They were dubbed “the most improbable popstars, from the most unexpected place”. 40 years after performing their debut single, ‘Teenage Kicks’, on Britain’s Top Of The Pops, The Undertones – Northern Ireland’s answer to punk and new wave – are winging their way to us for the very first time.
“We are finally bringing our Irish rock’n’roll to Australia!” says guitarist and primary songwriter John O’Neill.
Despite his band being touted as Derry’s most successful export, O’Neill laughs, they sometimes struggle to make a living from touring. “We are asked all the time, ‘When are you coming to Australia?’, but you have to remember, we don’t do this full-time, we all have day jobs, so touring has to fit around everyone’s schedules. This year we’re able make it work, and it’s excellent to have an opportunity to come and play some shows.”
Coming together amid the growing unrest and uncertainty of Northern Ireland in the mid-’70s, The Undertones single-handedly introduced the new wave and punk DIY ethos to their peers, playing covers of their favourite bands at scout halls, schools and other local venues.
“There were a few local bands playing around at the time, but they weren’t what we were into. The bands played either pop-type music, stuff that they had heard on the charts, or they were playing Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, which we detested at the time,” says O’Neill. “And because of the war there were not a lot of bands coming over [to Northern Ireland]. People were afraid to be here.
“We loved the early Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Animals. So we rented a place together around 1975 and that’s when we first came up with the idea to form a band. We started playing together just in the living room sorta thing. We knew that nobody was playing anything like that in Derry and we weren’t even thinking about anything outside of that.”
At the time, The Undertones’ lineup comprised O’Neill, his brother Damian, Michael Bradley, Billy Doherty and lead singer Feargal Sharkey (since replaced by Paul McLoone in 1999). “Lucky for us the punk thing was really taking hold in New York and we’d read about it in NME. We read about groups like Television, the Ramones and Blondie. Obviously that had a knock-on effect in England with bands like The Clash … We loved the indie rock thing. It was like if you could play a chord and then play two chords, you could form a band,” O’Neill laughs. “We loved the ethos and we believed in it.
“Covering those bands helped to give us some momentum and then we started reading about bands like The Stooges, New York Dolls and The Velvet Underground. You couldn’t buy those records in Derry because they were so obscure, but we had a friend of a friend in Dublin who would lend them to us. So we were able to pick songs from those records to bulk up our repertoire.”
Soon The Undertones had perfected their short, sharp songs of adolescent angst and they found themselves with a residency at one of Derry’s most iconic clubs of the day, The Casbah. Around this time, the legendary BBC DJ John Peel got a hold of their debut single ‘Teenage Kicks’, and after declaring, ‘It doesn’t get much better than this,’ he played it twice in a row. Suddenly everyone wanted a slice of The Undertones.
If you could play a chord and then play two chords, you could form a band.
“We never took the band that seriously before that. We thought, ‘[We’ll] make a record and then we will break up, but at least we will prove that a punk band came from Derry in 1977,’” O’Neill says. “But as soon as John played our record, the phone started to ring from various record companies wanting to come over to see us, so we thought, ‘Well, we’d better not break up!’” he laughs. “‘There might be something happening here.’”
While the five friends remain as unpretentious as ever, they’re well aware of the fact that after nearly half a century their music is still loved the world over, and to celebrate their 40th anniversary they released vinyl remasters of their first two LPs, The Undertones and Hypnotised. “Even though we’re all in our 50s now, the music still seems relevant,” says O’Neill. “People still want to see stripped-back, basic rock’n’roll.
“And we still feed off the energy of our audience and we meet people of all ages at our shows. Kids in their teens and 20s, all the way up to those who were there in the early days, are coming to see us, which is lovely, and we love playing small clubs, keeping the gigs intimate.
“There’s nothing better than being onstage with the audience right in of you, with no gap between us and the crowd. That to me is what rock’n’roll and punk is all about anyway.”
The Undertones play the Metro Theatre on Saturday July 8.