Stiff Little Fingers have it. Ian Cranna explains what it is
The average looking young man on the other side of the tape recorder in the interview room of Chrysalis Records is altogether a very likeable character.
He’s friendly and chatty with a nice line in gently self-mocking humour, modest and genuine enough to say thanks (and mean it) when you compliment the band he’s in, open and generous enough to refuse to hold any grudge against bonehead skinheads who tried to disrupt a recent London gig.
It’s hard to believe that this is the same young guy who commands your attention on stage – leather jacket open over bare chest, barking out hard, uncompromising lyrics over blazing guitar, and – with his three companions – creating an atmosphere that’s positively electric with energy and passion . . .
Stiff Little Fingers were born alive and kicking in Belfast in midsummer 1977. They rose from the ashes of a band called Highway Star who played all old heavy metal rock standards since there was nothing better to play, and consisted of: Jake Burns – the young man mentioned above; Henry Clunie – a superb rhythm guitarist who’s now being asked to play sessions in Jamaica by several reggae big names (now there’s a compliment for you); bassist Gordon Blair; and drummer Brian Falloon.
Gordon quit the band for the poppier surroundings of Rudi when the others did find something better to play in the form of punk classics like ‘Anarchy’ which they’d heard on John Peel’s programme. He was replaced by Ali McMordie who, as one lady fanzine writer noted appreciatively, “has a lean and hungry look and a nice bum.”
According to Jake, however, Ali was recruited because he could play three notes in tune in a row!
Later on (November 1978) drummer Brian Falloon left to settle down in Belfast, and the present line-up was completed by the excellent Jimmy Reilly – he of the pork pie hat and outsize grin – who’d previously been a window cleaner in Sheffield just to get away from Belfast.
The band’s name, by the way, comes from a Vibrators’ album track and is a good indication of Stiff Little Fingers’ fierce independence of mind. They chose it because The Vibrators were getting knocked for being older and having been in other bands – the Fingers too had had long hair and been in other bands!
Since Belfast is no easier than most other cities for a young band to find a place to play, stiff Little Fingers’ earliest gigs were do-it-yourself affairs in the function room of a local hotel.
“Function room?” Jake rolls his eyes to heaven. “It was a stable, that’s what it was! It was terrible – the roof was leaking, puddles all over the floor!
“We used to hire that for eleven quid a night and play in it. You weren’t allowed to charge money on the door because you’d just hired it for a party – that was the only way you could get it. So what we used to do was stand out in the car park and collect money from the people as they arrived – sell them an invite to the party!”
Rough as they were, Jake remembers the earlier days with a smile.
Summer of ’78
“Summer ’78 was the time everything was coming together. Everybody from there started to get their faces in Sounds. You got half-page interviews and suddenly you were a pop star – everybody taking the piss out of you on Saturday afternoons!
“Suddenly it seemed to be a good idea – everybody went and made a record. Then John Peel started to play them, and it used to be a big thing to see how often John Peel played your band’s records – ‘played ours last night and didn’t play yours’ – it was great fun!”
With help and encouragement from a journalist friend, co-lyric writer and eventual manager, Gordon Ogilvie, the band put out their first single on their own Rigid Digits label – this was ‘Suspect Device’, which has now sold over 30,000 copies.
The second single ‘Alternative Ulster’, which was originally intended as a freebie for the fanzine of the same name. That too went on to achieve healthy sales.
“That song was written because there were a lot of kids in Belfast claiming that they’d nothing to do and nowhere to go, but they weren’t doing anything about it. They were just moaning about it.
“We were saying – OK, we’re doing something different – we’re in a band. we’re playing the type of music we wanna hear. OK, it may be the only way we get to hear it,” the familiar Jake Burns grin appears again, “but at least we’re hearing it. And if you really want something to change, you’re going to have to do it yourself because nobody else is going to do it for you.”
Things looked to be going really well for them when a contract was hammered out with Island Records but the deal was called off at the last minute, leaving a bitter and disappointed band in the lurch.
Nothing daunted, however, the band then put out their own album – the highly successful ‘Inflammable Material’ – again on rigid Digits. despite the business handicap of being on an independent label (distributed by the equally independent Rough trade) the album reached No 14 in the LP charts and has now passed Silver album status (sales over 50,000) – a tribute to the band’s power to inspire their audience.
After a third fine single in the simple but effective ‘Gotta Get Away’, Stiff Little Fingers have now signed their Rigid Digits operation to Chrysalis, but it’s a deal that literally does give the band complete control.
However, unlike other bands with own label deals – like The Specials and Secret Affair – Stiff Little Fingers have decided against signing other bands, genuinely concerned that they wouldn’t be able to look after these acts properly.
So here are Stiff Little Fingers, now with both business and personal London addresses to their names, although Henry does go home all the time, according to Jake, to be man about the house – “lies on the settee and watches television, has his mum do all the cooking for him – that sort of thing!”
(if you’re wondering where the other Fingers are, by the way, Jake’s opinion was that lunchtime would be too early for them to be up! And Jake, it seems, does most of the band’s talking anyway.)
I don’t miss policemen with machine guns
Does he miss Belfast himself?
Jake hesitates, “In a way, yes, and in a way, no. Obviously I miss all my friends back there and I miss my family – sometimes, not always but sometimes! But at the same time, it’s nice to be able to go out at night and not be looking over your shoulder when somebody new comes into the pub, which is the way you were back there. If you see a bag lying in a corner of a pub, you’d be sitting there going, ‘I wonder who owns that?’ I don’t miss that, I don’t miss that at all. I don’t miss being searched every five minutes going through the town, I don’t miss policemen with machine guns under their arms . . .
“It’s really very weird,” he pauses, “and it’s very hard to explain to someone who doesn’t know the place, but though all you ever see on the news here is people in Belfast and Northern Ireland killing each other – they really are the friendliest people in the world, they really are.”
Forceful and tuneful as the Fingers’ music is in its own right, there’s just no way you can ignore those powerful lyrics. What with Rock Against Racism gigs and Tom Robinson Band tours, do Stiff Little Fingers find themselves looked on as politicians more than musicians?
“Yeah,” Jake agrees reluctantly. “It’s a thing we always try to play down because we don’t see ourselves as politicians at all. Because right from the start we always said we don’t have any solutions to what’s happening over there.
“As far as I can see, all we’re doing is just singing about what’s happening around us. It’s like what happened at school – I was always, always taught that the best English language essays always come from writing from experience and I always found that it did. So when it came to writing songs, it was the most natural thing on earth for me to write songs about what was happening around me, rather than sit down and write ten minute epics about demons in the sky or whatever.”
All Stiff Little Fingers are doing, Jake insists, is describing the way things are and letting others make up their own minds.
“We’re not blowing anything out of proportion. We haven’t written anything that hasn’t happened to us, so therefore we’re not taking anything out of context. A lot of people say you’re cashing in on it. The easy answer to that is how the hell can we? We lived through it. how can you cash in on your own life?
“I don’t think we’re politicians,” he continues. “It doesn’t really annoy me that people think we are, because if it’s one way to make people pay attention to what’s happening over there, then fair enough.
“I don’t know how to finish it but I know that sitting there saying, ‘well, it’s not gonna change,’ isn’t the way to help anybody.”
“I’m not at all suspicious of interviews. I mean, I enjoy doing them. It’s a way of getting to the people who buy your records.”
Apart from being such unpretentious and genuine people themselves, there can be few bands who really care about their fans as much as Stiff Little Fingers. They even have it written into their new contract that for an hour after the band says so, any Fingers fan that wants to can come backstage and meet the band.
“There’s no point I can see,” Jake affirms, “in doing the Rod Stewart bit – careering around the country, arriving out the car, rushing straight on stage, doing the show, straight off, straight into the car, back into the hotel without seeing anyone . . .
“What is the point of going on tour if not to meet the people who buy your records? I sometimes think that our shows are just like a ritual that the audience has to go through before they can actually talk to us!
“But still,” the amiable Jake grin spreads again, “it’s good fun to play. as soon as it stops being fun, I think we’ll stop.”
Smash Hits, October 1979