Interview: Damian O’Neill, The Undertones
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.