The Undertones return to America next month
That the Undertones and Buzzcocks were the two greatest, hottest, longest-lasting melodic punk rock bands of the original late ’70s U.K. punk rock explosion is an article of faith for this writer for four decades.
In many ways, it’s hard to believe they are that old, as they scored a Sire Records contract 41 years ago when two of the members were still in their teens and the other three had just barely hit their 20th birthdays—and so, they seem forever young, frozen in amber, as their most remembered music carries that spark of youth forever, but so much more besides. And despite being from Derry, Northern Ireland—which had basically zero presence in the record business even in the U.K.—they managed four incredibly different, beloved albums from 1979-1982, evolving into a post-punk-pop group, then a decided soul-pop outfit along the way, while touring in America in all but one of those four years to boot. They hit the U.K. charts regularly when the first two LPs appeared in 1979 and 1980 and would have had a gold record there with 1979’s immortal eponymous debut were it not for some record company chicanery—it sold over the requisite 100,000 copies, but in two editions. And a solid cult following greeted their shows here, too. But then the split up in 1983 for 16 years, in part because that evolution proved far less popular in those U.K. charts, the record company started meddling, the feeling of commercial failure began to hit—and the rest was down to garden variety bickering that might have sunk them, anyway. And were thought to have been gone for good.
After all, they left on at best so-so terms, and they barely conversed among one another during that decade and a half apart, while the two guitarists, brothers John and Damian O’Neill put together a popular 1984-1994 band That Petrol Emotion in the interim, releasing six prominent albums, and adored, quavering singer Feargal Sharkey was enjoying a successful (there) solo career, adding three albums of his own, 1985-1991. The Undertones seems just a pleasant, if perpetual, permanent memory.
Thus, it was amazing when the band returned in 1999, with four out of five original members intact—all but Sharkey, replaced by singer Paul McLoone—and even more miraculous that the group traveled to North America in 2004 (for New York and Boston) and 2005 (for a full tour), playing their first shows here in 22 years. While losing Sharkey meant that some would not accept the new version, those that did were rewarded when wildly rapturous crowds spurred the group to crisp renditions of the songs—by all four musicians that had played them in the first place—with a singer in McLoone that totally cut it in a difficult role.
Perhaps even more amazing, the fivesome is still with us without lineup change since, having released two more albums since the reformation, 2003’s Get What You Need and 2007’s Dig Yourself Deep. And having done some West Coast dates in 2011 as discussed below, they are now about to return for eight Northeast and Southwest gigs next month, including dates at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge May 22 and Gramercy Theater May 23, plus Boston, Las Vegas’ infamous Punk Rock Bowling festival, and four California shows. Fans would do well to see them now, not only because they haven’t been here in so very long, again, but because there’s no guarantee they’ll be with us much longer. As Damian O’Neill reveals in our interview below in advance of these shows, it’s not that they are advancing in their age, though anyone with math schools can calculate that based on the above info. It’s that one of them has been having some health issues.
But then again, who knows about any of us? As also discussed below, and speaking of Buzzcocks, the recent sudden, unforeseen death of old inspiration Pete Shelley of that group hits home for O’Neill about how ephemeral we all are. Read on.
You guys were here in, what, 2004, for like three dates in the East Coast, right? And 2005 for a fuller tour? Why was there no return since, even though we’re glad you’re coming now. Or was there one?
DAMIAN O’NEILL: I think the first shows in East Coast were 2005 then we did some West Coast dates in 2011 I think. The short answer why we haven’t been back is getting the time off from work (for some of us) isn’t easy and playing the USA is expensive (especially getting work visas)!
What changed, then, in this case? Was it Punk Rock Bowling in Las Vegas?
Yes! We loved doing it the last time  and fancied it again. It then made sense to arrange dates around it to make it more feasible to cover expenses.
Have any of you been here as tourists since then? If not, you must be truly looking forward to coming back after so long.
Me and my wife and daughter Rosa had a short weekend trip to New York last April to celebrate Rosa’s 18th birthday. We had a great time albeit a short stay. Happy to say both of them will be with us on this whole U.S. trip!
Lovely, and cheers. It’s a trip with children. Literally! I just looked up in my files and see that the Knitting Factory shows in Manhattan, when I interviewed you and Mickey [for Big Takeover issue 54] in March 4 and 5, 2004, and the Southpaw, Brooklyn show was April 17, 2005. So the Cafe Du Nord San Francisco show I saw with the Epoxies must have been two weeks later or so after Southpaw. Did you fly over and just do the West Coast in 2011, and we just never heard about it on this side of the country?
I guess so. We did Punk Rock Bowling and then some Californian shows around it. I’ve also played with That Petrol Emotion at SXSW and a New York show in 2009 I think.
Right! I was just about to mention that, as I just remembered a moment ago that I saw you at that, and had forgotten!
Did you! I’ve forgotten too! [Jack reads him his review he filed in Big Takeover #66.] Indeed. Not a night to remember unfortunately. Terrible sound….
This should be better! The Gramercy [in Manhattan] is fun. I think I heard that it is sold out already. Have you heard anything about that or other shows here next month?
Yes, the Gramercy is sold out and that’s why we’re doing a second show at Le Poisson Rouge. Boston is also sold out—the Irish will be out in force!. Not sure about the other dates.
That must be so gratifying! In our last interview in 2004, it seemed amazing that the band was back at all. [Bassist] Mickey [Bradley] had said he almost never saw the other guys during the time you were broken up, and was no longer playing, but everyone just seemed delighted to be back—with the one caveat that Paul [McLoone] was now singing, which meant it was much more fun for everyone than the way things had left off in the early ’80s with Feargal [Sharkey]. My goodness, it’s now another 16 years later. You’ve been back like two decades now. Is that still the mood in the band? That’s it’s just a gas?
It is, Jack! It’s still fun because we still have that freshness due to only playing select dates when it suits us. I honestly believe we’re better live than we’ve ever been. The only drawback now is that our drummer Billy [Doherty] has had a few health scares recently so we’re conscious this U.S.A. trip could well be our last.
Wow, that gives it an air of poignancy, doesn’t it? In fact, thinking about it, you were basically a kid, 17-years-old and on [BBC national TV shows] Top of the Pops [in 1978] and Old Grey Whistle Test [in 1979 when he’d turned all of 18] and the like, which is just mind-blowing in retrospect, coming over the Irish Sea to do those no less. I had a conversation with John Maher of The Buzzcocks about that same thing once, that he was on like Top of the Pops a year or two before that, and had to go to [high] school the next day back in [greater] Manchester and all his classmates were ragging on him about it! Does that enter your mind now when you play? And on the other side, with the deaths of so many people you and I both admired at that same time, when we both were teenagers, Bowie and everyone… It must feel extra special that you are all still alive and able to do this…
Absolutely. [Buzzcocks main frontman] Pete Shelley passing away last year really gutted us all! Such a lovely guy. And [The English Beat’s] Ranking Roger recently, too. It makes you grateful that we’re still healthy enough to be doing what we love onstage.
Exactly, Pete threw me for a loop, too, because I knew him and saw him nearly every year at their shows. And I know Buzzcocks was a big influence on the Undertones, as you’ve said before. Then again, your not being a teenager any more… doesn’t it make you feel especially alive when you’re playing songs that are so fun to play more than 40 years later in the case of all the first album songs [recorded in January 1979], with people you really like and have done so much with, and that the audience reacts to so much? I had those thoughts on a level much, much smaller than yours as my old band [Springhouse] were playing four shows supporting The Chills in New York and Philadelphia and D.C. last month. My word, I’m one year younger than you, but it seemed miraculous that anyone even remembered us at all and our songs, let alone getting the chance to play them three decades later when we’re all older. Is it like that for you four decades on?
Right, it’s weird, but we had to break up and then reform years later for us to realize just how special it is between us, and how timeless a lot of the songs are. I honestly never get bored playing “Teenage Kicks” or “Get Over You,” etc. Just watching the crowd reaction is so good!
That is a great quote! It’s exactly how I feel about your music, and my 11-year-old son too, he’s a huge Undertones fan. I felt that way when your first album with those songs was brand new and just out! [Both songs were included in the U.S. version of The Undertones, making it an even better LP than the U.K. one.] Unlike some other bands I liked back then, it feels like your music just transcends whatever age I am. And I have to say. I and a few hundred I knew could have told you 40 years ago how special your band was! Ha ha. Though your status as friends within the band seems more mature since you’ve come back maybe,? And maybe that’s not all that unusual, as you take more of a step back from it being all your identity and all your time and all your all-consuming life.
Obviously when you’re younger, you’ve a lot more hang-ups, and you don’t truly appreciate how good things are until it’s too late. These days, our friendship for each other—including our manager Barry [Stewart] and crew—is very strong.
With that in mind, what are you most looking forward to in coming to America together? You must be stoked! But I shouldn’t be putting words in your mouth.
All of it really! New York obviously, ‘cause it’s still the home of punk rock for us [CBGB scene, etc.]. Punk Rock Bowling should be a blast again also, and we all could do with some much missed California sun on our pasty Irish complexions!
I wanted to share with you from my last interview with Rock & Roll Globe, this exchange with Miki [Berenyi], ex-Lush and Kevin [McKillop], ex-Moose, of the new band Piroshka, who are touring Europe this summer: “But I don’t think there’s anything that we can massively tie our agenda to, because there’s such a sort of weird unsettled thing going on here in Britain. To be honest with you, we’ve got six dates in Europe, and I don’t even know if that’s going to happen post Brexit; so we might all be just sitting on the platform of the Eurostar with that guitar going, ‘Okay!?!’ Yeah, I mean things like that we joke about, but we really seriously don’t know. I mean, on the 29th of March, we [Britain] are due to leave the European Union, and so much of it is still vague, and it’s a lot of guesswork going on, a lot of speculation as to how things might be. I like the idea of the fact that we could just go to Europe this summer, that there’s still time for us to be added onto festivals and things in France and Spain. But we don’t know. It’d be great to be able to look forward to all of that and know that it was certain, but we just don’t know. Probably be easier to go to America!”
I know, Brexit is a self inflicted disaster here! I’m actually unhealthily obsessed with it right now. Britain’s become the laughing stock of the world. Lots of mini Trumps have come out of the woodwork, especially in the vile Conservative party. Luckily, we all hold Irish passports so hopefully playing in Europe if Brexit actually happens shouldn’t affect us. But I could be wrong!
I mean, people in London already have enough trepidation about it. But four of you are most closer to the crux of Brexit’s immediate ramification. In the past we’ve talked, Damian, about your folks being part of Bloody Sunday [January 30, 1972 “Bogside Massacre”—as it’s also called—in Derry where Damian grew up and Undertones are still based, where 28 unarmed Catholic protesters were shot by the British Army and 14 killed], and the original inspiration of your [1981 single] “It’s Going to Happen!” being the [Catholic IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands] and “This Crisis of Mine” being about the “troubles.” So after all that growing up and in the early days of the band being based in Northern Ireland, this must seem like a gigantic catastrophe that might be unfolding. I know you are still in South London. And Paul was in Dublin. Are the other three still in Derry? I know Mickey must be, since he does that BBC radio show there.
Yes, I’m still living in London and the others are in Derry. Paul lives and works in Dublin. But you’re right, there’s a lot of tension in Ireland at the moment because there’s still a strong possibility that a physical land border will be reintroduced again between north and south if a no deal Brexit happens. That would inevitably lead to war again.
Yikes, and I hope less stupid heads prevail. It’s like no one in London remembers or something? Of course, Americans are hardly in any position to criticize. But still, wow, the stakes!… Anyway, here’s a good question to end with. Looking back, what are you happiest memories that are satisfying, and happiest songs to listen to now, 41 years later? Today I was re-listening to your 2005 comeback LP, Get What You Need, there’s some superb stuff on that too like “Oh, Please!” My favorite memories are seeing you twice with The Clash at the Palladium [Manhattan] were you were at your punkiest in the fall of 1979, and a year later at Irving Plaza when you had your best sound and two albums of gold to play. And my happiest tracks to spin are “Male Model,” “There Goes Norman,” “Get Over You” and “Billy’s Third” and probably “Tearproof” as well, but man there are so many!
My happiest memories are: Playing the Casbah in Derry in 1977/78. Making lifelong friends there was very special. Doing Top of the Pops for the first time with “Teenage Kicks” [October 26, 1978]. Obviously playing with The Clash in America was a highlight. Playing the Ulster Hall in Belfast in 1980 was also special, as was London’s Lyceum. Fave songs: “Family Entertainment”—I’m a tad biased [he wrote it]/, “I Know a Girl,” “Male Model,” “Get Over You,” “Tearproof,” “It’s Going to Happen,” “Love Parade,” “Thrill Me,” and “Oh Please.” Cheers, Jack!
VIDEO: The Undertones – In Concert 1980