The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks still strong 40 years on, as anniversary tour comes to Hampshire

The Undertones are at Engine Rooms, Southampton, May 18 2019
The Undertones are at Engine Rooms, Southampton, May 18 2019
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While many punk acts were raging against the system, trying in vain to tear down the establishment, one band in Derry, Northern Ireland was looking elsewhere.

That band was The Undertones. With less focus on politics and more on their own problems, they produced a whole raft of songs that still define teenage angst – not least of all the era-defining classic, 1978 single Teenage Kicks.

Their debut album was released in 1979 and included the peerless likes of Here Comes The Summer and Jimmy, Jimmy. Now 40 years on they’re marking the anniversary with a tour, supported by ‘the original rude-boy’ Neville Staples, formerly of The Specials.

Founder member, drummer Billy Doherty admits to The Guide: ‘I don’t really pay too much attention to the dates, to me it’s just one long story that hasn’t really come to an end.

‘We’re all still good mates, we still play the same songs, and we still make the same mistakes.’

When the band began in the mid-1970s, they felt very much like they were operating in isolation.

‘There was no real music scene. There were bands in Derry, but they were like cover bands -  there were no alternative bands that we could actually go and see, and with The Troubles, very few bands came to Northern Ireland and those who did mostly only came to Belfast, which was about 70 miles away. So we really looked to a lot of American bands – New York Dolls, MC5, Iggy and The Stooges, and this LP called Nuggets, a great compilation of American psychedelic garage bands, and obviously with the punk thing with the Pistols and the Buzzcocks, and then with the NME and John Peel , that’s where we drew, I wouldn’t say inspiration, but that’s where we drew our knowledge of alternative music from.

‘For us John Peel on Radio 1 was absolutely essential listening – it’s the only way we could get our information.’

Peel’s patronage became essential to the band and it was Billy’s youthful naivety and pride that first brought them to the DJ’s attention.

The first time he played Teenage Kicks on his show, he played it an unprecedented twice in a row, and he would later say it was his all-time favourite single.

‘He was playing Stiff Little Fingers –  they had their first record out before us – so I thought, I know this sounds really dreadful on my part, I’m going to let John Peel  know we’re better than Stiff Little Fingers.

‘So I phoned the BBC, got through to the reception, asked to speak to John Peel and got put straight through to the programme – absolutely no problem!

‘I mean that’s how easy it was back then. I introduced myself and said, John, my name is Billy and I’m the drummer with a band called The Undertones and we’ve got a record called Teenage Kicks and we think it’s far better than Alternative Ulster by SLF.

‘He said fine, when you’ve got the record, send it over. He couldn’t really understand my accent because I spoke too fast and had this very broad Northern Irish accent, but true to his word, when we got the single we sent it to him and I think he may have called us back on the Monday and said, I’m going to play it on the show.

‘All the band were in (guitarist) John O’Neill’s front room, in his house in Derry, and all of our friends were there too.

‘When John Peel played Teenage Kicks there was such a big buzz. But no sooner had he played it once, he played it a second time – back-to-back. There was maybe like 10-20 seconds where no-one spoke, no-one believed it had happened, and then there was this big cheer.’

But as Billy admits: ‘I didn’t appreciate how much the record mattered to him.

‘When he died (in 2004) we were at his funeral in Stowmarket – a nice English quaint church. The people who were there… Jimmy Page and Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin were actually in the pew behind us.

‘When they lifted his remains and started to carry his coffin down the aisle, they started to play Teenage Kicks. We were all in a row, (bassist) Mickey was down the end. I was amazed at this, I couldn’t believe it, so I looked down at Mickey, and he started to cry. I couldn’t look at him, because I would have started crying too. And we could hear the people outside the church singing it too, that’s really when I realised how important the record was to him.’

The band split in 1983, but reformed in 1999 with Paul McLoone replacing original vocalist Feargal Sharkey. They have gone on to release two more albums to date, Get What You Need and Dig Yourself Deep.

THE UNDERTONES

Engine Rooms, Southampton

Saturday, May 18

engineroomssouthampton.com