This BBC4 documentary is the second on the Undertones after that one from around 2003 that involved John Peel visiting Derry. “This is the story of the most improbable pop stars from the most unexpected place” is how this one gets sold.
It starts with comparing their place with that of the other new acts around at the time. “It wasnt as disruptive as the Clash or the Pistols, but a response to their own circumstances” says Paul Morley. Like the Peel docu they return to their old homes and where they all lived in the days when they started the band and where they wrote and played the songs. Michael Bradley: “I was lucky to live so live close to Fergal a great singer, John O’Neill who wrote great song.” Bradley again: “it was cool to come from Derry, the Clash would have loved to come from here. We all had our ‘trouble’ stories.”
Time to misquote Eamon McCann: “Because Derry Catholics were so close to the Republic with Donegal just a few miles away, despite the obvious hardships there was still a confidence about them”. So the Undertones represented this confidence, and their obvious effortless talent at producing timeless and clever guitar pop justifies this assertion.
Feargal Sharkey was, unlike the other members, actually “seeked out” when it came to forming the Undertones and yet would quickly become the public representative of the band. But he actually had little input on the band’s songwriting. That was mainly the job of “self-taught scholar of pop” John O’Neill. John grew up with a love of Irish folk songs before moving onto glam rock as he got older, and “early 50s rock n roll”. He also loved the “easy to play” Chuck Berry and Bo Diddly tunes.
Bradley: “anyone who was alive in 1976 will remember the Ramones first LP…this was where it all started for me, simple songs, and funny songs”. As mentioned in the docu the only place to go for cool live music in Derry was the Casbah as, unlike other UK/Irish cities there was no active ‘scene’ in the place. Playing here was where the ‘just five lads from Derry’ oiled their wheel and gained an in-city identity. It wasn’t about tribalism or religion when the youth of the city showed up at the Casbah, it was instead about coming together and losing yourself in some supreme punk-pop once a week. Healthy and much-needed escapism, basically.
After winning a battle-of-the-bands competition they went into the studio and recorded several songs. Most of the group preferred True Confessions of the tunes put down but it was Teenage Kicks which won over the public. And the rest is history as they almost never say. Misquote time again. Paul Morley: “they tapped into everything you enjoy, it was everything they had been influenced by wrapped up in those first few chords”. Drummer Billy Doherty then talks of the time he phoned John Peel: “he couldn’t understand my broad accent but I did tell him we were a band better than SLF, that’s how cocky we were”, before going on, “he played the record and we were absolutely so delighted”.
Seymour Stein of SIRE records: “we were driving down the motorway and as soon as I heard Peel play Teenage Kicks that night I shouted to Paul McNally who was driving ‘pull over to we listen to this! we must sign this band’ “. And within days SIRE indeed did, after a bizarre negotiation deal involving experienced mogul and some novices from Derry who “knew nothing about the business”. Damian O’Neill: “the royalty rate was shockin’, even worse than the Bay City Rollers, and they didn’t even write their own songs”.
And then it all took off, turning up on TOTP with such chart-busting tunes as Teenage Kicks, Jimmy Jimmy, Here Comes the Summer and more. Songs about “ordinary lessons, put into words what a lot of us Derry folk felt” says their schoolteacher Pat McNabb. Then the story of the background to another one of their big hits, My Perfect Cousin, comes up. The cousin in question speaks about “getting stick, and at the time I was a bit annoyed but now I see the fun in it”.
The group go on to talk about their averse-ness to travelling, touring, and being away from loved ones for any length of time, as well as their on occasion delving into political lyrics that would be very close to home. Eamon McCann: “they were affected by the Hunger Strikes yet it was out of character for them to write about these things, they were a complicated phenomenon.
Within a couple of years things tailed off. Michael Bradley: “in the end we were not selling enough records and Feargal especially was not happy”. John O’Neill: “I was getting frustrated by the way Feargal was singing the songs, he was always dismissive when I had ideas about how I wanted my songs to be sung”. The final quote comes from Bradley: “when Feargal finally told us he was leaving the band, no-one argued with him”.