Punk legends Stiff Little Fingers mark 40 years of Inflammable Material at The Pyramids, Southsea

Stiff Little Fingers, with frontman Jake Burns second from the left, are playing at The Pyramids in Southsea. Picture by Ed Fielding
Stiff Little Fingers, with frontman Jake Burns second from the left, are playing at The Pyramids in Southsea. Picture by Ed Fielding
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When Stiff Little Fingers hit town later this month, we can only hope it’s a better experience for frontman Jake Burns than last time they played The Pyramids.

The veteran punk recalls: ‘It was the opening night of the tour and I managed to contract food poisoning on the way to the show.

‘I made it to the end of the set, raced off, threw up, came back on, did the encore, raced off grabbed our tour manager and went: “I need to get to the hotel now!” I lived on water and crackers for three days after that, so I’m hoping I feel better this time.

‘I’m reliably informed it was a good show, but all I was thinking was I hope I can get through this without throwing up on the front row! That might have been quite punk rock back in ’77, but not so much now...’

It’s been five years since the band released their last album, No Going Back, and they’ve been going virtually nonstop ever since.

‘We’ve kind of never really stopped,’ Jake tells The Guide from his home in The States with a chuckle. ‘This is the longest break we’ve had in a while. We did a tour of Canada back in November, which wasn’t the smartest thing to do, it was freezing up there! But now we’re itching to get back in the saddle again.’

However, the band, which formed in Belfast in the late 1970s at the height of The Troubles, is starting to put new material together.

‘Now we’re at the stage where we’re trying to finish off some new songs, so hopefully there’ll be at least one new song in the list, and we’ve already been firing tentative setlists around to each other, so it’s a case of learning more songs than we’ll need and then we’ll get together for a couple of days for rehearsals and hopefully we’ll be ship-shaped and Britsol-fashioned by the time we get to Leeds for the star of the tour!’

This tour is ostensibly to mark the 40th anniversary of their incendiary debut album Inflammable Material, which features the punk classics Suspect Device and Alternative Ulster. But it’s not one of those ‘play the whole album’ shows.

‘No, we did that for the 30th and it doesn’t seem like 10 year since we did that, so we’re going to throw in a couple of songs from the album that we don’t normally do.

‘This sort of his thing comes about more from the industry than the band –  it was our manager and agents going: “Wow, did you realise it’s 40 years since…” and I’m going: “Yeah, I’m really trying to forget it was 40 year ago – I don’t need reminding how old I’m getting!”’

‘It’s a nice landmark to reach, but I don’t want to overly dwell on it.’

Has Jake been surprised by how the political aspect of their debut has held up?

‘The sad thing is, the Irish songs, I was hoping that they would be kind of like old folk songs by now, and if people would sing them at all they’d say: “Do you remember how bad it was back in the bad old days?” But a lot of them are still pertinent to today.

‘Obviously things are a lot better than when I was growing up, but you still have to have one eye on things like Brexit and think if they’re going to push this through – it’s raised the question of whether there’ll hard border being put back in, and when that’s going to lead calls for a united Ireland, and then is that going to lead us back into an armed struggle?

‘Without getting too far down a Brexit road, these are some of the ramifications that I don’t think were thought through.’

With the original wave of punk bands hurtling past their 40th anniversaries, there have been some horrible reminders of the mortality of these larger than life figures. Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks died of a heart attack last December aged just 63.

Pete played one of his last gigs at Putting the Fast in Belfast 2, an event put together by SLF last August.

Jake admits he knew the band’s guitarist Steve Diggle better than Pete, 

‘There are certain bars you could go into and find Mr Diggle propping up the bar, and he’s always great company, and we’ve done a bunch of shows together over the years.

‘Obviously the saddest thing is Pete’s passing, but the saddest thing from my point of view was we’d not long done some shows with them back in May, and I’d had a bit of a chat with him then.

‘When they did the August show, it being in Belfast, there was a lot on our plate – I’ve got family there and you’re running from pillar to post. I said a brief word with Steve, but I didn’t even get to say hello to Pete.

‘I watched a bit of their set from the side of the stage and you think, it’s okay, I’ll speak with him next time. And sadly there wasn’t a next time…

‘From the number of times we’d done shows together, I don’t think I’d ever seen him careering around drunk or anything like that, whereas some people appear to be indestructible, not mentioning any names,’ he coughs the name of a certain Pogues singer, ‘there are some people you think, how are they still on the planet? Thank god they are, but..!’

On a slightly happier yet nostalgic note, they’re being joined by punk-forefathers Eddie And The Hot Rods for these shows, on what is likely to be that band’s final tour.

‘Our first ever appearance at the Ulster Hall – the big venue in Belfast at the time – was supporting them. I still had my job working in an accounts office.

‘The older women who worked in there would ask me: “How’s the band going?” Just mickey-taking basically. One of them said: “I’ll come see you when you’re playing the Ulster Hall,” so I said: “Actually we’re playing there next week…”

‘I didn’t mention we were third on the bill, but that was with Eddie and The Hot Rods so we’re hugely honoured to have them literally round out their career with us.

‘Considering that was one of the first gigs of our careers, to have them round out their careers by doing this tour with us is great.

‘We’ve tried to get them with us for a couple of years now, it just hasn’t worked out with the timing , so we’re absolutely delighted they agreed to do it, particularly as it looked like they were going to call it a day at the back end of last year.’

The Pyramids Centre, Southsea 

Saturday, March 23

pyramids-live.co.uk