Happy Birthday "Teenage Kicks"Interview
One recurring irritant for me is the spread of the use of the word "iconic" when "reasonably well known" would usually be more appropriate. I reserve it myself for special occasions & examples. One such, in the case of music, is The Undertones' 1978 debut on Good Vibrations records. A song which has transcended mere popularity: John Peel famously awarded it 28 stars on his five point scale & the opening lines are quoted on his gravestone.
If you do the mathematics, you'll see that the song is celebrating its forty-fifth birthday and the band are touring accordingly, including visiting Leamington's Assembly on October 7th, at which they'll be supported by fellow punk hero, Tom Robinson.
I was fortunate to speak with lead singer Paul McLoone (who joined the band in 1999 and so doesn't feature on the original recording, though he has sung it live thousands of times in the intervening years) about this milestone.
We had a long chat about the roots of the song & its current cultural status: unsurprisingly the band have long considered to exist at a higher level than themselves & seem perfectly happy with that: "chuffed" being mentioned.
Originally recorded at a moment when, discouraged, they were considering breaking up and therefore decided to record a few songs for posterity, Paul emphasised the near demo circumstances of the sessions: something which without doubt added to the freshness & immediacy everyone picked up on straight away. Equally importantly, the band themselves do not seem to have singled the song out as special at the time which appears to have resulted in a relaxed take generating that magical sound: again the band to this day, while knowing the chords, equipment used and words, cannot wholly account for every factor on that day which created a unique track. "It's a bit of a mystery".
I am pretty aware of many of the group's musical influences at the time, but I'd always struggled to relate "Teenage Kicks" to a Ramones approach evident in other early songs and Paul emphasised how he considers it to answer much more to composer John O'Neill's love of early 1960s girl groups (though of course the Ramones were themselves trying to channel The Ronettes). In fact he considers that "one of the secrets" of the band is the sheer range of influences which they brought to the songwriting.
He also feels that the "swing" element (as discussed in my review of the Dirt Road Band's "What's Going Down" single the other week) cannot be disregarded: not every Undertones track of those days swung that much: something he attributes to drummer Billy Doherty . The latter he also believes was a strong advocate for the song being the lead track on the EP ahead of "True Confessions", "Emergency Cases" and "Smarter Than U", when the band had not made its mind up. As Paul also says "it jumps out of the speakers and grabs you by the throat". Which is true.
Paul, being a little younger than the rest of the band (I was interested to learn that due to his age & other considerations, he never actually saw the band play live while Feargal Sharkey was the lead singer: even a preteen plan to sneak into a WMC gig on the Bogside came to nothing when the gig was cancelled) came to the EP as a fan. I was amused by his story of his first encounter with the artefact being not hearing it, but being shown a copy by his friend during Mass at St Eugene's Cathedral in Derry. Given that the very early versions came in a fold out poster sleeve featuring some anti-Undertones graffiti using less than sacred language (and also wildly inaccurate: The Undertones are NOT ****), he felt a "frisson of transgression", studying a punk record with a rude word written on it during Mass.
Obviously the pride he felt at such a band (whom one could run into "buying shoes" in Derry city centre) coming from his home town, experiencing such success at the height of The Troubles was immense (if a bit "surreal") and he spoke forcibly of how he was inspired very quickly to form the beginnings of an intention to play music himself in the wake of "Teenage Kicks".
Other elements too make the song special in Paul and the band's opinion: some practical like the simple but instantly recognisable introduction ("it just erupts"), others like being what it was just when it was, when other artists such as Buzzcocks, Blondie or Elvis Costello were also exploring melding the passion of punk with more melodic elements and less overtly aggressive lyrics than had been more the norm the previous year. And "it's more than a sum of its parts.. it becomes this grander thing".
The apparent simplicity (and Paul suggested that the chord sequence could both support a doo-wop song and a glam rock one) means that "Teenage Kicks" is as easy for admiring bands to cover as it is attractive (hold your breath: Ash, Green Day, Snow Patrol, Nouvelle Vague, The Killers, Dawn Chorus & the Blue Tits, Jedward, Razorlight, The Raconteurs, Therapy?, Maroon, The Gene Drayton Unit, The Vamps, Hybrid Children, Busted and One Direction are among many who've had a go, plus Die Toten Hosen in collaboration with the band's Damian O'Neill: who has also played it with Ash along with bandmate Mickey Bradley). One can only imagine the number of covers bands who've also played it. And as for sampling.. well Paul thinks the Tone Loc is probably an Undertones fan….. He also feels that the song is so talismanic that some bands who play it may know little or nothing about Northern Ireland or even The Undertones.
For a man whose approach to replacing Feargal was simply to perform the songs to the best of his ability and not try to replicate his unique style, I think Paul epitomises the bands down to earth approach to the cultural size of their most well known creation: inwardly very pleased, respectful & a little overwhelmed by it, but far from immodest: with its composer perhaps the least quoted of all of them on the subject. "It's not ours any more" says Paul
I wondered whether featuring on a gravestone, which to put it mildly is unusual for a pop lyric, was a little unsettling? Well the answer would seem to be that the band have processed it well: they feel honoured (even more so by the continuing relationship with Sheila Ravenscroft). Paul attributed its use to the character of John Peel himself and felt it was fitting: liking it directly to the inscription "cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by" which is written on the tomb of W B Yeats.
As you'll remember, last time they were in our area, I reported on The Undertones' gig with Hugh Cornwell at the HMV Empire in Coventry: this time they are supported by another of the original punk pioneers: Tom Robinson. Not only will this give as Paul says a package which makes sense and value for money, no doubt he, Tom & Mickey will be swapping stories about their careers as radio presenters, each helping support new artists on their respective stations.
The Undertones play The Assembly in Leamington on Saturday 7th October, supported by Tom Robinson: tickets are available from: https://www.gigantic.com/the-undertones-tickets/leamington-spa-the-assembly/2023-10-07-19-00