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This Weekend I’ll Mostly Be Listening to… The Undertones December 9, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Having seen the Undertones only last weekend why not talk about them a bit – or a lot – granted Anarchaeologist got there before me with this post discussing them and the Outcasts, but when a group is this good it’s worth it.

They’re a group who’ve been a constant presence in my musical life across the years and almost without question my favourite Irish group. I’ve got to admit their first album was one of the first albums I owned, all the way back when on slightly fuzzy cassette. It lacked Teenage Kicks something that alternatively infuriated and entertained me. Of course in this day and age it’s a thing of nothing to add in an extra track and away we go. But I always think the fact it wasn’t on the album made me listen to the other tracks more intensively which was no loss at all. And they’re nearly all brilliant – Gotta Getta, Girls Don’t Like It, Family Entertainment.

Then there was non-album single Teenage Kicks? Poor John Peel, brought low on his 50th by the song which he saw as the perfect encapsulation not just of punk but of pop music. He wasn’t wrong either. John O”Neill, surely an unsung hero of Irish music – a fantastic song writer who was responsible for the bulk of their output. The brother Damian who along with Michael Bradley took up most of the rest and Billy Doherty whose drumming held the whole show together throughout their iterations.

Hypnotised I never heard all the way through until much later and while it had some great songs it lacked – for me – the immediacy of the first. But what songs. And here and there signposts – Wednesday Week for example, of what was yet to come.

The third – Positive Touch – an haunting record both then and now with a sort of glacial pop purity and maturity. There were the pop songs, though their earlier Ramones influenced pop punk was softened by clearer instrumentation. Then there were the real pop songs, Julie Ocean, It’s Going to Happen! And Sharkey’s voice was revelatory – with a softness of touch that allowed them to shine. This was a group making music as good as or better than anything from their peers. And yet, their star was fading commercially. Oddly they remind me of Madness – albeit not in terms of the musical approach, and while Madness were always a fraction more jokey and less wry they shared a certain working class sensibility and awareness that to me is so redolent of growing up during that time.

The Sin of Pride an odd one. Simultaneously brilliant and underpowered. Songs like The Love Parade and Got To Have You Back thunder along. But… it’s curious, in reaching beyond punk/pop towards, well more pop I suppose, they seemed to slide away from that lightness of touch mentioned previously. I also wonder if some of the tracks on Positive Touch mightn’t have slotted in better on this – When Saturday Comes being one. Then again I always think Wednesday Week would have been better on Positive Touch than Hypnotised which only goes to prove there were continuities between all their albums.

And then came the end. Not so much shambolic as sad. Before reading Michael Bradley’s autobiography of that early Undertones story I hadn’t much sympathy for Sharkey – perhaps because he seemed to veer away sharply from the punk road. Read it though and you’ll wind up having a lot more understanding for him. I don’t think its surprising that his solo career was so relatively short. He strikes me as someone who was happier out of the spotlight.

Subsequent excursions by some of them were met with mixed reviews. I always liked That Petrol Emotion but somehow somehow it never quite worked for me in total. The vocals were good, the songs themselves were great (even ground-breaking in their willingness to mix and match genres) but somehow didn’t quite cohere.

And then towards the end of the 90s they reformed without Sharkey but with Paul McLoone. They’ve been gigging regularly since. Indeed they seem to have come played a good fraction of the number of gigs they played with Sharkey. And McLoone has certainly been a near perfect replacement for Sharkey (though it is interesting, whereas in metal or rock groups changing lead singer is far from unprecedented, in punk and post punk it is a bit rarer. Not unknown but not widespread until recently enough).

Two albums have appeared with McLoone on vocals. The first seemed to me to not quite catch fire, bar one or two songs – not least the commanding ‘Oh, Please’ whose cynical take on matters musical and political may seem a bit at odds with the group’s cheery outlook until you realise (again with reference to Bradley’s book) how sarcastic a crew they are. The second I’m a lot more fond of, going back not just to punk but to garage rock, which makes sense. For these are no longer young men and it also makes sense for them to mine something a little darker than their original seam of bubble gum and girls and subuteo.

And somehow it comes together in a satisfying mix. Songs don’t linger even though in a number of instances it would be great if they did. There’s a crunch to the mix – Precious LIttle Wonder may be the hardest guitar sound they’ve ever used, but also in places some lovely poppy touches. Perhaps it is me but are those the shades of the Woodentops and Half Man Half Biscuit stalking amidst the sounds – particularly on tracks like Him Not Me, shorn of absurdity but with the sense of lives hitting middle age, my perfect cousin all grown up. I can see how this would be poison to a good cohort of original Undertones fans, but I kind of like it.

McLoone is not Sharkey and that’s also good. The phrasing is different while the accent is sufficiently close to keep a familiarity of sound. I’ve got to be honest, I’d love to have heard a version of That Petrol Emotion with him on vocals because he’s got a character all his own. Perhaps perfectly summed up by ‘I’m Recommending Me’ from their last album.

So that’s me then, album 5 striking out in an interesting direction but not quite getting there, 2 and 4 excellent and 1, 3 and 6 are the absolute keepers.

Gotta Getta

Girls Don’t Like It

My Perfect Cousin

Wednesday Week

It’s Going To Happen

Julie Ocean

When Saturday Comes

Love Parade

Oh Please

Here Comes the Rain

I’m Recommending Me

Comments»

1. Phil - December 10, 2017

“a sort of glacial pop purity and maturity”

Positive Touch really was an extraordinary album – the clarity and dryness of the production gives the songs an odd kind of timelessness. “It’s going to happen!”, in particular, still sounds like the last word in pop music – as if, once it’s finished, you really don’t need to hear any other pop song ever again. I never really warmed to The Sin of Pride, and perhaps that was part of the reason why.

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WorldbyStorm - December 10, 2017

That’s a great way of putting it, I’ll have to rob that, re It’s going to happen! I think that too is very likely why Sin of Pride didn’t quite work. It was too fussy, too much going on when on Positive Touch there was, for all that there was horn sections etc, a sparseness – that clarity you reference.

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