As The Undertones gear up for a run of rescheduled UK live dates this month and next, 46 years after their first shows and 22 years after reconvening with a new singer, I felt it was high time I had words with these legendary Northern Irish punk rockers again.
But first a little history for the uninitiated (difficult as it to imagine that any discerning folk might not yet know about the group’s antics down the years), or at least a chance to fill in a few gaps for those who haven’t been paying full attention to the story in recent years.
This five-piece from Derry settled on their initial classic line-up of John and younger brother Damian O’Neill (guitars), Feargal Sharkey (vocals), Billy Doherty (drums), and Mickey Bradley (bass) way back in 1976, learning how to play basic rock’n’roll and soon captivated by the thrill of the punk scene.
With no bands worth catching nearby, the emphasis on learning their craft was on distance learning, listening to records bought via mail order, reading the few copies of the NME that made it to their locality, and listening to John Peel’s highly-influential night-time BBC Radio One show. And after recording John O’Neill’s ‘Teenage Kicks’ for Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label in Belfast, it turned out that Peel was equally enamoured, in fact so impressed that one night in September ’78 he famously played that classic debut single (initially released in paper wrap-around EP format) twice in a row.
Soon enough, The Undertones signed with Sire Records – already home to Ramones, Talking Heads and The Rezillos – and that seminal debut was re-released, leading to the band’s first appearance on Top of the Pops, reaching No.34 in the UK. By the time 1979 was out, they’d had three more top-40 hits with fellow JJ O’Neill gems ‘Jimmy Jimmy`, ‘Here Comes the Summer`, and ‘You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It)’.
The following year, Damian and Michael’s ‘My Perfect Cousin’ made the top 10, their biggest hit, while John’s ‘Wednesday Week’ reached No.11. But just one more UK top-40 single followed, Damian and Michael’s ‘It’s Going to Happen’ (18) in 1981 added to three top-20 LPs, the highest-placed 1980’s Hypnotised (No.6). And shortly after March ‘83’s The Sin of Pride was toured and stalled just outside the top 40, Feargal announced he was leaving to embark upon a solo career, the band deciding to call it a day, the O’Neills in time featuring with influential indie outfit That Petrol Emotion, Billy and Michael by then back home, The Undertones remaining dormant for 16 years.
Then, in 1999, hometown lad Paul McLoone took on Feargal’s role as they reconvened, the new singer’s vocal prowess and on-stage presence soon convincing the doubters. And after much consideration and several live shows, they released new LP, Get What You Need, to critical acclaim from the likes of Q, Uncut, Rolling Stone, Hot Press in 2003, John’s glorious ‘Thrill Me’, the new line-up’s first single, among the tracks proving the art of writing short, sharp songs had not been lost, that limited edition 7” vinyl 45 leading to a certain John Peel liking it so much he played it twice in succession, as he had ‘Teenage Kicks’ a quarter of a century earlier.
A second LP, Dig Yourself Deep, in 2007 also impressed, but since then it’s mostly been about live shows, although the band marked Record Store Day in 2013 with a 7” vinyl only release, ‘Much Too Late’ selling out all 1,000 copies that day, then, in 2016, came vinyl remasters of the first two LPs, The Undertones and Hypnotised, and a 7” vinyl remix of 1979 single ‘Get Over You’, remixed by Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine/Primal Scream). Also that year, Mickey published his splendid memoir, Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone, while 2018 – 40 years on from the debut EP – the next Record Store Day saw the band release a vinyl singles box-set containing all 13 original 45s from ‘78-’83.
Fast forward to 2020, the band set to tour the UK, the US and Europe when the coronavirus pandemic stopped the world in its tracks, The Undertones hunkering down, fans having to make do instead with a vinyl double-LP compilation of the first coming, West Bank Songs.
But now they’re properly back, their rescheduled dates – with shows across the UK, Germany and Scandinavia between now and May – promoting the release of Dig What You Need on South London-based indie label, Dimple Discs, comprising selected tracks from the post-reformation LPs on vinyl for the first time (as well as on CD and download), digitally remastered and remixed by producer Paul Tipler (Stereolab, Elastica, Idlewild, Placebo, Julian Cope, The House of Love), its packaging and sleeve design by Arthole, for what Damian calls ‘a sonically cohesive bunch of nuggets waiting to be rediscovered all over again’. Quite right too.
Since reforming, The Undertones have toured several times across the UK, Ireland and the rest of Europe, Japan, Turkey and North America, the band still much loved not just for fans but also in various quarters of the British and Irish music media, their self-titled debut album making Q magazine’s top 100 albums of all time.
So that’s us up to date, to the point where bass player and backing vocalist turned radio producer and presenter Michael picked up the phone, and I asked just how he felt it was going right now, with spring on its way and the hope of those live shows at last (I should point out that we spoke before the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine started to unfold).
“It’s going great. I’m sitting here, looking out of the window, and the sun is shining. I cannot wait for warmer weather though.”
Definitely, although I have to say my diary’s ended up a right mess with all the scribblings out again of live shows – some postponed, others newly confirmed – to a point where I’m not totally sure which is which yet. I’m not blaming you, mind.
“Oh, I can’t work out if these are the ones which we were supposed to do two years ago, or 18 months ago. Because we were doing patches in the spring of 2020 and then the autumn of 2020, and they were soon leapfrogging each other.”
I think you’re right, and now I seem to have you playing Manchester Academy and Liverpool Academy two weeks in a row. And that can’t be right.
“I have a diary here, and I’ve actually taken the liberty of writing things down … and Manchester and Liverpool are now the first the second of April.”
Ah, that’s good. I think it was a week earlier before that.
“Back in the olden days.”
Exactly. And now we’ve sorted that out, let’s go back a wee bit. Have you kept yourself busy? Product-wise, there was the previous recorded compilation, the West Bank Songs double LP on vinyl.
“Yeah, that was around the start of all this, operating parallel with the live stuff. Did we keep ourselves busy? I didn’t. Well, some of us had day jobs. I had a day job which continued right through to 2020, then I gave that up. We didn’t do anything in 2020. We didn’t play anywhere, we didn’t rehearse … for obvious reasons. Then we were all due to start again in 2021, and that didn’t happen until the summer.
“We did a couple of festivals in England, which were great, a couple of Scottish shows, a German show, a Belfast show. So this will be the first burst of activity. But it’s never that long. It’s only three days in a row, then three days off, another three days …”
You’ve done it that way for a while now. I guess it works best that way.
“Oh, aye, you go away for the weekend, basically, and play in the band.”
I get the impression from previous conversations with yourself plus John and Damian that – and John, especially, said this – this is the most enjoyable time you’ve had playing in the band (not including the pandemic, of course).
“Well, yeah, because it’s not full time. If we were 20 years old, then we would be doing things very differently. It’s funny, I look back at lists of dates we did in 1979/80, and we’d do six or seven shows on the trot, then a day off, then another week, then a day off, and then another week, you know.”
I guess those were your Hamburg years.
“Well, I’d say the Hamburg years were at The Casbah, hanging around there. But I wouldn’t want that now. I couldn’t do that. And I don’t think bands of our vintage do that anymore. The long tours are for the 20-year-olds, and teenagers, which is great, but it wouldn’t suit us now. Maybe that’s why John thinks that. I think he’s right too.
“And we don’t have band meetings anymore. If there’s any information – and I’m over-analysing this – if there’s anything you need to know, it’s done by email, or WhatsApp, which means you have time to consider it and consider your answer. You’re not going to say the first thing that comes into your mind or try and make a joke. It’s a slower pace and there’s nothing riding on it. It’s not like we’re kind of going, ‘We really have to make our mark here’.”
I get the impression with so many bands of your vintage, although there are still bills to pay, it’s not about the money (money, money). You seem to be doing it for all the right reasons. And I think that shows.
“Yeah. And we do get paid! It goes and pays for things, y’know, giving ourselves a wee bit of money. But it’s not what we’re depending on to put food on the table. So there’s that pressure off. And we’re not looking for a hit, y’know … although we are bringing out another LP, a compilation …”
Yes, Dig What You Need, with a free glass of Peckham spring water included with every copy, right?
“I think that may have been a lie … or a joke. Only Fools and Horses?”
Well spotted. In tribute to Dimple Discs’ geographical roots.
“Those two records have been out many, many years. It was just a matter of fitting them together, doing something different with it. Another part of the back catalogue.”
It makes me laugh on social media when there are those inevitable spirited conversations /arguments about what’s been left off this compilation. How could you possibly leave out such and such a track? That sort of thing. But both LPs are still available, far as I know, albeit not in this remixed format or on vinyl.
It seems to be a continuation of discussions regarding past albums, such as, ‘Why wasn’t ‘Bittersweet’ on The Sin of Pride?’. There’s always something for us to fall out about.
“Yeah, and there’s always something worth talking about. It was Damian that helped put that compilation together. I said to him, ‘Are you not putting any of your own songs on?’. And he said, ‘I didn’t have any songs on those LPs’. ‘Oh!’. There were a couple of co-writes, but he could be the honest broker. And when I listened back, you can be critical, but kind of go, ‘That’s actually not bad’.”
Heady praise indeed. And it’s not just because I’m talking to Mickey, but songs like ‘Oh Please’, ‘Joyland’ and glam-stomp classic ‘I’m Recommending Me’ are among the many greats on here or any other LP. Then there’s John’s ‘Here Comes the Rain’ and … well, I could go on, but won’t. So many crackers. It’s clearly not just some contractual obligation.
“Ha! That was Monty Python, wasn’t it?”
True. Meanwhile, I’m guessing from what you said that you’ve now stepped back from the production side of your work in radio, to concentrate on the Mickey Bradley Record Show on BBC Radio Ulster (every Friday night).
“Yeah, that’s it. On a very practical level, they were offering redundancies – BBC cutbacks and all that – and with the way work was going, some days I was the only one in the office for hours. A lot of people were working from home. So I missed all that. And you just come to a time when … the email came around, I thought, ‘I could go for that’. And it was the best thing I ever did. You still do a lot of stuff, but it’s a different thing, and there’s more time for walks with Elaine. Things like that.”
That’s Mickey’s wife, by the way. Of course, The Undertones remain synonymous with John Peel, but when it came to getting into radio yourself, were there others who inspired you to try your luck?
“It was an accidental thing. My brother reviewed songs on a local radio station, BBC Radio Foyle, so he always had connections there, and they’re always looking for people to try out different things. So I went up, was waiting to meet one of the producers and the boss of the station, he used to teach me. I think he just took a flyer, like a step into the unknown. They offered me half an hour a week doing a radio programme about local music. And you couldn’t just sit and play five or six records, so you’d go out, do a couple of interviews and so on. You were right into that, and I found that I had a liking and a bit of a talent for it as well. It was a great job, working with great people – very funny, interesting, smart people.”
And this was BBC Radio Foyle in Derry?
“Yeah. It’s still going, of course, still wins awards, but this was the ‘80s and ‘90s, different sort of world, and y’know, I’m not the right age for it anymore. But it was great, really great, it gave me a great life and a great education.”
Just what you needed after the initial band years?
“Oh yeah. Security. An actual job. And jobs are great!”
Before that you were whizzing around London on your bike as a courier, yeah?
“I have to say, that was great too. There was no money in it, and obviously that was only going to be short term, so I’ve been very lucky – I kind of fell into things. And still am falling into things!”
And on this tour, you’re supported by one of the icons of punk, former Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell. And that after support from former Specials legend Neville Staple and his band.
“Yeah, Neville’s doing one of these shows, in Sheffield, but then it’s Hugh Cornwell Electric. And … ha … I’m a bit nervous, because I think he’s gonna be brilliant.”
His three-piece band? I’ve seen them a couple of times, and they’re great.
“I know, so we need to up our game … or else maybe … nobble him. De-tune his guitar, nip all his strings! No, he’ll be brilliant.”
Discussion followed about my Guildford roots and its Stranglers links, suggesting Mickey throw into the backstage banter a couple of questions about his days driving Jet Black’s ice cream vans around my old manor.
“That’s great. And I’m still playing The Stranglers regularly on the show. In fact, my daughter went to see their last show in London a few days ago.”
I’ll tell you this. Now and again, lyrics pop into my head and I’ll often have no idea what it is or why at first. And a couple of days ago it was the line, ‘The worst crime that I ever did was play some rock’n’roll’. I was stumped at first, wondering if perhaps it was the Stones or Bowie. Then it came to me, the wondrous ‘(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)’. And what a great song.
“I know, and funnily enough I played it on the radio a couple of weeks ago, as it was the anniversary – 45 years on 20th January ‘77. And it sounded very different from everything else that was happening at the time. Although they had a few years’ expertise more than the others.
“They were great. We supported them in 1978 in Ireland, before ‘Teenage Kicks’ came out. And they were very considerate, made sure we got a soundcheck and all that, made sure the doors were kept closed until we had our soundcheck. They were really encouraging and they had a bona fide Jean-Jacques (Burnel) jumping into the crowd to beat up somebody who was spitting all night! I still remember seeing that. He just jumped off and ‘boom!’, then jumped back up on stage and just carried on.”
Let’s face it, few would have crossed him.
“No, absolutely not!”
I have a confession about the Mickey Bradley Record Show. I really have no great excuse apart from a lack of hours in the day, but while I love it when I do tune in, I don’t listen as much as I should, at least not for a few days. But even if I don’t catch a show, I’ll always follow your Twitter commentary, which is a joy in itself. I liken it to the days where I’d go into a record shop on lunch breaks and read the sleeves of Half Man Half Biscuit LPs, standing there nodding in agreement or grinning ear to ear. Sometimes it’s the next best thing.
“Ah, very good. Thank you! No, the reason I do it (writing on Twitter) is because it’s the only kind of contact you get during the show. Basically, it’s me sending out things and not that many people retweeting or answering. But there’s no phonelines. And it’s not a big audience at all, y’know, so you have to have something to give you some kind of feedback.
“Also, Twitter’s great because if you think of something half amusing, you think you’re great. Nobody cares, but …”
Ah, I’m not having that. At the risk of sounding like one of those sycophants writing to Steve Wright and starting with ‘Great show, Steve …’, it is a great show, his Twitter commentary just part of that. Besides, there’s many of us out in radio land and social media land appreciative of Mickey’s ongoing presence on the airwaves.
As for that Sharkey fella who used to do the singing, he’s not turned out so bad. There he is, championing the cause of the environment, our rivers, and so on, speaking with such passion, clarity, and knowledge of it all. Fair play to him.
“Yeah, an eco-warrior! In fact, I was interviewed on Radio Four about it. He was an angler as a teenager. Billy was the same. He knows what it’s about, y’know, and he’s returned it in later years. Also, all those years of working in committees and hanging around with politicians, it’s all paying off. It means he knows how to get things done. He may be, to some, fighting a losing battle, but at least he’s making a noise about it.”
Meanwhile, it’s now way more than 20 years since your own reformation. I was watching footage recently from the Mean Fiddler show in Summer 2000, the first on this side of the Irish Sea, and still perhaps my favourite ever Undertones show. Any show for that matter. That and the following day’s Fleadh appearance came 17 years after those London swansongs at the Lyceum and Selhurst Park, and were days I felt might never happen, playing earlier material I thought I’d missed out on altogether, and in the case of the Harlesden show at such a small venue. And here we are now, the next shows finally coming.
“You know, it’s been 23 years … certainly 22 years. But time slows down, or something’s happened in the last 20 years. Back in the days, whenever, one year was a long time in music. A decade’s not even a long time in music these days. Certainly not for people of my generation. Everything slows down … which is great, ha!”
Your latest press release mentions Glastonbury Festival in 2005 and a pre-game performance at Celtic Park, Glasgow before Celtic vs Arsenal in 2009. Does anything jump out for you from that second coming, as it were? Or are they all highlights, in a sense?
“Erm … the highlight was when we did the first show in Derry, came offstage, and I asked … I think it was Vinny Cunningham, a fan who made films, ‘Is it alright?’. And he said, ‘It’s alright’. Y’know, it was just that affirmation that this is good.”
And he would have told you, do you think?
“He would have told us … ‘Let’s not talk about this again’. And you know from people saying it, and you get feedback from people and kind of realise, ‘Oh, this is good. This is making people happy’. And making people happy is a good thing. Don’t knock it, and don’t look down on it. Y’know, don’t despise it, appreciate what you have. That kind of thing. We appreciate it, and you hear it, and we hear it as we go. It’s not … we’re not embarrassing.”
Last time I wrote about the band, I was lucky enough to ask John and Damian about the first two records, four decades on. Because of the last two years, we’ve missed a few key anniversaries, including a chance to ask anyone from the band about Positive Touch’s 40th anniversary. But I’m only a year late, so in general terms – knowing full well it’s neatly retold in your book anyway – I shall ask a bit more about your Wisseloord recording sessions in the Netherlands, for part of the second as well as the third LP, thinking back on the time you spent there.
“Well, making the records was great. The first time we went there was whenever we were getting ready to make Hypnotised, so we’re talking 1979. And in Holland, where people were on bicycles, and that was not a way that we knew about. I remember taking a photograph of traffic lights out in the country – traffic lights for bicycles, that kind of thing. We were in a great country hotel in the middle of nowhere, and it was complete culture shock, in a brilliant way. I remember after we finished, Damian and I went on to Amsterdam, got the train in the afternoon, walking around there for the first time, seeing people wearing almost … it seemed like clothes from the future. That kind of well-off European fashion. It might just have been C&A or whatever, but people dressed differently. People looked prosperous, they were taller, they were healthy … compared to us Derry wans, y’know. That’s the thing that springs to mind with me. In those days, people didn’t go to Holland or Amsterdam.”
And being such a student of radio, the fact that you were recording and staying in Hilversum must have made an impression, that famous name on the top of the old sets.
“Absolutely. One of the names on the dial. The studios were fantastic as well. And we were well fed, which is always important when you’re that age. Indonesian takeaway food! I still marvel at it.”
Clearly you got on well with Roger Bechirian, first at Eden Studios in London and then in Holland, ending up working on three records together. And of course he’d already worked with Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Squeeze’s East Side Story, and so on.
“Roger was great. Actually, before Positive Touch we had a big discussion about whether we should with Roger again, and maybe it was just me not wanting to take a risk, but I said, ‘Let’s go with Roger,’ and I don’t think we would have got anything different from another producer. We did work with other producers after, but they weren’t as enjoyable.”
Well, time’s against me for now, so I won’t go into the Mike Hedges thing.
“Ah, please don’t! Ha!”
I still love The Sin of Pride, of course …
“Ah, I know!”
… but haven’t got the emotional baggage that went with it that the rest of you have.
“Yeah, it’s a long story, Malcolm, a story for another day.”
Instead, I’ll ask, are you a hoarder? I mean, have you got everything you ever recorded? Do you open cupboards at home and a couple of lobsters fall out? Or other bits and bobs from record company days?
“Not really. There are some things about though. I have – and I found it just last year – a yellow sheet of paper, handwritten as it was then but photocopied, a running order for Top of the Pops from 1979. Obviously, we were on it, and I think the reason I kept it was because … you know the band M, as in ‘Pop Music’? I got their autographs. And the only one I remember was Robin Scott, but they signed the back of it for me. Nowadays you’re so used to seeing … well, first of all, I’m sure any running order for a TV programme will be on a computer … but it wasn’t even typed out.
“But no, I have some things, but not enough things. Damian was a good hoarder.”
Indeed. He’s mentioned his scrapbook before now. I’d love to see that one day. But I reckon he keeps it close to him at all times.
“Oh, I know. He thinks there’s money in it. God love him. He’s deluded. Ha!”
Well, it was great to catch up and I’m looking forward to seeing the band again, be that in Liverpool, Manchester, or wherever. Besides, it’ll be almost three years since my most recent (with a review here).
“Oh well, just give us a shout … you’ve got my number, why don’t you use it? Blah blah blah.”
The Undertones’ Spring 2022 dates (with Hugh Cornwell Electric special guests for all UK shows except the opener): March – Sheffield Leadmill (10th, with special guests the Neville Staple Band); Northampton Roadmender (11th), Camden Electric Ballroom (12th); Brighton Chalk (17th); Frome Cheese & Grain (18th); Cardiff SU Great Hall (19th); Newcastle Boiler Shop (31st). April – Manchester Academy (1st); Liverpool Academy (2nd); Munich Feierwerk (9th); Weinheim Cafe Central (10th); Dublin Academy (22nd). May – Bremen Kulturzentrum Lagerhaus (13th); Düsseldorf Zakk 15 (14th); Hamburg Markethalle (15th); Malmo Plan B (17th); Oslo Vulkan Arena (18th); Göteborg Pustervik (20), Stockholm Slaktkykan (21st); Copenhagen Pumpenhuset (22nd). For tickets, head here.
For a November 2017 feature/interview with Mickey Bradley, head here, and for more on The Undertones – from past reviews and appreciations to further feature/interviews with Mickey, Damian and John O’Neill, Billy Doherty, and Paul McLoone – just type in the band and those names in the search box.
Postscript: In light of this interview, I was directed back to the excellent Fanning Sessions website last week and a piece on Mickey’s BBC Radio Foyle shows in the latter half of 1986. It was around then that I initially conversed with Mickey for my Wubble Yoo fanzine (a mere 19-year-old then), leading to a piece tagged on to the end of my first That Petrol Emotion feature in print, listing his favourite records at that point (and I’m sure many of those choices remain so today).
Check out the Stuart Adamson audio interview, marking their show at Derry’s Templemore Sports Complex, with talk of Leonard Cohen and much more. Stuart is so graceful in his responses, while Mickey is occasionally brutal in his questioning. His biggest gripes are Big Country’s live covers of ‘Tracks of My Tears’ and ‘Honky Tonk Women’ at the time. He was probably spot on, but I wouldn’t have told Stuart to his face, and if I was Stu I might have bitten in response. I should add that Mickey did add that Stuart came across as a ‘genuine wonderful human being’.
My favourite section is Mickey’s review of that sports hall show, suggesting, ‘It’s a truly wonderful venue for 5-a-side football but the idea of putting 5,000 watts-worth of Big Country into the middle of its four concrete walls, well, it was a big mistake. The echo was so bad that the band would be starting one song while the remains of the previous tune were still bouncing around the four walls. The whole effect was akin to an angry Scotsman banging a corn flakes packet in an effort to scare away a swarm of giant bees. But I shouldn’t complain. Because I didn’t have to pay the £8 admission. And the people that did? Well, they thought it was well worth it.”
Anyway, this was an important opening chapter – his first interview was with the afore-mentioned That Petrol Emotion, also lurking on the same website – for someone still entertaining audiences 35-plus years on, on stage with The Undertones and these days with the splendid Mickey Bradley Record Show. Carry on, Mickey, and RIP Stuart.