Nobody’s Hero: Stiff Little Fingers’ Jake Burns at 65

The Irish punk icon tells all in new interview

Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers (Image: Pinterest)

I go back with Stiff Little Fingers to buying those first two import singles, “Suspect Device” and “Alternative Ulster,” in 1978 and raging about the room (or the car, or in my head) shout-singing right along.

And then, maybe when I calmed down a bit, thought “This is Northern Ireland’s Clash!” Or close to it. The album that featured those singles, Inflammable Material, was called a “classic punk album” by the NME. No disagreement from me

I saw them first in 1981 at a club in Boston called Spit and met raspy-voiced singer-guitarist Jake Burns after their ripping set. We talked some punk rock and we talked some politics. “We’re only political in the original meaning of the word,” Burns said. “Of the citizen. All we’ve ever done is write about things we knew. It’s a rule of always stuck to. We grew up in Belfast so the minute we start singing about Belfast, everybody assumes you’re being political.”

There were misinterpretations of “Alternative Ulster,” but Burns stressed he wasn’t exploiting The Troubles, pitting Catholics against Protestants. (There were both in the band.) The song was a rallying cry for youth, against bleakness and oppression. In begins with one of the most memorable electric guitar riffs in punk rock and it closes with a verse runs. “They say they’re a part of you/And that’s not true, you know/They say they’ve got control of you/And that’s a lie, you know/They say you will never be free, free, free.” 

On “Nobody’s Hero,” the almost-title track of their second album, Nobody’s Heroes, Burns sang “Don’t want to be nobody’s hero/Don’t want to be nobody’s star/Get up, get out, be what you are.”

Punk rock as we know it waned as the early 80s took shape. And there was no SLF from 1982-1988. On the Boston stop of the reunion tour in 1989 at the Channel, after the set Burns said, “Are we a real band? I don’t know. We’ve been doing this schtick for two years now.” 

Turned out they were, once again, a real band. There have been 10 studio albums, the latest being 2014’s No Going Back, and numerous tours. Today’s lineup includes co-founding bassist Ali McMordie, guitarist Ian McCullum, who’s been there since 1993, and drummer Steve Grantley, in the chair since 1996.



I caught them last in October 2019 at the Brighton Music Hall in Boston.  I was shocked, a bit, right out of the box with “Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae” because it didn’t feature Jake’s trademark gruff bark/roar, but rather, more mellifluous vocalizing.

What gives? 

“It’s because after 40 years I’ve learned how to sing,” Jake said post-set, with a laugh. He did employ that bark at various, other key points in the set which featured the (near) entirety of Inflammable Material. They didn’t play the album’s final song, “Closed Groove,” Jake said because, well, they thought it kinda sucked and it was a real come-down from their massive rock/reggae stomp through Bob Marley’s “Johnny Was” and their band-defining “Alternative Ulster.” And “Johnny Was” came about because, well, The Clash covered Junior Murvin’s “Police & Thieves” on their debut. 

We talked about how the hippie and punk cultures were, at heart, maybe not that far apart, despite the difference in sound, attack and outward appearance. “Peace and love” was kind of at the root of both, however camouflaged or dressed down during the punk years. 

“Don’t give me peace and love from the good lord above,” sang Bob Geldof in Boomtown Rats’ “Lookin’ After No. 1.” “You’ll only get in the way with your stupid ideas.” (It wasn’t til years later – maybe during Live Aid – that I figured out maybe Geldof wasn’t espousing that view himself but writing from a vain character’s point of view.) Burns said he and a rather famous punk rocker of the day discussed this subject years ago in kinda hushed tones. You know, a secret that shouldn’t get out.

Though it’s been getting some attention lately – the John Fetterman situation – depression is not something a lot of men tend to talk about. Not Jake. He talked about depression backstage with me but what set that up was what he said, introducing “My Dark Places,” about his own battles with the black dog, encouraging people – especially men, who tend to bottle things up and not talk about – to get help. I could relate. I was telling him about meeting William Styron in 2001 at a party and talking to him about his wrenching personal story of his bout with depression in Darkness Visible, a book I’ve read twice and Jake read, too.

When I asked Styron about Darkness Visible, he was clearly a little pissed off it had become THE book he was known for, you know, after The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice.  “I didn’t know I wanted to be the first to spill the beans,” he told me. “It focused on a very critical problem, an illness that affects so many people. I didn’t realize it touched so many people [when I wrote it] . . .  I had a relapse last year and pulled through again.” 

Of his battles, Burns said, “There are times when you think ‘I’m going to wallow in this for a day or two. I’m going to lock myself away, I’m not going to get out of bed, but I think there’s still a handle I can grab onto. This isn’t the end of the world. I know I can come out of this. When it first hit, I didn’t see an end to it, I didn’t know how you got out of it. Fuck it, I am going to feel sorry for myself for a day or two, but as long as you know there’s a door back marked exit you can get to.

He didn’t do anti-depressants. “I didn’t bother with the medicine,” Burns said. “I did a little bit of therapy, but it’s a probably a little bit of the Northern Irish upbringing in you – ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake pull yourself together’ was in the back of my mind. As regards to pills, I really, really didn’t want to go down that road. My reasoning was: I think of it like a hangover. If I go and drink another beer, it’ll take the hangover away for another day but all that’s doing is delaying it or making the problem worse. You’re just postponing the problem and not facing up to it.”

Jake and I did an email interview on the eve of his 65th birthday, which is Feb. 21. And, yes, we circled around to the depression thing.


From what I gather, Stiff Little Fingers is doing gangbusters in concert in Ireland and England. (And not so bad when it comes to packing clubs in your adopted homeland either.) If I’m right here, what do you think accounts for this late-career success? My theory with bands such as yours is that after the big burst of attention during the punk era, times changed, tastes changed, music changed, your band went away for some time, but upon coming back, you dinged a bell with the original fans who were still keyed in – yes, I remember them and liked them loads – while attracting that younger set of fans enticed by what went on before they were even born. Your take?

Regarding older fans, I think that’s a big part of it. Of course, then your main problem is “How do we avoid just becoming a nostalgia act?” And that’s where the younger folks come in. You realize that you may very well be playing to someone who has never seen you before and that gives you the impetus to keep the bar as high as possible. There’s also an element of what I think of as the “Iggy Pop” effect. What I mean by that is when the Pistols et al began they would cite Iggy as a prime influence. At that point, although he was doing very nicely thank you. I believe he really got a boost from those endorsements as fans of those younger bands went back and checked him out. We have definitely had that thanks to the likes of Green Day, Blink 182, the [Dropkick] Murphys and others. Which, of course, is fantastic.


Is there new material in the works and if so where are you heading? Also, to be frank, is new material necessary at this point? I mean that from both a creative viewpoint and from an audience satisfaction viewpoint.

Yes, we are writing at the moment although new material no longer fulfills the financial part it used to play in your career. Back then, you would live or die based on chart placings etc. These days that doesn’t matter so much for a band like ourselves. Nowadays I write because it’s a large part of who I am. Creatively, and as my way of airing my opinions without getting into a bar fight! It’s true that I am nowhere near as prolific as I used to be but I do believe that the songs are better these days. In general, there’s always the odd “lightning in a bottle” song that you’ll never re-create. Also, promoters like to see a new album out there as it validates you as somehow “relevant” in their eyes. Some of the audience are keen as well, although it’s also fair to say that many do just want the “nostalgia” aspect of the live show.

Plus, the internet has made writing new songs for profit completely pointless. As I said, some members of the audience clamour for new material so you go away and spend who knows how long writing, routining, rehearsing then recording these songs. You have them pressed up, either independently or via a label. Finally, the great day dawns that you release these new songs to the world and five minutes later someone has burned the disc and put a pristine digital copy on the internet for free thus rendering all your effort redundant.


Looking back, what do you think was the greatest misunderstanding about SLF and has that shifted over time?

That’s a difficult one. A lot of the original misconceptions are still there. There’s barely a month goes by that I don’t have to explain to someone that “White Noise” from the first album is most definitely NOT a racist song. Ditto “Fly the Flag” from the second one. It’s also difficult to get people to look beyond the loud guitars and frantic tempi to hear the melodies that I always thought permeated our best work.

Oh, and some folks still refuse to believe that U2 NEVER opened for us, even to the point of telling me that I’m lying when I say they didn’t and that they can remember the show because they “were there.”


VIDEO: Stiff Little Fingers perform “Alternative Ulster” on Rockpalast 1980 

Does your passion for your material wax and wane or is it more of a case of We-wrote-it/We-dug-it/We-will-always-dig it? I mean you’ll never leave the building without playing “Alternative Ulster” and “Suspect Device.” Still near and dear?

With some of the material there’s definitely an element of “familiarity breeding contempt,” but not in the case of those two. I always say it’s a bit like being a football manager and those songs are your star substitute players. You know, if a show is going badly, you look at the song list and see one of those is coming up and think: “Right, we’ll put the boy ‘Alternative Ulster’ on, if that doesn’t win us the game, we’re doomed!”


You and I talked about a lot of things for a Boston Rock/Talk podcast about six years ago and then again in 2019, but one of them was depression – both of us suffer from bouts of it at times, certainly. Has it ever felt debilitating – to your work or life in general or do you recognize it as a temporary thing? And how do you best work out of it? 

It’s fair to say that I feel I can deal with my occasional bouts of depression these days. A lot of that is to do with the facts that a): I now recognize the warning signs and symptoms that a period of it is coming on and b): I have at least one foolproof method of dealing with it. By the way, my “method” is very simple. It’s fresh air and greenery. I head out to a local forest preserve and just walk around for a while, away from the sounds of traffic and away from the concrete. It works miracles and is one of my reasons for wanting to move to a small town in West Virginia. {Burns and his wife, Shirley Sexton, had made Chicago their home for years.} So, yes, I can recognize it as a temporary thing, but before I knew the signs and had found my way of dealing with it, I did “crash and burn” more than a few times, the whole “go to a darkened room in the middle of the afternoon and stay there” thing.


And since you are turning that magical age of 65 – retirement for some –  any thoughts looking back or looking forward on where you’ve been or want to be?

It’s a weird age these days. As you say, when I was growing up, the general life plan was: you leave school at 16 or 18 and depending on how smart/motivated you were, you went to college/university or you got a job. Either way, you eventually ended up as part of the workforce and you did that until you reached 65, then you retired. These days, that has all changed, for a number of reasons, and certainly in my business I don’t feel the need to stop completely just because of a few numbers on my birth certificate. 

But I do recognize the worth in slowing down somewhat. So, this year will probably see the last full-scale tours of the U.K. and (hopefully) the U.S. and we’ll concentrate on much shorter runs and special events (festivals, one-offs etc.) in the future. There’s also the possibility of doing more acoustic shows either on my own or with other friends from various bands as that’s much less taxing. I also don’t want the quality of SLF shows to suffer just because we’re all getting older. By performing fewer shows, my hope is we can at least keep meeting the bar that we’ve set for ourselves.



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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

7 thoughts on “Nobody’s Hero: Stiff Little Fingers’ Jake Burns at 65

  • February 21, 2023 at 3:04 pm

    Cool interview. Thanks. Nobody likes a smartass but…

    2 things – it’s McCallum and there definitely was an SLF in 1987, as the first gig I ever went to was SLF’s Xmas party at Ulster Hall , Belfast, in December 1987. It was awesome. Been to 50+ of their gigs since but still remember that one. Went on my own, age 16, with no mates fans at the time. That changed…



  • February 22, 2023 at 3:42 am

    The first time I saw SLF was at the Colston Hall in Bristol for the Go For It tour. It was an amazing experience. I met Jake backstage at the Roadmender a few years ago and he said it was about the only venue big enough for the stage set which kind of replicated the album cover. Having missed them due to covid and other circumstances I am well chuffed to be seeing them at the Roundhouse in a few weeks. Hanx.

  • February 23, 2023 at 4:21 am

    Saw SLF in Cardiff at grannies for the first time many years ago ….in march it will be my 114th SLF gig ….and they get better each concert …
    Happy birthday jake

  • February 23, 2023 at 12:49 pm

    How can anyone think that « White Noise » or « Fly the Flag » is racist? Beyond me…..

    Otherwise, my favourite band of all time.

  • February 24, 2023 at 1:26 pm

    Too many songs/tracks to speak about. Followed you lot since your first album. Still tingle when Go For It strikes up at your gigs. Took my wife & daughters to see you & they are all SLF converts. On the subject of depression, when I’ve been down, fed up, lonely or generally feeling sorry for myself, SLF have picked me up God knows how many times ! You lot don’t know how many smiles you put on faces. Best served loud !
    Jake, you’ve even cut your hair like me ! Hanx !

  • February 24, 2023 at 2:53 pm

    Happy Birthday!
    Favourite band. Finally saw them at 55 yrs old in Calgary, AB, Canada a couple of years ago. Felt like I was 17 yrs old again. Great show. All time hIghlight of concert going.

  • March 1, 2023 at 9:31 am

    All time best band , either live or on vinyl.
    never made a bad album
    all the words have a massive meaning
    simply been my life


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