the bands everyman attitudes that was so appealing. These were regular teenage kids playing fast teenage music – and everybody loved it.
By the time the boys released their first album in 1979, they had the perfect punk-power-pop formula down, went Top Ten. They were writing anthem after anthem: “Jimmy, Jimmy” “Family Entertainment” and a perennial favorite of mine – “Here Comes the Summer.” These tunes were so effortlessly, youthfully perfect – singing about the summertime never sounded so genuine, never sounded so much like the summer since the Beach Boys.
Indeed talking about wanting to be a male model or how much you loved Mars Bars seemed right for the Undertones, and seemed a polar opposite to Ireland’s other much-beloved and equally as legendary punk outfit Stiff Little Fingers. John O’Neill explained it like this: “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 (the Troubles) seemed…..for old people.”
And so the Undertones blazed on. They released their second LP in 1980, “Hypnotized.” It was also a Top Ten hit and critical darling. This release still contained the trademark chocolate-pop. Indeed the first cut was the self-parodying “More Songs About Chocolate and Girls.” The song called the listener to: “Sit down, relax, cancel all other engagements. It’s never too late to enjoy dumb entertainment …” but the joke was on the critics – this release also signaled the beginning of the maturation process for the kids from Derry. More serious efforts like “Tearproof” appeared alongside tunes about hating your cousin on the Top Ten single “My Perfect Cousin.” Nevertheless, change was in the air.
In 1981, with the band’s third LP, “Positive Touch” it was evident that the band weren’t content to simply write fast three-chord songs. But the perfect pop continued. Songs like “It’s Going To Happen” with it’s trademark horns a nod to another Irish favorite, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “The Postive Touch” and the highly experimental (for the band) “Julie Ocean” were still great tunes. Sometimes, I listen to these tunes only. Great stuff – but different than what had come before, that’s for certain.
The Undertones issued their fourth and final album “The Sin of Pride” in 1983. It was even more experimental than the last, and failed to sell, despite critical acclaim. The Undertones were still considered the best band in the country, and their live energy was still second to none, however Feargal announced he was leaving and the group disbanded soon after.
The Undertones career was one of unmatched influence (bands as diverse as U2, Shane and the Pogues, Geldof and the Rats and certainly newer punk outfits like Ash have admitted to worshipping at the Derry altar) and energy, the epitome of teenage punks showing the world they would make it on their terms, that they could grow and still be successful, laughing at everyone who didn’t like it along the way.
These days, I think the Undertones are doing reunion shows without Feargal, which seems absurd because his unique voice was one of their trademark qualities. Fittingly, though, since I suppose the Undertones have never listened to detractors. They’ve always played by their rules.
True to form, Michael Bradley once said: “It was great being in the Undertones. It was the best thing that could happen to us at that age, Mind you, it would’ve been better being in the Beatles……” Cheeky fuckers until the end. Irish Ramones? Nah. Just the Undertones, man. The Undertones.
Sean Holland (?)