Anyone even remotely interested in punk rock knows the story of its emergence in the mid- to late-1970s. The Ramones and the New York Dolls did it first, the Sex Pistols followed suit and the rest is history.
But for five pimply faced teenagers growing up in Derry, Ireland, who would later become the Undertones, the story behind their own beginnings in punk is hardly the stuff of legend. The Undertones came to be over a campfire and a pot of beans.
Bassist Mickey Bradley recently wrote a four-part series about the Undertones’ history for the BBC. In it, he discusses the band’s dubious beginnings:
“I was in the second week of a fortnight’s camping trip with my friends John O’Neill and Billy Doherty. It was August 1974 — I was nearly 15. I suppose it wasn’t much of an initiation into the world of rock ’n’ roll — it was more a case of, ‘Do you want to be in a group?’ ‘All right.’ ‘Do you want more beans?’”
After returning from the campout, the boys took out a small loan to buy themselves equipment. Shortly after, they also convinced a popular young man from school, Feargal Sharkey, to front the band.
“We were nearly like a real group,” Bradley writes. Still a year away from playing a paying gig, Bradley remembers that each of the band members, all just learning how to play their instruments, repaid 2 pounds a week on the loan. “So while we practiced, we paid.”
O’Neill, his younger brother Damian, Doherty, Bradley and Sharkey would use that year to develop a simple three-chord sound that fit in perfectly with the burgeoning punk sounds of the era. They wrote cheeky two-minute songs about masturbation and girls. The three-chord songs came together, largely due to the bratty vibrato of Sharkey, whose snarky mien catapulted them from party-band status to headliners at the infamous Casbah Pub in Derry. They quickly developed a local following and landed a record deal with Good Vibrations, a small label out of Belfast.
In 1978, the Undertones released their debut EP, Teenage Kicks. The record caught the ear of music guru and radio host John Peel, whose on-air recognition of the disc changed the band’s trajectory. Later, Peel called the album’s title track his favorite of all time.
Bradley remembers that after Peel’s on-air kudos, people started to take notice. “At this point we were only playing at the Casbah. And it was there that we were watched by a man from the Sire record company. Sire was American, and they were the Ramones’ record company, and we were flattered that they were even there.” This “man” who showed up to see the Undertones in the tiny Derry bar turned out to be none other than world-renowned record exec, Seymour Stein.
Within days of their initial meeting, the Undertones signed with Sire. The record deal launched a 1979 tour with the Clash, and the five-album contract produced some of the most memorable punk rock songs ever written: “Here Comes the Summer,” “Smarter Than You” and “Emergency Cases.” But the band’s esoteric appeal produced only ephemeral success, and by 1983, momentum was lost.
Citing a desire to work on a solo career, Sharkey left the Undertones in 1983. He enjoyed minor success as a solo artist and these days works for the British government as chairman of the Live Music Forum, a government task force formed to promote live music. It was also formed to monitor the introduction of the controversial new Licensing Act, which threatens to prevent small venues from putting on live music.
Unlike the reverence given the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the Undertones are in a lower echelon of punk bands like Gang of Four and the Ruts. So why are we writing about them now? Because they’re back — at least for one last run.
In 1999, the band reunited for a few one-off gigs, with Derry native Paul McLoone filling in on vocals. The reunion went so well that John O’Neill was inspired to start writing again. In 2003, they released Get What You Need, an album’s worth of new songs, and an impressive return to their signature style. Songs like “Thrill Me” are solid proof that the boys still have it.
But “having it” and being a band that’s worth seeing are two very different things. Because this is their first U.S. tour in 20 years, eyebrows are raised. Is this stint going to be another embarrassing punk rock nostalgic, gotta-make-a-house-payment tour? It’s a fair question, but the answer is “No.”
The Undertones are in high spirits, reviewers are mad for the live shows and venues are selling out like crazy for this good-old-fashioned punk rock from the cats who made it happen. It’s something worth catching — you can bet your beans on it.
Appearing Wednesday, April 27, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700). With Cobra Verde and DJs Young Soul Rebels. Eve Doster is the listings editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]