A conversation with Stiff Little Fingers’ Jake Burns on the punk classic’s anniversary, while looking back at Belfast during “The Troubles”
Was it really 40 years ago that Stiff Little Fingers’ monumental debut LP Inflammable Material was released?
The Belfast, Northern Irish quartet’s jarring broadside remains a stunning punk rock classic. It is one of the fiercest, most genuinely fiery records the late 1970s produced—as portended by the nine grey flame emblems on a stark field of black with fire engine red lettering that formed its front cover, like a nine-fold warning of explosive material inside not handled with care. The album initially appeared on London indie Rough Trade Records, then a new, small company that was auxiliary to the record shop of the same name on February 3, 1979. And to the shock of the fledgling, little label and the band, it actually hit the U.K. Top 20 at a time when only major label punk rock bands had been turning that trick, proving its impact even in its time both as a cultural roar and call to DIY arms.
Moreover, at a time when most of the original class of 1976-1977 U.K. punk bands were either breaking up, or morphing into a far more esoteric post-punk and open-ended rock ’n’ roll aesthetic—e.g., later that same 1979, Wire’s 154, the Clash’s London Calling, The Slits’ Cut, The Adverts’ Cast of Thousands, Generation X’s Valley of the Dolls, Penetration’s Coming Up For Air, Siouxsie & the Banshees’ Join Hands, Buzzcocks’ A Different Kind of Tension, and Warsaw/Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, Howard Devoto’s Magazine’s Secondhand Daylight and Johnny Rotten’s Public Image Limited’s Metal Box were sure highly evolved affairs from each’s more primal beginnings!—Stiff Little Fingers’ punishing blast was an eye-opener. The songs were suggesting the older dog wasn’t actually finished yet, and helped to lead a surprising, credible, equally exciting second wave later that year that also stormed the national U.K. charts, a roll call that also included The Ruts, U.K. Subs, a rejiggered Damned, and notably SLF’s fellow Ulster neighbors from Derry, The Undertones.
Just as significantly if not more, Inflammable Material proved the genre’s lasting efficacy—who knew back then that there would still be young punk rock bands four decades later?—by doubling down on punk’s initial promise/premise to speak hard truths and promote protest instead of passivity, as folk had so prominently in the decades prior. Profoundly inspired by Joe Strummer and The Clash’s first two albums to that date, SLF’s opus seemed to whisk you to Belfast, into the thick of the longstanding “Troubles” in the six Northern Irish counties that had been left to the United Kingdom’s control, partitioned off from the rest of Ireland when the Southern five-sixths finally won its independence in the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. Using lyrics often written by journalist/manager Gordon Oglivie, guitarist / singer / songwriter / frontman Jake Burns gruffly yet tunefully snarled about life in such a strife-ridden, occupied city. The words indignantly reflected centuries of that sectarian bitterness between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants that colored everyday Belfast existence, given armed British Army patrols and checkpoints everywhere, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (R.U.C.) police out in force, the banned paramilitary Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) clandestinely resisting U.K. rule from London and advocating Irish unification, and ever-present examples of violence, gunfire, explosions, other mayhem, and, depending on who you were speaking to, repression, terrorism, and outrage on all sides.
Given that backdrop, Inflammable Material turned heads with its incendiary reflection of a young man’s disgust for the seemingly entrenched situation without taking sides (Burns was 20 when the LP was released), while also evoking the rank boredom of living in an armed city with the police, the army, and the entrenched tribal hatred. While “boredom” songs are rife in rock ’n’ roll, youthful Belfast boredom carried with it the promise of more bloodshed and strife, given the explosive, pent up energy it was fostering. It’s all there throughout the whole LP, plainly expressed in the album’s two memorable singles, “Alternative Ulster (“Take a look where you’re living/You’ve got the army in the street/And the R.U.C. dog of repression/Is barking at your feet.”) and especially the jaw-dropping opener, “Suspect Device” (“Their solutions are our problems/They put up the wall… They take away our freedom/In the name of liberty… We’re a suspect device if we do what we are told/But a suspect device can score an own goal/I’m a suspect device the Army can’t defuse/You’re a suspect device they know they can’t refuse/We’re gonna blow up in their face”)
I.E. it’s not just another great old album celebrating an anniversary, and la di da, let’s all genuflect and savor an old favorite like the sentiment of The Beatles “Your Mother Should Know.” Even 40 years on, and even with the Troubles subdued by 1998’s Good Friday Belfast Agreement—assuming Brexit doesn’t blithely and bizarrely scotch it—Inflammable Material is a one of kind type of record in its lasting power, so violently exciting and yet so catchy, and so mind-blowing in capturing in mere musical form the emotional onslaught of day to day disgust with the Northern Irish stalemate as it existed then (and had for centuries), that it’s impossible to forget the LP even decades after first hearing it. Indeed, while SLF would themselves likewise evolve tremendously out of punk, almost uncannily in the same manner as the Clash had before them, on subsequent major label-distributed LPs, and remain to this day a valiant band, Inflammable Material was the only one of its kind even SLF would attempt. The statement had been made.
Full disclosure: Having met Burns at SLF’s New York shows starting with their U.S. debut at New York’s Trax club October 17, 1980, I’ve gotten to know him since because he married a close friend of mine: former Big Takeover web-mistress Shirley Sexton. Thus I attended the couple’s wedding at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo (alongside some highly active meerkats observing from an adjacent display) and have visited the couple there, where they still live. My thoughts on his band, his songs, and this album have long been a matter of public record, and set in stone, however. It just makes the below a comfortable interview, perhaps, as he consented to share his thoughts on the record on its anniversary.
And as he notes below, Burns is not only still highly proud of Inflammable Material, his current-day SLF lineup, which still also includes original bassist Ali McMordie, plans to tour here this year playing the album start to finish to mark the milestone (with one notable song skipped over, as covered below!). And while many bands do that, SLF has really only performed the same five songs off their first LP during its many tours here going back 39 years, so this will be a special opportunity to hear the rest for sure.
Congrats on the 40th anniversary of your first album. That’s a milestone for anyone, let alone such an important album. Let’s start with the standard question, then, though it’s significant. What was your feeling for Inflammable Material back then, and how has your feelings about the record changed over 40 years—or has it been pretty constant? Does it feel odd or triumphant playing it four decades on? Or what?
On its release, I felt it was an accurate representation of what we were like as a live band, but I was frustrated by the production on it. It didn’t sound like a “real” record to me. I can’t think of another way of framing that. Obviously, that was down to both budget and a lack of production experience, both on our part and on Geoff [Travis, Rough Trade head and co-producer] & [co-producer] Mayo’s [Thompson]. Having said that, if we’d had the budget and the name producer, it would have been a totally different record, so may not have reverberated with so many people. It’s neither odd nor triumphant to play the songs. They’re part of the band’s fabric and as such, I’m as proud of them as I was when we wrote them.
What was it like recording it, what are your memories? I’ve always thought that Mike Kemp’s engineering at the studio where you made it, in Cambridge, England’s Spaceward Studios, was key. Ali McMordie’s bass parts are so hard and loud and pointed, and your and Henry Cluney’s guitars are distorted but clean and so in your face, as is your voice. And [Eddie & the Hot Rods’ manager] Ed Hollis likewise got a great take and sound for “Alternative Ulster” that you used from the demos you cut for Island Records at Island Studios in May of 1978 before they turned you down. [Note other notable historic records made at Spaceward include early singles by Bauhaus, Mekons, Killjoys, and U.K. Subs, and albums by Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army, Sad Lovers & Giants, Swell Maps, Stranglers, and local heroes The Soft Boys and leader Robyn Hitchcock.]
Recording was done very quickly. As I said, we didn’t have much experience of studios, etc., so we simply set up as if we were playing a live gig and went for it. We didn’t even use a tuner! We just tuned to each other’s guitars. That’s one of the reasons there are only about two overdubs on the whole record. I had to tune to the track to put the solo on “Law & Order,” and the end guitars on “Closed Groove.”
That’s a great story! In this sense: It’s hard to imagine now just how green you really were. Especially given the record you made. [It sounds like a totally finished product.]
Green as grass, mate!
And if you were recording more or less live, as it seems like you were with only two overdubs, making it seem that Kemp’s work/involvement was especially key.
Right, Mike was engineer on the whole thing. And it was a really small room. Here’s a photograph, in fact.
Wow, really low ceiling. It’s like a true basement recording. Was he the unsung hero of that album, then, in that sense? Perhaps more for me and your fans than your own feelings about the record; that record just blew my mind for the sound as well as the band’s performance, it was so powerful. Though maybe that was as much a testament to the band itself being simply and effectively captured, as your band was at that moment—as you were with your original drummer Brian Faloon for just that one, only LP, and as you’d been playing around being part of the new Northern Irish punk rock scene. And again, from the photo you’ve shown me, it was a very small room you were working in. Did that have a lot to do with the ambiance as well?
Mike had built the studio so his suggestions were very germane to what ended up on tape. But, honestly, my over-riding memory of the whole thing was Geoff and Mayo giving us our head and letting us record the songs as we’d been playing them. Also, Brian had already told us he wanted to leave at that point, so we were hugely grateful to him that he hung around long enough to make the album. Again, much like the budget scenario, it would have been a very different record had [his subsequent replacement] Jim [Reilly] played on it.
Fair enough. Let’s talk a little bit about the album’s background, musically. I remember one review I read when it came out in 1979 that suggested a decided influence from the Clash, noting that both your debut album and theirs only two years before had eight songs on side one, and a couple less, five or six, on side two to make room for a big long punked up reggae cover halfway through side two on both! In their case Junior Murvin, and in your case Bob Marley’s “Johnny Was.” A highly similar approach, in other words. [Laughs.] It’s an influence you acknowledged to a degree on the “crapital radio” [instead of The Clash’s “Capitol Radio”] part you inserted into your eventual “You Can’t Say Crap on the Radio” [“Straw Dogs”] b-side. And then 14 years later, when Joe Strummer died, on your 2003 Guitar and Drum eulogy, “Strummerville.” Just how profound was his/their influence to you in 1977-1979 leading up to this first album? Or were there other bands of that day that were equally crucial to your becoming a punk rocker in the first place, out of a covers band named for a Deep Purple song [Highway Star], that get less play in the usual SLF bio/story?
I was a teenage guitar player, and as such wanted to be as flash and over-the-top as was humanly possible. Hence, the Deep Purple infatuation. But, by 1976, I’d lost interest in that side of things. I’d already started drifting towards the songwriter [side] rather than the technician. But, I still craved excitement. So, Purple and [Black] Sabbath etc. were replaced by Dr. Feelgood for sheer excitement, and folks like Graham Parker for the songwriting. Then punk happened. I loved the visceral power of it. I loved the [middle] fingers up to the rock establishment aspect. I mean [Yes keyboardist] Rick Wakeman really needed that. But, given my newfound respect for the songwriter, I didn’t see any long-term future in it. I guess that was part of its initial manifesto, come to think of it. But, then I heard the Clash who were writing about their lives in a way that really hit home for me. Particularly the song “Career Opportunities.” That was my “road to Damascus” moment, if you like.
That’s a good one! I still think about that song as I look for part time work. Did you meet them when the Clash came to Belfast to play Ulster Hall show in October 1977, and were prevented from playing by the local council for some insurance issues or something, and a riot ensued? I remember reading around the time that that was a hugely pivotal moment in the Belfast/Northern Irish punk rock explosion, even though they never played, since they hung out there and made a big deal about it. And since it felt like no one from England ever came over to Northern Ireland to play back then apart from Rory Gallagher and maybe Horslips, out of fear for their safety—especially after a Dublin band was attacked in 1975 [The Miami Showband]. Or did you see them when the Clash came back in December 1977 and did manage to play the McMordie Hall, and changed the lyrics of “London’s Burning” to “Belfast’s Burning” and of their Junior Murvin cover of “Polices and Thieves” to “Priests and Thieves?”
I was at the “riot” outside the Ulster Hall. It was a minor riot by Belfast standards but what was incredible about it was the number of people there. We honestly thought we were the only four people in Belfast who knew who the Clash were! LOL. I didn’t get to meet them, although we did go down to the Europa Hotel where they were staying and Joe and [bassist] Paul [Simonon] came out to the security fence and explained why they couldn’t play. I didn’t say anything, just stood and listened. And I was at the December show, they definitely started “London’s Burning” with a shout of “Belfast’s Burning” but then I’d heard they did that wherever they were playing, like “Glasgow’s Burning” or “Royal Tunbridge Wells is Burning”—well, maybe not that last one. [Laughter—it’s a really small town in England.] I don’t remember the “Priests & Thieves” thing, but that’s not to say it didn’t happen. Anyway, from a point of view of realizing that we were “not alone,” the first aborted Clash show was huge!
Not an important point perhaps, but I assume you did eventually meet Joe and got on with him? And what were the other bands that were instrumental perhaps. Taking your name from a Vibrators b-side would suggest you liked them, as well. What were the other groups you really rated or had some decided affect on you in those couple years before Inflammable Material?
I only met Joe a couple of times, but I know for example that we got our first U.S. agent via Joe’s recommendation. Yes, I really enjoyed the first two Vibrators records. They’re never accorded the respect I felt they deserved, but there were some great pop songs on those records. I’ve always been a sucker for a good pop hook. There were some strange influences that snuck in on Inflammable Material, from a couple years before punk. I mean “Wasted Life”’s opening owes a lot to The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” “State of Emergency”’s main riff is a nod to Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain,” and most obviously “Suspect Device” nicked a guitar motif from Montrose! The punk bands that I really rated would be the obvious ones form that period: Elvis Costello, for the songwriting, and The Buzzcocks and The Ramones for the pop sensibility.
Also not a super important question, but one I’ve often wondered: Why were SLF seemingly the only Belfast or Derry band that didn’t put out a record with Terry Hooley’s Good Vibrations Records out of his record shop of that name? Unlike the Outcasts, Rudi, Moondogs, Protex, Undertones, Ruefrex, Victim, Xdreamists, Idiots, Tearjerkers, etc., you self-released your own single then went straight to Rough Trade. Were you just too early? Or just preferred to go it that way?
It was a preference thing, really. Although we’re fine now, I never really got on with Terri back in the day. There was an amount of inter-band rivalry, although we got along well enough with most of the bands. I think because we had two managers, both of whom were journalists [the other being Colin McClelland] and one of whom was (gasp!) English and wrote songs with me, we were seen as “outsiders” to that whole Good Vibes clique. To be honest, that suited us just fine.
Let’s talk some about Belfast, and Ulster itself, since it had such a gigantic impact on the record you made, and it’s famous for it. Similar to what happened to the Clash that first time, had you all heard of the Rolling Stones’ 1964 concert at that same venue, the Ulster Hall, that was similarly stopped after only 10 minutes? That is if you consider the 1964 Stones as to being roughly equivalent to punk in 1977, i.e., upsetting the social order, not a safe classic rock band as they are maybe thought of now. I mean, people here just can’t imagine what it was like in Belfast, even purely on a rock ‘n’ roll concert level, as it had been so long.
I hadn’t. To be honest, the first rock ’n’ roll event that impinged on my life was Led Zeppelin played the Ulster Hall in 1971 and my Dad reckoned I was too young to attend. They debuted “Stairway to Heaven” that night, just to add salt to the wound! Bands simply didn’t play in Belfast, mainly because of the civil disorder. Rory played every year, bless him, and he became a hero because of it. It’s almost impossible for me to think now that I would build my entire year around that period—usually around New Year’s—when he would play a bunch of nights at the Ulster Hall.
Right, exactly. Apart from Inflammable Material’s intense punk music, your band stood out by the abrasive razor-blade quality of your gruff singing on that one album—not as gruff as Louis Armstrong, [Motörhead’s] Lemmy Kilmister, and Tom Waits, perhaps but at times approaching that!—and the lyrics which your manager Gordon Oglivie helped out on that you were singing with that voice. A few other contemporary Ulster bands of the time like Ruefrex had songs with those sociopolitical themes, and there were some occasional ones like the Outcasts’ “The Cops Are Coming,” that also addressed what was going on in Northern Ireland at the time. But most of the other punk bands seemed to mostly write about girls or non-“troubles” topics, trying to escape it more than address it. I didn’t mind, as I felt like bands should write about whatever moved them, but I remember feeling truly educated by your album, and becoming more interested in the causes and history of a major city with armed army-patrolled checkpoints and barriers everywhere. Music is great when it makes you want to know more?
Obviously, the main comparison that gets drawn with us from that time is The Undertones, who took a diametrically opposite view to ourselves vis-à-vis the Troubles. I perfectly understood their “Everyone here lives it, so who wants to hear about it when they go out for the night” attitude, and I felt that both bands had valid responses to the situation. It’s just not how I’m built. If I see or feel an injustice, I feel the need to speak out and songwriting became my platform for that. In that I was hugely encouraged by Gordon, who’s influence on the whole thing cannot be underestimated.
That said, Gordon and you seemed like you were expressing what you yourself lived and were feeling. The whole idea of repressed energy and people prevented from doing anything exploding is so well expressed in “Suspect Device” and “Law and Order” and “State of Emergency.”
Well, that’s because that’s what it was. I mean it’s difficult for me to remember from this remove, but one thing that does stick with me was we were very careful not to sensationalize anything in those songs. It would have been easy and crass to take newspaper headlines and somehow “bend them to fit our narrative.” So, we tried as rigorously as possible to stay honest. Something I’ve tried to do ever since.
Were you yourself, or a close friend, ever physically attacked for wandering into a section of the city you weren’t “supposed” to be in? Or especially hassled by the R.U.C.? Or the Army? Or just routinely?
Belfast was like a patchwork quilt with regard to differing sectarian areas, so it was all too easy to get beaten up just for wandering from one to the other. It’s why people stayed in their own areas. Where I worked was the only Protestant firm on a Catholic road. To get home, I had to leave there, which was one risk, then walk from that area across to a Protestant area, a second risk, then a further Catholic area and finally to my home area which was predominantly Protestant. All in the space of about 45 minutes.
One of the great things about Inflammable Material is that it decried the absurdity of living like that without taking sides, making it possible to be a punk and oppose it all, and come together at gigs whether you were Protestant or Catholic—and just see that the other wasn’t an enemy but could get together and talk and get to know each other over a common bond. And of course, your band had both born Catholics and Protestants in it—without ever saying who was what—which was itself a stand of sorts in the 1970s, only a few years removed from [1972’s] Bloody Sunday [when British Army members shot 28 protesters in Derry], and a year after almost 300 people had died in the fighting. Or things like the loyalist “Shankill Butchers” attacking Catholics from that Shankill area stronghold. Interestingly, The Decemberists wrote a song called “The Shankill Butchers” about them a decade ago—and I’m not sure if many of their fans here have any idea what they were talking about—and the Maze prison protests, etc. etc. etc. Do you think that was especially true and significant?
Right, part of my route home took me through a park. In that park was an electricity substation, a small green building. That was one venue that the Shankill Butchers used to dump bodies. How bizarre that we both independently mentioned the Butcher gang! The whole non-sectarian thing was not just important to Stiff Little Fingers, it was vital. It’s why we support the Integrated Education Fund in Northern Ireland. To have kids from differing backgrounds attend the same schools helps remove that stigma before it gets a chance to get hold. Check this link: https://www.ief.org.uk/
Right, you should check out that Decemberists song. It’s especially chilling if you know what it refers to, which I doubt many of their fans here or anywhere but Ireland, do. Anyway, you once set me straight that the “troubles” by 1977 had long become more tribal polarization than really deeply religious sectarianism, and I’ve thought about that a million times with what’s going on in the U.S. now in our own politics, based on two parties rather than religious differences.
The problem with any conflict that has lasted as long as the Irish one has is that the original reason tends to get obscured in the mists of time. Also, populations change; what was once a majority becomes a minority. People’s opinions change. Some real political aims have been met or at least agreed upon. And most recently, I think now that there has been a period of relative calm [following 1998’s Good Friday Agreement in Belfast], the idea of a return to conflict for whatever reason, is further away from most people’s minds than it might have been in 1969.
Let’s talk a little about the songs themselves, as my final questions for you today. I remember seeing a few copies of the fanzines No Fun in Belfast and especially Alternative Ulster that inspired your song titles. A small bit of history, perhaps, being that that title became your best-known, biggest song. I remember that fanzine slagging the song named after them, funny enough! Like, what ingrates! [Laughs.]
That’s true, they did! The full story behind the song is that Gavin Martin, the editor, approached me at a gig and said they were thinking of putting a flexi-disc on the cover of their next issue. That was a pretty bold move for a fanzine and I was suitably impressed. He asked if we would be willing to give him “Suspect Device” for the disc. I told him that we had just recorded it ourselves, but how about I wrote him a song? He didn’t seem particularly bowled over by the idea, but agreed. So, I went away and came up with “Alternative Ulster.” It only seemed fitting to use their title! Anyway, long story short, he came to the next show where we played it and he hated it. LOL. [Laughter.] We thought it worth keeping, luckily, and the rest, as they say, is history. Gavin went on to become a major writer on the NME and spent many a happy article telling his readership how shit we were! LOL again. [Laughter.] And, as with Terri, he and I are friends now
Funny! And yeah, I remember reading his article and reviews in the NME. Anyway, that song always seemed to me to be more about having no place to play—so much so you had to go all the way out to the Trident out in Bangor 14 miles out of town [a heck of a long “Walk back to the city” from the lyrics”], and the Pound that’s also mentioned in the song was just booking bad cover bands then, and though they’re not mentioned in the song too, the Harp hadn’t started to book punk yet. And with no gigs, again, it sounds like there was virtually nothing to do for your new scene as a result, since even something as simple as having a party was complicated in Belfast, let alone a punk rock one when punk itself was frowned on everywhere. But because of the references to the R.U.C. [police] and the Army, your song came to symbolize that greater problem remarkably well. Ditto “We Want No More of That” and “Wasted Life” which spoke more directly to both the Army presence and armed groups that were opposing each other there like the I.R.A. or the loyalist folks and the Orange parades and all that—plus just the air of violence all around.
Indeed. I have often said that you could change the title of “Alternative Ulster” to “Alternative Manchester,” swap local references and you’d have a standard “I’m Bored” punk rock song.
And kudos to your “I’m bored” song saying, heavily, “Do something about it.”
That’s something we have always tried to do. I hated the nihilistic approach so many bands took. Although I may not have the answers to the problems I sing about, I’d much rather point them out with the caveat that it “doesn’t have to remain like this.” “People have the power,” to quote Patti [Smith], y’know?
Is the totally scathing “White Noise” [example: “Paddy is a moron, spud-thick Mick/Breeds like a rabbit, thinks with his prick/Anything floors him if he can’t fight or drink it/Round them up in Ulster, tow it out and sink it”] still confused for anti-Irish racism instead of obvious sarcasm and satire –as if [much older Irish writer] Jonathan Swift really wanted us to eat babies [a 1729 A Modest Proposal reference].
Yes. Sadly. In fact, it’s confused as full on racism.
More proof we live in an Idiocracy? Or weren’t British folks who grew up on the Goon Shows and Monty Python supposed to have a greater, inbuilt understanding of absurdity and satire than us yanks of your adopted country? [Jake Burns lives in Chicago now.]
The old line that Americans don’t get irony? That also applies to a lot of Brits and Irish as well
Gotcha. Their amazing loss. Do you still hate the album’s closer, “Closed Groove,” as you seemed to when we first met at Trax in October 1980 and I asked you about it? I always found the song so classically tense, such a unique ending on that record, like a curveball at the end about the hopeless boredom of it all from Gordon Oglivie’s lyrics. It does speak about the hard-headedness of long entrenched positions not being open to discussion, extremely well at that. And I think you’ve done full renderings of the LP at some gigs or tours. So you’ve had to sing that again? [Laughs.]
Yes, I still hate it! LOL. [Laughter.] As for the full rendering thing: We will be doing just that on a 40th Anniversary of Inflammable Material tour of the States later this year. And, I’m afraid to say, we found a sneaky way round it… We play the whole album, apart from “Closed Groove,” and then as the lights come up, it’s played over the p.a. Come on! In a live setting, after a 90-minute show, we’re going to play “Alternative Ulster” and then finish with “Closed Groove?” LOL. Not going to happen!
I always thought it was climactic, after all that more straightforward punk, chillingly so in fact! But it’s your record and I can’t make you like it like I do. Though that begs the question: Why put it on there in the first place, especially in that climactic spot, then. It seems daft, almost, in retrospect! Or did someone talk you into it. Oglivie? Or your other manager? Geoff Travis?
It was 100% Gordon.
And you didn’t overrule him?
No. I really wish I’d fought harder. But, he’d written the lyric and loved it. I have nothing against the lyric. I just hate the music—and I wrote that! [Laughter.]
Now, that’s a funny memory of youthful days, 40 years back! Speaking of funny, was “Barbed Wire Love” sneaky black humor about the whole thing in Belfast? I.E., between that and “White Noise,” did no one give you proper credit for that cheeky sense of humor on an otherwise fierce debut record?
No one realized when we were being funny, and very few people gave us credit for the actual melodies on those songs—probably down to my style of “singing!” When we wrote “Barbed Wire Love,” Gordon and I had tears rolling down our cheeks. In fact when we came up with the [Beach Boys’ cover of the Fred Fassert/The Regents’] “Barbara Ann” parody idea, I think I actually fell off the couch laughing at the idea of this “hard edged political punk rock band” playing a Beach Boys sound-a-like! And we were both huge Beach Boys fans!
I was, too. And perhaps an outlier lyric on the record, the “Rough Trade” song was always of particular interest. Obliviously, the mistake persists that you were singing about your own label Rough Trade, when you were actually singing about a major label, Island, that had been dishonest in their dealing with you, pulling a deal they’d offered after you’d quit your jobs on their say so—at a time when unemployment in Belfast was severe. Given the Sex Pistols’ ‘EMI,’ the Clash’s ‘Complete Control,’ and the aforementioned Graham Parker’s ‘Mercury Poisoning,’ can you be accused of wearing some real blinders in engaging with a major label like that and believing them, in how majors were already being accused in famous songs of backing out on promises they’d made by your London peers? On the other hand, after this LP you signed a very different deal with another major, Chrysalis, expressly designed to go much more smoothly, than, say, the Clash’s tenure on CBS. In fact, when I interviewed him, Joe Strummer told me that after a decade, he’d had to go on ‘strike’ and refuse to record for them ever again. This went on years until they realized he wasn’t bluffing, to be let out of the contract as a solo artist, he was so fed up. So can it be said you learned from him/them, and your experience in leaving Rough Trade Records after just the one album? You famously refused to sign unless you had written proof of complete artistic control, as per the back cover of your second album sleeve in the U.K. (but not here), the first one they put out. It had the Chrysalis memo on it!
We were blindsided by the Island thing, that’s for sure! You’re right, we were all naïve. We had never had any dealings with record labels, and neither had either of our managers except on a small local level so, we got burned. Not to a dreadful extent, but enough for it to hurt. So much so, that when we realized we needed bigger distribution etc. than Rough Trade could feasibly offer us at that time, we were in a very strong position financially. That meant we could hold out for what we wanted. And what we wanted was complete artistic control. It’s a fact that SLF never actually signed to Chrysalis. We signed a tape lease deal with them, whereby, they got finished master tapes from us and they pressed them up and sold them. We had the final say on everything. Music, sleeve design, producer, packaging, colored or non-colored vinyl etc. Everything. And after 10 years, the tapes reverted back to us!
And this time the blindsiding was on them, given that sleeve on the second LP that seemed to catch them by surprise, but they were contractually obligated to put it out like that! [Laughter.] In fact, I remember that a business professor at the time was teaching your contract in his college class, it was so unusual! OK, last question: How shocked were you when you saw Inflammable Material had hit the English charts at #14. I figure you must have been gobsmacked, as they say over there. For one thing, indie albums didn’t make the U.K. Top 40 back then, it was unprecedented if I recall. Had you ever dreamed of that sort of mass success coming from the other side of the Irish Sea? Of course, you had some [legendary BBC DJ] John Peel love, but a hit LP might have sounded out of reach without wider BBC play. And any final thoughts on the record? It must be a great source of pride that it was then, and still is acknowledged as one of the most important punk rock, and even indie, albums of all time.
The chart placing was beyond our wildest dreams. I remember Richard Scott, one of the head honchos at Rough Trade coming up to a show in York on the Inflammable Material tour the day before the chart came out. We had heard rumors by this stage, but almost didn’t want to believe it. So, we quizzed him about it and he said he’d heard the same rumors but really knew as much or as little as we did. The following day it was confirmed that we were the highest new entry in the chart, one place above Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits! LOL. [Laughter.] It was also my 21st birthday. A pretty great day all in all. Except my girlfriend and had an unholy row, which wasn’t that unusual but you think she could have kept it for another day! Strange what you remember, isn’t it? I am very proud of Inflammable Material insomuch as I’m ever proud of anything, it’s not really in my DNA. But, it was a hell of an achievement, not just for four young musicians from a backwater, but also for our managers and for Rough Trade and, as it turned out, for indie records as whole. It certainly opened the doors.