With The Undertones’ mighty 40th anniversary jaunt returning to the North of England this weekend, drummer Billy Doherty is hoping he won’t be needing a paramedic this time.
The Northern Irish five-piece follow sell-outs in Gateshead and Holmfirth with a show at Manchester’s Academy 2 this Saturday (October 29, 7.30pm doors, £20 advance, 0161 832 1111, http://www.manchesteracademy.net/), with fellow John Peel favourites The Membranes supporting.
It’s not a full-on tour, work commitments having limited the band to long weekends around the UK this year. But last weekend it was Southampton, Bristol and Leamington Spa, and this weekend they’re looking forward to seeing out October in style, with Billy loving the vibe.
Last time I saw the band live was earlier on this protracted tour at Chester Live Rooms in June (with a review here). And what a great night. I still love the more intimate gigs. Can Billy say the same as the hard-working drummer sweating away at the back of the stage, with – as was the case that night – the lights half-blinding him?
“We’re exactly the same – the smaller the venue, the better. You’re closer to the audience and they can participate a lot better. We feed off that, and respond to that.”
Between gigs, Billy’s a senior buyer for a computer firm back in Derry, while vocalist Paul McLoone (Feargal Sharkey’s replacement in 1999’s reformation) and bass player Mickey Bradley have radio shows in Dublin and Derry respectively, and guitarist brothers Damian and John O’Neill are busy with their own music projects in London and Derry respectively.
That leads to a need to book shows in clumps over a longer period, hence Mickey proclaiming it all a ‘jaunt’, as it mostly involves long weekends away rather than heavy-duty touring. Does Billy like that ‘extended weekend’ format?
“Up to a point. It has its pluses and minuses. It’s good because it’s not a full-time thing, but it can interfere with work. If you’re working Monday to Friday, you don’t really have weekends at home with your family. It’s a bit of a compromise.
“We’re lucky that if we wanted to do it, we could tour constantly. But I think we’re getting too old now – and I’m too fond of my comfort when I get home. I want to kick off the shoes, put on the slippers, have a cup of tea!
“I’d probably prefer a three-week tour, but saying that, we’re lucky that the shows we do are always well attended. So the enthusiasm’s lifted, 40 years on, with people still coming to shows. That gives you a good boost from the norm. I’m quite fortunate.”
As alluded too in my intro, Billy’s memories of the band’s last Manchester visit, supporting Bruce Foxton’s From The Jam a year ago, were a little mixed.
“I took ill. We had to get the paramedics. There was an error with my heartbeat. They were terrific though, patched me up, and I went on and played. And it was a cracking show – we blew Bruce Foxton off stage, clean away! For me it was a good away result – three points in the bag!”
I should point out that he says that with respect for that year’s headliner, having been something of a Jam fan over the years.
“Around 1980, Michael was friendly with Paul Weller, and we were both in Los Angeles at one point, where The Jam were on a TV show. They gave us front-row seats – the band and crew, and were so good. There were only three of them but the sound was incredible. Then, when they finished, we went to walk out, but the floor manager went bonkers, as every time the camera panned round there’d be an empty row.”
Many neat and mainly unassuming tales like that from The Undertones’ past were recently aired in Mickey Bradley’s revered band biography, Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone (with my review here). Did Billy enjoy the book?
“I’ve never read it! The guys in the band read a lot of music books – biographies and autobiographies. When they’re relaying what they’ve just read on the tour bus, it can be very negative, and for lots of my heroes – for instance Marc Bolan or the New York Dolls or even Creedence Clearwater Revival – there maybe some emphasis I wouldn’t like.
“I don’t want to hear the negative side. I just want to keep my impression of what they are, rather than hearing all the nitty-gritty. But interestingly enough, my father got the book from the library, and thought it was very good. He said I was a bit of a rascal though, so I don’t know what Mickey’s written about me!”
If you’re reading this and are worried that Mickey’s book might be a typical warts’n’all biography in which you end up wishing you didn’t know quite so much about the band, you needn’t be. He gets it just right. I tell Billy this too, but I still don’t reckon he’s too eager to go and get a copy. He was there, after all, so maybe doesn’t want his own memories re-examined.
Interesting that he mentions his Dad though. Reading the book, Mr Doherty Snr. seemed a key figure in helping look after the band. Maybe not to the extent that John Weller did for The Jam, but I get the impression he was always there for them, keen to ensure they weren’t ripped off.
“I’d say he was more concerned about me. I’d just left school and had a record contract. It’s a big thing. None of us had a clue. There was no history of bands coming out of Derry, getting signed, going on Top of the Pops. I think he was just doing the right thing – just concerned. Similarly, my nieces are in their 30s and he still thinks he should be protecting them. I suppose all grandfathers are like that though. He wouldn’t stand in their way, but he’d give a wee bit of advice.”
One thing Michael does mention in the book is the amount of break-ups the band had, with all the members leaving at least once – with the exception of Damian, maybe.
“Oh God, I was always leaving. It was kind of the norm. It was, ‘Billy’s left!’ ‘John’s left!’ ‘Billy and John’s left!’ or ‘Feargal’s left!’”
Wasn’t one of those times between Teenage Kicks coming out and famously being played by John Peel?
“I’d say probably so. It’s that long ago now though. Hopefully we’ve moved on from that. We’re all really good friends, and I think that keeps the whole spirit of the band warm. We have friction, but it just washes over you. It’s like a family. If anyone outside the band slags you, you defend them, even if they say exactly the same thing you said! No. we don’t really fall out.”
I interviewed Damian’s Everlasting Yeah bandmate Ciaran McLaughlin (who was also in That Petrol Emotion with the O’Neill brothers) earlier this year (with a link here), and we got on to The Undertones gigs where he stood in for you during absences for one reason or other. He told me he reckons you may have hated him for a while, as he was always there in the background should you decide to quit again.
“Not at all! I was delighted, so quite the opposite! I never thought that at all. He was very welcome. I’d have been more worried about how he felt about me – like two dogs meeting for the first time, not knowing what’s going to happen. No, I wasn’t worried at all about that.”
Unlike the other members of the band, you never actually lived over here, did you? I get the impression you were always more of a home-bird.
“No, the closest I came to living in England was staying in London, mainly while recording.”
With that in mind, arguably as more of an outsider, I wonder what you made of this country when you first visited, not least – bearing in mind this weekend’s Manchester date – past memories of North West towns and cities.
“I remember going to Liverpool in the ’70s vividly. We came from a place that was essentially working class, but if you take the Troubles situation out of it – difficult as that would be – I was really shocked at how poor and run down Liverpool was. It genuinely stopped me in my tracks, thinking it was such a deprived area. Possibly Manchester as well, but definitely Liverpool.”
Have Saturday’s special guests The Membranes, fronted by Louder Than War head honcho John Robb, shared a bill with you before?
“I think Damian may have with That Petrol Emotion, but I can’t remember. I’m probably the worst to ask! Mickey’s like the Bill Wyman of the band – he can recount the history, from start to finish. We may have done though. Either way, I’m looking forward to it.”
Were you ever one to keep a diary of your life with The Undertones?
“I did initially, when the band formed, up until around the end of ’78. Then I stopped. I got a bit disillusioned with the whole thing and didn’t want to be reminded of it. But Damian has an archive of tons of stuff, collecting old photographs, rejection letters from record companies, old tapes, everything! And Mickey would know. If you asked him where he was on 10th March, 1979, he’d know exactly!”
“I think Feargal and Michael met Johnny and Dee Dee in New York, but John and I tended to shy away from all that, get back to the hotel. I just wanted to get the job done and get home. I still do. The other guys did the right thing though – having a mingle and a chat.”
I should add here that there’s a great photo of Feargal and Mickey with Johnny, Marky, Joey and Dee Dee in a London hotel room in ’78 included in Mickey’s book. Billy does remember socialising with The Clash though, during a tour they did together in 1979 (the tour on which Paul Simonon’s on-stage trashing of his Fender Precision bass was caught for posterity by Pennie Smith, later used for the cover of London Calling). And he had a lot of time for Joe Strummer.
“Like we were saying about my father – Joe too was concerned about us. There’s a great photograph I have, taken by Pennie Smith, of Michael and myself in some auditorium, with Joe Strummer talking and us hanging on every word! He was really protective of us, as was John Peel, who I think having championed the band, felt concerned that we might be spat out very quickly by the industry, wanting to protect our honesty.”
Yes, I get the impression Peely was like a favourite uncle.
“Aye, He was, and when we did the documentary, he came to Derry for the weekend and we were all worried about what we were going to talk about, how we were going to entertain this man, not least with such a long gap since we’d last met him. But how wrong we were! It was great from start to finish. He talked about Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, David Bowie … You name ‘em, he’d met them! And there was no bragging. He was just telling it as it happened, and we were all empathising with what he was saying.
“He was telling stories as we were being filmed as we walked through the streets of Derry, and so many people came up and were so gracious to him, shaking his hand, saying, ‘John Peel! How’s it going!’ He was just as nice back to them. Then we went to a local bar and there were guys buying him Guinness. The table was covered. I’m not exaggerating – there must have been at least 20 pints. And he drank every one of them as well!”
The audio file was a bit muffled there. I’m not sure if he’s suggesting John quaffed all those pints on his own or if it was down to the band. Either way, I’ll try not to dwell on that. The result of John Peel’s visit was the superb 2001 documentary film, Teenage Kicks: The Story of the Undertones, produced by Vinny Cunningham and Tom Collins, well worth finding if you don’t already own it (link here or indeed here as a CD/DVD package). And while I’m at it, here’s the wonderful introduction.
Anyway, what was the first time Billy realised how good a band The Undertones actually were? Or was the belief always there? You were never going to be a showband playing popular covers, were you?
“I’m still waiting for that time! No, we’re just doing what we do, and we’re lucky that people like it. And we do our homework. If we do a cover we try and do it as best we can. You can imagine back in the 70s when we first started, there was no YouTube or ways to download how to drum anyway.”
It was more a case of listening to The Rolling Stones on vinyl and trying to play along, yeah?
“Exactly, and from my point of view, regardless of whatever came on TV I’d focus on the drummer, and no on else. But it wasn’t an effort. I just loved that and I loved playing with the band and still love what I do. I’m very, very lucky that we can still do it and that people appreciate it.”
I believe you were turned on to the drums by watching a folk band as a lad. So has that come full circle now with The Billy Doherty Rambling Band, your folk fusion band (who play Undertones songs with a difference, along with original compositions)?
“Ah, I like the way you brought that one around! You should see the fellas in the band. They’re really serious players. They know their stuff.”
Do you feel you’re out of your depth then?
“Totally out of my depth! But they’re such lovely people. We all get on so well, and I really enjoy the craic. It’s hilarious when I hang out with them. We come down for a rehearsal and we’re talking about everything. It’s me that needs to rehearse, not these guys! For example, Ciaran (Carlin, flute and whistles) is in a band called Connla and they’re on tour at the moment. and Robert (Peoples, fiddle) is classically trained. Yes, they’re seriously great players!”
So you’re still learning your craft all these years on?
“Well, it’s a completely different style of music. I’m just trying to interpret it. I don’t care if it’s jazz, heavy metal or prog rock, for me it’s the drums that interest me, and I love people who do all sorts of stuff and really try and work out how do these guys play. And with this ceili band, I love it, but I really am bluffing them!
“I love hanging out with the guys but they’re constantly playing and out on tour with other bands so it’s difficult for us to get together. But we’re playing when John’s daughter’s gets married in March, and I’m looking forward to that.”
At this point we get into a discussion about Billy’s day-job, or more to the point how he messed up as a student before he was saved by The Undertones becoming a success. I’ll spare you the full details, but it’s a great tale.
Fast forward a few years, and I read a nice interview with Billy on the Irish Drummers website (with a link here) where he said The Sin of Pride was perhaps his favourite Undertones album. That seems to go against the grain, but it’s definitely an album I immersed myself in at a key age and appreciate to this day. Explain yourself, Billy.
“Well, we were more comfortable in a studio environment by then. It was really daunting. We hadn’t been exposed to recording studios back in Derry. We were also a lot tighter yet a lot looser and more confident in our playing. So that’s probably why I liked it.”
That being the case, maybe we were cheated out of a few more years of you as a high-profile drummer. Because we didn’t get to see you again until the end of the ‘90s over this side of the water.
“Well, I think the writing was on the wall. Feargal was leaving, and that was inevitable. There was a lot of tension there, and he didn’t really tune into what we were trying to do and didn’t contribute. What we should have done was just sort of take a break, let everyone go away and do their own thing. But that never happened.”
As it turned out though, Billy was the first to be in a band with Feargal’s replacement, fellow Derry lad Paul McLoone, during their time with The Carrellines. Was that a long-term apprenticeship for Paul, with Billy keeping an eye on him as a potential replacement?
“For me it was a collaborative thing. And you just kind of go with the flow and see whatever comes out of it. But Paul’s very, very funny, and again we all got on so well then … and still do.”
That certainly comes over, seeing you play live. It always seems like you’re having a lot of fun up there, and at ease in each other’s company, helping make it such a great night out.
“Well yeah … but we’re our own worse enemies. We’re really grumpy. If one of my nieces is in the house and listening to something I’ll tell her it’s rubbish and it’s horrible when they love it. I must be a pain in the neck for them. And if something like The X-Factor comes on, I can’t stick that. I’ll go to another room.”
I’m with Billy there, but he tells me he has an older nephew who also challenges him on his music, adding, “He’ll be playing a record and I’ll tell him, ‘That’s rubbish’. And he’ll say, ‘How would you know?’ And he’d be quite right as well.”
Finally, I put to Billy that – that fella Sharkey aside – he’s the final member of my all-time favourite band I’ve managed to track down for an interview. Much as I’d like to try him again all these years on, I interviewed John for my Captains Log fanzine in 1988, just before he left That Petrol Emotion, and have since probed (so to speak) Damian, then Paul, then Mickey … and now Billy – last but not least.
“Well, I’m the elusive drummer. When it comes to interviews and publicity, I can take it or leave it. I just enjoy playing with the band and enjoy their company, and we’re very lucky and I’m very grateful. Anything above that is a bonus for me.”
Remaining 40th anniversary shows: November 4 – Derry Millennium Forum, November 11 – Aberdeen The Garage, November 12 – Glasgow The Garage (sold out), November 17 – Bury St Edmunds The Apex, November 18 – Norwich The Waterfront, November 19 – London Kentish Town Forum.
For this site’s past Undertones features and interviews, try these links: Damian O’Neill (November 2014), Paul McLoone (April 2015), Michael Bradley (June 2016) and a general appreciation (September 2012) here.
With thanks to Vinny Cunningham and Kate Greaves for the extra photographs and use of their video footage.