Derry’s Finest: From the left, Damian O’Neill, Billy Doherty, Paul McLoone, Michael Bradley, John O’Neill
It was only supposed to be a one-off show, a November 1999 date to mark the opening of a new venue in their home city.
There would be no Feargal Sharkey this time, he of the fantastically-distinctive warbling voice by then a music industry high-flier and having ruled out any reunion.
Instead, local lad Paul McLoone stepped up to the mic at the Nerve Centre in Derry, Northern Ireland, having previously seen service with a band called The Carrellines, who also happened to feature drummer Billy Doherty.
And guess what? The new-look Undertones – McLoone joining Doherty and fellow founder members Mickey Bradley (bass) and brothers Damian and John O’Neill (guitars) – loved it so much they’ve regularly reconvened ever since.
Over 15 years they’ve added two more albums to the catalogue and played around 300 additional shows. What’s more, a new 15-date tour starts at Leamington Spa Assembly on Friday, May 1, and includes a visit to Liverpool Academy 2 on Saturday, May 30, the closest they’ll get to me this time around.
They’ll also be back in my neck of the woods on Saturday, October 31 too, alongside From The Jam and The Beat at Manchester Academy in what appears to be a dream bill for this old timer, just part of another year of dates fitted in alongside the five-piece’s day-jobs.
Anyway who’s read more than a couple of features on this blog will know that from their punk beginnings to a more soulful re-direction over their initial 13 singles and four great albums, these were my heroes as an impressionable youth.
I had plenty more musical loves, not least one right on my doorstep, The Jam, but while we grew up at opposite ends of the UK amid very different circumstances, The Undertones somehow still seemed to be the boys-next-door for this young new wave obsessive.
They didn’t sing about the Troubles in their homeland, at least not blatantly, tending to tackle more universal themes like teenage angst and heartbreak, amid infectious guitar hooks, that amazing voice out front and some pretty perfect harmonies.
I was barely a teenager when I first caught them live on the Positive Touch tour at Guildford Civic in June 1981, and within two years was seeing The Undertones with Feargal for the last time, another date in my hometown followed by their final British gigs at London’s Lyceum in late May 1983 and supporting Peter Gabriel and the Thompson Twins at Crystal Palace FC two months later.
Past Days: The Undertones in their prime (pic courtesy of BBC)
The vinyl passion continued long after, with a potted history of that supplied in my September 2012 feature, Why I Still Love The Undertones. And to cut a Spandau Ballet song title short I finally got my chance to enjoy those earlier hits and near-misses first-hand in the year 2000 (when, incidentally, Jarvis Cocker failed to show up at ours after all).
And while their new lead singer was the same age as me, I felt he fitted in just perfectly, adding a youthful, fresh approach to the proceedings that the songs deserved.
Life moves on for all of us of course, and I haven’t seen the band for a while, possibly not since a few London and Manchester dates in 2003 and 2004. And the last time I spoke to Paul in person was after the band’s set at GuilFest in 2003, I reckon, as I reminded him when we caught up on the phone this week on the line between Dublin and Lancashire.
“That’s the one I nearly missed! It’s actually quite embarrassing. I slept in and had to get a later flight, and it was all really tight.
“I was rushed down to get to the airport and had to break every speed limit known to British law on the way. The whole time the promoter was on the phone asking, ‘Where are you now?’
“The band were on the stage contemplating doing the set without me. I literally got out of the car, ran up the steps and started singing. And as it turned out, it was actually a great show!
“There was a lot of hassle getting in, and with festivals there’s always going to be guys stopping you, looking for wristbands or ID. I didn’t have anything, because we didn’t have time. But somehow I got through.
“It’s funny now … but I think it only started being funny about two years ago!”
We go on to reminisce about those earliest Undertones Mk II shows in June 2000, their first outside Ireland since reforming, not least a fantastic night at the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden before the following day’s Fleadh appearance in Finsbury Park. Great memories.
Past Product: Paul and Billy’s former band’s sole single
“I played the Mean Fiddler with The Carrellines too. It was great to play, and like you say one of those moments that sticks in your head from my early involvement with the band.”
With all my past history involving this band, I let on how it made me laugh when the promoter told me before, ‘Paul is the new singer, having been with the band since they reformed in 1999, so no point asking him about the old days`.
That said, I sympathise with him having to regularly answer those inevitable Feargal questions, from people wondering if he’s still involved with the band.
“Sometimes they’ll just catch me in a bad mood, like on Twitter recently. I felt bad about that, because that guy wasn’t even being nasty.
“But that’s a problem with Twitter, people just butt in on other people’s conversations. I just let fly, saying I was so sick about it.
“You’ve just got to take it on the chin though. I’m not like the guy who took over in Queen. We’re not on that scale, so I guess we can’t expect everyone to know the full story.”
Paul’s one school year older, but we were both born in 1967, albeit some distance apart. My own love of The Undertones came via my older brother and his mates. How about his?
“I was around 11 when Teenage Kicks came out and my first memory of the band is actually not getting to see them!
“They were scheduled to play a show in a small working men’s club in the Bogside in Derry, where I grew up.
“People were very excited about The Undertones doing this free show, but I wasn’t allowed to go, because it would be full of ‘those punks’. And then it didn’t happen anyway for some reason.
“I also remember a friend who had the Teenage Kicks EP and brought it to Mass! We were sat at the back looking at it.
“Of course, it had a couple of expletives on the back written on a wall, so there was this frisson of transgression about it in that setting!
Mass Transgression: The offending EP
“I was also fascinated by the fact that I’d never seen an EP before, the fact that it had two tracks on each side. What sorcery was this?
“Then there were those first Top of the Pops appearances. Even then I had an idea I was going to be a musician, an embryonic notion that this was what I wanted to do.
“Seeing these guys from your street up there proved to be an incredible lightning bolt. It absolutely short-circuited this idea that it couldn’t be you!
“These guys were not just from Derry, but were really ordinary guys who hadn’t even dressed up. There was this really powerful sense of, ‘That could be me!’
“I often say this – and Mickey and John would probably just roll their eyes – but it was a tremendously important thing that they achieved.
“Let’s not labour the point, Derry was going through really terrible times. Yet this was such a positive thing.”
There must have been a sense of pride in these local lads making good?
“Absolutely, but equally and oppositely there was a lot of resentment and aggression towards them.
“Anyone with a brain and a perfectly-functioning soul was on their side, but you’ve got to remember how tough things were at the time.
“People were getting killed all the time and there were terrible economic circumstances, and still are to a large extent, with very few jobs and a very down-trodden people.
“You can get a little bitter in those circumstances, and maybe cynical. Unfortunately that’s the negative side of human nature.”
While I was far away from the Troubles in my corner of the South-East of England most of the time, I too could relate to these lads, irrespective of all that.
“Yes, they definitely embody that. People talk about punk being about how everybody can do it and it wasn’t about dressing up and all that. But it was! The Sex Pistols were styled to the nth degree.
Famous Five: The Undertones Mk I
“Take That weren’t any more styled than the Pistols! The Clash too. And I’m not knocking that at all.
“But The Undertones took it literally, frowning on dressing up and airs and graces and any idea that you were in any way different to the guys down the front at your gigs.
“They still do, and in their dotage the lads are still very anti-rock star behaviour.”
That attitude makes it for me … plus the fact that you’re such a brilliant band, of course.
“Well, that helps!”
When the band split in the summer of ’83, Paul had not long turned 16. Was he still a fan? Had he followed their development?
“I had. I’ve got to be honest and say I was unenthused by The Sin of Pride though. I really liked Positive Touch, which was a great record, but then the next album came along and there was just something about it.
“I wasn’t hugely enamoured by Mike Hedges’ production, although I liked his work with The Associates and several other bands and felt he was a great producer.
“I’ve gleaned since that there were other factors feeding into how that record turned out, but it just felt like a failure and that they hadn’t really nailed it. And that was the first time I’d felt that about The Undertones.”
Which is a real shame, because song for song it’s fantastic, so maybe it’s all down to that production.
“I agree there are some great songs there, and they left a brilliant song off in Bittersweet.”
Ah, now you’re talking. Funny you should say that. One of my favourites too, but never quite recorded the way I saw it. I remember That Petrol Emotion doing it in the early days too. So are you playing that again now?
“We have done, but it’s John’s call. I suppose every great songwriter has the one that got away, and it’s a song he’s never been completely happy with.
“We’ve tried it and I think it’s been fine, but he’s not pushed for it to be in the set. I suppose it’s one of those songs that comes from that Smokey Robinson thing he was into at the time.
Feargal’s Finale: The Sin of Pride
“Maybe it’s a bit of a hangover from a time he feels creatively was a bit of a rough patch for him.”
You could always try to re-record the whole album.
“Well, we’d have to drop the key of a couple of the songs! Love Parade is so hard to sing! Having said that, I agree with you.
“Actually, we do a roughed-up garage version of Love Parade, rather than the pastiche style on the album – a style I feel undermines that whole album.”
Turning Blue is another great example of a forgotten gem from that era as far as I’m concerned.
“There are a few, and John’s played me demos of songs that never even got to the studio. There’s also some great stuff on the album, but it just doesn’t gel as a record.
“I don’t know why, and don’t really know why they did the cover, Got To Have You Back. It’s not bad, but The Undertones were a band that didn’t need to do a cover.
“At the time – as a slightly over-zealous, over-intense music fan – I thought, ‘There’s a cover version – it’s over!’”
Were you already destined for a career on the airwaves at that stage in your life?
“I started in radio when I was 17, although I had no hankering for that. It genuinely happened by accident – just as a sequence of events.
“I was messing around doing funny voices, which people who know me will tell you I do to an irritating extent when bored.
“Someone recorded me and gave it to a local radio presenter, and it all mutated into this (satirical) sketch show for a couple of years.
“Then I moved to Dublin to produce the breakfast show for Today FM, all down to work I did in the North at the BBC for Stephen Price, who’s still my best mate.
Graphic Equaliser: Today FM presenter and Undertones lead singer Paul McLoone
“That was all parallel to playing music. I was in a couple of dead-end bands in my late teens and then The Carrellines was a bit more solid and of course also included Billy.
“We weren’t a bad band, but maybe just weren’t good enough. But Billy and I continued, had a recording studio together and a little label, and managed a couple of bands.
“Our hearts were in the right place, I just don’t think we had the acumen or killer instinct to make a big success of it. Then the radio career got a bit more solid and became more my main thing.
“Then, coincidentally, weirdly, I’d just moved to Dublin and was starting to make a bit of headway with the breakfast show when Billy called – very much out of the blue – and asked me to sing for The Undertones, for what was only meant to be one gig, the opening of The Nerve Centre in Derry. Yet here we are now!”
Was there a touch of irony in the fact that you joined Derry’s most famous band the year you left your home city?
“It wasn’t lost on me! Absolutely, and I think I may have used the Al Pacino quote (as Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III), ‘Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in!’ It was less than convenient, that’s for sure.”
I don’t always have time to listen to Paul’s four nights a week show on Today FM, but even so, just reading the set-list can be enough sometimes, this accidental DJ supplying a grand mix of influences from across the years. Well worth a listen.
“Thanks very much. I make a virtue of showing my age with the show, and try to level that by playing more up to date and brand new stuff and Irish music.
“I was a producer there for years but never really intended to be a presenter. Most things happen to me completely as a fluke.
“My presenter Tom, still a very good friend, upped and left abruptly for another station and I was left wondering what I was going to do.
Chips Again: The Undertones’ second coming – from left, John, Paul, Dee, Billy, Mickey
“I stuck my neck out and said maybe I could do the show. It was more expedience than any ambition on my part. That was eight or nine years ago, and touch wood, we’re still in there and doing okay.”
Did Paul get to work alongside fellow Undertone Mickey – also a producer-turned-presenter – in his Radio Foyle days?
“I did. Funny thing was that I was doing stuff there before him, as a kid. I then drifted out of that for a wee while, and Mickey tried a few things after the band split.
“He was in London at the time but ended up back in Derry and found his way to Radio Foyle through who he knew.
“Being a clever and talented guy he rose through the ranks very rapidly and in the early ‘90s I was back as a researcher and he was already a senior producer. In certain circumstances he was kind of my boss!”
So he knew of your band experience?
“Oh yeah. We talked about that and he would slag off my choice in music, like in 1993 when I brought in the first Suede record. He kind of sniffed and said, ‘When are you going to learn?’
“Now I’m sure he would love Suede, but at the time I think he felt, here comes Paul again, slavishly following the dictats of the New Musical Express. Which I wasn’t. I just knew a great record when I heard one.”
All these years on, you clearly love your new life in your adopted home city, Dublin.
“Yeah, and that’s absolutely no reflection on Derry, but if you live in a place for a certain amount of time it becomes home.
Sitting Pretty: The Undertones take it easy, with Paul McLoone out front
“I went home to Derry quite recently and thought I’d just go out and bump into people I’ve known for years and it’d be great. But I didn’t meet a single person I knew.
“You kind of realise the guys you knew are at home with their families or have moved away. Things move on. It’s a natural thing.”
Paul has two sons from previous relationships, with his eldest Stephen, 21, also at Today FM in Dublin.
“The power of positive nepotism! He’s a studio engineer, and his half-brother James is 17 and in the middle of his A-levels. They’re both very clever, handsome young men … obviously.”
And you’ve got the dream gig surely, your own radio show and fronting The Undertones?
“It is a bit jammy … yeah. I constantly give thanks to the universe for how things are going. I’ve always felt very lucky to be doing both my jobs, even as a producer.
“To be working in radio, which I’ve always loved, while always looking forward to playing too. I’ve always loved being on the road.
“It has its downside too, but I really enjoy it. And the trick with us is that we don’t do it all the time.”
I got the impression recently talking to your band-mate Damian (O’Neill) that he enjoys the European dates more than the home nation shows sometimes.
“Yeah, I think it’s because it’s a change of scene, and we see their beautiful cities. If the schedule’s right you get to walk around.
Dee Factor: Damian O’Neill with The Everlasting Yeah
“We had a lovely day in Turin, for example, where we just hung out for the day, the sun was shining, we were around these piazzas with beautiful women everywhere, and just felt, ‘This is alright’.”
On the other hand, Get What You Need was as long ago as 2003 and Dig Yourself Deep was in 2007. Surely we’re ready for another album by now.
“Well I am!”
Is it just fitting it all around your various schedules?
“It’s partly that, and also just that the creative elements aren’t really aligned, to be perfectly honest.
“John is still making music but it’s kind of project-based and I think he prefers that right now.”
I believe he’s been working with his former partner from Rare again.
“He has. I’ve heard it and it’s very good, but it’s a million miles away from The Undertones.
“I also don’t think Mickey is in a songwriting phase, but with everything it’s a question of getting it kicked in, getting a bit of momentum and people coming in and creating more stuff.
“I tried to force it with a single for Record Store Day a couple of years ago, hoping it might lead to a bit more, but it didn’t take.
“Damian is writing again and I really liked his last single, which would make a great Undertones song. We’re talking about throwing that into the set.
“He’s also getting on with raising a daughter and his marriage, and priorities do change as you get older. And he’s also got The Everlasting Yeah.”
What did Paul make of their first album, Anima Rising?
“I think it’s really good, and would like to hear what they do next. It feels like where they were maybe a year ago, so I’d like to know where they are now. It’s that kind of record for me. I really do like it though.”
Debut Album: The Undertones’ Salvo repackage
Will you be doing anything for Record Store Day this week?
“Unfortunately not, but I wish there was something.”
It’s never been Undertones karaoke for you, and the five of you clearly don’t need to do this for the money. You’ve all got other stuff on. In fact, there may come a time when you decide you’re all getting on a bit and Teenage Kicks and Let’s Talk About Girls don’t strike a chord anymore. But for now you seem to be doing it all for the right reasons.
“I like to think so. We just enjoy it. We have fun doing it, and it’s immensely gratifying when you go and play a gig in England – never mind New York or Tokyo, which was amazing – and people show up!
“That’s kind of affirming, and you get such a buzz out of it. I’m not so sure that we’ll be doing it for much longer, because we’ll getting a bit long in the tooth, maybe.
“That’s the last thing we would want to be perceived as – dragging our weary carcasses around again. But I said that 10 years ago and we’re still doing it!”
That was my point before. I think a big part of the appeal of the band with you out front was that I hadn’t seen the band until the Positive Touch and The Sin of Pride tours.
I thought I’d missed out on the songs that first turned me on to this band – like Mars Bars and all that. But there you were playing them again, with me beaming from ear to ear at the Mean Fiddler.
Then there were the new songs like Thrill Me, as good a moment as much of what had come before, and of course a rare example of a song legendary DJ and great fan of the band John Peel felt the need to play twice in a row on his show.
So for those who might not yet have latched on to the Undertones Mk II (and there’s really no valid excuse!), what other tracks would you recommend we dig ourselves deep for? Or should they just go out and buy both of your 21st century albums?
“Well, if they can find them – yes! But you’re right, Thrill Me is a great song and Mickey’s come up with a lot of great songs too.
“That sour, sarcastic kind of baleful look at the music industry in Oh Please I always felt was great, then a song by John called Fight My Corner on Dig Yourself Deep.
“Maybe the only reason it’s not been in the set that much is because it’s not very Undertones – it’s more That Petrol Emotion. But it’s a great song.
The Comeback: The new band’s 2003 debut LP
“Then there’s Precious Little Wonder on the first LP, Dig Yourself Deep itself … there are a lot of great songs on those albums. They don’t work 100 per cent, but albums often don’t. But there are enough good songs on there to make it worthwhile.”
Meanwhile, I believe Mickey’s working on an autobiography. I think he’s getting tired of me asking how it’s going and offering help, so I’ll ask you.
“Do you know what? That book’s now becoming an even bigger joke than the Pete Townshend one. But that did finally come out, so I wouldn’t hold my breath but I live in hope.”
Well, make sure you keep pressing him, because we all want to see it finished.
“Well yeah, we all keep ribbing him about it, and he has very little else to do with his time in fairness.”
There’s that in-house Undertones piss-taking in a nutshell, and Paul clearly fits in well with the original band members.
I was told to avoid the F-word, you’ll remember, but am I right in thinking Feargal’s never likely to pat you on the back one day and say, ‘Thanks for keeping it going, I’m back now. Push off!’ Has Paul ever had any word from Mr Sharkey about the Mk II years?
“I’ve genuinely not heard a thing, but wouldn’t expect to. He has a business relationship with the guys separate to – and rightly so – from any business I have with them.
“Most of that I imagine just happens third party through (original manager) Andy (Ferguson). I don’t think there’s any degree of direct contact.
“I certainly have no contact, and that’s not out of any rancour. I don’t know him, or what he thinks of me. I should imagine artistically he might feel, ‘Well, he’s not as good as me’, and he’s entitled to that opinion.
“Whether he’s grateful in any sense, I don’t know. I’ve never thought of that. It’s an interesting idea.”
For all the in-house tensions over the years, Feargal certainly had such a wonderfully evocative and pretty much unique voice. Were there songs you struggled to get your head (or at least your vocal chords) around when you got the job?
Great Voice: Feargal Sharkey
“There were a few, and like I said before we do Love Parade and it’s a real struggle. I really think, ‘Wow, that guy could sing!’
“Sometimes his phrasing is very specific, so to try and do it that way would just be to ape him, and I try to avoid that as a priority.
“Having said that, I think as the band progressed Feargal became more and more idiosyncratic as a vocalist and those are the songs we play less.
“So the potential for sounding like a Karaoke Feargal is played down naturally. But sometimes I think, ‘The guy must have been on helium’ Perhaps he was.”
You’ve all got your own projects, with yourself and Mickey in radio, Damian playing with The Everlasting Yeah and London-based, and we mentioned John too.
How about that wonderful new ceili outfit, The Billy Doherty Rambling Band, doing Undertones covers as well as traditional material?
“Yeah, they were our support act when we did a show at the Button Factory in Dublin in January, and they’re doing a festival with us in Killarney, County Kerry, in late June.
“They’re on the main stage and we’re in the marquee! I prefer marquees, but it appears that the Billy Doherty side-project is now threatening to outdo us!
“It’s great though. I saw them not knowing what to expect, thinking it was a bit of a joke, but it’s actually brilliant, with really great players like Robert Peoples on fiddle.”
Do you tend to keep in touch with each other when you’re not working together? There’s clearly a great camaraderie.
“A bit of that. Exactly. A bit of gentle piss-taking around the emails and even the occasional phone call.
“When I go to Derry I often stay at John’s house. We’re all good friends, although we don’t see a lot of each other because we’re all doing our own stuff.
“There are tensions when you’re on the road a few days, but generally speaking we get on really well. And if there was separate transport, no eye contact on stage and all that, it would be like, ‘Hey, come here …”
Ceili Covers: The Billy Doherty Rambling Band. Feet off the stools please, lads.
I was reminded of late of all those fall-outs within bands while doing a new feature on another of my favourites, The Jam. Sometimes you just feel, ‘Why don’t you all just kiss and make up?’
“We don’t have that. Do you know, that would probably come under the list of rock’n’roll don’ts. That’s rock star behaviour right there, so it’s a no-no.
“If you don’t like a guy, don’t travel with him, don’t be on a stage with him or be in a band with him.”
Finally, I ask Paul to tell us something about each of his band-mates that us fans probably don’t know.
This question causes a lot of soul-searching, Paul clearly keen not to upset anyone or tell us too much which might be deemed private. Finally, he’s ready to go.
“Okay, Michael has a very large … subbuteo table, which he gets out at parties. And Michael throws a great party! I don’t always get to go, but they’re always great.
“Billy? I was going to tell you about the ceili band, but you already know that. I know, he owns a collection of synthesisers, which he likes to fiddle around with.
“I think they’re a hangover from The Carrellines days, but he still buys them and is still really into electronics.
“I think they’ll discover one hopefully far-off day when he shuffles off this mortal coil this vast backlog of genius electronic music.
“John … I know him and Billy the best but I’m really struggling here. I tell you what, he makes a mean bacon bap. You’ll not get a better bacon bap than you get at his home.
“And Damian? Damian looks disgustingly good with his shirt off for a man of his age.”
Late Breakfast Mickey and Billy get ready to tuck in at John’s place
Superb! Actually, it’s always worried me as he gets older that Dee might turn into one of the Gibb brothers.
“Well, totally. He did actually get mistaken for – God rest his soul – Robin Gibb at Euston station or somewhere once, and genuinely didn’t have the heart to say he wasn’t him. He just kind of smiled and waved.”
That seems to sum him up, and perhaps all of you in the band – always eager to please the fans.
“Yeah, and of course he started out as Ian McCulloch before mutating into Robin Gibb.”
Tickets for The Undertones at Liverpool Academy 2 on Saturday, May 2 – priced £20 in advance – are available from the venue box office on 0844 477 2000 or online here or here.
For more from the band and further live dates in 2015, try the official website here or their Facebook page.
To find out more about the Billy Doherty Rambling band, not least listen to a cracking version of Here Comes The Summer, try their website.
And for various past features and reviews for The Undertones, That Petrol Emotion and The Everlasting Yeah and interviews with Damian O’Neill and Raymond Gorman, just try the search section on this site.