[12 August 2010]
The name the Undertones is likely to strike recognition in even the most casual rock music fan. For most, they are the band that made “Teenage Kicks”, a spirited, power-popish ode to getting the neighborhood dream girl. The more trivia-inclined music fan may know that “Teenage Kicks” was cited by legendary Radio 1 DJ John Peel as his favorite record. This was not a fleeting statement; Peel held the opinion for the rest of his all too brief life (he passed away in 2004). Most bands, and fans, would take Peel’s esteemed words and use them as an excuse to rest on their laurels, but the Undertones had too much exuberance to even consider such a thing. They were the rare pop-punk band whose value does not lie solely in their singles output. Thanks to Union Square Music recently making the Undertones’ first four studio albums available digitally, this fact has become far easier to prove.
The Undertones’ origin story is unspectacular but befitting a band with so innocent an aim as detailed on their first album, The Undertones. Four friends from Derry, Northern Ireland, happily allowed the burgeoning punk scene to prod them into forming a band. By doing so they dazzled John Peel and got a recording deal. What resulted were songs so swift and effervescent they were difficult to sneer at. “Listening In” and “(She’s a) Runaround” wear their Ramones influences on their sleeves, but do so to the point of rivaling some of the US punk legends’ best loved songs. “True Confessions” is more rooted in the jitteriness of UK punk, but the style is tackled with equal aplomb. Lead singer Feargal Sharkey, like many of the best punk singers, possesses vocals that are restrictive but unique. His voice is raspy and accent free, but also unmistakably his. As the band grew and experimented outside of first wave punk’s Petri dish beginnings, Sharkey found ways to make even his limited vocal capabilities more expressive.
If the band had a manifesto in these early stages, it was “More Chocolate and Girls”, from second release Hypnotised. The song’s title is a tribute to Talking Heads and their album More Songs About Buildings And Food, but the subject matter champions simplicity. In Sharkey’s words, “It’s never too late to enjoy dumb entertainment”. While a little short on paeans to confections, four songs on Hypnotised feature the word “girl” in the title, and even more concern girls and little else. Yet Hypnotised should not be mistaken as a repeat of The Undertones; little sparks of progression shine through in the build and sway of “The Way Girls Talk” and in the ‘60s pining of “Wednesday Week”.
If Hypnotised hints at progression, follow up Positive Touch exposes a band reconciling its youth with the need to grow. Songs about girls are still in abundance, but by this point the Undertones had sharpened their teeth on this subject to the point of turning out pop treasures such as “Julie Ocean”. Possessing a chorus so shimmery that it manages to turn Sharkey’s rasp to sweetness, it may just be the Undertones’ crowning achievement. Elsewhere, graver topics are explored, as evidenced most strikingly on “It’s Going to Happen”, a song inspired by the Northern Ireland hunger strikes of 1981. Being from Northern Ireland, it would appear compulsory that the band, apolitical as they were, address this pivotal point in their nation’s history. The Undertones do so in an understated and considered way, raising the issue with simple lyrics such as “No point in waiting today / Stupid revenge is what’s making you stay” and backing it with deceptively jaunty horns. The songs about girls offer a flash of deception as well. “Hannah Doot” is a peppy three minute song about breaking up with a girl, but it sounds as reckless and fun as an outtake from the band’s debut. All in all, the album is a stunning high point in a glorious career.
The Sin of Pride, the band’s fourth and final album with Sharkey, shows even more progression, this time to mixed results. The album sees the Undertones following in footsteps similar to those of the Jam, who took on more and more of a soul/Motown influence as they grew. As proof, the Undertones even included a faithful cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Save Me” on the album. On songs such as “Soul Seven”, Sharkey shows signs of varying his vocal range, allowing his voice to quaver in a different register. Unfortunately, stronger tracks such as the aforementioned are bogged down by more forgettable songs such as “Luxury” and “Untouchable”, throwbacks to stronger moments on Hypnotised. Although The Sin of Pride offered much in the way of promise, calling it quits with the album ultimately seemed like a wise move.
Rounding out the digital releases are An Anthology and the Teenage Kicks EP. The former includes plenty of definitives, such as “It’s Going to Happen”, “Julie Ocean”, and of course “Teenage Kicks”, yet settling for a compilation overlooks such giddy pleasures as “Girls Don’t Like It”, “Life’s Too Easy”, and “Chain of Love”. One of the few pop punk bands that was worth more than its singles, the digital releases of the four studio albums finally expose the Undertones as being just as crucial for their unabashed joy, deceptive or otherwise, as their peers were for their politics.