How the Undertones planned to burn out before they got their kicks
- Credit: Archant
When the Sex Pistols broke up, it was seen by many as the definitive punk statement. Much like the genre’s trademark three-minute songs, they shone brightly and burnt quickly. For Irish rockers The Undertones, it was a route they had initially intended to follow themselves.
“We just wanted to make a record to show there had once been a punk band in Derry,” says John O’Neill, the band’s rhythm guitarist and primary songwriter.
“None of us thought we were that good, playing to a small audience around town, so we’d decided to record Teenage Kicks and break up afterwards.”
Fast-forward to today and, one reformation, later, they are still going, celebrating the 35th anniversary of what has become one of pop’s firmest staples. As O’Neill notes, Teenage Kicks has grown so iconic it now has a life outside The Undertones. Recently, this life has grown to include one particularly divisive cover.
“I’d never heard of them to be honest,” O’Neill says of One Direction, who recorded a medley of Teenage Kicks and One Way Or Another for Comic Relief earlier this year.
“They asked us if it was OK to do it and said it was a charity record, so it was hard to say no. I don’t particularly like it to be fair, it’s hardly what you’d call punk, but it’s for a good cause and you know, it got me an income I wouldn’t be able to get otherwise.”
Back touring with the Undertones, now fronted by Paul McLoone rather than Feargal Sharkey, O’Neill insists the band has never cared about the relatively little money they receive. What keeps them going strong though is the continued stream of fresh faces they see in the audience.
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“Since reforming, we’ve been expecting to play to the same generation – surprisingly they keep getting younger. Most of our sets comprise of the first two LPs but the songs still sound fresh and we don’t get tired of playing them. We’re lucky in that we still have 17- and 18-year-olds shouting for True Confessions or Get Over You.”
Despite fashions and generations coming and going, the music of the Undertones captures a youthful, universal nostalgia that is at the same time alive, current and electric. Growing up in Ireland’s highly volatile Derry in the 1970s, however, many scorned the idea of a punk band writing about young love rather than politics.
“Punk to me was always an attitude, a dogma, rebelling against what we were supposed to do. People expected us to write about the struggle for civil rights, but we didn’t rate any of the political bands that were around too much. They were usually quite clichéd – we wanted to do something more subtle.”
It was an ethos that certainly captured the heart of John Peel, who catapulted the band to fame and maintained that Teenage Kicks was his favourite song until his death in 2004.
“What was great about John Peel was that he played a whole cross section of stuff – dub reggae to punk to soul – and got away with it by sheer force of personality,” O’Neill says.
“I used to hope that stations like Six Music would do the same, but they’re not as good as I thought they’d be. Everything now has its own box – a trip hop box, electronic box – but the thing is most people listen to a lot of different stuff. It makes no sense at all.”
That is not to say O’Neill has lost faith in new music, with the guitarist citing Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees as some of his favourite new artists. Much like Peel, he also raves about The Fall, who “just get better and better”, claiming that Mark E. Smith could even rise above Strummer and Lydon as the godfather of punk.
With The Undertones still going strong, O’Neill modestly doesn’t pay much attention to his own place in musical history. Yet while Mark E Smith could well go down as punk’s greatest innovator, it is unlikely he’ll ever write a song that resonates as universally as some of The Undertones’ finest.
n The Undertones play Camden’s Koko this Friday. Tickets are available from koko.uk.com.