May 13th marks the 40th anniversary of the self-named debut LP by The Undertones, as good a reason as any to track down two of my guitar heroes, brothers Damian and John O’Neill.
I don’t tend to do double interviews, least not when my subjects are based some 500 miles and around 11 hours apart by road, rail and Irish Sea these days. But I’m always happy to make an exception when Derry’s finest are in mind, especially when I get a chance to talk about one of my favourite albums of all time.
Besides, this weekend sees the return of The Undertones to my adopted neck of the woods, and it’s now more than 30 years since I was first granted an interview with older O’Neill brother John, that interview for my Captains Log fanzine conducted in his last few days with the band he co-formed after the original Undertones split, That Petrol Emotion.
So with that in mind, here’s part one of a WriteWyattUK special, and I reminded John straight away about that previous interview in late October 1988, the title of the resultant feature – ‘More Songs About Factories and Girls’ – bringing it all back for him.
“I remember that! Yeah, I think I might have a copy.”
Gold dust, John. Look after it. The location for that chat was backstage at my hometown venue, Guildford Civic Hall, where the Petrols also played three years earlier as a support act to The Long Ryders. And I seem to recall it was one of your last shows before heading home.
“Really? Ah right! Didn’t we end up with a cover version of ‘Mother Sky?’”
You certainly did, joined on stage for a take on that Can classic by your own support, Hugo Largo. A great memory, among the very finest of my time seeing the Petrols over the years.
It was clearly a key time for the band, TPE’s third album, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues, struggling to make the impact I felt it deserved, and John rocking his bandmates by – at least privately – announcing he was going home to Derry after around four years in London, family commitments taking precedence, a new start awaiting him.
At that point, fellow Petrols guitarist Raymond Gorman had problems of his own, missing that night and a few more, the partying and temptations taking their toll, John Marchini joining the live band earlier than planned while Damian O’Neill switched from bass to join his brother on guitar. But as it turned out, John’s departure was perhaps the spark the regalvanised band needed, all taking a step up, new heights soon scaled. And while the commercial success they deserved never quite came about, two acclaimed if somewhat ignored albums followed before they felt it was time to call it a day.
Anyway, I’m guessing that John, now 61 (not as if you’d think any of The Undertones are beyond their 30s when you see them live), has been home in Derry for 30 years now.
“Well yeah. My wife was pregnant with our second child. That was what made my decision. I had to move back.”
As it turned out, I think you stepping away – in the long term – proved to be the shot in the arm your bandmates needed, to stand on their own feet.
“I think so too. I think the first Petrols LP is great, but Chemicrazy is amazing.”
True. Manic Pop Thrill remains my favourite though.
“Damian always says that, funnily enough. It is great, and still holds up better than Babble or End of the Millennium …, but Chemicrazy and Catch A Fire (that’ll be Fireproof) are phenomenal too.”
In my case perhaps it’s coloured by nostalgia and great memories of your early London dates, from the Pindar of Wakefield and Chalk Farm Enterprise to Bay 63, Kennington Cricketers, and so on. A sense of ownership, maybe. You were our band, you could say.
I also totally understood your decision to give the band up. I’ve been there since with family of my own, recognising those over-riding emotions. Looking back to our interview, it makes even more sense to me. But do you miss anything about London today?
“The ironic thing is that our two kids now both live in London, living and working there, and we love going over. Obviously, it’s changed a lot, but it’s got better and better. I love London now, and every time me and my wife are over there … it just shows you what comes around!”
Have either of your children followed your path into music?
“Not really. My son would put me on to new things and I’d put him on to old things. We have similar tastes. We went to see the Oh Sees a few months ago and more recently Yo La Tengo (no relation to Hugo Largo, pop kids) in London. That was a phenomenal concert.”
I saw via social media recently that there was a rare alignment of the stars and the old That Petrol Emotion reformed … at least for one night only.
“Oh right, that was just a big coincidence, with Steve Mack in town. We all met up and that was great, catching up with everyone, and Raymond was on great form.”
I have to ask, were there secret talks about an imminent Petrols reunion?
“That was just pure coincidence. There‘s the odd rumour that they’re going to get back together again, but I don’t know.”
I think the clue there was in the ‘they’re’. If there is any reunion, perhaps John wouldn’t be a central figure. Ah well.
“But I know Damian, Ciaran, Raymond and Brendan were rehearsing the next day as The Everlasting Yeah, and the Petrols did reform anyway. I wasn’t involved then, but … I don’t mind anyway. I loved seeing them reform. I’m quite happy to be in the audience, y’know.”
Besides, John remains busy with his own project, a long-term musical partnership back in Derry with Locky Morris for the band Rare, whose sole LP, 1998’s PeopleFreak, appeared a decade after his return to Northern Ireland.
“We just performed last week, and it’s gonna be an ongoing thing now, playing and getting some music out there as well.”
Great news. Might you cross the water and play over here too?
“Funnily enough, Locky is good friends with John Hyatt, who used to be in the Three Johns. He’s an artist in his own right, and there’s something in Liverpool in September, possibly. Locky’s also got his exhibition there, so hopefully we can play over there.”
Ah, The Three Johns – there’s a name that takes me back to John Peel’s show in the ‘80s.
“The Three Johns were brilliant. Back in the Petrols days we played with them a few times, and the records still sound fantastic.”
It’s funny, this sounds like two old nostalgics talking, but while people have this set idea of what ‘80s music was, my own definition is far removed from that, and I suppose in that decade my record buying was at an all-time high.
“I always thought that. When we moved to London, The Jesus and Mary Chain had just taken off and there were all these great bands, like The Three Johns, The June Brides, The Loft, The Weather Prophets, and they all made these great records. It was almost like a mini-punk thing, ‘84/’85/’86 time. And then it all went downhill again!”
It seems to me that it was the next wave of indie bands that came through were the ones who found success, like Blur, the Stone Roses, and so on. I’m not slagging them off, but a few were surely inspired by that whole scene yet did so much better, commercially, with That Petrol Emotion among those that missed out on the big time. And suddenly there was a name for it all too, BritPop. Not as if you’d expect the Petrols to have gone anywhere near that monicker, of course.
“Well, a lot of that glossed over me. By that stage I was more into Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky. That’s what got me then, getting into sequencers and all that sort of stuff.”
And you never really looked back.
“Well, no, that’s the way I write songs now. And that’s what me and Locky are doing again as well.”
Moving on, when was the last time you wrote a song and thought, ‘That’s one for The Undertones’?
“Ah, well there’s a few songs probably that Locky and I are doing that probably The Undertones could do as well. I have a great working relationship with him and he gets the way to phrase with the singing that I’ve always struggled with, either with Feargal, Steve or even Paul McLoone.
“There are some things you instinctively have or you don’t, and I’ve discovered that working with Locky. He will spend literally hours and hours getting the timing of things right. It’s fine the way others have done it, but in retrospect I’ve gone back to original demos and gone, ‘He doesn’t sing it right’ or ‘It doesn’t sound as good’.
I get the impression you could have put a lot more great songs out there. Have you got vault-loads of material waiting for the right day?
“Well, I’ve loads of songs that are half-completed. But again, I don’t know if they’re that good, y’know.”
My proper excuse for talking to you is the 40th anniversary of The Undertones, that amazing first album and the UK (then US) tour celebrating it. There was a lot of fuss made – rightly so – about the debut single last year, and now we have this milestone. And 1979 was such a great year for you as a band – the year everything seemed to come together for these five lads from Derry. From ‘Get Over You’ and the first LP to ‘You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It!)’ and the songs you wrote that year for the second album, a few of which really showed a huge leap in maturity, songwriting-wise.
“Yeah, it’s funny. It was just … the main thing was that we were always huge fans of music, and were soaking everything in – a wide variety of music. That was the core for me, Damian, Mickey and Billy anyway. We’d just play records. Our entire life revolved around listening to music, trying to find out new sounds. It was like osmosis almost. It came on to us, and once we’d got signed and knew this was our job – at least for the next few years – we wanted to make the most of it and try and write as many songs as we could.
“It wasn’t always easy. I remember the sessions for Hypnotised, when Mickey’s father died halfway through, so we cut the recording off. And we realised before that we hadn’t enough songs written to finish the record. So we went back and wrote two or three other songs, between those recording sessions. I’m sure every musician would say the same though – if you’ve got a deadline and the pressure’s on, that focuses you.”
Interestingly, John pronounces that second album ‘Hype-notised’, which takes me back to the ‘It’s Gonna Happen’ B-side, ‘Fairly in the Money Now’, the story of fictional ‘top showband’ Tommy Tate and the Torpedoes, something I’d never really considered before as autobiographical. Anyway, John’s clearly underplaying the significance of the new songs he wrote late in ’79, those ‘two or three other songs’ including arguably the cream of the crop at that stage – ‘Wednesday Week’ and ‘Tearproof’. A real step-up.
“Again, I suppose, yeah. Funnily enough, when we played with the Buzzcocks last year, we got to talk to Pete Shelley after. I was talking about all the great records he wrote, and he said, ‘That’s when it was easy. It’s not like that anymore!’ I told him I feel exactly the same way. It’s very rarely that I’ll write a whole song over the space of five, 10 or 15 minutes. But in those days I could almost do it once every couple of months. And ‘Tearproof’ or ‘Wednesday Week’, they just wrote themselves, y’know.”
That seemed to be a golden era for great punk and new wave crossover pop. I’m thinking of tracks like ‘That’s Entertainment’ by The Jam, a few Elvis Costello songs from that era …
“Oh, brilliant records, yeah.”
But you made that important point about a sort of osmosis. You are always going to be the product of your own influences, and this was also the year that London Calling came out, another great example, but where I hear a bit of Mott the Hoople in Mick Jones’ work here and there.
“Definitely. I’ve always believed that. I don’t like slagging off bands, but with Stiff Little Fingers – off the top of my head – you can tell they came from a rock background, and their later records just sounded like rock records. You just knew that was where their original influences were. It always comes out.”
Well, If I think back to the early Petrols, you turned me on to so many different influences, from the Velvet Underground through to Captain Beefheart, Pete Ubu, Can, and so on.
“Well, I missed out on that myself. It wasn’t until The Undertones broke up that I met Raymond and he was playing me Pere Ubu.”
So many name bands from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s are still out there today, even if it’s just two-thirds of a classic line-up, doing reunion gigs and so on. And some are very good. But I can’t see The Undertones ticking off each album with an anniversary tour each year. It works for some – From the Jam being a prime example – but I can’t see you subscribing to that concept, for example in two years’ time doing a Positive Touch Revisited tour.
“Well, there’s a few dodgy songs on that record anyway. We’ve played all of the first LP, because other than the dodgy version of ‘True Confessions’ that record’s pretty good. But even Hypnotised, there’s a couple of dodgy songs on that. I’d never do that. The first LP’s the only one I’d feel comfortable with doing. And let’s face it, our set these days really consists of the first LP with a few extra songs.”
I take that point, but there aren’t so many poor tracks on Hypnotised for these ears. Even ‘Under the Boardwalk’ would have made a good B-side.
“I don’t even know why we did that. It’s a great song, but it was pretty famous. We were trying to be the New York Dolls, the way they did those R&B cover versions on their records. But they picked obscure records, which is what we should have done.”
Well, you got it spot on with Chocolate Watch Band cover, ‘Let’s Talk About Girls’, on your third single.
I’m hardly the one to criticise anyway. I still have a lot of affection for The Sin of Pride album, although no one in the band really wants to talk to me about that.
“Well, I can’t remember the last time I played that.”
Production issues aside, I still hear the soul in some of those songs and love it accordingly. Again, that was a gateway album for me, making me listen to the early Isley Brothers, the Miracles, even better appreciating the likes of ABC, the Tom Tom Club, and so on.
“Most of us have bad memories of it, y’know. It wasn’t a good time. We stayed in London during the recording, in Camden, my wife was with me the whole time, and we had a ball, y’know. I have great memories outside of making the record, but (producer) Mike Hedges and me never really hit it off.”
A nice excuse for me to ask about your previous producer then, bearing in mind the 40th anniversary of your first trips to Eden Studios to record the second and third singles and that debut album. What are your memories of Eden? It obviously suited you as a band.
“Well, Roger (Bechirian) picked it. He did those Elvis Costello records there. he knew the studio and knew the people who ran it. It was out first proper recording studio, and it definitely had a lovely homely feel about it. I could see why he liked it. We did as well.”
I was taking a wander down there only yesterday, courtesy of Google Maps, seeing the new-build there where I’m guessing the studio was, nestling among terraces on both sides.
“What was the actual address?”
Beaumont Road, I understand, kind of midway between Acton and Chiswick.
“Beaumont Road! That’s it! I must go there again, next time I’m over in London … for old time’s sake.”
I believe it closed as a recording studio in 2007 and was knocked down for housing, more’s the pity. You obviously had a good working relationship with Roger though, as proved by the fact that you recorded two more albums with him after that debut album (the second and third largely recorded in the Netherlands).
“We did, although after Positive Touch we felt we needed someone else. When we recorded the single version of ‘Julie Ocean’ we worked with the guy who did the first Petrols LP, Hugh Jones, and I wanted him to do The Sin of Pride … but Feargal (Sharkey) didn’t. He didn’t get on with him. That’s where we were at.
“So Mike Hedges became an afterthought really. I thought that was a mistake, but at the time he was working with Wah! and The Creatures, which were good records, so at the time we thought it was good.”
Going back to Hypnotised, how was that experience of recording at Wisseloord, Hilversum, with Roger?
“It was great! Again, I have good memories. My wife came over and stayed with us, and we had this beautiful hotel, about five miles away in gorgeous countryside. Yeah, great memories of recording there too.”
I got the impression from Damian that you two showed more interest in the recording process than the rest of the band.
“Well, again, we’d always try and get that guitar turned up, as we did with Kevin Shields’ remix of ‘Get Over You’. That’s the way it should have sounded. And that’s the way the whole first LP should have been.
“We were getting a lot more confident by the time of the second record, asking him to turn the drums down a little bit and the guitars up, y’know! And I think the guitars sound better on Hypnotised.”
And Roger was a good listener?
“He was a lovely guy. We met him last year when we visited London and that was great.”
“Well, obviously the Good Friday Agreement – nearly 20 years now – that was a pivotal time, y’know. There were a lot of dark years before that. Horrible times, y’know. But with this whole Brexit fiasco people are scared that’s going to change. The DUP never wanted the Good Friday Agreement, so we’re terrified that at some point … that’s the only cloud hanging over all this.”
You’d obviously seen something positive by the late ’80s though, to want to go back home when you did (bear in mind that this interview was carried out before the shocking murder of Lyra McKee).
“Well, with Sinn Fein getting into power, to know it wasn’t just the IRA and violence against violence … there was an alternative to that. That was positive in its own way. And obviously that’s what came to fruition.”
Fast forward to the end of the next decade, and The Undertones were back, this time with fellow Derry lad Paul McLoone taking over on vocals, Feargal deciding against getting involved. And it’s been a mighty ride since 1999 or thereabouts. In fact, every time I catch you live, it seems that you’re having so much fun as a band.
“And we’re definitely getting better! I don’t know how or why, but it just seems that we’re sounding better and we’ve got enough integrity to know that if it’s not right we’ll not do it, y’know. Everybody loves it and enjoys doing it, and I never thought in a million years I would still be doing this. I thought maybe a year or two, then I’ll get bored, but it just seems to get going, and with the way it works, we’ve had a long break now over Christmas, and I dread the fact that we’re about to start playing again, but you forget that it’s a good laugh. It’s fun, and it’s become a good craic. The other thing is the age groups in the audience – there’s a lot of young kids. It’s not just old people like us, y’know!”
And you can find that out for yourself by getting along to at least one of the remaining dates on this tour, The Undertones supported by the Neville Staple Band, with tickets for all shows (doors 7pm)s £25 advance, taking in: Thursday 9 May – Newcastle Boiler Shop; Friday 10 May – Leeds O2 Academy (0113 389 1555); Saturday 11 May – Manchester O2 Ritz (0161 714 4140); Thursday 16 May – Norwich Open (01603 763111); Friday 17 May – Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (01424 229111); Saturday 18 May – Southampton Engine Rooms (0800 688 9311 ).
For more details of The Undertones’ 2019 schedule, including their US tour, UK and Irish festival appearances, head here, try the band’s official website and keep in touch via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
And for part two of this special feature, this time starring John’s younger brother Damian O’Neill, head back to this site tomorrow.