I woke up early…the drinker’s hour…& I was in a chair. That dusty smell was me, I was wearing my work clothes from yesterday’s hard collar on the construction site, still had my boots on. Another Saturday morning another hangover, I had been here before & knew a couple of things. Going back to sleep was not an option & caffeine would be a good idea. I had crashed where I had dropped, a squat in the Borough, South London. I knew where the kitchen was so I went to search for a kettle. Job done, now what came next ? This was a guys’ flat, if I needed 2 day old pizza crusts or an assortment of mouldy stuff from the fridge then I was in luck. None of the cupboards proffered any promise of coffee, tea or milk. OK, I was not feeling my best but I was a man with a mission.
So, I was doing the Zombie Shuffle towards the nearest supplier of the necessary. London takes longer to wake up at the weekend, the roads were quiet, the pavements quieter. There was just one person walking towards me & as he came into focus I recognised him. It was all I could do to maintain some forward momentum & avoid stumbling into him. The possibility of speech, even the raising of one eyebrow in acknowledgement, was beyond me. Ach ! My excesses had prevented me from meeting the man responsible for this classic tune.
John O’Neill’s wonderful blast of adolescent angst “Teenage Kicks” is now forever linked with the late, great DJ John Peel who died in 2004 & had “teenage dreams are hard to beat” inscribed on his headstone. The Undertones were just a snow-flake in a blizzard of bands making noisy, energetic records.The support of a national radio show helped a great deal but Peel favoured a lot of music which got still little attention. This 5 piece from Derry had got it going on & “Kicks” grabbed you, a headlong, celebratory charge, absolutely nailing the youthful vehemence of punk. The song was demoed in March 1978, by October of the same year it was on the charts. It was only the start for the band.
The Undertones were just like you pictured them when you got to see them. No World’s End fashion parade here, young scruffs with the singer, Feargal Sharkey, wearing his parka onstage. They reminded me of some earlier upstarts from Northern Ireland, Them, who got the music right & had no truck with any follow fashion monkey business. You were rooting for the Undertones & the eponymous first LP did not disappoint. 14 tracks, half of them under 2 minutes, of joy & honesty. It is allmusic’s review that calls it “flawless” & the band “an Irish Kinks” (see what I did there, I have a new techno trick !)
I am spoiled for choice by the quality of the run of singles released by the band. “You Got My Number” is a personal preference but “My Perfect Cousin” still demands attention after 30 years of loving it. Written by Damien O’Neill & Michael Bradley this slice of family strife (everyone has a Kevin around) with its checks for University Challenge, Subbuteo & the Human League absolutely hits the spot & was the biggest of all their hits. The LPs were great too, packed with songs I can remember just by a glance at the track listings.
The boys were becoming men. They wanted to do a little more than sing about teenage kicks all through the night. In 1981 they performed “It’s Gonna Happen”, a song inspired by the hunger strikes in their home country, on Top of the Pops on the day one of the participants, Bobby Sands, died. John could still deliver those punchy punky romances but he needed to stretch himself. Whether they could take their audience along was not helped by friction within the band between Sharkey & the others. “The Sin Of Pride” was a 4th LP, released in 1983, 4 months later the band disbanded. This last single “Chain of Love” disappeared despite it’s attributes. the Undertones continue to tour today, without Feargal. I have friends who love the band but it is this young gang, the nasal Derry twang, the simple logic of the tunes & lyrics which make the band so recognisable & so enduring.
Well, that chair, from which I had interrupted my stuporous sleep, it was in the residence of Raymond Gorman, guitarist in That Petrol Emotion alongside the O’Neill brothers. He & other friends from Derry felt that John O’Neill & myself would enjoy each other’s company so a meet in a Brixton pub was arranged. Wow, I did get to hang with the writer of “Teenage Kicks” ! We got on like a whole street on fire though his stories about hanging out with R.E.M. topped mine about grafting on a building site.Over the next year we met frequently, it was always a delight to talk & more so to see the Petrols play some brilliant gigs. As we said goodbye in the car park that first night it crossed my mind that this may be the only time I would meet John. I blurted out that, in my opinion, he had written at least 6 of the finest songs I had ever heard. Mmm, how does a modest & talented man react to such effusion ? Oh screw it, I am a fanboy, through & through, I had the chance to tell him & took it. He should know this stuff. It was another Friday night & the beer was winning again !