Interview with The Undertones: By Justin Maurer

Jan 03, 2012

The Undertones, power pop punk juggernauts, recorded uncontested classics like “Teenage Kicks,” “Get over You,” “My Perfect Cousin,” and “Jimmy Jimmy.”

Formed in the late ‘70s, this Northern Irish punk band is once again standing strong. They recently toured Southern California in a short burst of high-energy performances. Thanks in part to the non-stop fandom and support of BBC’s Radio 1 DJ John Peel, they shared labels and tour dates with the top acts in late ‘70s / early ‘80s punk: Ramones, The Clash, and The Rezillos. During this time, this poppy, happy-sounding band resolutely refused to sing about the war in Northern Ireland, but would come to terms with the explosive topic in their later releases.

Between 1977 and 1983, The Undertones released four albums—The Undertones, Hypnotised, Positive Touch, and The Sin of Pride before lead singer Feargal Sharkey left the group to pursue a solo career. Some of the remaining members formed That Petrol Emotion.

Shortly before his death in 2003, John Peel directed a documentary for the BBC called Teenage Kicks, the Story of the Undertones. He traveled to Derry for an extensive look into the band’s history. The documentary re-ignited interest in the band—including a burst of enthusiasm from the band members themselves. The self-explanatory Teenage Kicks: The Best of The Undertones was quickly released in the film’s wake.

The band reformed and recorded in 2003 with a new vocalist, Paul Mcloone. Mcloone, to the surprise of many who didn’t think that Sharkey’s distinctive voice could ever be replaced, proved to be just as powerful and unique singer as his predecessor. Get What You Need and Dig Yourself Deep are both living, spinning truths of this fact.

I caught up with guitarist John ‘O Neill, The Undertones’ founder and principal songwriter, after their show in San Diego.

Interview by Justin Maurer of Clorox Girls & L.A. Drugz

Justin: Was this performance in 2011 The Undertones’ first trip to the West Coast since playing two shows a night at the Whisky-A-Go-Go for three consecutive nights in 1980? That’s actually six full sets in three days! What was the two-shows-a-night experience like? 
John: Actually, we played some West Coast shows a few years ago. But, as usual, we were doing everything on a shoestring budget, so there wasn’t much promotion. It was definitely better this time around, though. There seemed to be much more of a buzz this time. No idea why. Admittedly, I don’t remember much about those shows in 1980. Our set was pretty short and sharp in those days. We were just happy to get the chance to play, especially somewhere with the history of the Whisky.
Justin: You formed The Undertones with your brother Damian and played your first show live in 1976 with covers of Fleetwood Mac, Small Faces, Dr. Feelgood, and the Stones. It’s an interesting choice of covers for a punk band’s first show. You recorded a great cover of the Chocolate Watchband’s, “Let’s Talk about Girls” on the B side of “You Got My Number.” What prompted you guys to kill the covers and start writing originals?
John: By the way, it was early Peter Green Fleetwood Mac, not the later shite! We loved early rock and roll, ‘60s beat stuff, as well the glam stuff which had its roots in rock and roll anyway. They were the only records we could hear or buy. Then later that year, we discovered a guy in Derry who had the Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls, and Nuggets records. We couldn’t believe it! That’s when we really started to learn. We never wanted to be just a covers band, so it was only a matter of time before I finally got the confidence to try out new songs; first playing them to the other members of the band and then performing them live.
Justin: John Peel called “Teenage Kicks” his favorite song of all time. Besides the Ramones, what was on your turntable when you wrote that tune?
John: Apart from the obvious Beatles, Stones, Dylan stuff, I first really started listening to music in the early ‘70s. T.Rex, Bowie, Roxy Music, Slade, they were all in the charts. Also, a lot of early rock and roll and uptown R&B stuff was getting reissued and charting again, like the Chiffons, Dion And The Belmonts, the Ronettes, and Gene Vincent. I loved it all. I was also very influenced by the film American Graffiti. I suppose it was an excuse to escape to a more innocent time compared to what was going on in Derry at that time—all the riots and shootings. Musically, I could hear the connection with punk and all that stuff. Our three favorite bands in 1977 would probably have been New York Dolls, Heartbreakers, the Ramones, and the Buzzcocks.
Justin: What guitar amp and guitar were you using on the recording of “Teenage Kicks”?
John: A H&H valve fifty watt amp and a Japanese Tele copy called a Zenta that I bought from a friend for about £25, I think.
Justin: Any fond memories of playing on the TV show Top of the Pops in September 1978?
John: It was great getting to see London and the inside of a TV studio.
Justin: Was it hard to come back home to peers your age in Derry after appearing on mainstream U.K. primetime television?
John: Punk was all about staying the same as your audience, so we had no problem coming back to Derry. Apart from our friends, who regularly came to see in playing in the Casbah, no one else took us seriously and I was happy with that.
Justin: Did you grow up watching Top of the Pops?
John: Top of the Pops was the only half decent music show on TV at that time, so everyone watched it.

Justin: I have to mention this. Your wife, in the documentary, Teenage Kicks mentioned that the Undertones, prior to the Top of the Pops appearance, were offered a dinner at any restaurant in London. While the other guys chose fancy French food, you and your wife (girlfriend at the time) chose McDonald’s because, at the time, you had never eaten there?
John: Actually it was all of us. This was the first time we came to London. We didn’t like the idea of a formal restaurant so decided it was better just to go to McDonald’s. Wouldn’t do it now, though!
Justin: The Undertones’ appearance on that other U.K. TV music-based TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test put you guys up there with greats like the Damned, the Adverts and others. What was that experience like?
John: That was great because we could play live. I really hated miming, which was what you had to do on Top of the Pops. Before punk, The Old Grey Whistle Test was really crap, full of metal or progressive rock bands, so it felt like kicking down a door.
Justin: How was touring with the Rezillos?
John: They broke up after about our second show with them so we never got to see them enough. They were great people though. We loved their records.
Justin: Best memories of touring with the Clash? Was that the first trip to America for most of you guys?
John: It was our first time in America. Before we got signed, we’d never even been on an aeroplane! It was fantastic to see them play every night. We didn’t really get to meet them much, though. We were the first of a three-bill show, so they weren’t always around when we were playing. We were only used to playing small clubs in the U.K. and Ireland, so it was weird to play on really big stages. We also learnt to start writing out set lists! We used to play whatever someone felt like doing before that.
Justin: How did you find the American audiences as compared to the U.K. audiences?
John: The audiences were mostly good, even if the place was mostly half empty when we were playing.
Justin: You managed to play with loads of great bands like The Stranglers, Yachts, the Chords, Rockpile, the Modernettes, and others. Who were your top three favorites you managed to share the stage with?
John: The Clash, Orange Juice, and the Chocolate Watchband recently.
Justin: Any sleazy promoters try to rip you off back in the ‘70s or early ‘80s?
John: Definitely before we were signed. However, we were really lucky to get a great manager, Andy Ferguson, who really looked after things after we were signed.
Justin: Your third and fourth albums in the early ‘80s seemed to finally address a few political issues from a personal standpoint. In Teenage Kicks, (lead singer) Feargal Sharkey said living in Derry at times was like a warzone, being searched by police every day on your way to school. When you started the band, were people upset that The Undertones were playing songs about, well, “chocolate and girls” instead of addressing the political turmoil that was going on in Northern Ireland during the ‘70s and ‘80s?
John: Good question. You have to remember we were seventeen or eighteen when we were writing and recording those songs. On one level, we were aware of how bad things were—it was literally outside our door—but, as teenagers, we were also trying to have as “normal” a life as we could. It’s the only way you could deal with it and stay sane! We hated Stiff Little Fingers and their predicable sloganeering, so we didn’t want to go down that route anyway.
We were learning our trade as songwriters. We were trying to be as good as the Buzzcocks, the Velvets, and the New York Dolls. We wanted to stay clear of clichés and not do something because it was expected of us. Certainly, any one who came to see us play, didn’t expect us to start singing “Brits Out” and “Fuck the RUC” or whatever. That was too predicable. It wasn’t until the third record, Positive Touch, that I finally felt confident to start writing about the war at home and how it affected me and my friends. During the early ‘80s I certainly became a lot more political; it was the main reason behind forming That Petrol Emotion. By that stage, I was happy to support Irish Republicanism, not necessarily the armed struggle, but certainly do what I could to make people aware of the injustices British and Unionist rule was causing in the north of Ireland.
Justin: Who played the slide guitar or lap steel on Positive Touch? Is that a xylophone as well?
John: That’s me. I love slide guitar. Always was a big Elmore James fan. Yep, it is a xylophone. We tried experimenting with other instruments a lot more by that stage. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
Justin: What is your least favorite recorded Undertones song and why?
John: I have to admit, I always found “More Songs about Chocolate and Girls” a bit twee. Good guitar riff, but that’s about it! Also can’t listen to the version of “True Confessions” from our first LP. What were we thinking? Certainly not a fan of TheSin of Pride LP either. We should have broken up before that. That whole experience was horrible.
Justin: Do you find new digital technologies inspiring, or do you think analog recording and tube amplifiers still have the best sound?
John: I got into sampling and Midi in a big way during the 90s. I loved Portishead, Tricky, Massive Attack. I even formed a band called Rare and made a record influenced by all that stuff in the mid-’90s. It’s arguably the best thing I ever did! Never liked those Britpop bands of that period. I use Emagic Logic for demos at home and find it great.
However, my first love will always be all the Nuggets/Velvets stuff, which is all analog. So, I definitely see why people say it is best for rock and roll anyway. The stuff that comes out of Toe Rag studios in London sounds great, so there must be something. The best thing I heard recently is the Sonny Smith’s 100 Records Vol.2. I assume they were all done analog, but they still sound great on my iPod dock. Great idea and fantastic songs. Now there’s a good songwriter! See, it always come back to the songs for me. I’m not a purist. It’s the songs that count.
Justin: I was fortunate enough to see you play here in Southern California. How did Paul Mcloone end up singing for the group?
John: We asked him and he said yes. He was in a band with Billy after The Undertones split up. We all sort of knew him anyway and it made sense to ask someone from Derry to join us.
Justin: Are you still on good terms with Feargal Sharkey?
John: Haven’t spoken to Feargal since we broke up. We live in different worlds.
Justin: Sharkey was quoted as saying that he was asked to play an Undertones reunion in a muddy field in Germany on his thirty-sixth birthday. He declined the offer, being as he didn’t feel right playing “Teenage Kicks” while turning thirty-six years old. How did you guys find the “reunion show” experience?
John: Funny he said that, as he has sung it once or twice since then with politicians calling themselves the MP3s (members of parliament). I know I’d rather be in a muddy field in Germany than do that, anyway. When we decided to reform, we never asked Feargal to join. We did it for the fun of it and because we thought that we had written some good songs that sounded even better when we played them live. And most people who have seen us seem to agree. As someone said, “Punk rock played proper!”
Justin: Your last two albums recorded in the last few years with Paul Mcloone on vocals—what was the reception? Are those albums available on vinyl?
John: Well, with U.K. media, The Undertones without Feargal is not The Undertones. Everyone still thinks he wrote the songs, so we have an uphill struggle to be taken seriously. Both records cost around £3000 to make and were recorded in a local studio in Derry, so we are not exactly on a big budget. They are what they are. They were fun to make. It’s punk rock, after all. Only out on CD at the moment. I think they will be available to download. The only thing on vinyl is a 7” song off the first (2003) record called Thrill Me.
Justin: John Peel, besides championing the band in the early years, travelled up to Derry in 2001 and did a great documentary film: Teenage Kicks, The Story of the Undertones. What was it like to physically go back in time doing the documentary?
John: I thought the doc was pretty good and it was fantastic to meet John Peel again. He really was special and we obviously owe him so much. He is very sorely missed. 
Justin: Peel followed through with his famous promise and did indeed put the lyrics he found so simply profound, onto his gravestone: “Teenage dreams so hard to beat.” What would you say to John now if he was still alive?
John: He was a “one off.” I think we all got to say what we wanted to say to him when he was in Derry, thankfully. It’s a different time now with the internet. It seems to be harder now for young bands. We are definitely in a real slump as far as getting ourselves heard on national radio and TV. God, radio was always shit! They are still playing the same crap records they played in the ‘70s and ‘80s now. Even the term R&B is an insult to what it used to be. I just don’t listen to radio anymore.
Justin: Any regrets with The Undertones. Anything you would’ve done differently if given the opportunity?
John: As The Remains said, “Don’t look back!” There’s no point. I can’t complain. We were lucky to be in the right place.
Justin: Words of advice for some young kids starting a band and beginning to play some shows?
John: Keep it simple. Make sure everyone in your band has the same music taste. If they say they like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, or Metallica kick them out! Listen to everything by the Stooges, Ramones, New York Dolls, Velvet Underground, the Fall and, of course, Nuggets. Don’t be afraid to do covers, especially if you can dance to them!
Justin: Future plans with Undertones? Any more U.S. appearances?
John: Really enjoyed that last tour so it would be great to come back. We never make any money when we go to the U.S, but it’s worth it. You are the home of rock and roll, after all.