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.
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... 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.
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.
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?"
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.
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?
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.
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."
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,
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!"
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."
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.
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?
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."
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.
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.
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!"