“Summer’s really here and it’s time to come out, time to discover what fun is about.”
Yep, The Undertones are back, taking on a series of mostly-weekend commitments to mark the 40th anniversary of becoming a proper functioning band, good enough reason for this punter to ‘cancel all other engagements’ and drive down to Chester on Friday night. And I was in for a treat, as I suspected, a mighty 32-song salvo of top tunes from across the years knocked out by a band that remain as bright and sharp now as way back then.
There was no waiting around, Derry’s finest on stage at this headlining sell-out as part of the Chester Live festival shortly after 8.30 and launching straight into third-biggest hit Jimmy Jimmy, the Cheshire set (and many more of us from North-West England, neighbouring Wales, and Ireland) singing along with passion. From there we had a selection of sublime cuts from the first two albums, Jump Boys, Whizz Kids and I Gotta Getta leading to Here Comes the Summer, faster than I recall it, drummer Billy Doherty soon red in the face, while frontman Paul McLoone soaked that shirt under the heat of the house lights, and a lamp-blind Mickey Bradley squinted while miming a hand on fire from his busy bass fretwork.
This being The Undertones, there was plenty of jovial banter between band and crowd, not least involving Bradley and McLoone, with a few mumbled chip-ins from those legendary wing-backs the O’Neill brothers, albeit with much of it lost on the hoi polloi via the PA and rich accents. But they were having fun, and so were we (so we were).
It’s Gonna Happen hadn’t long been out as a single when I first caught this wondrous band in June 1981 at Guildford Civic Hall on the Positive Touch tour, and 35 years on – give or take four days – it has lost none of its sparkle, the guitars making up for the missing brass. That brings me on to my only slight gripe on the night – I couldn’t hear enough of Damian and John’s six-string licks in the mix. Yet luckily I know those lines off by heart, and there was certainly no problem with Mickey’s bass fretwork, as showcased on the sublime Tearproof, that opening line, ‘She’s a girl in a million, and does what a million girls do’ still transporting me. And then came that great 2003 reminder of this band’s continuing songwriting prowess, Thrill Me.
While I’ve a soft spot for Feargal Sharkey’s band swansong, The Sin of Pride, in retrospect I see the production did them few favours, but there was a reminder of how it might have been with the current treatment of late single Love Parade, showing more of the band’s Nuggets lineage than was suggested at the time.
Incidentally, for someone who thought he’d lost this band forever in 1983, it’s difficult to convey the joy of seeing them together again, 17 years after the reformation. McLoone quickly proved his worth in Sharkey’s place back then. and this quintet clearly continue to enjoy the experience now it’s no longer the day-job. Meanwhile, this was my second live sighting of Damian this year (see my February review of The Everlasting Yeah here), and it’s so good to see him back in tow with brother John as well as on fresh ground elsewhere.
We were back on to more universally-revered material soon, pop exclamation mark Family Entertainment followed by one of the finest singles of all time, You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It!) then Nine Times out of Ten, the latter described as a song of two halves, like two stolen cars welded together. But while these lads have always worn their influences on their sleeves, the ‘Tones have always been far more than a chop-shop, as proved on a loud and proud Male Model, the band’s anthem Teenage Kicks and – from that same Good Vibrations debut single – a rightly-raw True Confessions.
There was a timely reminder too that they still – if only occasionally – write new songs with Damian’s Stooges-like Much Too Late from three years ago, before Girls That Don’t Talk and Wednesday Week took us back again. And surely there can’t be many first lines as delightful as, ‘Here she comes to say goodnight, I’ll get no sleep tonight’.
A brief plug followed for the most recent album with 2007 album title track Dig Yourself Deep, before we reached further dizzy heights with She’s a Runaround then changed pace for the relatively-sedate Julie Ocean, as beautiful as ever. And lest you should think the songwriting was all down to John and occasionally Dee and Mickey, we had the drummer’s sublime Billy’s Third from the first album, before Listening In and Get Over You earned the band a much deserved break.
They returned of course, although I thought for a moment Mickey was set for a solo spot, the bass leg-end complaining he’d been duped by the others, who insisted via musicians’ union rules they got a full comfort break before a rousing eight-song encore. That started with I Know A Girl and a belted-out version of Belfast outfit The Outcasts’ Just Another Teenage Rebel, the Good Vibrations single that preceded Teenage Kicks.
The crowd was then back in mass-singalong heaven for sole top-10 hit, My Perfect Cousin – ‘another old Northern Irish folk song’ – before fellow Hypnotised fave Girls That Don’t Talk then the other prime cuts from that John Peel-adored debut, Smarter Than U and Emergency Cases.
They still weren’t done, although by now McLoone – his greying beard giving him the air of Roy Keane, although I couldn’t see the Eire footie legend putting in quite so many flamboyant dance moves – was soaked in sweat and Doherty was King Crimson, and Marc Bolan tribute b-side Top Twenty took this awed punter to T-Rextacy before fans’ anthem Mars Bars – which Bradley the Bass earlier said they weren’t playing as it had melted – sent us home with glucose-inspired energy levels restored and huge smiles on faces.
At one stage Mickey dedicated a song to a North Wales-based contingent that chose this Live Rooms happening over The Stone Roses’ Manchester shindig, adding – with a smile – that this was clear evidence of which band was best. I know which outfit I’d rather see, and 42 years after forming, 40 years after the initial shows, 38 years after the debut records, 35 years after my Tones’ live arrival and 16 years after my first McLoone-era sighting, they’ve still got it. We’re all a little older, but become born-again teenagers for at least two hours in such esteemed company. The Undertones – still rocking humdingers, still so hard to beat.
For a recent writewyattuk interview with Mickey Bradley, head here. And for a full list of forthcoming Undertones engagements this summer and autumn head over to http://www.theundertones.com/ or keep in touch with the band via Facebook or Twitter.