Catch 22

AH! - the contraductions of rock'n'roll! Or as The UNDERTONES would put it gloomily: "Whatever way you do it, it's 'Catch 22'." Meaning, perhaps, you can't ignore the business that's selling records the way you make 'em; but as soon as they start selling records the way you make 'em you can't ever make those sort of records again. At least, it goes something like that. And whichever way you look at the impasse, the music business Catch 22 represents, a band like The undertones can't win..

Currently, to quote several reliable sources, they're 'the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world', or 'the most enjoyable rock'n'roll band on the planet', or even, 'the only band that surns up the true teenage fervour and excitment of the early Beatles'.

Hot stuff. But The Undertones that's only half the story. So much waffle and 'shite', so much a rehash of their first shaky and successful year, that they themselves are already disillusioned about what the next step is going to be.

A dynamic true-life rock band from Derry who're holding aces up their sleeve? A forceful new band with no pretentions and nothing to lose who'll play until the fun runs out? Or, more simply, a band founded in the punk spirit who aren't quite sure what the next step is?

For each step is a new pitfall, a freshly-laid trap set by the new music business that has taken a hold of them. To make a new album with a big producer, perhaps? To tear Britain apart with a string of hit singles and a coast-tocoast SRO tour? To make the first attempt towards breaking big in America? To The Undertones it's a case of all... and nothing.

A year into the music business they've changed and affected, yet ever more determined to stay the same. As singer Feargal Sharkey puts it: "We've learned quickly, we had to learn quickly. And, if I'm honest, a lot of the fun has gone out of it - the real fun we had when we first started and its was something different from doing a job."
"Now you realise you're in a different kind of job. You can't go on and on about something you've got to accept for what it is." Which, for the moment, is what The Undertones have done. They survived the entrance from Derry - swapping an early disinterest outside Northern Ireland for what seems to amount to a savage blackflash in their home town. they had their early hits - nothing too spectacular, but they're happy because there's nothing to live up to.

And now... now it's still time to carry on. To prove that was a good idea can still work, stepping aside the Catch 22's and contradictions that seem to decree that a band like The Undertones can only be as good as they are at present for only the most limited period.
Why not longer? Why not better? Why not go to America and find out? Guitarist ans songwriter John O'Neill is himself confused. For him, almost invisible on stage, yet the writer of the best songs to date, as much Feargal Sharkey - performer par excellence - Catch 22 is the phrase he returns to. You're in a band, you want to play and have fun. Then you have to make records and sell them and that isn't fun. But in order to sell records you have to make it sound as if you are havong fun. Try it, if it sounds so easy. That's the business, and it just might be better than having a job. Inpenetrably shane, John isn't sure. "I think it was about four months ago it happened," he says. "We'd fold John Peel that Feargal and dee were leaving and he said he was glad in one way, as in another. Glad that we were breaking up when it was so good, before it got worse. Then sad for us because it was ending so quickly."

Before you wonder, the storm blew over. The agonies were spared, but it's a thin diving line that The Undertones have been aware of ever since. "I used to think that rock'n'roll was the be all and end all," John adds, helpfully.
"I certainly don't think that now whatever happens i'd still like to arrive in a brief flash and then disappear. Not struggle on and become a snob, a musician, spending huge amounts of time and money to take things seriously.
"And I hate the hype that goes with it, all of us do." So it's not just Peel doctrine, that you should go as quickly as you came?
"Oh, shit no, not at all. we've been to america - for all the good it's gone - we're marking another album, we're touring, it all goes on.", "but I can't see its as a career, never. The business will still be there and I'll still go on liking records. But as soon as someone comes up and calls me musician I won't want it. I'm not a musician, I'm not any good at all. It's a silly term to use."
"I still believe in that simple punk thing - anybody can do it. And we are! I'd feel really guilty if we went and made a good studio single and added loads to it. I'll always prefer it if it's simple and we can enjoy it." - "Like the first album, everyting, the mistakes are part of it." And he adds, gloomily: "By the time we get to the third LP we won't want any mistakes... and I think that's when I'll want out."

But it must affect you surely, must make you keep on witing songs? As before John virtually wilts. "I don't know, I never know what to say. If everybody thinks you have a charm because you're naive - and that's what they think about us - how long can that last?"
"Of course you're going to change. Look at most bands, most people. It's two or three good years then dry up, or change for the worse. I never thought it'd be like that' it's disapointing to watch other people, even, putting on an act, a show, keeping going because they have to."
"I think I could stick it out a couple of years then..."
Back to derry?
"...yeah. Derry is home. I like it there. I'm engaged there and I'll marry there."

The conversation doesn't close, but darkness does. We're a very long way from home; something like halfway through The undertones first American visit as "specially invited support" to the Clash, sitting in a bar called Boot hill, drinking beer. Too early just yet, so... back to the beginning?

Predictably, perhaps necessarily, America brought everything back to the surface. Back to the "wild, wild rows" that were part and parcel of The undertones life a year ago. The vote in favour of going was 3-2, this following a summer build-up to the autumn Bitish tour. "We had nothing to lose," Feargal insists. No matter how bad it was we could get an idea of what was happening. And at least the next time won't be the first time!"

Nor, by a narrow margin, was the first time the last. They went, they saw, they conferred. Everything fromdisasters in Detroit, to encores in Boston, from a triumph to a near - disaster in two night in ne York, the added bonus of a night playing on their own at Hurrah's (rapidly established as the club to break new British acts to the American "new wave" audience - if indeed such a thing exists) and finally the long trek up to Toronto for the final nights with the clash.

By and large it was a great way to start - although the general level of exhaustion and weariness was geginning to tell even after tour nights. An unhappier and more dejected group than The Undertones waiting for the car to Phildelphia (no, they didn't travel in the clash tour bus!) I've never seen. Yet the very next night the band played a two-hour set at Hurrah's including numbers nobody had heard for a year.

And the arguments...
"Two nights at home," John complained when he found ot."then we've got to start the british tour again."
Billy, aseddled with a hired drum kit that consistently fell apart, saved his spleen for Phildelphia, disappearing for an hour and rescuing an injured pigeon. Mickey and Dee, and even Feargal, were quiet, happy enough but never ecstatic.

There were lessons to be learned, and they were learning them. The contradictions again: who was doing what for the band? What were they doing there? How soon before they could go home?
In New York, Feargal sits in a fashionable Manhattan Little italy restaurant, a few short yards from the bums on the Bowery. Another hundred yards away is the "site" where Mafia boss Joey Galliano bought the farm, cigar in his mouth and the world on his conscience.
The rest of the band, eyelids drooping, have left Feargal to take care of business, to talk to Sire, who have unquestionably high hopes for the band in the US. Amidts the lobster remains and the record business chat he's happy, displaying almost a semblance of what's been dubbed his "cockiness".
"Any band like us wants to carry on playing the way we started off playing, being pleased about things like a good gig; and sod the rest. But you'll always have the business to contend with, always be pushed into things like big tours, interviews... even an American tour that might be pointless. It's Catch 22 all the time, so what can you do about it? Nothing, except play."
"I"m the one who gets annoyed at the others on stage because that's what they don't try and do. They put their heads down and it's just another gig, they don't try to cope. I have to. I have to get the audience going... even when it's bad."

A night later it's pouring with rain in New York. When The Undertones hit the stage there's barely quarter of a drenched audience inside, a bad sound and an odd mod. Despite the inclusion of a few new numbers and enough tension to light up the Empire State Building Feragal runs through the set - no introductions; no talk, nothing. And it's the first night without an encore, the strart of a row that lasts for hours and an incident best forgotten. Point taken.
Everywhere else it's our favourite Undertones. The helter skelter set that tears through and changes every night; girls, girls, girls and rock'n'roll. And the inclusion of the aforementioned Gary Glitter song as an encore (along with 'Teenage Kicks') isn't lost on the american audience, pick one night out of any two and the character of The undertones, their enthusiasm ans their songs are enough to melt stronger hearts than mine. All this and Feargal Sharkey too!

Who else could have ad-libbed through Boston by leaving the stage and sitting in the third row, letting the band thunder on. Then Mickey, on stage, shouting: "We're The Undertones from Derry!" Would anybody out there like to come up and sing a song with us?" Sharkey, of course, with the small added bonus that he knew all the words to 'Whizz Kids'.

It was flashes like these, the gig at Hurrah's maybe, the sightseeing in New York, that made America worthwhile. America could be fun too, and: "We were just taking the piss out of them in Boston the whole set," Feargal grins. "What did we have to lose?"

Even 3000 miles from home they have a dynamism, a whole fresh new quality that doesn't look as if it could ever be swallowed up by any record company, any producer, any contract. Would that it were all as easy or easy to write about.

"We feel guilty sometimes when e read some of the things people write about us," John later confesses. "You feel as if you ought to say more, try harder. It's like the photographs too, half the reason why we don't like doing photos is because they never come out any good at all."

Catch 22, yet again. But the piece that they had been waiting for - a cover feature in the NME printed when they were away - was once again devoured, then dismissed.
"Crap, " says Feragal, a sentiment echoed by the others, "It's all the same old stuff I read about us a year ago."

All the stuff in Mickey's biography, in fact. Mickey has, to date, written two histories of the band... and doesn't intend to stop there as The Undertones' Boswell. Feargal allows himself a wry laugh of sorts: "We meant the biography for people to use, but not as much as that!"

While John is even more non-plussed, having alreadt turned down an interview with an American music mag (leaving it to Feargal, naturally) requested on the basis that "he wrote the songs."
"If we we do a song that's a good record, good entertainment that ordinary people can relate to, that's all that matters," he says. "I don't even like talking about it, I don't even know why they want to talk to me about it at all. If they're writing down I don't even know the things you're meant to say."
"I mean, you couldn't write a 48-page special on The Undertones because the songs aren't even that good. Anyone that does is taking it all too serious."

And it embarrassses you sometimes?
"Yeah, of course it does." John doesn't smile exactly; rather a shy, disbelieving expression crosses his faces, he knows, but he doesn't want to say it. Really.
"You're always reading good reviews, too-good reviews. I have to be embarrrassed when somebody writes that Undertones are 'the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world'. We're not, perhaps we don't even want to be.
"I mean, I can go back to Derry, a place where I want to live, a place I enjoy living in, and nobody knows me as 'one of The Undertones'. I can relax, and there's no pressure on me. It's different for Feargal, of course..."

Being instantly recognisable?
"That. And the slagging Feargal gets at home is really wild. It's a very conservatrice place, and he's under pressure all the time. But it does take the pressure off us, and he copes with it in his own way."

I wonder about the reliance the rest of the band place on Feargal, the almost unself-conscious way they push him to the front of any situation off stage as well as on. In the year they've been battling - since that first John Peel radio exposure - Feargal has emerged ready to take on most things, from reporters to roadies, with a self-effacing cockiness the rest of the band. Not so.
"He's the best ever on stage," John insists, "and we do leave a lot of things up to him. I'm the complete opposite, I can be up on stage and my mind wanders, I can't concentrate. Instead of doing an act I find it really hard. I'll be thinking: 'What time are we getting home at? Sometimes I think it's so stupid just being on stage, and after about two weeks of it you're knackered and just want to get home. It's one of the things about being in a 'group' and providing 'entertainment' that I'm not so sure about. It's like some of the best records you hear, in doscos back home, you'd never, ever want to see live - it'd spoil the whole think. Then, if no-one ever played live you might as well have records made by robots."
"I can't work that out at all. You want to have a bit of yourself on the record, in the songs. Ordinary songs that ordinary people will like, without selling your soul just to make money. Then to do it right you have to get up and play them, every night until you're knackered and just want to throw it all up."

But urely if you're playing 'Teenage Kicks' and 'Jimmy Jimmy' every night, and that's the songs people are demanding, you're going to have to make some sort of compromise?
"You do. We do. But with Feargal at least we don't get up and play the same big 'show' every night. I couldn't stand that. I remember about six months ago in the Casbah I sat in the audience and watched The Undertones playing without me... and it was brilliant! I'd been thinking how much I'd really like to see us play and that night Feargal was brilliant, he was the Undertones on stage.Anyway, I'd like to think we meant more than a show."

Then again, says John, that's the sort of thing a band have rows about now andagain. Wild rows. Part of the time, he explains, it's a coming - to - terms with the business they're in. Hence: "When I first heard about the tourin Britain I just said no way, I'm not doing the first lot of dates," says John. "Then it was pointed out to me that if we didn't we could end up losing money, something we don't want to do. I was persuaded - as long as we had a break back home in the middle. Two weeks is long enough for any band to be on the road, although not everybody would agree with that."

The other part of the time, I'd explain (or their manager would explain, or their friends would explain) it's simply beacuse The Undertones are such a different band. They have a charm, and they don't capitalise on it. They have a talent, and they don't push it because they themselves aren't yet convinced of how good that talen is. And they're still new, wide-eyed, open to influence, open to praise... and open enough to say anddo what they like.
The progress is slow and, yes, innocent. The only way it could be, or so it seems. The gang of five is now filtering into five distinct personalities. Keeping going, having rows, playing gigs. Just oing the work.
"It's not as if we see each other all the time," says John. "We've all got our girlfriends back home, our own friends. then, me and Dee are the only ones who drink."
"I mean , I like going out on a Friday to a disco, getting drunk and listening to good records. It's not that bad. People have already pointed out that we should consider us fortunate to be getting paid £40 a week even when we're not woking, and there must be a point there."

And that's nearly that. John, Mickey and Dee write the songs, Billy drums, and feargal sings them. They're touring now, there's a new album coming in January and everything good that anbody says about the Undertones on record and on stage is (almost always) true.
Which leaves us with the new single - "You've Got My Number" - and a toast to New York, only because that was the first place I hear it. Here's looking at you...

John' answers, slowly: "You know a lot of people have asked us: 'Why are all your songs about girls? Why not the Troubles? Why not the business?' Well, it's just that that's what happens in Derry. It's a very conservatice place. Girls are expected to be girls and boys are expected to be boys. That's the way it is."

"But even then they don't understand us. Even when we started playing, when we actually wanted to be Feargal Sharkey and the Undertones, a lot of people didn't even know they were our songs!"