Well, enough about hippie rockers, and their present-day emulators. It’s time for the Songbook to say a few things about punk, and it’s best to begin on a positive note. The Undertones are one of my favorite bands from any era, and the only case I’m making in this post is that you should definitely give them a listen. An argument could be made that they were really more “power pop” than punk, but since they regarded and presented themselves as a punk rock band, we’re going to run with that here.
Their big hit was “Teenage Kicks,” and actually, they never had a song called “Teenage Dreams,” though in a real sense, every song from the period of their first two albums, from “Casbah Rock” to “Girls Don’t Like It” to “Here Comes the Summer” to “Family Entertainment” to “More Songs about Chocolate and Girls” to “Wednesday Week” are about teen-aged dreams and troubles. And since everyone who knows “Teenage Kicks” knows it is a song about sex, or longing for it, I didn’t want to present that as their emblematic song. That wouldn’t exactly be right for a band that declined certain opportunities for big rock business and standard rock partying because some of the key members wanted to get back to their Northern Ireland town of Derry to be with their girlfriends. They had scruples that turned them away from rock hedonism, ones probably rooted in their Catholic upbringing, and which they linked to punk’s rejection of 70s excess. However they presented sexual yearnings and facts of life up-front, they always conveyed a strong sense of understanding and honoring teenage innocence, such as it is.
These guys were very down-to-earth, totally not caught up in the side of punk about apocalyptic social commentary and fascination with violence. Way more Ramones than Sex Pistols/Clash. But unlike the Ramones, who sang jokey ironic songs about some cartoon vision of twisted teenage-dom, the Undertones sang, with passion, sincerity, and a more natural humor, about their own lives and those of the people around them.
However, as this wonderfully-executed documentary shows, they deliberately did not sing about the violence and social turmoil of The Troubles that was very much a part of their Derry life. If a band like the Clash would sing about riots, outlaws, and police oppression as part of their image and provocation, and if one suspects that the other major Northern Ireland punk band Stiff Little Fingers at times exploited their proximity to real violence and barbed wire for punk-bragging-rights purposes (although no-one can deny that their raw IRA-critical witness in “Wasted Life” stands as one of the more personally-felt anti-war songs), the Undertones approach was to in essence to say, “Our purpose as a band is to provide our Derry peers a break from all the focus upon The Troubles with up-to-date rock n’ roll.” And they might have also said something like this: “We want songs that allow us and our fans to express our yearning for a normal teenaged life, songs that reflect the fact that things like impressing girls, fumbling love-affairs, family troubles, and pressures to be more like the successful kids, really are our more day-to-day concerns, even though sure, bombs go off here, there’s soldiers on the street, etc.”
So their most angry punk-rock moments are about things like a girl not calling back on the telephone, or about the way the implicit pressure to dress like a “Male Model” is hard on guys without the money. Even at their loudest/fastest, say, “Emergency Cases,” there’s a certain lightness of touch. More characteristic was a song like “Get over You,” in which punk energy is put at the service of longing.
The first album is stellar throughout and the one to get, but the second, the more unapologetically poppy one Hypnotized, is also highly recommended. John O’Neill’s songwriting is very strong, regularly delivering catchy tunes and classic lines like she’s a girl in a million, who does what a million girls do, and his and his brother’s subtle guitar stylings—later employed in the band That Petrol Emotion, were also a major asset. Shoot, even when the band went in a more moody, slightly new-romantic direction, there were some amazing songs: “Julie Ocean,” “Beautiful Friend,” and “Forever Paradise.”
Tensions with their singer Feargal Sharkey, connected to their lack of hit singles after 1981, led to a break-up in 1983 or so. In 1999, they reformed with an adequate singer who nonetheless lacks Sharkey’s inimitable touch, and have been periodically touring Europe ever since. The band website, with a full history, is here.
Well, my thanks to a great band for some delightful music indeed. Granting their uniqueness and Derry’s also, I have to conclude by lamenting the fact that more bands, once the error of the 70s rock ways had been admitted, couldn’t find a way to do more like the Undertones did. What was so funny about pop, love-song, and rock n’ roll? And why couldn’t we expect more of such today?