Devising questions for the following feature/interview, I thought it was high time I caught up online with The Mickey Bradley Record Show, in which The Undertones’ bass player treats listeners to a two-hour weekly stroll through a vinyl wonderland of his own making on BBC Radio Ulster.
On that particular edition, choices ranged from David Bowie, The Four Tops, The Four Seasons and Captain Beefheart to Bow Wow Wow, The Jam, The Specials, and Tom Jones. And as I put it to Mickey, you really can’t go wrong when you start a show with the Buzzcocks’ I Don’t Mind.
“Yeah great record! One of my favourite singles. And did you hear the Penetration version?”
That’s another featured on the same show, and a good cover it is too. Not as if I could see a reason to cover it so soon.
“There’s something about Pauline Murray, a great voice, and there were Buzzcocks connections. They were good pals.”
As Mickey reminded me, they also covered Nostalgia on their Moving Targets debut album in October ’78, within a month of Shelley’s outfit including it on wondrous second LP, Love Bites. Speaking of which, like a certain band from Northern Ireland, Manchester’s Buzzcocks rarely went over the three-minute mark for their singles.
“God almighty! Love You More! I remember watching that on Top of the Pops. When it stopped, I was like, ‘What!'”
Yep, one minute 47 seconds and it’s all over. And going back to his show, after barely two and a quarter minutes of Buzzcocks‘ class, he cued up his next selection, Mickey (I called him Michael on the phone, but he seems to switch between the two, so let’s go down the less formal road) letting on how he recalled seeing that song performed on Top of the Pops in 1978, back ‘in O’Neill’s kitchen’. And anyone who’s read his acclaimed Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone memoir will recognise that location.
The band properly formed at No.22, Beechwood Avenue, Derry, with Mickey and friends Billy Doherty (drums) and Billy’s second cousin Feargal Sharkey (vocals) regular visitors to the home of guitar-playing brothers John, Vinny and Damian O’Neill, the latter in time taking over band duties from Vinny while he knuckled down to his A-levels. That said, they’d probably tell you that’s a bit of a grandiose statement, as most of the time they sat round watching TV and playing records, on a not-so rock’n’roll diet of tea and toast.
For me, The Undertones should need no introduction, but music writers always follow such declarations with one anyway, and so will I. Emerging from Derry (or should I say Derry-Londonderry, or even ‘Stroke City’ as Mickey’s broadcasting buddy, the late Gerry Anderson, put it) in 1976, they played mostly locally until the big time beckoned in 1978 after Teenage Kicks, recorded on Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label in Belfast, was picked up on by legendary DJ John Peel, who liked it so much he played it twice in a row on his late-night radio show. They subsequently signed with Sire Records, with that single re-released, leading to a first appearance on Top Of The Pops, within six months of the Buzzcocks’ own debut on the show.
Over the next five years, John, Damian, Michael and occasionally Billy crafted many more pop gems. And while John was responsible for five of their UK top-40 hits, Damian and Mickey wrote half of the most successful quartet, not least sole top-10, My Perfect Cousin. There were four acclaimed LPs too, before Feargal made the move the others were also contemplating in 1983, soon enjoying a successful solo career.
That was it for 16 years, Mickey and Billy going on to carve out new careers back home while John and Damian played a key role in acclaimed outfit That Petrol Emotion. Then in 1999 they reconvened without Feargal, with Derry lad Paul McLoone – now also a radio presenter, in Dublin – quickly proving any doubters wrong with his own vocal prowess and electric onstage presence. More albums followed in 2003 and 2007, The Mk. II band’s first single Thrill Me getting back-to-back plays from John Peel 25 years after that first momentous spin of Teenage Kicks.
And while it only involves occasional commitments between other projects these days, last year marked an enthusiastically-received 40th anniversary tour, and the band continue to go down a storm all over – from the club to the festival circuit, throughout Britain, Europe, and even Australia and New Zealand for the first time this year.
Away from all that, as well as his Record Show, Mickey also presents Friday night’s The Arts Show on Radio Ulster, alongside on-going duties as a producer for Radio Foyle in his home city. And if you’ve ever had the pleasure of tuning in, have experienced first-hand his between-song banter with The Undertones, read his book, or seen him on camera enthuse about music and his home patch, you have the mark of the man – witty, friendly, informed and as far from pretentious as possible. And while the nod from the Beeb to re-cross the Irish Sea – he was based in London in the mid-80s – to present a high-profile national breakfast show might not be forthcoming, I’m guessing he’s not bothered. As Pete Shelley would say, ‘I don’t mind’.
In fact, laid back and understated seems to be the way of all Undertones. Don’t expect any ‘best band in the world’ hype, just a good, honest punk rock sensibility. Us fans get a bit dewy-eyed, but not the group themselves, as you can witness for yourself if you get along to any of 11 end-of-year UK and Irish dates starting tonight (Thursday, November 9th) at the Birmingham Academy.
It’ll be 35 years ago now since they released the Love Parade single. Not as if that charted. Their Top of the Pops days were done and dusted. As it is, I decide not to go into all that anyway. I’d only end up saying how much I loved The Sin of Pride at the time, with Michael less convinced at the other end of the phone line. Instead, I try a different tack, not so subtly remarking on the lack of new material coming our way over the past decade, asking if – as last year marked the 40th anniversary tour – this was the Dig Yourself Deep 10th anniversary tour. And he at least has the good grace to laugh.
“I think it’s just that we had such a great time last autumn, with all those shows. It all really worked, and was almost like a proper tour … but without the boring bits. As soon as it was over, the manager said, ‘Do you wanna do that again?’ and we all said, ‘Yes!’”
He seems happier talking about other bands, as is the Undertones’ way, and we’re soon on to ABC … well, in this case, Adam and the Ants, Bow Wow Wow and The Clash, comparing the influence on the punk scene of svengali managers Bernie Rhodes and Malcolm McLaren, before eventually threading back to our main subject.
Last time we spoke, I reminded him, he was in a Ford Focus, with Billy driving, between shows in Belfast and Dublin in late May 2016, with mobile reception dropping in and out. And as was the case that time, they’ve opted again for mostly three-day live stints followed by brief returns home to go to work (Billy and John also live in Derry, with Paul in Dublin and Damian in London).
“Yeah, I’ll be back at work from Monday to Wednesday. This is our holiday entitlement, or ‘leave‘ as the BBC put it. I do worry that some day I will run out of days off, and the band will go on without me.”
That’s not going to happen, I tell him. I’m hardly privy to such information, but could never imagine that happening. So, any more new releases coming our way soon?
“No, not at the moment. That’s being put on hold, y’know.”
Only you wrote some great songs on that last album, not least final tracks She‘s So Sweet and I’m Recommending Me.
“Thanks very much. But it’s a very slow-moving process. We‘re not at it all the time and don‘t want to make big plans if we haven‘t got the time to fulfil them. I don‘t think it‘s what people are clamouring, and we don‘t have the artistic temperament, except maybe John, but he has different outlets.”
With the distance between you, arranging rehearsals for the live shows can‘t be too easy.
“There will be something in the next couple of weeks, with Damian coming over and Paul coming up too. We‘ll go through, see if there are any different songs to play, and so on.”
Is it always good to get back in the same room?
“Yeah, it’s a good craic, and whenever we play again for the first time, it’s usually good. It‘s not like you have to crank up an engine or something. Then you do it a couple of times and it’s slightly better. For the physical songs, Billy always feels it and thinks he should practise more. Damian and John as well, with quite fast guitar. But the bass is never a problem … it‘s very sedate. It‘s a sedentary musical occupation, playing the bass guitar. As long as Paul can remember all the words …”
You see, I could never mange that. I’d have to take the Otis Redding approach and make it up as I go along.
“Ha! That’s okay if you’re Otis Redding!”
Then the tour ends back home, with dates in Dublin and Belfast. That must be great, I put to him, but he‘s not convinced by that generalisation of the perceived special resonance of home gigs (and boy, does he hate the word ‘gig’).
“It sounds terrible, when people talk about hometown shows, I don‘t mind it, but I don‘t attach any special significance. I enjoy playing somewhere where there’s an opportunity to get out the next morning and walk around, like in Berlin or somewhere.”
Regarding my own current patch, you’re just 25 miles down the road at Warrington‘s Parr Hall this Saturday (November 11th), following that with a visit to John Robb’s Louder than Words literary festival at The Principal in Manchester on Sunday (November 12th).
“Yeah, I’ll be interviewed by Roisin Dwyer from Hot Press, doing a bit of an illustrated mini-talk and a reading. I’m looking forward to that, and meeting Paul Hanley as well (drummer in Manchester legends The Fall from 1980-85, now with Brix & The Extricated) – who has a book out on Manchester‘s music.”
At this point, we get on to further Louder Than Words guest Robert Forster, publicising Grant & I, and a mutual appreciation of The Go-Betweens, before we’re briefly on to Mickey’s book again, and how I’d just re-read the section about Julien Temple’s visit to Derry to film the promo video for My Perfect Cousin. Well worth reading, if you get chance.
Talk of punk’s early incursions into Northern Ireland then saw me telling him how Tom Robinson recently impressed upon me that while The Clash talked the talk and had their pictures taken by Troubles landmarks, it was his band – TRB – who actually played, the first outside punk band to do so (with a link to the interview here).
“Yeah … And?”
He laughs, but I can tell he‘s not impressed. He did get to see them then, in Portrush, and thought they were good, but his opinion wasn’t helped by Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons suggesting, in The Boy Looked at Johnny, that Tom was the best thing happening in 1978.
“They said, compared to them, all the other bands were pissing in the wind. And I was like, ‘Fuck off!’ Actually, a couple of months ago we were doing a Rewind show in Perth, Scotland, and Trevor Horn and Tom Robinson were playing too. We were all in this partitioned-off marquee dressing room, I was waiting for someone, and Trevor was standing there. He kind of looked at me, and said, ‘Tom?‘ I said, ‘No! Do you think I‘m Tom Robinson? I’m Mickey Bradley from The Undertones!'”
Well, you must get fed up of constantly being mistaken for Tom, I add, mischievously.
“Absolutely, all the time!”
Going back to what was such an important year for music though, I asked Mickey where the band were up to this time 40 years ago, at the tail end of ’77 – following inspirational debut LPs from the likes of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Stranglers, The Damned, The Jam. Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Television, Wire, Talking Heads, and Johnny Thunders‘ Heartbreakers. I’m guessing they made the demo tape that really got things going around then, and had their residency at the Casbah in Derry.
What covers were you playing?
“We’d have been playing New York Dolls songs, and The Stooges, and a few Nuggets songs.”
Had you already started moving away from the ‘year zero‘ UK punk material?
“We would probably have still been playing The Clash’s Garageland and White Riot. It would have been a good combination. We‘d have dropped Gloria and Jumping Jack Flash by then, and I’m Stranded … because it was too hard to play! By the start of ‘78 there would definitely have been more of our own songs, although we‘d have started doing T-Rex songs, playing Get It On and 20th Century Boy … oh, and Gary Glitter’s Rock’n‘Roll.”
You describe the Casbah so well in your book. When did that ‘plastered over Portacabin’, as you put it, actually come down?
“I‘d say about 1979 or 1980, although the shopping centre didn‘t go up until around ’95. It was all just derelict. But we stopped playing there around the time Teenage Kicks came out.”
You haven‘t got any remnants on the mantelpiece at home then?
“No, there was nothing worth keeping really, although I’ve got a plan of it – someone drew me a plan.”
So, finally, any new covers on this tour?
“No, we always have conflict about covers. I love playing them, but some of the others aren‘t that fussed. And whatever we do is for our own benefit!”
There could be the odd surprise though?
“There might be, yeah!”
The Undertones’ 2017 UK/Irish tour: Thursday, November 9th – Birmingham 02 Academy; Friday, November 10th – Cardiff Tramshed; Saturday, November 11th – Warrington Parr Hall; Thursday, November 16th – Brighton Concorde; Friday, November 17th – London Camden Koko; Saturday, November 18th – Northampton Roadmender; Thursday, November 23rd – Sheffield Plug; Friday, November 24th – Leeds University Union; Saturday, November 25th – Newcastle Wylam Brewery; Friday, December 1st – Belfast Limelight; Saturday, December 2nd – Dublin Academy.
For ticket details, try the official website, check out their Facebook page, or follow them on Twitter. And for tickets at Michael Bradley’s Louder Than Words festival event (with details of all the events here), try this link. There’s also the mighty Rocking Humdingers Club, linked here.
For this site’s past Undertones features and interviews, try these links: Damian O’Neill (November 2014), Paul McLoone (April 2015), my first Michael Bradley piece (June 2016), Billy Doherty (October 2016) and a general appreciation (September 2012) here.