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Revisit: The Undertones: The Undertones

Revisit: The Undertones: The Undertones

The Undertones had a vision wider than punk’s ironically conformist limits.

The city of Derry, tucked up in the northeast of Ireland, faced its considerable share of what was euphemistically labeled “The Troubles.” Derry was overshadowed by its larger rival Belfast in both ill reputation and industrial output. But the compact density of its terraced housing estates and narrow municipal flats full of residents’ fierce pride gave this historic and picturesque location on the River Foyle a marked accent and a hospitable character. While Belfast could boast Them and Van Morrison, Derry, however, was not known for its music scene. So when five students who were barely in their teens formed a school band in 1974, they never dreamed they’d make enough of a racket to land a simple song in the top 40 five years later, let alone catch the fancy of a very influential pair of ears.

From neighboring Creggan and the Bogside, the group began by rehearsing cover versions at the home of guitarists John and Damien “Dee” O’Neill. The Beatles, Small Faces and Lindisfarne loomed as influences, reflecting the boys’ shared admiration for melodic pop as well as the punk which erupted in the years while they matured. As well as the emerging restive and rowdy English groups, the newly named Undertones looked to the Ramones.

This jolt energized the group. Gigs at The Casbah provided them pocket money and inspiration to rehearse original material. By the summer of 1977 they opened for Dublin’s ambitious ensemble The Radiators from Space, the first time The Undertones played away from home. They sent a demo tape the following spring to influential tastemaker John Peel, who funded a £200 Belfast recording session for the band to issue an EP on Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label. Released in the summer of 1978, this featured the title track, “Teenage Kicks.” The story goes that Peel cried the first time he heard it. On his scale of one to five stars, this 2:26 tune scored 28. With his approval, the band’s star ascended; nearly 50 bands have covered the big bang that would soon reach #31 on the British singles chart.

Sire Records president Seymour Stein happened to hear the song while in London on business, and sent a representative who saw their last live show at The Casbah. That autumn, the four young men signed a five-year contract. Touring led to their first full album. Having played its 14 short tracks live so often, their transfer to studio tape under Roger Bechirian took less than a fortnight. Issued in May, this platter was preceded and followed by catchy singles. By the fall of 1979, the band would support The Clash in the U.S. The Undertones shared with them a vision wider than punk’s ironically conformist limits.

The Undertones’ eponymous debut album rushes past in less than half an hour. At first listen, Ramones comparisons prove inevitable. However, as the 16 singles and B-sides appended to reissues show, their garage rock is enriched by a decidedly glam melodic touch and a deeper affection for pop. All four band members write gritty but airy tunes. Billy Doherty’s sharp drums open the first song, “Family Entertainment” with a brisk rattle under the hum of odd lyrics. What separates The Undertones from their contemporaries is not only a knack for pleasant singalong ditties but Feargal Sharkey’s warbling, even bleating vocals. Coming from a background in Irish traditional music, his shifts from normal enunciation to extended quaver captures and baffles the listener.

On such a brief two sides of vinyl, the headlong blur of its songs lets them run together. With basic chords and direct delivery, there’s no time for solos or putting on airs. Sharkey’s blustering confidence conveys a winsome blend of youthful braggadocio and sly support for the guitar-based crunch. “Here Comes the Summer” lilts in a nod to their region’s folksy heritage, and a sign of what would increasingly enrich their music beyond sharp singles. “Jimmy Jimmy” as a cautionary tale of a lad’s fate pokes fun at the local model boy; “True Confessions” incorporates a clattering mechanical call and response hinting at New Wave and the keyboards which would soon divert and distract the band. The back and forth deadpan manner of the band’s backing vocals for Sharkey features their marked municipal accents, too.

Bonus tracks contribute greatly to the album’s impact. But this reviewer still remembers opening the plastic wrapper and putting this on the turntable the year it was first sold. Coming from a group that truly was part of the common ranks which other musicians claimed to venerate, The Undertones convinced the listener of their solid, friendly attitude.

Three subsequent albums marked the brisk arc of an increasingly sophisticated group. “More Songs About Chocolate and Girls” off their 1980 LP Hypnotised, pokes fun at as well as perfects their pop craft. Bechirian’s final production for the band, Positive Touch (1981) is a leap forward into denser instrumentation, slightly edgier lyrics glancing at their occupied homeland and hints of soul music. Mike Hedges helmed their final long player, The Sin of Pride. This lush tribute to these genres blended complicated arrangements into a broad soundscape. This could have opened up a promising career integrating such sounds with new wave and rough pop, but tensions between John O’Neill and Sharkey precipitated the end.

Sharkey teamed with synth-pop duo The Assembly and laid down a slick solo album before working for the music business in California. The O’Neills formed That Petrol Emotion, which combined noisy pop with more experimental, political and angrier songs. Bassist Mickey Bradley chronicled the band’s legacy, writing a spirited memoir a few years ago about his time in and out of The Undertones. They reformed at the end of the millennium with a new singer, occasional concert appearances and a 2007 album that was the picture of efficiency and competence. But their best remains on their four original albums.

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