Back in the year 1978, five fresh faced young lads from Derry, Ireland, delivered one of the finest slices of melodic punk perfection ever committed to the annals of recorded music. The name of the band was The Undertones, and their incendiary track Teenage Kicks was a song so beloved by legendary musical taste-shaper John Peel that he requested it be played at his funeral. Sadly this came to pass much too soon..
While being an integral part of the ‘first wave’ of English punk rock, the band’s subject matter was less concerned with kicking against the pricks as it was about fizzy good times. More Songs About Chocolate and Girls, the first track off their second record Hypnotised, probably sums it up best.
In terms of vicarious thrills, Teenage Kicks is hard to beat (musical trainspotters will see what I just did then.) Yet scarily The Undertones also delivered plenty more belters of a similar exquisite calibre – True Confessions, Top 20, Here Comes The Summer, Male Model, these barely scratch the surface when it comes to the band’s vigorously joyful racket across their initial eight year existence. Most bands would kill for just one song as good as any of these to hang their hat on.
In 1999 the band reformed without original vocalist Feargal Sharkey, and on the eve of their very first ever Australian tour I had an enlightening chat with charmingly affable Undertones guitarist Damian O’Neill, who was just as excited to finally be heading our way after 40 years. And a man clearly in thrall of one of Brisbane’s finest ever bands. “We’re all massive fans of The Saints! We used to play (I’m) Stranded back in 1977. We’re hoping to play either that one, or This Perfect Day as part of our upcoming Brisbane show. Although maybe we should have kept it a surprise haha! I would love it if (original Saints guitarist and Brisbane resident) Ed Keupper shows up, it would be great to meet him.”
Damian himself seems rather incredulous of the fact that this will be the first time the band have made it to Australia. “Can you believe it!? I think maybe back when we first started, certain members of the band didn’t want to travel that far or be away from home for too long. We weren’t very rock and roll. We had to compromise between ourselves all the time as to which countries we’d tour.”
Talk turns to their track Get Over You, which originally came out in 1979 and was re-recorded by My Bloody Valentine creative maestro Kevin Shields in 2016.
“Kevin is a massive Undertones fan. I’m a good friend of his and highly respect the man. See we never liked the original finished version of Get Over You. We always thought it was too poppy, trying too hard to sound like a hit. We think Kevin captured the essence of what we were originally trying to achieve with that song. We intended it to sound more like The New York Dolls! He didn’t want to put his own stamp on it..he respected it basically. So he brought the guitars up, made the drums sound a bit more crisper, took the reverb off Feargal’s vocals and got rid of the backing vocals. It was a match made in heaven for all of us. He wouldn’t take any money, so I gave him one of my last three original, pristine copies of the Teenage Kicks single. He didn’t want to take it, but I forced him to haha! I think it made his day.”
Back in the early days of the band, Derry was no place to put your head above the pack. The band copped a lot of hostility and disdain from local riff-raff before they even had a record deal. I asked Damian if this was hard to deal with, or if it galvanized the band to break through and raise their middle against such small town mentality. “More the latter, it definitely motivated us. And you’ve got to remember that there was nothing else to do in Derry, so there were no distractions. We were a self contained unit. We gathered in our parents living room virtually every night. We were like a little gang, playing records and talking about music incessantly, then practising upstairs. I think our parents were a big part of the story. They really encouraged us. I think they liked the fact that we were at home making a racket, rather than being outside where something horrible might happen. We also didn’t suffer fools gladly either, with people talking about other music. We really bought into the punk rock ethos, anybody can do it and all that. Nearly everybody else our age in Derry were still into their heavy metal music, so we felt we were rubbing against the grain, that we were different to them, that we were special.”
In 1999, after a break of over 15 years, the current line up of The Undertones, with original vocalist Feargal Sharkey no longer onboard, came into being. I asked Damian how the remaining four original members managed to hook up with current vocalist, Paul McLoone.
“Basically he ticked all the right boxes. He was from Derry and sang with a Derry accent, which was crucial. He was a great performer, a very funny guy..and younger and better looking than all the rest of us haha! And it turned out to be much better than we ever thought, with him stepping into the shoes of Feargal, who’s such a great singer. But Paul did it brilliantly, and things kind of spiralled. And here we are 18 years later. I tell you what’s great these days. Because we don’t do it fulltime anymore it makes it fresh when we do get together. We’re not precious about it anymore.”
Undertones fans down under, it’s gonna happen!! The band will finally be hitting our shores in early July for their first ever Aussie tour, kicking off at The Triffid in Brisbane on Friday 7 July. As Damian alluded the band are lean, hungry and in fine fettle, so don’t miss this opportunity to catch them, as there may not be another.