With the 40th anniversary of the self-named LP by The Undertones just a few days away, here’s part two of a special WriteWyattUK feature celebrating a momentous 1979 album, this time tackling guitarist Damian O’Neill about that fantastic debut, amid a clutch of UK dates for Derry’s finest.
Damian O’Neill was barely 15 when he replaced older brother Vincent – who quit to concentrate on his exams – in The Undertones, and still only 17 when the band recorded their brother John’s ‘Teenage Kicks’, the track that arguably defines them to this day.
We probably all know that part of the story, legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel’s love of that single and the five working-class lads behind it leading to so much more, the band signing to Sire Records on October 2nd, ’78 on a five-year deal, recording their first Peel Session a fortnight later, and on October 26th performing their re-released debut 45 on Top of the Pops, the song peaking at No. 31 on the UK singles chart that November.
That month – until December 16th – they were out on their first UK tour, supporting The Rezillos and John Otway as well as headlining three concerts in Belfast and Derry. And then came second single ‘Get Over You’, recorded that December, their first for Roger Bechirian at Eden Studios, West London.
And recently I got to reminisce with Dee – who also plays guitar for That Petrol Emotion offshoot The Everlasting Yeah and last year released the wondrous Refit Revise Reprise album as Damian O’Neill and the Monotones – about those recordings, recalling a few treasured photographs from the first two LP sessions at those studios, one taken on his 19th birthday (while the band were completing second album, Hypnotised).
“We liked the studio and Roger, booking to do the first album in January ’79. And (the following year) Roger’s mother made a guitar-shaped cake, and (Stiff Records co-founder) Jake Riviera was there. He was managing Elvis Costello, who Roger also worked with. I remember champagne … and wearing a Clash t-shirt.”
Still got that Take the Fifth t-shirt?
“I don’t! God … if only!” All those great t-shirts I was wearing back in those days … I don’t have any of them.”
That’s a shame. I expected the cake to have gone, but …
“Ha! The cake was devoured there and then!”
While the ‘Teenage Kicks’ EP was recorded at Wizard Studios in what’s now known as Belfast’s Cathedral district, ‘bang-slap in the centre of town’ according to Dee, London soon beckoned, their first Top of the Pops appearance proving key to the tale.
By the time that was transmitted, the band were already back home, playing a hometown gig in Derry at The Rocking Chair. But the previous day they’d taken advice from fellow punk and new wave stars.
As I understand it, Elvis Costello and the Attractions recorded both This Year’s Model and Armed Forces at Eden.
“That’s right, and both classics!”
Then there was Nick Lowe’s The Jesus of Cool before that …
“Yeah, we never met Nick, although Roger knew him really well, having worked with him and Dave Edmunds at Eden. But in the foyer and sitting room, where you’d sit, relax and watch TV, it had all the albums they made on the walls. I’ve got pictures of us messing about there, and you can see them in the background. There was also Joe Jackson …”
Look Sharp. I was going to mention that, and the fact that Graham Parker also recorded there.
“Yeah, and Lene Lovich. ‘Lucky Number’ and all that … plus Rockpile.”
Later that same year there was also Buzzcocks’ A Different Kind of Tension, their first recordings outside Manchester. And there was some link with Madness’ One Step Beyond, if only for a couple of tracks, while Joy Division also briefly recorded there, as did Squeeze, who made East Side Story there with Roger and Elvis in 1981.
“Great studios. Just a shame that’s gone. Mickey Bradley (bass) would probably tell you exactly what it looked like. He’s got a great memory, outside and inside (the studio, not Mickey’s memory, I’m guessing). But yeah, it was on a residential street, possibly converted. I know Roger helped build it, the console and all that.
“I’m still in touch, although I haven’t seen him for a couple of years. We went for a meal a few years ago – me, John (O’Neill), Roger and our wives. It was really good to see him again.”
Did Dee – these days around a dozen miles from Eden Studios, not so far from Trotter family base Nelson Mandela House in South East London – and the band know Roger before they went in to record ‘Get Over You’?
“No, he was recommended. When we did Top of the Pops the first time, Elvis Costello and the Attractions were on as well, doing ‘Radio Radio’. We were chatting – we were big fans – and their drummer, Pete Thomas, mentioned Roger, saying, ‘He engineered our album, but is actually a great producer.’ So it was down to his recommendation that we sought him out.
“Funny thing was that we did ‘Get Over You’ with him first, probably one of our best songs, but were never really happy with it. We were desperate to get a hit, because ‘Teenage Kicks’ wasn’t really a hit. Roger always thought he kind of ruined it.
“He over-‘popified’ it. It’s too smooth. And those backing vocals … we wanted to sound like the New York Dolls, and didn’t. So it’s kind of funny that after that experience we went back to him for the first album. But that turned out OK!”
Another touch of O’Neill understatement there, as I got with older brother John in yesterday’s part one feature. It is of course one of the finest albums ever made. No arguments required. I probably mentioned that to Damian too, but he most likely shrugged it off.
“As you know, we got Kevin Shields (of My Bloody Valentine fame) to remix it a few years ago, and it’s the exact same performance, but he gave it a rougher mix … and it’s much better – the way it should have been, y’know.”
You stuck with Roger to deliver the second album, but this time starting in Holland, at Wisseloord Studios, Hilversum, a place we perhaps only previously knew from the station display on the old radio sets (in fact, they returned there in January and February 1981 to record Positive Touch).
“Yeah, and he did some great stuff on those songs. He really brought them out.”
So what was Roger like to work with?
“He was very amenable. He wasn’t a taskmaster at all. He’d suddenly suggest things, and he got good takes out of you, which is very important, made me feel more comfortable. Actually, I think me and John were at the controls a lot more than the others. We’d always hang back, try and be there for the mixing, whereas Billy (Doherty, drums) would always go home the moment he’d recorded his parts. Mickey was there sometimes, and Feargal (Sharkey, vocals), but me and John were the main ones around the studio.”
Perhaps you were both destined for all that, as subsequent years proved.
“Yeah, I think so. I think you’re right.”
And who was the sequencing of the albums down to?
“That was all of us. We always made sure it was a democratic decision, over whose songs came first. And we got the sequencing right most of the time.”
Definitely, and was there a particular thrill at kicking off that debut album with a song of yours, ‘Family Entertainment’?
“For me, personally, that was wonderful. It’s a great opener. ‘Casbah Rock’ at the end was my idea as well, using the tape of that. I don’t think Roger was so keen on that at the time, being such a hissy demo tape. But it worked perfectly, fading out after 30 seconds or whatever.”
Was that the part of the album credited as recorded in ‘Mrs Simms’ Shed, Derry’?
“Yeah. Also, Roger got Lene Lovich to do the talking bit at the beginning of ‘The Way Girls Talk’. No, hang on … we had so many titles with girls in them! Erm … ‘Girls Don’t Like It’! The ‘Hey, wasn’t Eddie driving that car?’ bit. That’s Lene and an American friend.”
Wow. I never knew that. Funnily enough, I was going to ask who that was.
“Yeah, I wasn’t there for that recording. I think Roger did it when he was doing some work with her. We’d asked him, saying it would be really nice to get an American voice on there. I had her album too, so got Roger to sign it … I’ve still got that. Typical me – two birds with one stone!”
How about the cover photography – was ‘Laurence O. Doherty’ a friend of the band?
“Laurie was a very well-known Derry photographer, normally taking pictures of rioters or buildings or local singing competitions and showbands. The session was done by Bull Park, famous in Undertones folklore, near our headquarters – O’Neill’s, Beechwood Avenue – and where we always played football.
“We did a few corny showband poses, deliberately, and he wanted us to go a bit further, put our hands out. John especially wasn’t having that! But we picked what we liked, and I really like that cover. I especially like the front cover, it shows us as we were. There’s no thrills. We were a pretty ugly-looking band! And it’s very punk. No pretence.”
Well, let’s for a moment consider Mickey on the back cover, with that toothy grin. What the hell?
“I know! Ha! He could have objected, but he didn’t. Mickey didn’t care. It’s very punk rock.”
You at least had a semblance of cool about you.
“Yeah. It had to be black and white too, like the Ramones (first LP cover). We just wanted a picture like the Ramones.”
On the inside cover, there’s a photo of a cinema billboard, showing The Swarm … and The Undertones.
“That was a Rialto cinema that became a venue as well. We played there a few times. It’s now Primark … unfortunately.
“And on the other side (of the inner sleeve), I typed out the stupid nonsense about stealing cans of Mr Sheen and guitar strings and stuff. We’d done that tour with The Rezillos, and there was some reference to that as well.”
There was the later (October) sleeve with different photos, this time shot in colour, also including ‘Teenage Kicks’ and ‘Get Over You’, with that cover shot by Jill Furmanovsky.
“That was taken at Top of the Pops, at the BBC Studios upstairs. The bar opened out and you got this sort of garden area. That’s a good picture as well. I really like that.”
True. It’s a good ‘un. But the first one was the iconic photograph.
“Yeah, the first was the best. The dodgy thing about when that album with the new cover was that there was a new catalogue number too, so although we nearly sold 100,000 albums for the black and white cover, that was deleted and there was a new one … so we never reached that mark, never got a disc.”
Outrageous. I might write to my MP or Damian’s MP, or perhaps Derry’s MLA about that. Anyway, you were initially at Eden Studios for the ‘Get over You’ session, then returned for the first LP for around four weeks of recording?
“Yeah, I’d say about four weeks.”
And the wondrous ‘You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It!)’ was next.
“Yeah, that came after. We’d exhausted all our songs and needed to come up with some new ones. And when John came up with that, it was like, ‘Yes! We’re going to be fine!’”
Fantastic, and maybe still my favourite of all your singles.
“Yeah, it’s Mickey’s favourite, and I do love it. Good memories too. Recording that was great. Things were on the up for us.”
And what a year that was. That summer, 40 years ago, I gather that you and Mickey also wrote ‘My Perfect Cousin’.
“Yes, it would have been, because we recorded it in January 1980. Yeah, late summer maybe.”
So the bulk of the Hypnotised album would have been written that year, with a few more added around Christmas.
“Yeah, we went to Holland, recorded around seven or eight songs, then kind of ran out, and were under pressure to come up with five or six songs. Luckily, we just about did it, even though we used ‘Under the Boardwalk’, which was never supposed to be on the album.”
I see that as more of a B-side, but these were the days when I loved B-sides too. As for the later tracks, this was hardly writing to order, lacking as a result – songs like ‘Wednesday Week’ and ‘Tearproof’ showed real maturity, even a jump within that year.
“Absolutely. I still love ‘Tearproof’. That’s John, and I think Mickey did a little. And ‘Wednesday Week’ was just another level altogether, wasn’t it? We were listening to different influences, and I guess for that it was more The Beatles or The Velvet Underground.”
“Yeah, that’s a good example. Even the cover – the kind of psychedelic mid-’60s kind of cover.”
And you kicked off with your own self-pastiche of sorts, ‘More Songs About Chocolate and Girls’. I love it, but that also suggests someone putting the squeeze on you, asking for more songs.
“Yeah, it was kind of tongue-in-cheek. The lyrics aren’t great, but …. funnily enough, I’d opened up the album with one of my songs again. Surprising, maybe, but it seemed to work.”
It certainly did. And what was it like to be at Wisseloord that time? Was that a completely different set-up, or more like a Dutch Chiswick, not least with Roger back at the controls.
“Yeah, a bigger studio, more expensive, a beautiful set-up actually, with an incredible control room. Roger really liked it, that’s why he went over. And we loved it. It was January 1980, pretty cold, about 30 miles from Amsterdam, the middle of nowhere really. So you just got on with it. The accommodation was next door, with beautiful little rooms, and everything was just warm, with amazing breakfasts, fresh orange juice and the most amazing breaded rolls we’d ever seen. It was luxury compared to where we lived! And just being warm in winter for a few weeks was … ha!”
I gather that shot of your bandmates with lobster bibs that graced the cover of Hypnotised was – according to Mickey’s autobiography – taken at a seafood restaurant in The Bowery, Manhattan, NYC.
“(Sire Records MD) Seymour Stein took us out for a meal. I just thought it was funny, Mickey and Billy wearing bibs, so took this stupid photo. When it came to doing the cover, we had this fella, Bush Hollywood, involved, doing our singles as well, and I think Mickey and I met him in Newcastle, gave him this Polaroid, and said, ‘Here’s the cover.’ He said, ‘Very funny, now what’s your idea?’ And we said, ‘That is the idea!’ He was aghast but had to do what we told him. We had complete artistic licence. They didn’t dictate to us.”
Going back to the first album again, am I right in thinking that for the most part you’d honed the songs live, not least at Derry venue The Casbah?
“Oh yeah – we did the bulk of those songs there, so knew them inside out. That’s why it was such a breeze to record those songs at Eden in January ’79.”
Are you marking the 40TH anniversary of the debut LP this year with a special event, or are you just celebrating via this tour? And will that fella currently helping clean up our rivers be joining you somewhere to help mark the occasion?
“I would be very surprised! We lost touch many years ago. But his rivers work is admirable. I’m very much into the environment myself, so that’s great – good on him.”
And you have the Neville Staple Band as support, something Neville was very much looking forward to when we talked recently. In a sense, you’ve a shared history, not least him in his Specials days having also supported The Clash back in the day, with your respective, rightly-acclaimed eponymous debut albums both out in 1979.
“Yeah, and they came to see us when we played Coventry or Birmingham, I seem to recall. I remember three or four coming to talk to us. They mentioned they were in a band. I can’t recall if they gave us a name.”
Interesting. I wonder if they were The Specials or The Coventry Automatics then.
“Maybe. I remember they struck us as being really nice. We must have found out who they were pretty soon. That was on the first album tour, around April ’79.”
And I see you met up with your old That Petrol Emotion pals recently.
“Yes, Steve Mack happened to be over from America, and our John was over that weekend to see his kids with his wife, so everyone was just there. That’s why I brought my camera. Just a couple of hours in a pub. Who knows if this will ever happen again. Purely a social thing.
“Steve’s still involved with Stag (back in Seattle), and we’re playing America in May and June, so he’s coming over to Vegas to see us, and was thinking of bringing the rest of the band, hoping to support us.”
Wow, what a bill that would be. And maybe you’ll stay and do a residency there for a few years, Elvis Presley style. I can see it now … The Undertones – the Vegas years.
“Ha. The Lost Vegas years! Yeah.”
Will you be playing anywhere over there that you played with The Clash in late ’79?
“Well, we’re playing New York … not the Palladium though! We’re doing two shows there, and Boston, then (Las) Vegas and California (San Diego, Santa Ana and Los Angeles) … where we never made it with The Clash of course … much to my chagrin. We had frickin’ girlfriends! But I can’t complain, can I.”
Clearly that still rankles a little with Damian. Ah well.
“We’re also doing a few sporadic shows, including a few festivals, but then it’s kind of winding down again. Billy’s not been in great health recently, having had heart problems over the last year, so it’s been decided not to do as many as in the past. But we should be playing with Madness at their House of Fun Weekender at Butlin’s in Minehead.”
That event runs from November 29th to December 2nd, with details here, while those other appearances include festivals in Stanhope, County Durham (June 29th), Liverpool (July 6th), Perth (July 20th), Macclesfield, Cheshire (August 3rd), Cork (August 4th), and Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire (August 17th).
Finally, while The Undertones remain a band on the up all these years on, revitalised since 1999 when hometown lad Paul McLoone joined as frontman, there are new kids on the block too, winning the plaudits. Has Dee been enjoying the second series of Lisa McGee’s acclaimed sitcom Derry Girls?
“It’s very good. It’s gone down a treat as well. It’s put Derry on the map, which is brilliant. I was thinking, ‘Fuck, they’ve usurped The Undertones! Derry is now synonymous with Derry Girls, and not The Undertones.”
The Undertones and the Neville Staple Band tour continues this week (all shows doors 7pm,with tickets £25 advance) at: 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 an April 2018 feature/interview with Damian O’Neill, head here, and for a Mickey Bradley feature/interview from November 2017, including links to past Undertones-related interviews on this site, head here. Meanwhile, for more details of The Undertones’ 2019 schedule, including US tour, UK and Irish festival appearances, head here, try their website and keep in touch via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Three of the photographs used in this feature were sourced from a special feature/interview on Roger Bechirian by Pete Weiss for the TapeOp website, with a link to his informative piece here.