JOHN O’NEILL FROM THE UNDERTONES
Teenage Kicks has endured for 30 years as one of the best known songs to come out of Ireland but it took less than an hour to write.
Undertones guitarist John O’Neill was 18 at the time and while he acknowledges its place in popular culture, he doesn’t actually think it is the best song he has written.
The Undertones were formed in Derry in 1976 by O’Neill, his brother Damien, drummer Billy Doherty, bass player Mickey Bradley and singer Feargal Sharkey.
“I was strumming on my guitar and was trying to write a song in the style of the Ramones who were our big influence at the time,” John O’Neill said.
“The whole chord structure is in the style of a 1950s rock song by Eddie Cochrane or the Shangri Las. Once we had the chords in place it all came together fairly quickly.
“When we first played the song it probably took about 10 minutes to find the right key to suit Feargal’s voice.
“The Undertones had actually been on the verge of breaking up when they were signed to the Good Vibrations label by Terri Hooley.
“We sent demos to different independent record labels and they were either rejected or else we got no reply. Then a friend of ours who knew Terri Hooley offered to take him a copy of the demo.
“We owe everything to Terri Hooley.”
Teenage Kicks was the fourth single to be released by Good Vibrations and The Undertones and Hooley set about trying to get it some radio play, with little
It was drummer Billy Doherty who set in motion a series of events that would change the lives of The Undertones and ensure that the song would forever also be associated with one of Britain’s best-known and most influential radio DJs.
“Billy sent John Peel a copy of Teenage Kicks and rang him up to say we had released a single and asked him to play it,” O’Neill said.
“I don’t know what he thought of these weird Irish people who kept ringing him but he played it on his show and, famously, immediately played it again.”
Peel always maintained that Teenage Kicks was his favourite songs and when his death was announced on BBC Radio One in 2004, it was the first song played immediately afterwards.
O’Neill and other members of the Undertones attended Peel’s funeral.
“It was very sad and strange because there were so many famous people there. Robert Plant (singer with Led Zeppelin) was sitting behind us and Jack White (from the White Stripes) was in front,” he said.
“There was some great music played during the service but then when they were carrying the coffin from the church they played Teenage Kicks.
“It really gave me goosebumps.”
Following the success of the song, The Undertones went on to record four albums and a handful of successful singles.
In 1983 the band split. Singer Feargal Sharkey went on to have a successful solo career and the O’Neill brothers formed That Petrol Emotion.
However, in 1999 The Undertones reformed featuring four of the original members and with fellow Derryman Paul McLoone taking over as vocalist. The band has continued to tour and released two new albums.
O’Neill said he had written dozens of songs since Teenage Kicks but doesn’t resent being remembered for something he did when he was 18.
“I think the songs that I wrote for That Petrol Emotion were better than the ones I wrote for the Undertones,” he said.
“I don’t think Teenage Kicks is one of the greatest songs ever written but it does have a great atmosphere and somehow everything clicked together. I think that
is what appealed to John Peel.”
TERRI HOOLEY SPEAKING ABOUT GOOD VIBRATIONS
THE words punk and explosion often sit side by side but the actual date when punk first exploded depends on who you are talking to.
In England it is generally accepted that the Sex Pistols were to the forefront of the movement but their early success and notoriety in 1976 was more of an angry fizzle driven by the use of naughty words on television.
It wasn’t really until the summer of ‘77 when they released the provocative single God Save the Queen, in which the British monarchy was described as a “fascist regime” and whose cover had a picture of Queen Elizabeth with a safety pin through her nose, that they really exploded onto the scene.
There were punks in Northern Ireland from the start of the movement and dozens of bands were formed in 1976 and the following year, but for many it was 1978 when punk really exploded in the north when the record label Good Vibrations was set up.
According to the label’s founder Terri Hooley, it came into existence almost by accident.
Hooley was running the Good Vibrations record shop in Great Victoria Street in Belfast city centre where many punks had begun to gather to listen to records and occasionally even buy the latest releases from Britain.
“I went to see Rudi and the Outcasts in the Pound. I loved Rudi but hated the Outcasts – which was ironic because a year later I was managing the Outcasts and releasing their records,” he said.
“I asked Rudi if they fancied putting out a record. We were initially going to make a flexi-disc which we could give away with fanzines but then it turned out that it would only cost 6p per record to release a proper single.”
The release by Rudi was followed up by a host of other bands including Victim, The Outcasts and Protex.
“I wanted to try to put Northern Ireland back on the musical map. At that time the only thing that Northern Ireland was known for was the Troubles,” he said.
“The whole label was run on a shoestring but within months we were getting demos from all over the world.”
One of those tapes came winging its way from Derry from a band called The Undertones and it would ultimately give Good Vibrations its best known release.
“I got the demo through a friend and listened to it for about two weeks. I kept playing it to other people and bands but no-one else seemed to get it,” Hooley said.
“I had to make a decision between signing up the Undertones and another band, because I didn’t have enough money to put out records by them both.
“Then someone told me that the Undertones were about to break up so I decided to bring them on to the label– I’ve always felt sorry for the other band.”
The Teenage Kicks EP was recorded in Wizard Studios in Belfast, behind the Duke of York bar.
It was recorded in a day. There were four tracks – Teenage Kicks, True Confessions, Smarter Than You and Emergency Cases.
Hooley said despite the subsequent international success of the title song it did not immediately set the record industry alight.
“I took it over to England and persuaded one of the hippest independent record labels of the time to distribute 500 copies, even though someone on the label told me it was the worst record he had ever heard,” he said.
“I also took it to other major labels but they just threw me out. Then John Peel got a hold of the record and the rest is history.
“A senior executive for Sire Records heard Peel play it and immediately wanted to sign up the Undertones and release Teenage Kicks in the States.
“The next day other record labels were on to me asking if I had any more bands that they could sign up.”
Hooley is still running a record shop, Phoenix Records, in Haymarket Arcade off Royal Avenue and there are plans to make a film based on his life story, with an impressive production team.
“Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody and David Holmes (record producer and DJ) are executive producers and the script is being written by (novelist) Glen[n] Patterson and (poet) Colin Carberry,” he said.
“I was a bit worried at first because people might actually finally find out if I’m a taig or a prod but they have told me that they won’t mention that.”
A concert celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Good Vibrations record label was held in the Mandela Hall, Belfast, on Friday April 25.
Headliners were The Undertones and support was ‘punk supergroup’ Shame Academy, which includes former members of The Outcasts and Rudi.
OUTCASTS AND RUDI
FAR too often the vibrant Northern Ireland punk scene of the late 1970s is summed up by name-checking just two bands, the Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers.
However, there were hundreds of other groups playing at the time some lasting barely a few days but others who gigged regularly and put out records.
Two bands who were also tipped for major success were Rudi and The Outcasts. Both released singles on the Good Vibrations label.
Shame Academy features members from both bands and their set combines their best known songs.
Brian Young was guitarist with Rudi and Greg Cowan was bass-player and vocalist with The Outcasts. Another punk veteran Petesy Burns, who played with Stalag 17, is on drums.
Young was 18 when he and a group of friends formed Rudi, the first band to release a single, Big Time, with Good Vibrations in April 1978.
“The music being made by bands here was much more original than bands in England,” he said.
“There were no bands coming here to play so we couldn’t go and see them and when it came to writing a song we just made up our own rules.”
While Young agrees that the music was an important aspect of punk, he said the attitude and self confidence it generated for thousands of young people during the worst decade of the Troubles has often been overlooked.
“I don’t want to be too naive about hands across the barricades sort of stuff but there were people coming together and sharing something in common. Maybe if it
hadn’t been for punk they would’ve got involved in some organisation or other,” he said.
Young now plays with rockabilly band the Sabrejets, with Shame Academy being dusted down for the occasional gig.
Greg Cowan from The Outcasts hadn’t played for more than 20 years until he agreed to join Young and Burns in Shame Academy.
He was bemused that his musical comeback should be with associated with a band he once derided.
“If you had told me that 30 years ago that I would be playing in the same band as a member of Rudi, playing their songs and that I would still be playing Outcast songs, I would have laughed at you,” he said.
Cowan formed the The Outcasts with his brothers Martin and Colin and guitarist Getty after they heard the Sex Pistols in 1976.
“It was more a case of ‘Right, we’re going to be in a band’. We couldn’t actually play any instruments,” he said.
“People still ask me how we got that strange slightly out of tune effect on our guitars for our first album. They think it is a sort of punk thing when really we couldn’t properly tune our guitars.”
Cowan agrees with Young that punk helped a lot of people define who they were.
“Nobody could have imagined that decades later we would be sitting trying to analyse the music and its effects on society,” he said.