How I’ve missed this. My 13th live outing since last July’s return following the pandemic shutdown, and the biggest venue faced so far. And while until now I’ve stuck to smaller, trusted venues, this was a blast from beginning to end, one that gives hope looking ahead. No way is this pandemic over, but I’ll happily keep topping up if it means I can keep getting out there again.
While I’m firing stats at you, I reckon this was my 16th Undertones date since a Positive Touch tour happening in my hometown in June ’81, while it was 40 years ago in January that I first saw Hugh Cornwell fronting The Stranglers, ‘Golden Brown’ about to spend six weeks in the top-10, that gruff voice asking the assembled in Guildford, where it all began, how many were there for their first ever gig, downtown at The Star. Needless to say, half of a packed Civic Hall pretended they were, the set back in ’74 including one song still featured 48 years on, ‘Strange Little Girl’ one of tonight’s many highlights, Pat Hughes’ bass treatment almost cello-like on a reflective Beatle-esque re-boot.
Last time I caught Hugh, Pat and drumming colossus Windsor McGilvray (all three pitching in on the backing vocals, then as now) was at The Grand in Clitheroe in late 2018 (with a review here), and they remain a hard act to follow, a 13-song set from a rock-hard, tight trio segueing between old and new, Stranglers and solo years, never less than committed, always compelling.
I was gripped (and you should know) from the start, 1997’s ‘Black Hair, Black Eyes, Black Suit’ never sounding better to these ears, giving rise to ‘Big Bug’ from 1979’s Nosferatu and the wondrous ‘Duchess’ from that same year, this perennial youth transported right back. Particularly with those first two songs I realised just how much of an influence Lou Reed was on this stalwart performer, and then – as if he’d picked up on that – came ‘Mr Leather’, his love letter to Lou, one of several tracks from 2018’s Monster, also represented by tributes to ground-breaking animator Ray Harryhausen (the title track) and screen icon Hedy Lamaar (‘The Most Beautiful Girl in Hollywood’).
This time, Hugh just chose ‘Bad Vibrations’ from my favourite solo outing, Totem and Taboo, but time was against him. Besides, It never fails to hit me how good his later Stranglers hits are in this less layered format, ‘Always the Sun’ and ‘Skin Deep’ sounding so much better than I recall in the days when I wanted my Stranglers sounding more like they did in the ’70. And on that front, their incendiary 1977 debut was represented by the wondrous ‘Goodbye Toulouse’, then in a stonking finale, ‘London Lady’, before ‘Five Minutes’ saw us out. Never easy listening, but powerful for it.
It’s not about competition, the original band having reached a new high in recent years with Baz Warne, last year’s Dave Greenfield tribute, Dark Matters a case in point. But the ingenuity of this three-piece was never in doubt, and it seems that Hugh’s new bandmates similarly keep him switched on, 45 years – give or take a fortnight – beyond Rattus Norvegicus.
I did wonder if Hugh – who held the fort the night before in Newcastle amid a backstage crisis – might deliver a longer set in Manchester to help cover the headliners’ predicament, but then came a blistering 30-song set that totally allayed my fears.
If you don’t know the story, Newcastle’s show was pulled at short notice due to a medical emergency involving drummer, Billy Doherty. He was taken to hospital for observation and soon returned home, friend of the band Kevin Sharkey stepping up for Friday in Manchester and Saturday in Liverpool, the Newcastle show set to be rearranged.
Anyway, I reckon I’ve now seen the Paul McLoone-fronted Undertones three times more than the classic five-piece, and they never fail to hit the spot, as driven now as on their 2000 return. And this time I got to see them with a Sharkey for the first time since Summer ’83, fellow Derry-ite Kevin thrown in the deep end without so much as blow-up armbands. It was seat-of-the-pants fare at times, but what a star, two hours of rehearsals followed by an amazing set. And even when it went slightly awry, there were smiles, belly laughs, much cajoling, and rock’n’roll spirit a plenty.
“Now we’ve got a drummer called Kevin,” sang Mickey, and while there was briefly a moment of unintentional jazz on one number, and he may have over-thought ‘Billy’s Third’ (perhaps worried about messing up the main-man’s song), Kev’s confidence grew song by song, to a stage where he started ’When Saturday Comes’ a day early … I mean, one song early, his bandmates ready for ‘Here Comes the Summer’. Mind you, the way the weather’s been this week, perhaps he was right and they were wrong.
And to rephrase my opening statement, how I’ve missed that easy on-stage banter, Mickey and Paul on form, the latter corpsing at one point following a typical Bradley one-liner about Billy’s absence, the band earlier ruminating as to whether he was by then sat at home with pipe and slippers, sipping Horlick’s, his bandmates soon ‘humming, leaping and minging’ away at the coalface all the same.
Song by song? There’s not enough space on the internet, but from the moment The Glitter Band faded out and they kicked into ‘Family Entertainment’ then ‘You’ve Got my Number (Why Don’t You Use It!) we were on for another sonic treat. It’s often the numbers I never assume I’ll hear that stay with me, and this time those included ‘True Confessions’, ‘I Gotta Getta’, ‘Girls That Don’t Talk’, and ‘Hypnotised’, while others reached or re-found new heights, ‘Get Over You’ among them.
This was my first Undertones show since May 2019 at the other end of Oxford Road at The Ritz (with a review here). It was also my first Undertones sighting at the Academy since October 2005, six of the songs featured on the new Paul Tipler-remixed Dig What You Need, their all-winners/no-fillers reformation years best of, my highlight of those ‘Here Comes the Rain’, part of a four-song encore starting with a chest-out, raucous ‘Male Model’ and ending in style with ‘I Know a Girl’ and of course, ‘My Perfect Cousin’, on the day Manchester Uni students finally got a graduation day, some smart boy bound to have got a first in maths, physics and bionics.
Get well soon, Billy. Health comes first, but we’ve got to have you back soon. That said, the other Sharkey played a blinder in your absence. I fear you may have to audition for Derry’s Finest at this rate.
For this website’s most recent interview with Mickey Bradley, head here. And to order Dig What You Need via Bandcamp, head here, or for digital downloads, try this link. You can also keep in touch with the band via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Spotify.
With thanks to Steve Iggy for the live and merch stall shots from the night, and to Rob Kerford at Sonic PR.