I tend to find books on bands traditionally take the formulaic approach, rather predictably following artistes from rags to showbiz riches, preferably with plenty of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll clichés en route. In many cases, and somewhat inevitably, acts lose a little character and identity along the way as a result, and I never again feel I have that same perception of them.
Yet this year a notable exception landed on my doormat, with Undertones bass player and latter-day radio producer Michael Bradley publishing a highly-likeable, first-hand portrait of his revered post-punk, new wave outfit.
Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone (with my review here, in case you missed it) proved refreshingly honest, and even for the long-term fans there was plenty of new insight about five lads who grew up to become famous sons of Derry.
Regular readers here will know I loved The Undertones from the first moment I heard my older brother and his mates play their records back in the late ’70s, and despite the miles (at least geographically) between my roots and theirs I got the impression this down-to-earth quintet were proper boys next door, albeit ones growing up in very different circumstances and surroundings to my own.
In an industry of so many pretentious artistes, they were honest and self-deprecating, a breath of fresh air borne out of troubled times in their homeland. The fact that they just so happened to write such great songs that this lad could totally relate to and proved such instinctive entertainers on stage and in the studio clearly helped.
Their first recordings only saw the light of day in 1978, and it was all over by 1983, but they were never forgotten, their immortality aided by the likes of legendary DJ John Peel, who famously championed them from the moment he heard debut single Teenage Kicks. But while lead singer Feargal Sharkey went on to a successful solo career then in more recent times became a music industry executive, the rest of the band reconvened in 1999, and tour semi-regularly to this day.
These days fellow Derry lad Paul McLoone is the lead singer, a part he plays perfectly, with a fine voice and plenty of stage presence. He’ll never be Sharkey, but this is no Stars in their Eyes outfit. Besides, while the original singer was key to the old dynamic, the heart and soul always emanated from guitar-playing brothers Damian and John O’Neill, drummer Billy Doherty and bass player Michael Bradley. And to this day they remain a live must, with the spirit intact and the band as inspiringly fresh as back in the day.
In fact, the wider interest remains, to the point where – I put to Michael – they seem to have conducted more interviews in the past few months than in any time since that 1983 parting. So what’s that all about?
“There is a lot of interest. If you’ve been going for so long that the year ends in a zero, people are interested, even though it doesn’t really make a difference. But I am rapidly running out of amusing anecdotes.”
As it turns out, it just so happens to be a year with a zero at the moment, with 2016 marking the 40th anniversary of The Undertones. Mind you, even that anniversary is something that needs explaining. They did after all first get together in 1974, and they didn’t have any records out until 1978. So what was the significance of ’76 in The Undertones’ story? Well, that was when they had their very first gigs … sorry (Mickey doesn’t like that terminology), let’s change that to concerts.
That’s beside my main point though, that while this is a group that continues to attract much hyperbole and adulation, they only really charted for three years (between October ’78 and May ’81), having just one top-10 (1980’s My Perfect Cousin) and seven top-40 hits.
“I know … a moderately successful band. I don’t know what it is. I think it helps that one of those records is so loved by people. Teenage Kicks has a life of its own. That kind of helps. Also, the fact that we haven’t killed anybody always helps.”
Glad to hear it. But seeing as Mickey (Michael seems too formal) mentioned that certain debut 45 and John Peel favourite – which got to No.31 in the charts – does he admit to ever getting a feeling of dread hearing it so much, or even having to play it every night?
“Not really. I don’t play it at home, and it’s not my ringtone or anything. So whenever you do hear it, it’s unexpected. And I know enough not to be ungrateful. It’s a good record. Sometimes you hear it on TV ads, and that’s nice too. There was a time around 1981/82 when we were not that enamoured of it, although we still played it. But it wasn’t such a big deal then. It’s only become a big deal in the last 20 years.”
That reminds me, the other night I was watching a BBC tribute to the late commentator, presenter, pundit, player, manager, chairman and all-round football personality Jimmy Hill, and suddenly there was a top-20 Undertones hit from 1979 playing in the background.
“Yes! I was sitting watching that, enjoying the programme too, and you could kind of hear in the background this guitar. Then it occurred to me – of course, Jimmy Jimmy!
“It’s that kind of thing with Teenage Kicks too. You’re sitting watching TV and there it is, and that’s nice too.”
There was also a live rendition from the band of that wee song on Ireland’s The Late, Late Show recently, and there have been plenty of radio interviews recently which have included the obligatory spin of Teenage Kicks. But now maybe we can move on seeing as we’ve got the tour proper, the band having started with a sell-out in Belfast just a few hours before we spoke and then moving on to another sell-out show the following night in Dublin. Exciting times, huh?
“Absolutely, although ‘tour’ is over-stating it, I think. We only really do two shows together, then we’re doing something in a couple of weeks. We don’t really do tours. Other bands do tours. Proper bands. Ours is more of a jaunt. We just do several jaunts.”
At this point, I briefly lost Mickey. The band were getting closer to their Belfast destination and the mobile phone reception was patchy. But I soon got through again, and we carried on looking at the band’s comparatively-busy summer itinerary.
This month alone there was Amsterdam’s Paradiso last night, there’s Hamburg Markthalle tonight (June 9), Berlin’s SO36 tomorrow (June 10, already sold out) and then next weekend there’s Chester’s Live Rooms (June 17), followed by the Willowman Festival in North Yorkshire (June 18). It’s not a bad life, is it?
“It’s great! But you see, it fits it in with everything else. It’s not like you’re doing it too many times. The shows are good, and I always enjoy the festivals. English festivals always get sunshine, something Irish festivals don’t always.”
Carrying on, your July jaunt (I’m already getting used to writing that) involves dates in Diss, Galway, Vigo and Harpenden (the Big Four, as they’re known). Then in August there’s Stoke-on-Trent and a festival in Chester-Le-Street. So how are you getting about? Is there a huge tour bus, or had you handily parked up the old Transit for a few years?
“We only ever owned one Transit minibus, and it never worked! It was immediately consigned to a garage and we had to get our money back. So we’ve always hired, those Transits from back in the ‘70s with the square headlights. At the moment we’re in a Ford Focus. Billy thinks it’s a Lamborghini, but I can assure you it’s a Ford Focus. But as we don’t do proper tours we don’t have a proper tour bus.
“In fact, John’s actually gone up in the bus to Belfast. So’s Paul, while we’re tootling along in a motor car. We have a tour manager …”
A jaunt manager, surely. I don’t point that out though, as Mickey’s now in full flow.
“…and sometimes we fly and he’ll meet us with something, usually some kind of van or minibus. We’re very low-tech. Nothing fancy at all.”
As this was the band that once recorded the classic Mars Bars, and whose members supposedly stocked up on sweets whenever they stopped on tour, I ask if the band still jump out to load up on confectionary every time they hit a town?
“No, not really. We’ve learned that if we hold off until we get to the show, there’s usually bars of chocolate or sweets in the rider. That saves us a pound each time. We’re that tight.”
There are plenty of 40th anniversary shows in the autumn too, including one not so far off my patch at Manchester Academy on October 29 (0161 832 1111), where the band played late last year with From The Jam and The Beat. That brings me on to something else. According to Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone, they were never any good at socialising with other acts, either getting tongue-tied or just being (mostly) unintentionally distant. Are they any better at passing the time of day with other bands these days?
“Nope! I think Ranking Roger came in and said hello on that occasion you mentioned, and we waved back, saying ‘Hello, Roger!’ But that was it. I don’t even hang around with the rest of The Undertones! Damian did say hello at Manchester though, because he’s nice. He got a t-shirt from The Beat. He’s like the ambassador for the band.”
Talking of Damian, the London-based guitarist – who went on to join his brother John in That Petrol Emotion when the band originally split – was sitting in with Steve Lamacq for a recent live interview on BBC 6 Music, celebrating their self-named debut LP, the rest of the group linked via a studio in Derry.
“Yes, he did. I really enjoyed that interview.”
Me too. A great listen. Anyway, I understand from your latest press details that there are some ‘exciting releases’ to fit around this whole anniversary jaunt. Such as?
“Well, there’s talk about remixing a record, one of the singles. We’ll see. Sometimes remixing turns into a very dodgy enterprise. There’s nothing really. The nearest we got recently was giving away a magnetic Subbuteo man (for a My Perfect Cousin reissue). I took them off my copy, with the man and his ball now on my fridge.”
Mickey presents a weekly radio show back home, as well as his production duties. So what of the day job while he’s away? Is there a worry that a work experience kid on a smaller wage will make a big impression while he’s out gallivanting across mainland Britain and Europe? They may even ultimately take over your weekly show.
“I’d never thought of that. Damn you now. I’m starting to get worried, Malcolm. But whenever I’m away I lock up my chair so no one can sit on it. I put a huge tack on it – a huge, upturned drawing pin.”
Damian, yourself and Billy have come up with some corking songs in the past. But when you did the BBC 6 Music interview, I got the impression that you all still look to John first when it comes to new material.
“Absolutely, always the same – John! The last record we made, Damian wrote it. But there’s no point promising something then not doing it. There’s not a clamour for them anyway. There aren’t people out in the street demanding a new record. There are enough old Undertones records still on the shelf.”
It’s been three years since the Much Too Late/When It Hurts single for Record Store Day, and there’s not been a new album since 2007. At this rate, we’re in danger of a Dig Yourself Deep 10th anniversary jaunt before you announce the release of the next LP. Then again, Damian’s been busy with The Everlasting Yeah and John has his Red Flare project. And with that in mind I ask if Mickey’s in the loop for those ventures and if he has his own projects.
“Not at all ….”
At that point, the band’s hired Ford Focus goes through another tunnel or area of bad reception, and I’m forced to call Mickey back for a third time. And by the time I get round to asking the question again, he’s reluctant to use the off-the-cuff answer he apparently gave me the first time.
“I was going to say I’m chopping wood out in the garden, but it’s not as funny a minute later. I don’t really do anything. I have a day-job, which funnily enough takes up most of my day.”
While reminiscing watching the Undertones’ old promo videos recently, I was thinking of those young kids who get to play in the My Perfect Cousin promo video. I reckon they were probably around my age, so will be in their late 40s now. So how about dad of four Mickey’s own brood? Are there budding bass players in the Bradley camp (his children are now 20, 19, 18 and nine, apparently)?
That’s a shame. I quite fancy the idea of an Underkinders tribute act, comprising the band’s children. Did you put them off through your own alternative tales of rock’n’roll reality? Or have they just rebelled and become bankers or got steady nine-to-five jobs?
“My daughter did play bass in a band, but none of them are really involved in music right now. Frank, my second eldest, plays drums, but is away at university and not playing.”
Half-way through, we lost contact again, but I’m nothing if not determined and soon got through again, this time taking Mickey back a little further, to the spell when his book ends after the band’s 1983 split. How long was there between his subsequent spell as a cycle courier in London and him carving out a new career on the wireless in Ireland?
“It just came out of the blue in the summer of ’86. I was back home, doing some A-levels – or in the process of not doing A-levels – and just kind of fell into it at BBC Radio Foyle. Someone suggested I should go up there and talk to one of the producers. She handed me a tape recorder and told me to go away and try and record something. I kind of had an aptitude for it. They say the first rule of success is just show up, and I just didn’t leave the place!”
Do you miss London?
“Oh no, not really. I go over whenever I can. It’s far better now. But I couldn’t live there, and it’s too late to live there now.
“I lived there two years, and it’s probably still my favourite city. But practically speaking, I wouldn’t like to live under the arches. I’d rather have a house.”
I mentioned the O’Neill brothers’ other commitments. Has Mickey ever got round to seeing Billy Doherty’s ceili band?
They do some nice Undertones covers.
“So I’ve heard, yeah. Lovely.”
And then Paul’s got an evening radio show in Dublin. Do you keep tabs on him, as a fellow presenter?
“I see his Twitter page, but I’ve only heard his show once. I was on it the other week though.”
For a band who always seemed keen to nip back to Derry in the early days, you’re fairly scattered these days, aren’t you?
“Well, three of us are in Derry, Damian’s in London and Paul’s in Dublin, but there’s e-mail now. There’s instant communication, not so open to misunderstandings and slaggings off.”
There’s been a lot of great feedback about the book. Has that made you contemplate a part two?
“I don’t know. I don’t think there’s anything to say. Nothing springs to mind. I’d like to do something else, I’m sure, but like everything it’s not at the top of my list of things to do.”
It was a long time in the making. I recall an earlier audio version many moons ago.
“Yeah, that was 20 years ago, at least, but was a radio thing that was transcribed and put on a website.
I think I started the book around 10 years ago, stopped and started again, and that went on for a while.
“But I still have to finish off putting a new bath in our house, so 10 years isn’t that long.”
Has the finished book inspired anyone else in the band to throw it down in disgust then write their own?
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
Talking of inspirational band biographies, what’s been the greatest rock biography for you over the years?
“I liked Revolution in the Head (Ian MacDonald’s Beatles biographical/song critique, first published in 1994), because it’s all about the music, and seems to ring true. Sometimes I imagine people in bands write books and change it to put themselves in a better light.”
Finally, I feel duty-bound to ask about Mr Sharkey, but I’m determined to try a different line. So, any feedback from Feargal Towers about the book?
“No, but his brother, Michael, emailed me. He was the journalist in Dublin mentioned in the book. He said he thoroughly enjoyed it and laughed out loud. I really appreciated hearing that from him. Oh, and Billy’s father rang me as well, and said he liked it.”
And with that Mickey was away, me telling him I was looking forward to the Chester show, him replying, “Oh, very good. I will wave … I will point and wave!”
For a past appreciation of The Undertones on this blog, from September 2012, head here. You can also find rocking humdingers of interviews with Damian O’Neill (from November 2014) and Paul McLoone (from April 2015).
The Undertones play Chester Live Rooms on Friday, June 17 (doors 7pm, tickets £20 advance, box office 0871 220 0260 or via this link). For more tour details and the latest band news, try the official site or try via Facebook. Similarly, the Rocking Humdingers Club has also made it to social media these days and is well worth checking out.
Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone by Michael Bradley (Omnibus Press, 2016) is priced £16.99, while the Mickey Bradley Radio Show airs on Tuesdays (8pm-10pm), with an online link via bbc.co.uk/radioulster.
Meanwhile, should Mickey ever get round to listening in, the Paul McLoone Show broadcasts nationally in Ireland from Monday to Thursday (9pm to midnight) on Today FM (www.todayfm.com/paulmcloone) and on Saturdays (6pm) Paul’s on Another Side at TXFM, Dublin (www.txfm.ie).