The Undertones & Hugh Cornwell
As those of you who were kind enough to read my interview with Paul McLoone last week (and what an interesting one that was for me to enact) will know, I was greatly looking forwards to seeing The Undertones at the HMV Empire in Coventry: that Hugh Cornwell was the support (what a coup) was a very thick layer of icing on my cake.
It was the "biggest" gig I've attended since 2019 including size of venue & crowd so I had a few trepidations on those scores, but credit to Phil Rooney & his team: the venue is immaculately run & despite the size of the crowd I always found my own space without compromising my enjoyment of the music. I interacted with several staff with regards to matters facilitating this review & all of them could not have been more helpful.
It would I suppose take a band as joyful as The Undertones to tempt me into getting out of my comfort zone & I wasn't let down naturally. As my interview hinted at, I find interesting parallels with "Derry Girls": if the latter reflects with humour life in Derry just before The Good Friday Agreement, The Undertones managed something equivalent twenty years earlier: bursting into our consciousness during the often dark days of punk with life affirming songs of getting on with adolescent existence during their even darker days, with the authenticity of punk highlighting the honesty of their writing & performing and in its own way a gesture of defiance against all that was hemming them in. Forty and more years later, the same zest & glee works its magic still, translated to our own times & challenges. If some of the cultural allusions are probably detectable only to those from Derry, there are more than sufficient left for everyone else in the world to relate to.
Hugh's original band The Stranglers epitomised the edgier (not not mention sleazier) elements of punk, with particular overtones of barely suppressed violence, so as again we discussed last week, the pairing was an intriguing contrast.
In fact, though he & his band still are men in black (and his first two songs had "black" in the title), there is an affability in his stage presence these days with witty explanations of songs but plenty of sardonic lyrics at need. A tight & powerful trio, the absence of keyboards means even Stranglers songs sound different & there is no sense of his being tied down to the sound of his old band. I missed his own searing lead guitar for the first half of the set, but thankfully he unleashed it more as he went on.
In terms of Stranglers songs we got several: personally I was delighted by ones such as "Skin Deep" and "Duchess" (whose lyrics, especially "and the Rodneys are queuing up. God forbid" seemed apt for the shenanigans going on elsewhere that evening), the closing "Five Minutes", "Strange Little Girl" and the affecting "Always The Sun" which seemed to touch the audience the most.
His solo work occupied the rest of the setlist & as I say began very much in black, covering succinct and scalpel sharp rock, quite experimental material & a surprising number of songs about people: Lou Reed, Ray Harryhausen and Hedy Lamarr to be precise.
What can one say about The Undertones? You can't pick out highlights of the set because every song is one. Everyone knew & loved every track played & the only people enjoying themselves more than the audience were the band: as Paul said to me, coming out of COVID19 has energised them still further & they seemed to having a ball: admitting that some songs were played "too fast", bopping around the stage as usual, except more so: Paul himself jumping about & throwing shapes like a 20 year old. Throughout the set too: which managed to cram in more songs than I could count: from all six albums, most of the singles, B sides, EP tracks etc. Virtually every track from their debut appeared at some point. The playing was unbelievably tight (and rehearsing together must be difficult given their other commitments) and it was great to see Billy Doherty looking so well after his health scare & giving it his all o the drums. If & when they hang up their instruments, Paul & Mickey Bradley possibly have a future in comedy: their wit being as sharp & fresh as the performing.
As noted last time, the band have a compilation out of the two albums with Paul singing ("Dig What You Need" it's called) and the many songs from this era went down as well with the crowd as those from the previous one: "Thrill Me" in particular got a reception which if it was bettered all night would only have been so by that for "Teenage Kicks".
It's my opinion but not only has release from COVID19 liberated The Undertones, but a sense of release & renewal occurred in 1999 when Paul replaced Feargal. The latter's incredible & unusual voice not only acted as a fascinating juxtaposition to the Ramones & ‘Nuggets' influenced music, but added to the sense of adolescence & fitted the "Mars Bar" period lyrics: that's what got the hits.
However by their ‘Sin of Pride' album, the strain of writing adult lyrics for such a voice can be seen & ultimately they split up. Paul's voice is bluesier & much better fits the musical template, enabling them to write more comfortably possibly. His singing of Feargal recorded songs lacks nothing beyond the idiosyncratic delivery. In at least two tracks, he's taken songs elsewhere. The first was "The Love Parade" which was the only song in the set it took me a moment or two to recognise so transformed is it from the delicacy of the single into something much more celebratory & robust. The other was the sublime "Wednesday Week" (a personal favourite) where his reading of the lyrics genuinely transformed aspects of its meaning for me.
I have never seen The Undertones put in a bad or even mediocre performance: they love playing & love their own music. That makes it really difficult to try to explain how I thought they'd managed to kick up yet another gear that I (and maybe they) never knew they had.. perhaps they've always been close to perfect but now they are pluperfect? I know that is not what the word means but I can't think of anything else.
This is a band at the very height of their powers: catch ‘em. You'll love ‘em. I did.
A catch up with Paul McLoone of The Undertones
As reported earlier in this month, one of the world's favourite bands, The Undertones, are playing at the HMV Empire in Coventry on Saturday June 4th, supported by Hugh Cornwell who had hits with his band The Stranglers as they too were hitting the big time in the same era.
It was therefore a great pleasure today to catch up with lead singer Paul McLoone ahead of the gig. Part of the pleasure was listening to someone so articulate & enthusiastic for what he & the band was doing: we spoke for over an hour & I only wish I could share with you the full transcript but that would make an article of pretty daunting length.
My initial question was what is pretty standard for 2022: how have the band come through COVID19?
Paul's response set the tone for what followed: something of an outpouring of enthusiasm for getting back out playing which surely in itself reflects the frustrations of not being able to do so: and indeed his admission that there were times when they questioned "is this it? Are we done?". He feels that getting back out playing has "reignited" their love of what they do , made them even more appreciative of how lucky they are, how much they enjoy it & focused their attention more on the band against the background of all the other things they are involved in. They are also very aware of and grateful to the audiences coming to see them, especially given the background of the continuing aspects of the pandemic. He says he is conscious of having a smile on his face & that they must never take playing for granted. They are certainly looking forwards to playing the home of Two Tone: he feels that although very different in sound, what The Undertones do & what Two Tone did come from similar places: they have played recently with the Neville Staple Band and the audiences appreciated both bands.
I wanted to know specifically, how drummer Billy Doherty is now as he was taken ill during a recent short UK tour? The good news is that he's absolutely fine: over the heart scare which happened just before going on stage in Newcastle & resulted in a trip to hospital & back to full fitness. Paul reports that he's "100%... firing on all cylinders… loving being out there… really really glad to be playing"* He also paid tribute to Kevin Sharkey who deputised for Billy at short notice for the gigs immediately afterwards.
I couldn't get very far into a conversation with a Derry musician without asking about "Derry Girls" (in which the band's "Teenage Kicks" quite rightly makes an appearance, albeit a version Paul considers "heavy metal" and reminiscent of how the group might have played it before they recorded it). Paul finds watching it "..slightly surreal.. Derry is itself very much a character.." and beyond the great humour & poignancy he sees in it, feels it is important to allude to "..some of the tragic episodes which were unfolding in the North.." during the period in which the show is set and is particularly pleased how it covers the signing of the Good Friday Agreement with its high level of public support in the context of present day events which are unfolding so he finds it "..all very timely that we should reflect upon the Good Friday Agreement…" Though he did wish more of the accents were actually from the city. If you look closely, you can apparently spot Paul's son in a scene outside the shop, but sadly no band members appear.
In fact "Teenage Kicks" has very much evolved a life of its own (it figures in many "greatest song" lists & was famously John Peel's own favourite) and in March 700 Derry school children recorded a version for the "Walled City Passion" Festival. Paul reports the "huge impression" it had on the band. We had a long chat about the "resonance of that song which just reverberates… so it can be reinterpreted forty five years later in such a radically different way.. it's transcended its origins.. you can't have a critical view of it any more. It just IS " a song which John O'Neill wrote in an afternoon, which wasn't their biggest hit, wasn't on the first album (originally) and nearly didn't make it onto their debut EP.
How did they come to have Hugh Cornwell as a support: his style is so different from theirs? Equally over the years the band have played with other bands such as Joy Division with much darker songs to their own. Paul is "looking forwards to seeing him again" and as a "..huge Joy Division fan has always been impressed that the band played with them". He feels the "punk/post-punk /New Wave, whatever you want to call it" is a "very broad church… very diverse… a lot from that era tends to be a lot darker than what we normally do.. our dark moments are kind of disguised .. they are there in the songs but you've got to dig a little deeper" and that fans of The Undertones & The Stranglers respected both bands and that likewise there was "a lot of affinity between the Two Tone kids (and Undertone fans).. it's not hard to work out the connection.. disaffection & a government which was completely ignorant of the concerns of that generation….. The punk fans appreciated The Undertones because they felt there was an authenticity: it's not affected…Having legends like that play with us is just a great honour. …Musically we're not the same at all but audience wise there's a big crossover".
Paul has been lead singer now for something like 23 years, far longer than his predecessor, yet it is Feargal Sharkey who so often is first thought of (for example the press went to him for a quote on the "Walled City Passion" event despite his not having written "Teenage Kicks" nor having not been an Undertone for forty years): is that a burden?
Paul was most gracious on this point, accepting that the hits which put the band into public consciousness & were commercially most successful were recorded with Feargal and of course acknowledging his distinctive voice which was a significant factor in their initial appeal. He is totally comfortable singing in his own style and is used to brushing off less informed comments: often from people unaware that the band reformed in 1999 with a new singer.
I personally think the two albums recorded with Paul (‘Get What You Need' and ‘Dig Yourself Deep') are superb & as great as those with Fergal (there is also a new compilation of the two out called ‘Dig What You Need') (indeed if you heard me interviewed by Doug Armstrong on his "Music From Big Pink" show on Welcombe Radio last month, you'll have heard me make this point & I selected "Here Comes The Rain" as one of my five songs to prove this: a song Paul referred to as their "Jesus & Mary Chain song"). Paul was initially a little sceptical of the point of the compilation ("it was very much Damian's baby") but now is very pleased with it: Damian has "refreshed" the songs with subtle new mixes and the response has been excellent: there has been more press than with the original releases & sales have been good. The reviews too have been great & he's delighted that the songs are now getting appreciated.
We talked about plans for the band & Paul expressed a hope that they'd get new material out or maybe a live album, as they've never done that. They are looking forwards to playing Glastonbury 2022 for the first time in quite a number of years (though mysteriously on the Acoustic Stage: "I hope they're not expecting us to turn up with a couple of acoustic guitars & bongos because that won't be happening").
I must say that find the Paul McLoone Show's (which ran for 22 years on Today FM) Spotify playlist to be one of my favourites , so with that sort of oversight, I thought I'd pick his brain and ask if he's got any artists for our readers to listen out for? He enthused about the number of current great Irish artists emerging over the last five years particularly. He namechecked Fontaines DC, Just Mustard, MELTS, (he recommends their current ‘Maelstrom' album), Denise Chaila ("going to be a big thing very, very soon"), CMAT, For Those I Love ("so lyrical & poetic… quite remarkable") and Kojaque. What I especially appreciated was how Paul enthused about the current Irish music scene, with artists being unafraid to be themselves, not copy each other and being part of a collegiate wider community "without all having the same kind of haircut" unlike in his earlier days in the music business: a description uncannily like the one I keep on emphasising about the current Coventry & Warwickshire musical community: which suggests the tendency is thankfully widespread.
However in this respect, his longest response took the form of a tribute to the late Cathal Coughlan of Microdisney and Fatima Mansions fame who died very unexpectedly last week (Paul said that spookily he had been playing his music when he got the call) in which he waxed very enthusiastically about his recent work including as part of the duo Telefís (their album is ‘A hAon') and his recent solo ‘Song of Co-Aklan' ("simply tremendous") plus various work "which hasn't yet seen the light of day" including a collaboration with Jah Wobble. "A huge, huge loss… such a talent and a fierce uncompromising artist that we've lost… artists would do well to emulate him"
So there you have it: some of the many highlights of a long & fascinating conversation.
*Did you spot Paul's presumably subconscious Billy Doherty reference in that sentence?
The Undertones (John O'Neill, Damian O'Neill, Billy Doherty, Michael Bradley and Paul McLoone) are playing at the HMV Empire in Coventry (supported by Hugh Cornwell) on Saturday June 4th. Tickets can be purchased from here: https://www.eventim.co.uk/event/the-undertones-hmv-empire-14930110/
‘Dig What You Need' is available from all the usual sources.
The Paul McLoone Show Spotify playlist is here:
The Undertones + Hugh Conwell Live At The HMV Empire
THE UNDERTONES PLUS SPECIAL GUEST HUGH CORNWELL ANNOUNCE COVENTRY SHOW - SATURDAY 4TH JUNE
THE UNDERTONES have confirmed a live show at Coventry's HMV Empire on Saturday 4th June 2022 with support from Hugh Cornwell.
The Undertones emerged from Derry in 1976, the result of five friends (John O'Neill, Damian O'Neill, Fergal Sharkey, Billy Doherty and Michael Bradley) learning how to play basic rock and roll.
Even by the standards of that decade Derry was not the rock and roll capital of anywhere. With no live bands worth watching, they learned by listening to mail order records, reading one of the few copies of NME that made it to Derry but most of all from listening to John Peel's wonderful show on BBC Radio One. Practicing in their bedrooms eventually led to the band recording John O'Neill's ‘Teenage Kicks' in 1978 on Terri Hooley's Good Vibrations label in Belfast. The legendary DJ John Peel received a copy and liked it so much he played it twice in a row on his radio show.
The Undertones signed with Sire Records and ‘Teenage Kicks' was re-released, resulting in the band's first appearance on Top Of The Pops. Over the next five years, John O Neill, crafted further pop gems such as `Here Comes The Summer`, ‘Jimmy Jimmy`, `You've Got My Number (Why Don't You Use It)' and ‘Wednesday Week' whilst Damian O'Neill and Michael Bradley contributed ‘My Perfect Cousin. They also recorded four highly acclaimed LPs. Indeed, they almost enjoyed the life of professional musicians. In 1983 Feargal Sharkey left the band to pursue a solo career and the remaining members decided to call it a day. The Undertones were to remain silent for the next sixteen years.
In 1999 The Undertones reconvened, without Fergal Sharkey, to once again perform their two-minute, three and a half chord songs to a new generation of fans in Derry. Fellow Derryman Paul McLoone replaced Sharkey on vocals and his vocal prowess and electric onstage presence soon convinced any doubters that he was more than capable of doing the job.
After much consideration the band released an LP of new songs called `Get What You Need', which was critically acclaimed by Q magazine, Uncut, Rolling Stone and Hot Press. Songs like ‘Thrill Me', ‘I Need Your Love The Way It Used To Be' and ‘Everything But You' showed that the art of writing short, sharp songs had not been lost over the previous two decades.
In 2003 ‘Thrill Me' was released as a limited edition 7" vinyl single and found its way to John Peel's turntable. He introduced it on his show commenting, "And these are words I thought I would never be saying on radio again, a new single from The Undertones". He liked it so much he played it twice, just as he did with ‘Teenage Kicks' in 1978.
The band marked Record Store Day 2013 with a 7" vinyl only release, recorded in the famous Toe Rag studio in London. A return to their punk roots, 'Much Too Late' sold out the 1,000 copies before the day was out.
In 2016 the Band released vinyl remasters of their first two LPs; ‘The Undertones – The Undertones' and ‘The Undertones – Hypnotised' along with a 7" vinyl remix of the 1979 single ‘Get Over You'. Remixed by Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine/Primal Scream). Michael Bradley also published his book Teenage Kicks: My Life As An Undertone'.
2018 marked the 40th Anniversary of the release of their most influential and famous song, 'Teenage Kicks'. On 21st April for Record Store Day 2018 the band released a Vinyl Singles Box Set containing the 13 x 7" original Undertones singles from the classic early period: 1978-1983.
Live The Undertones present a glorious set of classic tracks taken from what are considered by many fans and critics to be some of the best punk albums of all time, adding to them a whole bucketful of their iconic guitar pop hits & anthems.
Their show in Coventry this June will see the band joined by Hugh Cornwell. ‘Golden Brown', ‘Strange Little Girl', ‘Always the Sun', ‘Peaches', ‘No More Heroes', ‘Nice & Sleazy.'.. sound familiar? All big hits, all great songs, all written and sung by Hugh Cornwell — the songwriter behind The Stranglers. Expect a mix of prime solo songs and iconic Stranglers hits, sung and played by the man himself and his band.
THE UNDERTONES PLUS SPECIAL GUEST HUGH CORNWELL ANNOUNCE COVENTRY SHOW ON JUNE 4TH 2022