I’ve waited a long time for Michael Bradley’s band memoirs. Sometimes anticipation leads to disappointment, but I shouldn’t have worried – it’s everything I hoped for.
I don’t know how long Mickey – bass player and backing vocalist for The Undertones, for those not quite up to speed – has contemplated a first-hand biog of Derry’s Famous Five, but there was certainly an earlier audio version, which I have tucked away on a rotting cassette somewhere. And while this is far more in-depth, it won’t trouble late-night readers who struggle to lift heavy tomes (that’ll be me then). At 220 pages it’s succinct and to the point, and like the band it chronicles there’s no mincing with words.
Think of this as the print equivalent of those classic three-minute pop tunes The Undertones regularly presented. Mickey gets to the point fairly sharpish and largely sticks with that principle. That’s not to belittle the finished product either. It’s great prose, and if ever a book carried the voice of its writer, this is it. It’s funny. Very funny in places. But Michael also dishes out a little poignancy and plenty of colour, not least in describing his surroundings. It’s not dewy-eyed nostalgia for greater days though, and rarely does he go into flights of fancy. If he senses himself getting into pretentious territory he knocks himself back into line.
At times I feel he might have gone into more detail and got more emotional here and there, but I’m not so sure that would have worked. Less is often more, and it’s what’s not spelled out that makes a bigger impact. That includes the undertone here (sorry) – a feeling of life in Derry during the dark days of the Troubles. We all tend to adapt to circumstances, but now and again we’re subtly reminded that the backdrop isn’t Cheltenham or Harrogate. Then there are the more personal details hinted at, Mickey voicing the frustrations we all experience – regrets at not taking more time out to talk with loved ones when we have the chance.
While he often holds back, Mickey’s clearly not the quiet man – he’s neither Sean Thornton nor George Harrison, and readily hints in print he was a pain in the Derry Air at times during the lifespan of the band’s first coming. But those of us who feel we know him from his on-stage banter and radiogram broadcasts over the years prefer to see him as that chirpy ‘Tone with a sharp tongue, rather than someone who never knows when to shut up.
There’s another thing. For me The Undertones were always the boys next door, despite the many miles between their Northern Irish roots and my semi-rural Surrey upbringing. They doubtless had it a lot harder than kids I grew up with, but this is no Four Yorkshiremen-style tale of poverty amid a civil war-torn backdrop. Many of his experiences are our experiences, and I don’t just mean seeing them live or hearing the records.
I was mightily excited when my postie knocked twice to hand over Michael’s book. I had plenty of nagging deadlines hanging over me, but couldn’t help an occasional glance, dipping in at will, checking out the words and often-evocative photographs within. But great as the outside is (including early portraits by Paddy Simms), cherished author, screenwriter and long-time fan Frank Cottrell Boyce gets it right on the back, writing, “The cover is only there to keep it in the right shape”.
Why now? Well, Michael argues he had to get it all down before he forgot any more, his conversations with fellow band members reminding him of moments he’d either forgotten or been unaware of. And while the band remain a healthily-functioning unit to this day (with Dublin-based DJ Paul McLoone in Feargal’s centre-forward berth), MB sticks to the period between his half-hearted invite to join in 1974 (during a camping holiday with the O’Neill brothers and drummer Billy Doherty in Donegal) and the last gigs in France and Ireland in 1983. And from that underwhelming rock’n’roll moment in Bundoran and early days leafing through a Freeman’s catalogue looking for guitars onwards, our narrator talks us neatly through everything that made The Undertones such a revered quintet.
Finance plays a key part in this alternative punk rock odyssey, Michael smartly explaining the workings of everything from initial repayments to the Provident man for equipment to the biting clauses tucked away in the deal with Seymour Stein at Sire Records and the many wrong turns and re-thinks that followed, not least main songwriter John O’Neill’s selfless act to share royalties while the band remained together.
Then there’s Mickey’s literary walk about the band’s Beechwood Avenue HQ, not just putting the spotlight on John, fellow founder member Vinnie and his teenage replacement Damian but also the O’Neill parents overseeing the operation, in a house featured in Julien Temple’s My Perfect Cousin video, his team forced to feed 50p pieces into the meter to keep the action rolling.
While four of the group seemed unlikely rock’n’roll stars, the other exuded star status from day one, having already amassed trophies for those amazing vocals as a nipper (later shown on the cover of Jimmy Jimmy). And while I maybe considered Feargal guilty for the break-up, I must say he comes out of this in a better light, Mickey highlighting what a character he was, whether clandestinely changing the TV channel at O’Neill’s with his secreted remote control or announcing on a loud speaker in his works car to householders that the water was being cut off and they should fill kettles and pans straight away.
It was also down to Sharkey that the band became The Hot Rods at first, delivering Rolling Stones, Dr Feelgood, Cream and Fleetwood Mac covers. And while O’Neill’s remained integral, Feargal’s tech know-how helped the switch to a soundproofed Simms’s Shed, Radio Rentals’ employee and his supply of moulded expanded polystyrene packaging proving key as the band’s lone driver and gear-shifter (so to speak). Incidentally, by the time they played again the singer had renamed the group Little Feat, Mickey adding, “Feargal still hadn’t grasped the subtleties of the Plagiarism (Band Names) Act of 1973”.
Pretty soon they were commanding £10 then £25 at a local youth club, throwing in Ramones covers while John started introducing his own songs, the influences expanding via a slavish devotion to the NME, the John Peel Show, and records borrowed from their friend ‘Wombat’ McDermott. And by the time they were playing The Casbah – ”where Derry’s hippies went to drink” – in early 1977 they were The Undertones, Dee still at school and the rest – bar Sharkey – at tech but now commanding £30 fees. They even got a couple of gigs … sorry Mickey, concerts south of the border, supporting future Pogue Phil Chevron’s Radiators from Space, although they could have done without the second gig, where a stabbing in the venue led to an uncomfortable night.
The non-aligned (religiously and politically) Casbah remained their live home as they built their set. As Mickey puts it, “We operated in our own bubble that stretched from Beechwood Avenue to Simms’s Shed to the Casbah, like a lost tribe in the Amazon jungle that has yet to be ruined by TV and sausage rolls. I would have been happy in that bubble but my chums had plans”.
The covers were soon squeezed out, and apparently “John was probably telling the truth when he said he started to write songs because it was easier than learning someone else’s chords”. Again, it’s the added details that make this so compelling, like a portrait of Feargal singing the Flake advert on William Street: “In 1977 it still had the wide open spaces caused by years of riots, arson and bombs, which gave it a great echoing reverb”. Michael goes on to describe his lead singer sounding ‘like Tom Jones produced by Phil Spector. Singing about confectionery”.
I should hold back at this stage, not wanting to be accused of putting too much detail here. Suffice to say, there are many great lines I’ve skipped over, Mickey detailing – without conceit – what marked them out from the other bands they shared the boards with, the Casbah sessions a “perfect testing ground for John’s efforts”, most ending up on the first LP.
And while tales of the Terri Hooley and Good Vibrations link, John Peel’s mentoring and the Sire and later EMI deals have been told many times, Mickey’s fresh and personal spin adds meat to the bones, success never going to their heads thanks to those around them – not least their families.
That initial Teenage Kicks EP might have been their epitaph – and a somewhat perfect one – and Mickey reminds us how every band member bar Dee threatened to quit or actually left at some stage. There was certainly no overnight success though, the Derry dates continuing, complete with football on Bull Park and chips on the way home, even after Peel’s patronage and Stein’s signing moved things on, day-jobs as civil servants (Billy, Dee and John), TV repair man (Feargal) and builder’s merchant (Mickey) ditched in favour of a rock’n’roll career more or less on the same wage, but with Top of the Pops thrown in.
The descriptions of the trips between Derry and London certainly suggest a distinct lack of glamour, even if the bass player was living out his Big Mac, fries and Coke fantasy, plus all the sweets the boys could manage between venues. “To hell with poverty,” as he puts it. There were meetings with fellow stars too, not least the Ramones, Paul Weller and later The Rezillos, The Clash and The Talking Heads. Yet you get the idea Mickey regrets not making the most of those encounters, and feels embarrassed at the attitude in meeting the likes of fellow homeland successes Jake Burns and Phil Lynott.
This is no tale of rock’n’roll Babylon. Regular trips home to parents, friends and girlfriends that became wives continued between live dates and recording engagements with the BBC and Roger Bechirian in London, introducing Derry humour to mainland Britain. Michael “very quickly learned to love England”, describing a nation with “characteristics of an Alan Sillitoe novel” where “people had jobs, making things and digging stuff out of the ground. Buildings were shops, not shells”. En route a soundtrack was supplied by daytime Radio 1 (275 and 285 medium wave), the music making up for the daytime jocks in an era before the ’homogenised high street’ and ‘closed down high street’.
Michael paints a picture of something of a false life, the band on a permanent holiday between trips home, having the time of their lives. He adds, “A year earlier we were either working or at school. Being in a band was far better. Every day was a day off, every day was seeing somewhere new with your best friends with you. I also became aware that we were actually good and people who came to see us thought we were great.”
I should stop soon. We’re hardly even up to the second LP. It’s all there though – good and bad times, embarrassing and fun times, senses of achievement and despondency, big plans coming to nothing, a lack of a plan coming to something special, fall-outs, complications, hits, misses and regrets, a new direction, triumphs and tribulations, the recording process, travel beyond the wildest dreams, questionable fashion and commendable punk ideals.
By 1981 things started to unravel, Mickey talking us through their (Positive Touch era) final TOTP appearance, in not-quite matching jumpers: “The Top of the Pops director felt so sorry for us that he decided to film some of the performance through a fish tank, presumably to distract the viewer from the fashion horror on the screen. Or maybe it was a reference to Julie Ocean. Ocean? Fish? Sharkey? Record going belly up? We got a glimpse of the future as we stood on the stage. Four of us stood, Feargal sat on a stool. Maybe the jumper made him feel like Val Doonican”. There’s also a poignant line about Duran Duran performing Girls on Film nearby. That single stalled at No. 41 and led him to conclude, “Undertones records were not going to be a big part of the New Romantic revolution”.
One more album followed, one I learned to love and still appreciate, not least the quality of the songwriting and Feargal’s vocals. But a more soulful direction seemed to be a death knell, that lingering death ended by Sharkey’s big decision. As a 15-year-old, I was there for two of those 1983 farewells, at the Lyceum then Crystal Palace FC, when Mickey got lost backstage and walked in on headliner Peter Gabriel, make-up applied (Peter’s, not Mickey’s).
I wasn’t ready to see them go, but it was the right decision, and without that I wouldn’t have had the days that followed, watching Eleven (the short-lived Dee and Mickey outfit both now draw a veil over) and That Petrol Emotion (including the O’Neills). And if they hadn’t split I’d have been robbed of the joy of a post-Sharkey Undertones reformation.
Before I opened Michael’s book, I felt I knew most of what was worth knowing about the band from old press stories, two great documentaries and all those fantastic songs and sleeve notes. But he adds so much more, without entering trainspotter territory.
Having labelled this book a perfectly succinct rock’n’roll tale, I’m in danger of having gone over the top here. And that would be frowned upon by The Undertones. So I’ll stop now, before – as Feargal put it on the play-out of Here Comes the Summer – ‘my record’s stuck’.
- With thanks to Vinny Cunningham for use of the Derry Central Library book launch photographs.
Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone by Michael Bradley is published by Omnibus Press, priced £16.99 and worth every penny.
For a past appreciation of The Undertones on this blog, from September 12, head here. You can also find rocking humdingers of interviews with Damian O’Neill (from November 2014) and Paul McLoone (from April 2015) on this site.