NEARLY 40 years after they announced their arrival with their classic debut single ‘Teenage Kicks’, The Undertones remain an exhilarating live act and next week sees the quintet breeze into the Roisín Dubh.
An ever-present with the group from their mid-1970s formation and 1999 reunion, is bassist and songwriter Michael Bradley, and he chatted with me about the group’s heady early years and happy current incarnation.
Bradley recently published Teenage Kicks - My Life As An Undertone, a wonderful memoir about the group’s first phase, which ended with their split in 1983. It vividly recalls the highs and lows of hit records, bad record deals, tour travails and thrills, life in Troubles-era Derry and encounters with other bands. It is often very funny, as in this description of meeting The Clash; "…they looked like sun-kissed gods who’d just stepped out of a Marlon Brando movie in order to meet the extras from a Public Information film about the dangers of poor nutrition and bad haircuts".
Speaking to the Galway Advertiser, Bradley is even able to recall the group’s career low-points without bitterness: “There wasn’t an awful lot to be bitter about. We were always appreciative of the way it worked out for us. We didn’t have that much of a slog at the start; we had demo tapes turned down but that’s not exactly going to break your heart. Then we made ‘Teenage Kicks’ which was immediately picked up by John Peel and became a hit. All our slogging was just carrying our equipment from the house to the Casbah [the Derry music venue where the band cut their teeth] and even then we often used Feargal Sharkey’s Radio Rentals van. I don’t know if I’d be very bitter anyway – what’s to be bitter about?”
I point out that Morrissey’s Autobiography, by comparison, indulges in much settling of old scores. “We got our revenge in at the time,” Bradley notes wryly. “If anyone was nasty to us, not that there were many, we gave it back. Being in a band was good because you were a bit of a gang so you didn’t have to suffer any indignity alone, we all felt it. Some would feel it more than others but I would hardly be bothered.”
Alongside Bradley, The Undertones featured chief songwriter John O’Neill, his brother Damian, Billy Doherty and singer Feargal Sharkey. From 1978 to 1983, they released four highly-praised albums and such joyously memorable singles as ‘Jimmy Jimmy’, ‘You’ve Got My Number’ and ‘My Perfect Cousin’ (co-written by Bradley and Damien O’Neill ). But in 1983, as their career stalled, the group split and remained silent for the next 16 years.
The story of their reunion in 1999 owes much to The Saw Doctors and Galway Arts Festival, as Bradley reveals; “It was interesting how it came about. There is a brotherhood of drummers, they always seek each other out and always talk about drums and our drummer Billy Doherty knew Johnny Donnelly from The Saw Doctors. About 1992, when The Undertones were the furthest thing from my mind, Billy said to me ‘The Saw Doctors were wondering would you and I go on and play with them on their cover of ‘Teenage Kicks’ – and this was in The Point in Dublin.
"I said ‘Yes’ because it was a free trip to Dublin and I like The Saw Doctors. We did that show and another one with them a couple of years later in Glasgow. In 1998 they asked if we would join them at the Galway Arts Festival and they asked Billy if any of the rest of the band would do it as well. I thought there was no way John would but he said ‘Yeah ok!’ and then Damian agreed because John had. So we did a quick rehearsal of about seven songs and Davy Carton sang them with us. We were in the Róisín Dubh later that evening, Davey did a song and we got people up from the crowd, a guy came up and he half knew a couple of the songs. All that planted the seed, then in 1999, The Nerve Centre in Derry asked us to do a show and doing that got us reformed for real.”
This revival of The Undertones saw Paul McLoone drafted in on lead vocals and in 2003 the group released Get What You Need, their first new album in 20 years. “We took a notion that ‘Let’s see if can we still do this’ so we did it,” Bradley explains. “It didn’t sell very well but we knew we weren’t going to set the world on fire. It got good reviews and we enjoyed it. It gave us another wee initiative and we liked doing it with Paul singing, he is a first-rate singer. It was another step because you have to be careful that it has some comparison with the records we did with Feargal. We do it because making records is a very pleasurable thing for us to do.”
Both Get What You Need and 2007’s Dig Yourself Deep can take their place proudly in the group’s canon and saw the group re-embrace some of the simpler sounds of their early releases compared to the elaborate touches of their initial swan song The Sin Of Pride. I ask Bradley if that was a deliberate choice.
“When we got back together we didn’t really talk about what style we would do we just thought we’d see," he says. "John is the musical heart of the band; Dig Yourself Deep is much simpler, that was a wee bit conscious but only in the sense that we write songs and these were the ones we were writing at that time. We didn’t sit down and plan what style we were going to write in. You just come up with the songs and if you’re lucky enough to be happy with what you’ve recorded whoever is mixing will possibly impart an overall feel. Nothing was ever planned in The Undertones!”
Planned or not, Bradley professes himself to be happier than ever playing with the band these days. “We’ve been doing this for 16/17 years and I enjoy this much more than I enjoyed working on The Sin Of Pride," he says. "I didn’t like the whole period from 1981 to 1983. Now we’re just dipping our toe into it, we’re not doing it all the time, not under pressure from record companies expecting us to do stuff.
"People just know the Undertones will come along and play a show and if you go along to it you’ll enjoy it. It’s so much more relaxing. Also, maturity means we get on better together. We always got on well the first couple of years but then with the pressure of touring and recording constantly we were hanging around with each other too much. Now we just get together when we are doing shows and everything is great.”
The Undertones play the Róisín Dubh on Friday August 11 at 8pm. Support is from Tuam pop-punk band Oh Boland. Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh. Michael Bradley’s Teenage Kicks is published by Omnibus Press and is available from Charlie Byrnes.