This year the group from the Northern Ireland city of Derry are celebrating their 40th anniversary and playing a series of shows to coincide. This weekend they’re one of the headline acts at Willowman Festival in North Yorkshire.
“Our roots go deep,” notes bass player Michael Bradley, who has charted the band’s history in his recently published memoir Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone.
He started “hanging around” the home of guitarists John and Damian O’Neill when he was 15. “They lived about three or four streets away from me,” he recalls. “My best friend at school was Vincent O’Neill and he used to tell me about his brother John who was in a band and I thought it was great. That summer of 1974 I went down and started hanging out in this house and eventually I was invited to join the band even though the band never really existed, it was purely theoretical.”
John O’Neill was to be the band’s main musical instigator. “He was the eldest by about two years and when you’re 15 it’s a big deal,” says Bradley. “Nowadays we’re all the same age but when you’re 15 and someone’s 17 he’s old, he read the NME every week, he bought records, so John was always the leader – and still is. He would hold the most sway in terms of arguments – very quietly. He would hate to think that but he keeps everyone kind of right without a big fuss.”
By 1976 they had a singer, Feargal Sharkey, and drummer, Billy Doherty. In early 1977, inspired by Ramones records they’d heard John Peel play on his BBC Radio 1 show as well as the New York Dolls and the classic garage rock compilation Nuggets borrowed from friends, they started playing at the Casbah in Derry. “Everything came right at the same time for us,” Bradley says.
After listening to Eddie and the Hot Rods and Dr Feelgood they decided to speed up their playing style. “Eddie and the Hot Rods’ EP, called Live at The Marquee, came out in ’76, and that was a huge influence. We just speeded up ’60s r’n’b songs like Can’t Explain by The Who – that made The Who sound like the Ramones, which suited us.”
Bradley particularly admired the way The Buzzcocks “worked three chords”. Also, he says: “They just looked great, they kind of looked like us – arty without being arty – and the point of view of Pete Shelley was always great. I suppose looking back it was very non-gender, I realise that now, but then it was very low-key love songs.”
When The Undertones’ song Teenage Kicks was picked up by John Peel it propelled them to fame – yet Bradley admits it took others to spot its potential. “I don’t remember us deciding this was our best song, it did come as a surprise whenever somebody said, ‘Teenage Kicks, that’s your big song’, though we chose it as one of the songs on our first EP so we must have thought it had something going for it.”
Peel became the band’s unofficial mentor over the next six years, during which they released four albums and scored top 20 hits with Jimmy Jimmy, My Perfect Cousin and Wednesday Week. “He did look after us,” Bradley recalls. “I remember him saying ‘don’t take any brass farthings or wooden nickels, be careful that you don’t get ripped off’.”
The bassist picks their second LP, Hypnotised, as his favourite. “We didn’t rush it, we were in there starting to experiment with different things, even the way My Perfect Cousin turned out. Whenever we were playing that live before it was recorded it was more like the first LP and John said, ‘Let’s do something different with it’, he changed the tempo and the chords. I have great memories of recording that record.”
The band split up when Feargal Sharkey left in 1983 and the O’Neills formed That Petrol Emotion. Since reforming in 1999 with a new singer Paul McLoone, The Undertones have gone on to tour regularly. Bradley feels the last decade and half has “bizarrely” been more enjoyable than the early 1980s.
“With Feargal, great singer and great frontman, but there was always a tension,” he explains. “And because we were always doing Undertones stuff and living in each other’s pockets, that was OK and you’re up for the craic because you’re young, but I kind of enjoy it now because you’re getting short bursts of it, you’re doing a couple of shows, like we’re doing Willowman, and then you go home and it’s great, it’s like getting a second helping of something.
“Having said that,” he adds, “the great experience first time round was we were making records, we were proper pop stars, nowadays we are a band who does shows and so on, there’s pros and cons, but I think I’m happier this time round, you’re not dependent on it, there’s no record company saying ‘We need that new LP next year and that latest chart position wasn’t very good, how are you going to improve on that?’ Now it’s ‘Here’s The Undertones, play Teenage Kicks and everyone’s happy’.”
The Undertones play at Willowman Festival, Hillside Rural Activities Centre, Knayton, near Thirsk, on Saturday June 18. For details visit http://willowmanfestival.co.uk/