The Infinite Jukebox: The Undertones ‘Get Over You’

Sitting in my local pub in Nottingham, talking to a guy who lived on one of the other floors of Alexandra House, I started expounding on one of the, to me, great virtues of punk/new wave. Which was, for want of a better word, it’s ephemerality.
This was December 1978, still part of a decade in which, outside the rarefied castles of the ProgRock titans and their wannabes, the trope was that bands had to pay their dues before they could be taken seriously. Yes, in order to achieve success and build careers, bands had to have done a minimum of three years gigging in appalling conditions, living on the road, playing in every crappy place under the sun for impossibly small fees before they could be considered fit to progress to making worthy albums of worthy music. And they had to have beards.
But why did you have to spend three years of your life wasting your time on repetitive rituals? Why can you only achieve success by ‘honing your chops’ in every small town you could think of? Why, if you’ve got the ability, can’t you get down to it whilst you’re fresh?
And, I argued, some bands don’t have a career in them. Some bands maybe only have three minutes of genius in them, one song that lights up the universe, tears at hearts and feet, fills you up with its wonderfulness.
That was the glory of punk/new wave for me, with the tiny independent labels, the rushed out releases: the chance to get that three minutes of glory out there for us to hear, instead of drowning it in practiced rote and a dull adherence to the rules.
I quoted examples. There was The Tours’ ‘Language School’, a brilliant, pulsing, thrashing guitar and pumping bass with a one-note riff that buoyed the whole thing up, and nobody ever heard anything else from them that sounded remotely as good, but so what? We had that song and we were better off for it, and would it make a difference to ‘Language School’s charms if there was never an album’s worth of songs slapped around it?
Or, I said, take The Undertones. I explained about them being from Derry, and getting in touch with John Peel, and getting ‘Teenage Kicks’ not only onto his show but into the Top 40 and on Top of the Pops (by this time the song had had a three-week chart career, peaking at 31). They’ll probably never make a record remotely as good as that again, hell, they might not ever make another record at all, but we’ve got this one, and it’s brilliant, and that’s because they could go into a local studio and record it and release it, without any thought of having to do anything but bring us this song.
That’s what’s so great about punk/new wave.
Probably never make a record remotely as good as that again. Might not ever make another record at all.
I went home to Manchester over Xmas, lugging my hi-fi home because I was going to be gone for ten days. It was the Winter of Discontent, snow choking Britain on New Year’s Eve and, in order to be back at work for January 2, I had to travel by train with only what I could carry. No hi-fi for over half the month, until the roads were safe for my mother to drive over and deliver it. I had nothing for entertainment but the TV lounges and my transistor radio.
And then Peely played the second Undertones single…

The Infinite Jukebox – Teenage Kicks

Some records never age. The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ was released in the summer of 1978 as the title track of a four track EP released on the local Derry label, Good Vibrations. The ‘Tones, John O’Neill and his brother Damien, Micky Bradley, Billy Doherty and Feargal Sharkey, sent a copy to John Peel, at the BBC in England, and followed it up with phone calls, badgering him to play it. He did. He fell in love with the record, and it’s opening lines decorate his gravestone.
He played it on his show one night that summer. I don’t remember when, but I listened to his show every night, and it was still every night because they hadn’t yet taken Friday off him and given it to Tommy Vance, and I heard it and I fell for it too.
That was thirty seven years ago this summer, by one, outmoded and illogical method of calculation, which is more than half my lifetime ago, and that’s simply not true, and not possible, because every time I hear Doherty’s two-beat drum intro, I hear a song that I only heard for the first time Thursday last week. The Infinite Jukebox is blessed by such a record.
There are better Undertones songs, ones with clearer and more distinct melodies, with a better production than the thick wodge of sound that goes into ‘Teenage Kicks’. But there is nothing that so distils the Undertones into two and a half minutes of pure bliss, teenage hormones furiously throbbing, the line between nervous innocence and rampant lust so finely straddled.
A teenage dream’s so hard to beat. What other dreams are so powerful, balanced between desire and fear? Another girl in the neighbourhood, wish she was mine, she looks so good. I’m gonna call her on the telephone, have her over cos I’m all alone. The every day, the utterly mundane turns into moments of shining gold and the music reflects that directness, the raw power of the dream.
I wanna hold her, wanna hold her tight, get Teenage Kicks right through the night…
And this came from a quintet of teenagers in a troubled city in Northern Ireland, a city whose own name symbolised the conflict raging on its streets, a conflict that gave the Undertones’ home the nickname of Stroke City, and they ignore all this and focus on the one thing on their minds. John O’Neil’s words and music are simple and direct, and they have never lost their meaning, because they speak of yearning, and the music churns and roars, Billy Doherty’s drums keeping it anchored to earth.
It has the raucousness of punk, and something of the attention to melody re-introduced by the Buzzcocks, but not quite yet unleashed. It’s about being sixteen, sixteen forever, forever drowned in wanting, in finding a focus that underneath isn’t focused at all, because if she’s not the answer to the dream, someone else will be, but for here and now, at the heart of this urging music, she is the only one there is in the world.
And there’s even a guitar solo, twiddly, plangent, constructed out of just a few notes, and gloriously it’s not where you expect it to be, two verses, middle eight, solo, third verse, but it comes right at the very end, when there’s nothing left to say, and only an impression to create, as jangling as your nerves.
I wanna hold her, wanna hold her tight, get Teenage Kicks right through the night…
All right.

Singing for The Undertones

One of my favourite bands of all time was Derry’s Finest, The Undertones. Teenage Kicks is one of my favourite songs of all time, and even though it was actually released almost 35 years ago, whenever I hear it, it still sounds as fresh as if it came out a week last Thursday.
Before the band broke up in 1982, I got to see them live in concert on three occasions. The first was at the Free Trade Hall, where I was sat about six rows from the front. The band hit the stage, the audience surged. I got to about four rows of bodies from the stage itself, discovered that I was having this problem with expanding and contracting my chest and spent the best part of four songs forcing my way back far enough to breathe.
The second was the Apollo, Ardwick, where I was sat in the front row and spent the gig stood up leaning against the stage, with my arms balanced on the stage-floor itself, as Feargal Sharkey wheeled and emoted.
The third and final occasion was at the famous Haçienda, FAC 51, in 1982, when the band were touring their fourth and last album, The Sin of Pride.
If my memory serves me correctly, this was the first of about half a dozen visits I made to see gigs at the Haçienda. It was a bit of a strange venue to see bands, with everybody but a tiny handful having to stand, and from my second visit onwards, I used to buy my only drink at the bar, carry it upstairs and find a place on the balcony which gave me the best view of the stage, and nurse it for as long as I could until the gig started, and believe you me, when it was New Order on stage, that took a whole heap of nursing.
This first time, however, I was down on the floor with the mass of the audience, a good rowdy crowd looking for fun and the ‘Tones usual high energy set.
The Sin of Pride was a far better album to tour than Positive Touch, which had been the focus of the previous tour and the gig at the Apollo. Positive Touch was an experimental album, the band’s self-conscious attempt to ‘progress’ their music. The Sin of Pride, in contrast, accepted the fun of simplicity, and emphasised the band’s soul influences, with several tracks decorated with brilliant horn riffs, not that the ‘Tones were bringing a horn section onto the Haçienda’s tiny stage.
It was a good night, and the band were on good form until, suddenly, halfway through the set and bringing a song to a typically frantic conclusion, the sound went off!
There was confusion on stage, and in the audience, and a bit of laughter on our part of the equation. It only took the electricians about five minutes to get the plug back in again, but in the meantime, a little piece of magic ensued.
With the PA out of action, bassplayer Mickey Bradley came to the front of the stage, signalled for the audience to stop buzzing about it, and shouted out, “Well, we were going to do My Perfect Cousin next, but instead, we’re going to get you do it!”. Behind him, Billy Doherty struck up with the strutting little drum intro. Bradley shouted a vocal version of the two guitar chords that accompany it, and waved to us. And the whole crowd, in unison, if not in tune, shouted out, “Well I’ve got a cousin called Kevin, who’s sure to go to heaven.”
And, for a madcap four minutes or so, not even interrupted by the PA, which came back on towards the end of the song, we stood and swayed and lustily sang the whole song, word for word, while Billy Doherty kept the beat, and Mickey Bradley conducted us, and everyone had a whale of a time, even during the ‘instrumental’ break, which was the strutting beat and more mouth guitar chord sounds. And when we finished, the band applauded us, and we gave ourselves the biggest cheer of the night (until it was time to haul the Undertones back for their encores).
The band broke up after the tour, and whilst they’ve returned to action in later life, minus the Fearg but still boasting Bradley, Doherty and the O’Neill brothers, I’ve never had the luck to see them again.
It won’t be (quite) the same without the Fearg, and I’ll never get another silly little interlude like that again (though I’d laugh my head off if it did repeat itself), I’d still love one day to be in a hot, sweaty crowd, whipped up in a ferment, and those two beats and the riff ring out and once again I’m rocking to Teenage Kicks.
But that’s what it was like that night, when I was there.