Mike Atkinson

The Undertones – Nottingham Rescue Rooms, Thursday April 8

Posted in gigs, Nottingham Post, Rescue Rooms by Mike A on April 8, 2011

It has been a good week for the punk rock dads.  On Wednesday night at Rock City, the newly reformed Big Audio Dynamite returned for the first time since the late Eighties, and the following night there was another treat in store for those of us of a certain vintage: a full performance of the 1979 debut album from The Undertones. 

It’s impossible for me to be objective about The Undertones.  When John Peel famously played all four tracks from their Teenage Kicks EP in 1978 – and then played the whole EP again, later in the same show – I was tuned in, cassette recorder primed.  And when the album followed a few months later – along with the classic singles Get Over You, Here Comes The Summer, Jimmy Jimmy and You’ve Got My Number – the Derry five-piece provided the perfect soundtrack for my coming of age.  

For many people, the music which they love in their teenage years can never quite be matched for emotional impact, and hearing it again in adulthood can trigger a whole series of powerful memories.  And so it was on Thursday night, as four-fifths of the original line-up – plus singer Paul McLoone, who replaced Feargal Sharkey when the band reformed in 1999 – gave a storming performance, their music sounding as fresh and timeless as ever. 

The Undertones have never acted like pop stars.  Thirty-two years ago, they seemed indistinguishable from their audience, and that “ordinary bloke” quality remains with them today.  It helps to explain why Feargal – now a major player within the music industry – could never really be expected to rejoin them.  In his place, McLoone – who has now been an Undertone for longer than Sharkey ever was – does a more than creditable job.  His voice might have a broadly similar upper register, but there the comparisons end: he is his own man, with his own confident, slightly eccentric performance style.  

The set opened with Side One, Track One of the debut album (Family Entertainment), and the remaining thirteen tracks followed in their original sequence.  Apart from True Confessions, which was played in its original (and vastly superior) EP version, the songs were played almost exactly as they had been recorded.  

Further singles and album tracks followed, including all the later hits: My Perfect Cousin, Wednesday Week, and the underrated It’s Going To Happen.  It was the sort of show that reminds you that nostalgia can have a positive purpose; transported back to the heightened emotions of your youth, you remember that the person you once were has shaped the person that you are today.  Those teenage dreams: they’re still so hard to beat.

See also: my interview with Damian O’Neill.

Single review – Shrinkwrap: Beautiful Thing/Hot Dub

Posted in LeftLion, singles reviews by Mike A on April 8, 2011

This review originally appeared in LeftLion magazine.

Beautiful Thing/Hot Dub
12″ (Perfect 10 Records)

Ten years is a heck of a long time to be “on hiatus”, but unless Shrinkwrap have been hiding their lights under a particularly hefty bushel, it would appear that this debut 12-inch release on their Perfect 10 label marks the duo’s first recorded output since 2001. (Standard dance reviewer’s caveat: if it ain’t on Discogs, it doesn’t exist.)  But it’s not that Mark Rayner and Matt Horobin have exactly been idle over the past decade; far from it, indeed.  Rayner has worked with Idjut Boys, Kelvin Andrews and Digs & Woosh amongst many others, and his work on Smith & Mudd’s neglected 2009 gem Le Suivant deserves special mention.  Meanwhile, Horobin’s various genre-hoppings have led him on a journey through alternative rock, downtempo, dub and drum & bass.

Reunited at last, Mark and Matt have opted to showcase two complementary styles on their comeback single.  “Beautiful Thing” is the more conventionally song-structured: a gently sung meditation on the healing power of a new love, it sits within the lineage of Zero 7/Groove Armada chillout, but its deftly judged sense of restraint and space – like much of James Blake’s recent work, the track sometimes ebbs away into almost complete silence – keeps the dangers of cloying blandness at bay. “Hot Dub” is the longer, more abstract piece, which takes its time to build from skeletal near-nothingness into an eerie, almost mournful soft skank, led by deep, sliding trombone, while electronic chirrups and whispered vocal fragments dip in and out of the mix.

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Interview: Don Letts, Big Audio Dynamite

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 1, 2011

A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.

Why have Big Audio Dynamite decided to reform in 2011?

From my part, it was a toss-up: do I reform BAD with Mick Jones, or do I get a Harley-Davidson?  I figured the band was a safer option.  But on a more serious note, Mick had his appetite whetted by going out on tour with Gorillaz.  It was very much Damon Albarn’s show, but I think Mick got the taste for running his own show again.  And we re-released the first album last year, in a deluxe edition, so we had to go back and listen to our old tracks.  I thought: oh God, do we have to?  But I was pleasantly surprised, because they didn’t sound like yesterday, or even today.  It still sounds like it could be tomorrow.

You were quite prescient in what you did in the Eighties, and ahead of the game in a lot of ways.

Now that everyone’s looking backwards, time has caught up with us.  It seems like a lot of the elements that BAD were messing with back in the day have proven to be the ones that have lasted – whether it be Jamaican bass lines, or hip hop beats, or the bits of toasting, the sampled dialogue, the rock and roll guitar.  They’re still the things that excite all the guys in the band today.

Whose idea was it to do the reunion?

I’m not on Facebook, but I heard there was some sort of BAD appreciation society, and there was a rumour going around that we were reforming.  Coupled with Mick going back out on the road, that put the vibe in the air.  Then quite recently, we went to the christening of the bass player Leo’s first son, and the band were all together.  What’s interesting about BAD is that we all live in the same area, and we’re all still mates.

So there was no horrible acrimony when you all went your separate ways?

No, and that’s one of the most beautiful parts about it.  We all really know each other, for better or for worse.  We know exactly what we are.  So we’ve gone straight back into being creative.  There hasn’t been like a six week period where we have to work out who everybody is.  Over the last twenty-five years, we’ve seen each other on a weekly or monthly basis.  I almost took that for granted, and we just realised it the other day.  That makes it special, and makes it different from other people getting together.  That and the fact that nobody’s offered us a lot of money for it!  But it’s more about the will of the people!

In terms of your contribution to the band, you seem to be credited with “vocals and sound effects. Does that pretty much cover it?

I’m standing in our studio at the moment.  We’ve got our lyrics pinned up around the studio – because we’d forgotten them, predictably.  And I’m shocked – because, yeah, I famously was not a musician and am still not a musician, but back in the day, initially I did the whole sampling thing because I had to justify my space.  And then that wasn’t really enough, so I started to have a go at writing lyrics with Mick.  If you look at the credits, a lot of them are Letts/Jones compositions.  But BAD was like The Magnificent Seven: every man was an expert in his field.  It was a sum total of the elements that made BAD have its own distinctive identity.  I don’t even like talking about myself in the equation, because that starts to separate the roles.

In terms of those samples, and the way you used old movie dialogue and so on, the copyright laws hadn’t really been established in those days. Did you get clearance for them, or did you just nick them and nobody cared?

Listen, thanks for bringing that up!  Back in those days, we were the first people to do all that stuff.  Other people had dabbled before, like Eno and David Byrne on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.  But I think we were the first people to do it commercially and have a hit commercially.  And it was all so new, that no one knew what the hell was going on.  Consequently, we got away with it.  You couldn’t do that now, and you couldn’t do it long after we did it.  Check De La Soul, for instance.

I want to be very clear about this: there’s no BAD song that is built on somebody else’s sample or dialogue.  It was only ever a bit of salt and pepper to the main meal.  So nobody was going to hit us up like Keith Richards and The Verve.  That was never gonna happen.

It’s entirely spoken word, isn’t it?  There’s nothing else beyond that.

There are sounds and odd little loops, but it’s not like Puff Daddy using a chunk of Led Zeppelin.  If you take that out, there’s nothing left.  With BAD, you could almost play the songs acoustically.  That was our acid test.  Mick’s a songsmith, and we’re all particularly honoured to work with the dude.  Hey, this is the guy who did The Clash with Joe Strummer.  And he can pen a song.  He’s not standing here, luckily!

Your biggest singles came from the first album, but your biggest album was actually the second one, No. 10 Upping Street.  That’s where Joe Strummer briefly got involved.  He co-wrote some of the songs, but he never actually joined the band  Was that possibility ever discussed?

Hmm, I can’t deny that outright.  When we started, Joe did try and ask Mick to re-join The Clash, but Mick was too happy with what was going on in Big Audio Dynamite.  Obviously, I was there when all that Upping Street stuff was going on, and it was a beautiful thing to see them creatively falling in love again.  We invited Joe to come down and say hello, and the next thing we knew, he’d taken over.  That’s a testament to Joe’s energy.  It’s not like he wanted to do that; he just couldn’t help it.  That’s what Joe was like.  It was a great thing to be involved in.  I don’t know about sales and things like that – because let’s be honest, we were more cred than bread.

There’s one track on that album called Ticket, which sounds like it might be a Don Letts vocal.  Was that one of yours?

Yeah, thanks for mentioning that!  You’re writing lyrics, and obviously some things are great and other things are not so great, and Mick gave me what I call the “Ringo song”.  No disrespect to Mr Starr!  I always remember saying to Mick “If it’s so bloody good, then how come you ain’t singing that one?”  That’s all I remember!

By drawing on early hip hop influences, were BAD conscious at the time of trying to do something brand new?  Was that part of your mission?

It was never about being brand new.  It was about formulating a sound that we heard all around us.  We were never trying to be futuristic, or cleverer than anyone else.  We tried to create a hybrid sound from all the elements that turned us on.  And we used elements of the media, because that’s what the sampling was, to make a fuller sound.  That sounds very pretentious, but when you strip it down, that’s what it was about.

And then Mick already had an involvement with New York hip hop culture, stretching back to Clash days.

Mick had already started dabbling with that in the Clash, as anybody who knows their shit will know.

I’ve got particular fondness for your first single, The Bottom Line, because – by pure chance – I was there in Trafalgar Square when you shot the video.  I was dancing in the audience.  But I’ve gone through that video on freeze-frame off your official website, and you’ve left me on the cutting room floor.

Oh, I’m sorry about that.  Oy, it must have been your dancing!

I think we were trying too hard to get noticed by the camera; there were too many hands in the air. Do you have any memories of that shoot?

It was a very embarrassing moment, because we’d gone there to do that video, and there was something going on.  Some kind of bloody protest.  I really didn’t pay any attention as to what it was, because you get fixated on the scene in front of you.  Somebody came up and said “Do you mind not making so much noise, we’re trying to get our point across”.  And I’m like: “Bugger off, we’re making a video here!”  Then I look at the sign that he’s holding up, and it says “Free Nelson Mandela”.  And I thought: oh my God…

There was an anti-apartheid march earlier that day; my sister had been on it.  And we chuckled, because when you were trying to get us motivated for the shoot, you said “Come on everyone, we want to make it feel like something’s actually happening in London today!”  And we were thinking: “Tsk, pop stars, eh?  There was an anti-apartheid march here an hour earlier…”

I didn’t realise!  All I saw was people getting in the way of our shoot.

When you perform the songs on the forthcoming tour, are you going to stick closely to the original arrangements, or are you going to be updating them in any way?

I think they’ll be updated by the nature of the fact that we’ve grown up now.  We’re obviously not eighteen year-olds, running around on steroids or MacDonalds or whatever it was. By the nature of who we are, I hope the tunes will have matured, as we have.  But if we could do what we did back then, we’d be doing really well – because they inherently still sound fresh.

Are you looking at extending BAD’s life beyond the tour, for example by recording by new material, or is this just a one-off project?

I think we’re very carefully taking one step at a time.  Just dipping our little toes in the water and seeing how it goes.  We wouldn’t want to be uncool and overstay our welcome.

Seeing as Mick’s in the band, are you just going to be sticking to BAD material only, or will you seize the opportunity to add a couple of Clash tunes to the set list?

Never did, never will, and never had to!  And that’s out of total respect for The Clash. 

Interview: Damian O’Neill, The Undertones

Posted in interviews, Metro, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 1, 2011

A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in Metro and the Nottingham Post.

I’m calling you in London; is that your place of residence these days?

I’ve been in London for years.  The rest of the band are still in Ireland.  The singer Paul lives in Dublin, but the others are still in Derry, our home town.  I’m the black sheep of the family!  I left in the early Eighties, and somehow never returned.  I’ve got a family here. But maybe someday I’ll be back…

How much of your time these days is involved with being an Undertone?

I’d say half the time, at the moment.  We’re working on new material for a new record.  I’ve been working on songs that my brother John sends me, so the last couple of weeks have been quite intense.  But normally, we don’t play that often.  It’s not like we’re doing a full time career anymore, so we just play when we feel like it.  But we’ve been quite busy over the last couple of years with live shows.  Last year we went to Japan, and we did a load of festivals.  Summer’s always the busiest time for us, with festivals and stuff.  They’re just starting to come in now.  There’s a weirdly titled one coming up in May/June; it’s called the Bearded Theory festival.

That’s near here, at Kedleston Hall.  I think they take the bearded thing quite literally.  There is something about the wearing of beards which is intrinsic to the festival.  So just be ready for a sea of beards.  Not all of which might be real.

I tried to grow a beard last year, for about two weeks.  It was a pretty pathetic attempt.  It was getting so itchy that I shaved it off.  But I might try and grow it back for this one. (Laughs)

It doesn’t seem right, having an Undertone with a beard.

It doesn’t seem right at all.

You’ll be playing your 1979 debut album in full on the next tour, so – because geeks like me need to know – will you be playing the original fourteen track version which came out in the  May, or the expanded version that came out five months later, with a couple of singles (Teenage Kicks and Get Over You) added?

We’ll play the original LP in its original song sequence; I think that’s important.  But with True Confessions: on the LP, it’s a different version.  I always thought that was a bit of a mistake.  We did it on a whim at the time, and I kind of wish we didn’t now.  So we’ll do True Confessions with the original Good Vibrations version – the better version, basically.  And then after Casbah Rock, we’ll probably do Teenage Kicks and Get Over You.

When the LP originally came out, Sire Records really wanted us to put Teenage Kicks and Get Over You on it.  But we insisted, and we got our way somehow.  We just said: no way.  A lot of bands at the time, like Buzzcocks, used to put their singles out separately.  It was just really good value for money, basically.

And then the record company won you over six months later.

Yeah, and by the second LP we hadn’t enough new songs anyway!  So we had to!  Although actually, You’ve Got My Number isn’t on Hypnotised either. 

Some of the band were reportedly quite reluctant to record Teenage Kicks in the first place.  Which camp were you in?

I was in the pro camp!

Well, your brother did write it.

Yeah, my brother John wrote the song.  We all kinda liked it, and there was never any doubt about recording it, but I think some people  in the band didn’t think it was good enough for the first EP on Good Vibrations, believe it or not.  Can you believe that? I don’t remember there being any real arguments about it – and I forget who – but all I can say is that it wasn’t me! (Laughs)

Was it one of your very earliest songs?

I was looking this up the other day.  This is how anorak I am: I used to make a list of when we wrote what songs.  I think it was written in June 1977.  It was a fruitful month for John, because he also wrote Get Over You in the same month.  So, two great singles in a month; not bad. 

As for the legendary moment when John Peel played your first EP, were you listening to him that night?

Oh, of course!  We’d got wind.  In fact, a friend of the band has a cassette copy of that announcement.  The famous thing is that he said “It’s so good that I’ve got to play that again”.  And he played it twice, which he’d never done before. 

Then he made a whole speech later in the week, saying that you guys were the reason he did his entire show.  It was very impassioned; it was quite a moment.

Wow.  I’d love to hear that again, actually.  But we were definitely listening, I remember that.  And we couldn’t believe it; we were whooping with delight when he played it for the second time.  We were like: frigging hell, this is incredible!  We just couldn’t believe it.  Because we were massive John Peel fans, and we used to listen religiously to him.  You had to, to hear new stuff.  He was the man.

The band had been together since 1975, so you would have formed before punk as we know it came along.  Did the Pistols and the Ramones cause you to change direction?

We were going that way anyway, because the covers we were doing were very R&B.  We loved early 60s R&B, like the early Stones.  Actually, I love later Stones as well, but the earlier stuff was easier to play.  So we could do Round And Around and Little Red Rooster, and Van Morrison’s Them, that kind of stuff.  I think we tried a few Cream songs, but that was beyond us! (Laughs)  Eric Clapton could play too fast.

We loved Doctor Feelgood, who came along in 75 with Down By The Jetty.  Just seeing them on TV was amazing.  Especially Wilko, and the way he dressed.  So that influenced us, and I have to give credit to Eddie and the Hot Rods as well.  The Live At The Marquee EP came out in summer 76, which we loved, and we actually used to do a bit of “Get out of Denver, baby”. After that, we basically speeded up the covers that we were doing, to make it more like that.  And then by late 76, we heard Anarchy In The UK and The Damned’s first single.  Then the whole game changed again, because they were even younger.  So we automatically identified with that.

Did you feel part of a local scene, or were you the only ones in Derry doing this kind of thing?

We were out on a limb.  You know that song by The Saints, (I’m) Stranded?  We felt like that.  We felt stranded in Derry.  There was a bit of a scene in Belfast, but there was nothing going on where we lived.  And we were getting a lot of crap and abuse on the street for doing the music that we did.  We got to be known for doing kinda strange music, and for the way we dressed.  We wouldn’t dress the way that punks dressed in London, but just wearing straight jeans could get your head kicked in.  And having short hair.  And Feargal, being the singer and being an extrovert, got abuse in the street.  But even if he wasn’t in a band, he probably would have anyway.  Were singled out a lot, just for being punk rockers.  On the back of the Teenage Kicks EP, there’s a photo: “The Undertones Are Shit”.  That’s genuine.  That’s the kind of feeling we got from people.   They hated us! (Laughs)

Did it help you that Stiff Little Fingers had broken through a few months earlier?

They opened the doors a bit, I suppose.  John Peel played them, and we were very jealous.  We weren’t big fans, to be honest – but because John Peel was playing them, it made us more determined.  It raised the game. 

Did you ever feel tempted to go along with the prevalent feeling at the time, which was to write political message songs?

No, we wanted to escape from the Troubles.  We didn’t want to wallow in it.  I don’t like dissing Stiff Little Fingers anymore, because some of it’s good, but we just thought what they were doing was a bit corny.

I sometimes thought there was something a bit calculated about it.  They got someone else to write their lyrics, didn’t they?

Yeah, that was another thing as well.  They had their manager, who was English, to write the lyrics.  It was a bit contrived.

That’s not really very punk rock.

No, it’s not.  We loved Fifties and Sixties rock and roll, and girl groups like The Shirelles, and then of course the New York Dolls and MC5.  We wanted to write about love and girls, not about bombs and bullets. 

I guess you’ve gone back to that debut album recently, preparing for the tour.  Are there songs on there which you’ve not played for, that you’re looking forward to exhuming?

We’ve probably done most of them over the years, because the first LP is almost like a greatest hits.  But there is Casbah Rock – I don’t know if we’ve ever done that since.

It’s such a short track, as well.

There are a few extra verses which never made it on the record.  On the LP, it’s just a cassette demo recording that we did, a year previously.  I think it was my idea to stick that on at the end, as a little snippet. 

Wasn’t that the name of the club where you had an early residency?

The Casbah was our Cavern, basically.  It was where we learned our chops.  It was a bit of a den of iniquity, to be honest.  It used to be a pub, and then it was bombed and they replaced it with a Portakabin.  A lot of rock bands played there, doing Thin Lizzy covers and whatever.  So we kinda went in there with a snotty attitude: we were going to play some decent music.  But we loved it, because that was where we built up our crowd.

What do you remember about the sessions for recording the album?

Because we had played those songs for about a year, we could knock them off really quick.  Roger Bechirian was the producer, and it was great working with him.  He did a really good job; I was a bit scared that he’d soften it a bit, and lose the edge.

I think the production has a real sparkle to it.

It’s very poppy as well, which is great.  We did Get Over You with Roger before the album, and I was a bit disappointed with that, because it was a bit too polished.  But he stepped back a bit, and let us just be ourselves on the LP. 

It was done at Eden Studios in Acton.  We over to London in January 79, and I think we were there for about four weeks.  So it wasn’t that quick really, when I think about it.  Probably two weeks recording and two weeks mixing.  We rented out some little place, just off Paddington.  The first time you’re ever in London, your eyes are wide open.  It was a great atmosphere, and the camaraderie was great.  It was probably the best time, you know?  The best time in the band.

You split in 83, after eight years together.  Then you reformed in 99, with Paul McLoone singing instead of Feargal Sharkey.  This line-up has actually been together longer than the original line-up, so why has it lasted so long?

I think it’s because there’s no pressure now.  We’re not signed to a record company, so we can do it at our own leisurely pace.  And we don’t play every week, which keeps it fresh. 

Why did the original version fold?  Were there internal tensions, or was it because of chart positions?

Yeah, chart positions.  The third and fourth LPs were selling less and less.  We were playing to half-empty halls.  Like most bands, it was just demoralising.  You think: why bother?  The fun had gone out of it. And you’ve got to remember, this was 82, 83.  It was all synthesisers and New Romantics.  So we were definitely passé by then.

Will you be starting your set with the debut album?

I think we will, but it will probably only last about twenty minutes! (Laughs)  Then we’ll do Get Over You, Teenage Kicks, and maybe a few B-sides.  And then of course we’ll do the other songs from Hypnotised, and we do new songs as well.  We’ve recorded two LPs with this line-up.  A lot of the music press don’t take the new Undertones seriously, because it’s not Feargal.  So they won’t listen; they won’t give it a chance.  Which is a real shame, because I like to think we’re still coming up with really good songs.

I haven’t seen you on stage since you famously played the first ever night at Rock City, in late 1980.

I still remember that really well. Orange Juice supported us – what a great band they were, as well. Oh, it was a brilliant night!  A fantastic night!  That’s a great venue.