Like the open sky above me … – talking The Undertones, The Carrellines, Derry, Dublin, and much more with Paul McLoone

I realise that most of you reading this know The Undertones’ back story full well, but humour me and read on, even though it’s one of those situations where people say, ‘This band needs no introduction,’ then waffle on for several paragraphs all the same, doing exactly that.

Emerging from Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1976, The Undertones continue to exude the spirit of punk rock 46 years on, the last half of those years with their Mk.II line-up.

When John O’Neill and younger brother Damian, Feargal Sharkey, Billy Doherty and Michael Bradley set out, with no local bands worth watching they learned by listening to records bought through mail order, reading the few copies of the NME that made it to their locality, and listening to John Peel’s influential nighttime BBC Radio One show.

It was Peel’s love of their debut single, ‘Teenage Kicks’ that provided their springboard to success, John O’Neill’s classic 1978 single recorded for Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label in Belfast so loved by the legendary DJ that he played it twice in a row one night.

On signing for America’s Sire Records, ‘Teenage Kicks’ was re-released, a first appearance on Top of the Pops following. And for five years from there, John continued to craft gems, Damian and Michael also pitching in, and Billy too coming up with some cracking tracks, Derry’s finest recording four acclaimed LPs before Feargal – these days best known for environmental campaigning – left to pursue a fairly successful solo career in 1983, the remaining members deciding to call it a day, the story of that amazing stint told so well by Mickey in his highly (family) entertaining Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone memoir (Omnibus Press, 2016).

But The Undertones reconvened in 1999, Feargal’s place taken by fellow Derryman Paul McLoone, his vocal prowess and electric onstage presence quickly convincing floating voters. And after much consideration, the reconfigured five-piece released the first of two further LPs of original material, 2003’s Get What You Need and 2007’s Dig Yourself Deep proving this accomplished outfit had not lost the art of writing short, sharp songs.

Furthermore, the reconfigured band’s first single, ‘Thrill Me’ inspired John Peel to repeat history, playing that 45 twice in a row on his show as well.

From there, the focus has largely remained on live shows, although in 2016 they released vinyl remasters of their first two LPs, alongside a 7” vinyl remix of 1979 single ‘Get Over You’ from Kevin Shields, of My Bloody Valentine fame. Then, to mark the 40th anniversary of ’Teenage Kicks’, there was a 2018 vinyl boxset containing their 13 singles from 1978-1983, while last year saw a vinyl best of compilation for the post-reformation LPs, Dig What You Need issued on the Dimple Discs label.

And still the love for this remarkable band remains, their current nine-date autumn tour including several guest spots from former Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell’s three-piece. What’s more, my interviewee Paul McLoone is loving it all, this month alone starting with dates in County Down, County Donegal, and Barcelona. Not a bad life, eh?

“Spot the odd one out there!”

Is it County Down?

“Absolutely … a non-European date, that! No, it’s been really good since everything came back, thank goodness. We’ve been having a great run of it. And we’re really enjoying it. I mean, it’s just great to be doing it again, because, you know, it’s in the back of our heads, but of course, I have to say it out loud. Two years ago, we were kind of going, ‘Did we just do our last show?’ Your brain really was in that sort of place, so yeah, it’s great to be back. Of course, Covid hasn’t gone away. The repercussions of it certainly haven’t gone away, and the logistics are pretty challenging at the minute, so there’s all that side of it.”

Similarly, post-Brexit, playing in Europe’ no doubt. Even a band of your size.

“Well, yeah, it’s not even so much bureaucratic, it’s just the actual logistics of getting about. The flights are still a bit crazy, with delays and cancellations. And some of the infrastructure is still in recovery. For instance, when you hire buses, some of those businesses are just gone. I mean, they’re coming back, but they’re still playing catch up to an extent. So you’re noticing little things here and there that are still going on. But that’s to be expected. You know, the world’s been through a crazy, mad period …

“Why am I saying, ‘has been’? The world’s in the midst of a crazy mad period! And I’m a little premature in saying we’ve come out the other side of anything, it’s a challenging kind of period. And it’s probably going to remain that way for a while. But that’s all on the negative side of the ledger, it’s great to be back, it’s great that people are showing up and still coming to gigs, as money is even less abundant. “

I imagine those couple of Covid years gave you as a band a chance to think about whether you really wanted to carry on. And it seems that you concluded that you were happy to carry on.

“It was very much that. In fact, I’ll go further and say you don’t miss something until you can’t do it, you know? Certainly, I was raring to go, absolutely chomping at the bit, and I don’t want to speak for Michael, but I know he’s said he’s really enjoying gigging again, you know, whereas I think if you’d asked him maybe two or three years ago, he’d have said, ‘Yeah, fine.’ I think it really underscored how much we were enjoying it, and I think maybe that came as a bit more of a surprise to some of the other guys in the band. I was dying to get back out there.”

Pre-pandemic I recall having a similar conversation with John (O’Neill), who always struck me as the one who perhaps doesn’t really feel that compunction to keep playing live these days, in the same way that he was the first to walk away from That Petrol Emotion. Yet here was a fella telling me he was loving it then more than ever. And it shows on stage.

“Absolutely. I totally get what you’re saying there. John, I think in his own little quiet way, has been rocking. And I think he’s really enjoyed being back. We’re all loving being back. Billy as well, even though he had his own issues. It’s great to have him back as well. It’s all good, despite the challenges.”

And you’ve got your own Sharkey on the bench as well.

“Exactly – the super-sub! Yeah, Kev was great to step in those couple of times…”

Including a Manchester Academy appearance on April 1st that I loved (with my review here), another show also featuring Hugh Cornwell‘s trio.

“Ah, great … and thanks so much! You know, it’s been great having him waiting in the wings… but you know, I’m sure he won’t mind me saying this, but hopefully he won’t be needed too often! We can’t be too careful with Billy, but it is what it is. We had a couple of little scares, but he’s fine. He’s 100% and in great form, playing out of his skin, to be honest with you.”

I don’t think he’d be able to play any other way, to be honest back at you.

“That’s very true.”

Incidentally, since we spoke the band’s autumn tour has got underway, with winning shows at Birmingham’s O2 Academy 2, Castleton’s Devil’s Arse, and Holmfirth’s Picturedrome. And this year also saw the release of the Dig What You Need compilation, a best of those two post-reformation LPs on vinyl. Any chance of you completing a treble soon, making another record?

“I would absolutely love that to be the case. And I’m not saying it isn’t or it won’t be. I didn’t really know about the compilation when it was first mooted. I kind of went, ‘Why?’ But I’m really glad we did it. It makes a lot of sense and kind of displays those songs in a possibly better context.

“I don’t want to tempt fate, speaking for the others, but certainly with me it kind of reignited the idea of maybe doing another record. John’s been busy with side stuff, and Damian’s got another solo record – an instrumental album coming out in a week or two, which is brilliant, also on Dimple Discs – but maybe next year, the smoke will clear a wee bit. I don’t want to put all the pressure on John, but he’s the instigator on that score.”

Well, that’s what I thought until the last LP, which carried a lot of very good Michael Bradley compositions.

“Oh, they are, but John starts it off, then Mickey will go, ‘Oh, I better write some now.’ John sort of sets the tone, no pun intended, then the rest of us get behind it. And it is a group thing. So hopefully, we’ll be in a place next year where we can get a bit of time to consider it and kind of go, ‘Let’s take a month and maybe try and get a record together.’ I would absolutely love to, but I don’t want to say it’s happening, because at the moment … well, it’s less unlikely now than it was before we put out the compilation.”

The Undertones’ story effectively goes back to 1976 at St Mary’s Scout Hall in Derry, winding up  initially in 1983, the band having originally called it a day 40 years ago next year.

“That was before I was born, of course.”

Indubitably. I’d like to say me too, seeing as Paul’s just a few months older. But I could have sworn I was at Guildford Civic Hall, the Lyceum in London, then at Crystal Palace FC for the UK finale with Feargal. Then of course came those Nerve Centre shows in Derry in 1999, and now Paul’s been part of the band for three times as long as his predecessor, 23 years and counting. What’s more, I’ve seen him out front with the band 12 times, and only saw Feargal fronting the band four times.

Yet the fella with the golden warble has been back in the spotlight of late, proving a mighty fine orator, giving inept politicians and utility firm bosses a hard time on TV and radio, running rings around them and voicing environmental concerns so perfectly.

“Well, absolutely. And, you know, things are in a dreadful state all over, but the way they’re treating the environment generally and the water in the UK, particularly, it’s an absolute disgrace. There’s no other word for it. This gang of clowns, this Government the UK has at the moment, seriously, it’s beyond parody, it’s beyond satire, it’s genuinely criminal right across the board. So Feargal, for getting out there, using his profile the way he has, and being so clever on social media, choosing his moments, he’s doing great, doing something necessary and really important, and more power to him. I think he’s really carried himself brilliantly, saying things that need to be said.”

And a Derry lad at that.

“Absolutely, and I genuinely don’t know him at all, but I’m behind what he’s doing and wish maybe a few more people in genuine positions would wake up to what’s going on, because with all due respect, it’s pretty easy to characterise environmentally concerned campaigners and whatever as these sort of Jeremiah figures, but it’s really, really important, you know?

“Generally, we’re in an environmentally threatened period, and globally things need to change. But I think the water thing is indicative of this almost Dickensian age these people want ordinary people to return to, to further their own interests and those of the corporations and rich people pulling their particular strings. I really think it’s symptomatic of and a little part of that broader vandalistic agenda of these people that really needs to be stopped and dealt with and reversed urgently.

“Things have reached a point now where it just can’t go on. I wish I was a bit more like Feargal, to be honest. I’m a wee bit backwards in common forwards, as we say over here, but really think what he’s doing is very admirable.”

Seeing as this Autumn tour includes a show at Lytham on the Fylde, on the subject of the Dickensian age idea, there was Jacob Rees-Mogg on the telly the morning we spoke, talking about relaxing fracking constraints, a move that if it happens could have a devastating effect on that part of the country.

“I mean, where does it stop? Drop the legal age for children working? We clearly have … or should I say you clearly have a Government that doesn’t care about anything, any precedent that’s been set, any rule, they’ll just tear it up and flush it down the toilet. And If you have guys like that in charge – where if they don’t like a rule, they’ll just change it – we’re in deep, deep trouble. There’s a word for it, and it’s going that way, and people need to really, honestly, wake up.

“I don’t despair, but sometimes look at what’s going on and wonder, is nobody paying attention? These people don’t care about you. I don’t care whether you voted for Brexit or not, fuck that, but do you think these people actually give a shit about you and your life, and how well you’re doing or not doing, or whether you’ve got money or a home? And there’s more food banks than McDonald’s in the UK now.”

Home’s been Dublin for Paul since as long as he’s fronted The Undertones. He clearly likes it there.

“Well, I hate to just throw stones at the UK and suggest everything’s perfect over here. Far from it. But it is home. And what passes for my friends are here!”

Paul has two sons, one in Dublin, the other in Glasgow. Have either of them followed his road to rack and ruin, his rock’n’roll path?

“Not to the same detrimental extent, but they’re both musicians on the side. They both play, they’re both guitarists.”

As far as I recall, I’ve not seen you up on stage with a guitar strapped on.

“No, they wouldn’t let me! Actually, it’s really funny. I don’t know if this is going to look interesting in print, but I’ll tell you now, Mickey has a real problem with singers playing guitar. John would love me to play guitar because it would take a bit of pressure off him. I’m not so sure if it would work either, just in terms of what I do on stage with The Undertones ….”

Prancing about, mostly, yeah?

“You used a very polite word there. My Terpsichoral skills, darling, would be somewhat inhibited! But I’d be very interested to hear what it sounded like with three guitars. I think it was me that said it, although it might have been Mickey – but I’ll take it anyway – we’re not Radiohead. Two guitars are enough. I actually did play when we did a wee acoustic tour in Holland. A long time ago now. It wasn’t all of us. It was me, John and Damian. Kevin Sharkey joined us on a bit of percussion. It wasn’t really The Undertones, but it was Undertones songs and a few covers, and kind of interesting. I played guitar on that. So strictly speaking, it’s not unheard of, but it’s unlikely to happen.”

Did I hear a whisper that your pre-Undertones band, The Carrellines (an early ‘90s Derry four-piece, also featuring Billy Doherty, named the Carling/Hotpress Band of 1990, no less) are coming back?

“You did! Word travels! We’ve been threatening – not publicly, mind – each other to do this for 30 years. Now it’s eventually happening on December 29th in Sandinos, Derry. Now we’re dealing with the reality of the fact that we haven’t rehearsed and don’t know the songs anymore, everybody kind of terrified! {Bandmates} Aidan {Breslin} and Damien {Duffy} are kind of the organisers, getting the tickets and social media together. And it’s all a pathetic display of denial – we don’t want to face the fact that we’ve got to get together, stand in a room and actually play these songs. But we really need to get the finger out, get that organised … because winter is coming.”

Before I called, I was listening back to your single, ‘Bridesmaids Never Brides’, and it incorporates a mighty sound, with a lot going on. It sounds fresh, a cracking song. What surprises me is that if I hadn’t seen 1990 on the label, I’d have assumed it would be commemorating its 40th anniversary now. It sounds like it was from a different era.

“It kind of was really. It is kind of an Eighties thing. It came out in 1990 but we were an Eighties band, 100%, and were all big fans of synth. We didn’t really have an idea what we wanted to say, but what we eventually became was a synth-rock band … a bit closer to New Order than maybe Erasure … put it that way.”

Although listening back I was kind of getting classic – and I mean pre-big hits – Simple Minds, OMD, even Heaven 17.

“Very much, and Aidan and Damian are huge Simple Minds fans, and I’m a big OMD fan. In fact, Andy McCluskey and I are mates now, which is kind of surreal. I love OMD, and Simple Minds as well. I got into them after the fact but love those first five or six Simple Minds records. Yeah, that would definitely be a big influence. Well spotted, hopefully a bit less bombastic than the way that turned out with Simple Minds, but definitely an influence.”

Paul was a great ambassador during the emergence of Dublin outfit Fontaines DC in his DJ-ing days at Today FM. I’m guessing they don’t need him so much now they’re as huge as their fifth single.

“Yeah … how are they doing? Are they doing alright?”

Last time I heard, they were doing okay. But while I’ve liked everything they’ve done, I still hold tightly to the memory of witnessing their first LP promo tour short set at Blitz, Preston, just before they properly took off. I’ve no doubt they’d be great at a big venue, but that’ll do for me. That however is clearly not my approach with The Undertones, having seen you so many times down the years.

“If only Fontaines DC could take a leaf out of our book, they could do much better – they’d be getting a lot of repeat business. Funnily enough, I saw them at Ivy Gardens, a park in Dublin where every summer they have a bunch of gigs. Fontaines headlined one. Actually, they did three nights. I was kind of reluctant, thinking, ‘Can they do this?’ But they totally did. And without doing all that  – and please God, touch wood – all that stadium rock kind of bullshit. Yeah, they’ve got the ability to hold a big crowd.”

Talking of Dublin bands, I dropped my youngest daughter off at The Continental in Preston to see Inhaler, and that was quite an occasion, not least wondering how the hell they got their huge splitter-bus into the car park there. I get the feeling they’re destined for huge stuff, and sound so big. Dare I say it, like early U2.

“There’s genetics for you! And do you know what? When your dad’s Bono, people are going to have a few cracks at you, and that’s really unfair. I I like Inhaler. I think they’ve got some great songs, and that kid {frontman Elijah Hewson, son of Bono} seems a really genuine, good man. They’re a good band and fair play to them. And you know, what, if you get a leg up because your Dad’s who he is, who cares? If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it. And if you don’t like it, don’t have a go at the kid. Grow up.”

I do find the U2 baiting rather tiring.

“In general, it is. It’s kind of dull. We get it. If you don’t like it, shut up. Maybe actually step back and think, ‘You know what …’ You might not like the last couple of records, but they have some fucking great songs. They’re doing something right, you know? Live and let live. I get it if you’re 18 years old, and it’s cool, having a knock at the establishment or whatever. But men my age? Seriously, there are actual other things going on to worry about, rather than Irish rock stars.”

Well, next time perhaps we’ll take this further and defend Phil Collins.

“I’ll tell you what, I was at a Phil Collins show in Croke Park, and it was great. Ha!”

Well, there you go. He lived across the tracks from me in my home village, albeit not on my council estate, and made his first solo records there. So I have a fair bit of affection for him, not least as he regularly drank in my friend’s pub. I still get sentimental hearing Genesis’ rather poignant ’Follow Me, Follow You’. There, I’ve said it.

“I love that too, and do you know what, I’ve never met Phil Collins, but he’s probably a good bloke. He’s always come across as a decent sort.”

Paul’s entertaining stint on Today FM in Dublin ended around the time of the pandemic. I see he’s been compiling Spotify playlists and so on. Is he DJ-ing again?

“No, I’m actively seeking employment. That’s the truth of that. I really miss being on air, and I’m still very much available for that line of work. I can’t say much more about it, to be honest. I didn’t want the show to end, but it did, these things happen in radio – a very cruel place sometimes. I’d seen it happen to many others, and, you know, eventually it’s your turn. Like politics, I guess. It’s kind of ultimately, you know, it’s gonna happen …”

Well, there’s a good title for a song.

“… You get knocked off your perch, but hopefully I can sneak back into something. I have been trying to get back in there.”

Do you have a home studio setup?

“I don’t, I never had to do that. That was the slightly ironic thing – I got through Covid, then next thing you know you’re out. It wasn’t really anybody at Today FM. It was corporate stuff, new owners, big changes. That’s what happens, you’ve just got to live with that.”

Meanwhile, there’s still the rather marvellous Mickey Bradley Record Show on Radio Foyle, with Paul a guest on Northern Irish radio recently too.

“I did a wee Radio Ulster show a couple of months back. That was fun, sitting in for Steve McCauley. It was great, actually at BBC Radio Foyle, where I started out in radio a very long time ago. It was kind of surreal being back in studios completely changed beyond recognition from when I worked there. The setup is good there. And it’s nice to keep your hand in, you know.”

We’ve spoken about The Undertones’ past before, but remind me, did you get to see the band before that initial 1983 split?

“No, I was a fan, but when ‘Teenage Kicks’ came out, I was only 11, and by the time I was old enough to go to gigs, they’d just about split up, and hadn’t played in Derry for a long time. At the end, they didn’t play in Derry. I was only 16, just about getting into gigging, but they weren’t doing any locally. It always annoyed me. Long before I ever dreamt of joining The Undertones. As a young adult It kind of bugged me that I never got to see them, although I got to see the Petrols. So it’s kind of funny the way things turned out.”

Your first show on this side of the Irish Sea, at the Mean Fiddler, Harlesden, North West London, Summer 2000, is among my favourites, if not the favourite itself. That setlist was amazing, including several songs no longer being played when I first saw the band. And I guess I never ever thought I would see the day.

“It was different back then. I think bands played for a shorter time, generally. They always wanted to play newer stuff. There used to be a thing where bands would sort of be a little grudging or even resentful of their early stuff. I remember seeing The Smiths in ’84, one of my earliest gigs, in a little sports hall in Letterkenny, basketball hoops at either end, a small room. I was a big fan, and it would be one of my top five gigs, probably for nostalgic reasons – I was 17 and it was The Smiths at the absolute height of their … Smithdom. Johnny Marr played the intro to ‘This Charming Man’, everybody went mad, then he just stopped, going into something else instead. And that was in ’84! Kind of, ‘Yeah, we’re not playing that one anymore.’”

Well, with The Undertones, I finally got to see the band playing all those classic songs of yore, so thanks for your part in that.

“Oh, it’s an absolute pleasure. I remember that gig very well. Funnily enough, with The Carrellines back in the day, the first gig I did in England was also at the Mean Fiddler, in ‘87. On that occasion we were just over and back, that was the thing back then. If you didn’t do that, you probably weren’t going to have much of a swing at it. We never relocated.”

And when you get back to Derry now, is there still a good feeling about the place that maybe wasn’t there when you left just over two decades ago? I wonder how you see it now, post-Good Friday Agreement and all that.

“Yeah, it’s an interesting perspective. I always love being back in Derry, and always notice something new, or maybe something I hadn’t noticed before. Without being too Tourist Board about it, it really has come out of the shadows. There’s still a lot of issues, still a lot of problems, like everywhere at the moment. But that notwithstanding, I think the place is looking really good, with a real little buzz about the place, like that little sort of artisanal sort of hipster-ish kind of thing. I love that.

“I think it’s great that creatively, not just in a musical context but generally, there’s a DIY kind of funkiness about the place that I’ve noticed here and there. And musically, there are some great young bands, across genres and across genders. It’s brilliant, that side of it is all good. Derry is still of course dealing with its legacy, but I think it’s moving in a fairly positive way.

“As usual, it’s probably coming off the worst, and that’s the last thing it needs. Derry doesn’t need a non-functioning executive. It’s had enough as it is, and is always at the back of the queue when it comes to certain things. It’s probably always been that way. But despite that, I’m really proud and really impressed with what I see when I go there, which isn’t often enough.

“It’s always a pleasure and always great to see the progress being made. And you know what? They’re the best people in the world! It’s just great to be in Derry, hear Derry voices and that unmerciful Derry sense of humour, and general kind of Derryness! It always moves me, and it is home in my heart … without sounding corny about it. I live in Dublin but the home in my heart is Derry, and always will be. And it’s great to see it come on, you know.”

For this website’s Spring 2015 conversation with Paul McLoone, head here. And for a Mrs Simms’ shed-load of past Undertones features, interviews and reviews from WriteWyattUK, just type in the band name from there.

The Undertones’ Autumn 2022 dates resume this week, calling at the 1865, Southampton (October 6th); the O2 Academy, Oxford* (October 7th); and the Lowther Pavilion, Lytham* (October 8th). Then there are three more dates beyond that, at the Waterfront, Norwich (October 20th); the Apex, Bury St Edmunds (October 21st); and the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill* (October 22nd). Dates with an * include special guest Hugh Cornwell. For tickets, head here. And for more information on the band, check out The Undertones’ website and keep in touch on social media via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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