I’ve always liked that James Nesbitt, from early roles in films like Waking Ned through to leads in TV successes like Colin Bateman’s Murphy’s Law, and ever onwards.
But he’ll be forever remembered for his big break in the brilliant ITV series Cold Feet, where among the many emotional scenes that made his name, one which left me close to tears was perhaps one of the more unlikely.
I always got the feeling it wasn’t scripted, and must just have been Jimmy caught on camera in something of a rant during filming, more himself than his character Adam Williams, as he enthused about his love of The Undertones and the fact that the band were built – contrary to popular belief – around the might of John O’Neill’s song-writing rather than the warbling voice of Feargal Sharkey, wondrous as that was.
So there was no great surprise it was that particular Jimmy Jimmy narrating BBC Northern Ireland’s documentary Here Comes The Summer: The Undertones Story, first broadcast on BBC 4 on Friday September 7th, with Nesbitt voicing some of the best lines written about a band that has had such an impact over the years.
I wasn’t even 11 when legendary Radio 1 DJ John Peel first played Teenage Kicks and the band seemingly took off overnight, but within a year I was marvelling too – thanks to my older brother and his mates’ love for the band – at this five-piece from Londonderry. And things were never quite the same from then on.
Why The Undertones? Well, it’s never been easy to explain, but I think the team behind this BBC/Alleycat Films documentary – produced, directed and edited by Chris Wilson – came as close as possible to explaining the band’s pull as anyone before, with the help of insight from Nesbitt and broadcasters/journalists Eamonn McCann, Waldemar Januszczak and Paul Morley.
It was a shame Feargal Sharkey declined the offer to be involved, and there was only a brief strap at the end mentioning how the band re-formed in 1999 without him. At least a short interview with current frontman Paul McLoone and his thoughts on the whole phenomenon might have added something. But you can’t have it all.
I should qualify that. There will be purists who see that reformation as just another variation on the endless stream of bands past their best back out on the road with new members in key roles. But that was never the case with The Undertones. It was never about a karaoke approach and half-hearted stroll through the hits catalogue. McLoone has a great voice and strong stage presence too, yet never looked to mimic Feargal or replace him. He just adds a new dimsension to all those great songs, as Seattle’s Steve Mack had to That Petrol Emotion, John and Damian O’Neill’s other success.
I was only 13 when I first caught the band – at Guildford Civic Hall on the Positive Touch tour, but within two years I was seeing The Undertones with Feargal for the last time on The Sin Of Pride tour at Guildford, then for their final UK gigs at London’s Lyceum and supporting Peter Gabriel and the Thompson Twins at Crystal Palace FC. In some kind of solidarity with the boys, we bemused the gate staff that sad day by leaving after their set.
I was there from the start for next contenders Eleven (featuring Undertones’ Mickey Bradley and Damian O’Neill) then That Petrol Emotion from their opening London pub gigs onwards, and have great memories from those days. We’d all moved on in the years that followed, but that premier sighting of the band with McLoone in the summer of 2000 at the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden – their first outside Derry – remains a cherished night. The same goes for the first time I heard John Peel play comeback single Thrill Me, as good a song as John O’Neill ever wrote. And The Undertones remain my favourite ever live band.
To fully understand the impact The Undertones had on me and so many others, perhaps you need to understand something of the band’s background and situation. More to the point, how a teenager from a semi-rural council estate in the heart of suburban, leafy Surrey could relate to a group of lads from such a different UK background, brought up in a divided city at the epicentre of The Troubles.
Yet while I entered my teenage years inspired by the message of The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Jam, I retained a love for good, honest pop – one that made me susceptible to bands like the Buzzcocks, Squeeze and in particular The Undertones. And you don’t need to have dodged bombs, police and army raids and rubber bullets to understand the latter quintet’s appeal.
Other mates (past and present) were more into Stiff Litle Fingers, and while I admired them and understood their stand, it was always The ‘Tones who did it for me. Their vision of an alternative Ulster was far more grounded, I felt. In later years, the O’Neill brothers realised they could actually write more political (although always subtle) songs, but as teenagers they just got on with tackling what they knew best – more songs about chocolate and girls. And the results have certainly stood the test of time.
As Nesbitt said at the beginning of this fine documentary, “Their adolescent anthems were revolutionary nonetheless: startlingly positive protest songs that demanded a life more ordinary.” Paul Morley echoed that, pointing out how the band came up ‘with these great pop songs was the most wonderful form of protest’.
In an industry characterised by rock’n’roll excess and superstar status, often putting its heroes on a pedestal somewhere just out of reach, I always felt more in common with The Undertones. It’s a cliche, but these really could have been the boys next door, down to earth and never full of their own self-importance or taking themselves too seriously, despite their musical edge and pristine song-writing.
You only have to enjoy the contributions of bassist Mickey Bradley, drummer Billy Doherty and guitarists Damian and John O’Neill in this documentary to see that charm, a wealth of anecdotes – with plenty of humour – covering those early days forming the band, the first Top Of The Pops appearances, the amateur ‘hard-ball’ contract negotiations with Sire founder Seymour Stein, and eventual half-hearted decision to disband and let Feargal do his own thing.
While the band were never at ease with their rock star status – as proved in the stories about their US tour with The Clash – it was more about loyalty to their home fan-base and Derry girlfriends. They never lost sight of what was most important to them and those who helped get them there in the first place. Again, that’s something I always admired about this very special five-piece.
But for all their ‘Derryness’, as McCann puts it, time and again they gave us perfect three-minute pop, with heart-felt guitars and harmonies beautifully complemented by Sharkey’s exquisite vocals. And they always wore their musical influences on their sleeves, in a new wave hybrid that initially borrowed elements of earlier glam rock, and seminal influences like the Ramones, blues, rock’n’roll and arthouse American bands.
The fact that they made the grade was perhaps all the more remarkable considering all that was going on in their home city, the band offering an altogether more healthy vision to cut through the daily grim news we heard from across the Irish Sea.
I knew so little of that world – despite my interest from afar – and while The Clash wrote about white riots and sten guns in Knightsbridge, The Undertones were living that life but wanted something else. Something more normal. As Bradley put it, “The Clash would have killed to have come from Derry.” And on that same subject of those daily police and army checkpoints, hassle and bombs, he added a more pensive, “Even then we kind of knew they didn’t have that in … Manchester.”
Morley put it in a more highbrow style, talking about “17 and 18-year-olds in a very radical, absurd stressful situation still managing to capture the almost abstract universal exquisiteness of a great pop song”. Which is kind of what I was trying to say, I guess.
Eamonn McCann was more succinct, adding, “The Undertones were ‘the most improbable pop stars from the most unexpected place.” And as Nesbitt summed up, “Other punks may have seemed more radical, but what made The Undertones ‘ music genuinely subversive is that it came from a place where bombs and guns were part of the walk to school; a city where an ordinary life was something that dreams were made of.”
Yet this documentary wasn’t just about journalistic reflection and uncovered hidden meanings, and nor should it have been. In the tradition of the superb The Story of The Undertones: Teenage Kicks documentary that came before, the band ensured that. One great example comes early on, the ever-affable Bradley – over a cuppa and a slice of toast – sticking pins into a Derry street map, demonstrating how everyone lived within 10 minutes of the O’Neill house – ‘Undertones HQ’ – and contemplating how none of what followed would have happened if Sharkey was born across the Foyle in the Protestant part of town.
That’s not political or pro-sectarian, just pure geography and social history. He explained how the band’s singer was more lower middle class than the rest of them, but “to an outsider we’d all be working class. There were no leafy suburbs here. There were no Volvos parked outside.”
One thing becomes clear early on, as explained by John O’Neill and his brother Vincent, who played his part until panic over his O-levels led to the band asking kid brother Damian to step in. There was no master plan for success, and no U2-style ambition to be the biggest band in the world. Being in a group was – as Doherty pointed out – just what you moved on to after realising you weren’t going to make it as a professional footballer.
The fact that the band were too young for pubs and clubs might have helped, instead swapping records, stories and guitar riffs at the O’Neill house, and in time rocking The Casbah, a downbeat Derry club where sectarianism thankfully played little part.
It was all a bit of a head-rush from there, John blossoming into a fine songwriter (as Bradley and Dee O’Neill would in time), approaches being made to Belfast punk impressario Terri Hooley, the Teenage Kicks EP being played and loved by legendary Radio 1 DJ John Peel, that deal with Sire Records, and so on.
The sum result was a brief but glorious five-year, four-album and 13-single career, and those four great LPs chart their musical progress (for better or worse, depending on your viewpoint). Again, this documentary picked out key points, not least the story of their biggest hit, My Perfect Cousin, an under-stated dalliance with more political messages in It’s Going To Happen, and charted the band’s fortunes right up to the day Sharkey finally announced his intention to leave (and his fellow band members’ sense of relief).
Bradley, summing up that eventual implosion in typically tongue-in-cheek fashion, added: “Then again, that’s what’s good about being in a band. You look at The Beatles – they fell apart spectacularly too.” And for this fan at least, this Derry five piece were right up there with the Fab Four, however limited their success by comparison.
I’ll quote Nesbitt’s closing lines here to finish off, explaining, “At a time when the charts began to open up to even more shocking and extravagant acts, what was most remarkable about The Undertones was that the band and their songs were so down to earth they seemed positively exotic.
“Coming from the darkest of places and situations their enduring achievement is to have created timeless music of startling positivity that touched teenagers all over the globe, while daring a generation at home to dream of a life more ordinary.”
* Here Comes The Summer: The Undertones Story will be on the BBC iPlayer for a few more days, and is set to be repeated on BBC Four late on Sunday, September 9th.