THE UNDERTONES TALK TO SMASH HITS

The Undertones

If this is Tuesday, it must be Blackburn

Dressing rooms look the same everywhere. Basement or attic, broom cupboard or spacious suite, they may try but they never manage to look clean. The Wolverhampton Civic Hall on a Monday night is no exception.

Fluorescent tubes throw a dingy light over the room and its contents – a table with half eaten sandwiches and flat beer, guitars on top of their cases, this morning’s papers, some dogeared paperbacks and Feargal Sharkey, Mickey Bradley, Billy Doherty, Damian O’Neill and his brother John, otherwise known as The Undertones, one of the great white hopes of rock and roll.

Only this morning the band were in Derry, savouring the last hours of a few days rest. The Undertones are not fond of touring.

The steady boom from the hall below indicates that The Killermeters are still on stage. As the noise finally subsides, Feargal changes into his stage clothes. He puts his cigarette down, peels off his bright red polo neck to reveal a Clash T-shirt washed out of shape, and sits down again. Ready.

Over in the corner Damian and John plug their guitars into a small practice amp and tune up, ending ears close to the speaker. Billy taps his sticks on the back of a chair while Mickey picks out the bass line of Gary Glitter’s ‘Rock And Roll’, one of tonight’s planned encores.

Feargal recalls a night in New York the other week when they wound up doing a whole hour of oldies – Slade songs, T. Rex song, Stones songs.

Andy, their manager, is concerned that they’re going on stage too early. “You’ll be finished by half past nine,” he points out. John looks up from his guitar and announces that he wants to watch ‘Film ’79’ on TV later on. Feargal pours himself a large glass of orange juice, heads for the door, shouts “Tally-ho!” and exits. The rest follow.

On their way down the stairs Mickey fools around with the echo, yodelling “rock and ro-oll, rock and roll, rock and ro-oll . . . ” until they arrive in the darkness backstage. The audience out in the black murmur like an animal.

the new numbers are simple and direct

The band stride on stage without any announcement and half the hall seems less cold. The Undertones’ “act” is so simple it’s almost revolutionary. Four people play, one person sings and runs about. It’s as easy as that. It’s very rare.

As a journalist, I suppose I should be asking John O’Neill how he writes songs like ‘Teenage Kicks’ and ‘You’ve Got My Number’. but what’s the point? If he tried to explain it to himself he’d probably stop doing it. He just does it naturally.

The new numbers like ‘The Way Girls Talk’ are as simple and direct as ever but much better, more substantial and memorable. Feargal approaches each one as if it were to be his last. The Clash T-shirt has been thrown aside by the second number.

At one point about a dozen fools try to get on stage with the band. Feargal spends a good deal of time persuading them back off again while Mickey settles for advancing towards them with his bass. Damian is concentrating too hard to take much notice while John just retreats to the drum kit.

Then there’s the stupid spitting. Feargal is covered in the stuff. You wonder if the people who do that sort of thing would like to be spat at in the course of earning their living. Feargal is just resigned to it. Experience has taught him that asking people to stop only makes it worse. It’s very sad.

The show over and the spit wiped off, Feargal signs a few autographs, then slings his possessions into the army kit bag and heads outside for the van to go back to the hotel. As any band will tell you, it’s not the playing that wears you down on tour. It’s the endless hanging around, the hours spent in the back of cold vans, the sound checks in empty halls, the hotels where you can’t get a sandwich after midnight, the constant feeling of being temporary.

The band finish work at eleven at night just when most towns are closing down. Mickey, John and Billy watch TV for a while and then hit the sack. Damian and Feargal sit in the hotel bar with the road crew, indulging in the usual chronic schoolboy humour and friendly backbiting that you find among any band on tour.

Tuesday morning. The band gather for breakfast and argue about who’s stealing whose toast.

The whole rock and roll week revolves around Tuesday morning, the day the new chart positions are revealed. A high new entry and everyone feels great; a low entry or, worse, none at all., and the trip to the next gig seems miles further. This week should see ‘You’ve Got My Number’ making its first impression and so everybody’s tense.

“Top Of The Pops” beckons

Round about 10:15am various band members drift into manager Andy’s room as he makes calls to London trying to drum up some news. Various guesses and predictions are thrown around. If it hits Top Forty they should be in with a chance of a Top Of The Pops slot.

The phone rings. It’s not good news. Number sixty-four. Half-hearted curses are muttered. Damian takes it more to heart than anybody. He drops his head and mutters about it being “finished”. He’s just talking about that one single although you could be excused for thinking he’s ready to chuck it in and get a steady job.

They write off the possibility of Top Of The Pops and check out the other new entries. The Damned have gone at number forty-three. The rest of the band are not pleased; Is their single in the shops? Is it on the radio? What can be done? Meanwhile Damian just sits there and stares. He’s also got toothache.

Ten minutes later the phone rings again. Top Of The Pops do want them on the show after all. Can they make it? Damian lights up like someone just put a new battery in him and the rest allow themselves little whoops.

This now means that they’ll have to be down in London for the following day and night. Problems. It’s Blackburn tonight and Bradford tomorrow; ticket sales for the latter have been some of the best on the tour.

They just have to postpone Bradford or else risk a flop record. Top Of The Pops is the most important exposure any record can get.

Now the phones really start buzzing. Is there any way they can fit both gig and TV show in? Maybe they could fly back? Hire a plane? Too expensive. The postponement is going to cost enough money as it is.

Can the date be fitted in later on the tour? The promoter is on the phone to the agent. They manage to provisionally slot it in for the end of the tour.

Now then – can they book a studio to re-record the backing track for the show? Can Billy get the drumkit he wants? Can they drive down after tonight’s gig? They need a hotel in London. Cancel the hotel for tonight.

Mickey, weary of all this madness going on around him, lies face down on his bed, head covered by a pillow, and says, “Wake me up when it’s number one.” Billy amuses himself by throwing things at Mickey.

Wednesday sees the band at Television Centre in West London. They’ve driven through the night from Blackburn, checked into their hotel, raced to the recording studios to re-cut the track and then arrived at the BBC.

There they spend hours being shunted around while technicians check lights and angles and work out whether Lena Martell is going to stand over here or there and will The Undertones be able to change places with Sad Cafe while they run the Abba film.

If anything is guaranteed to bring a rock and roll band down to size, to convince them that they’re just another bunch of entertainers trying to make a buck, it’s the way Top Of The Pops treats them.

Upstairs in the bar before the actual taping of the show, Mickey lies down again, on a couch this time.

They all agree that TV is just about the most boring work anybody can do. Ninety nine per cent of the time is passed just hanging around, shifting your weight from foot to foot as people fuss around you. For the sake of a three minute spot they have to put in around ten hours waiting.

Down in the studio, all the groups gather near the door as the studio audience, some 50 teenagers in their Sunday best, are put through their paces by the floor manager and Dave Lee Travis. They’re told to smile and dance and clap when they’re told and to be careful not to get run over by the cameras.

The fierce competitive element that runs through the music business is spotlighted by the way groups all stand around and carefully ignore each other as if they were unaware of who the other band were.

The Undertones mooch around while Suzi Quatro, New Musik and Sad Cafe go through their paces. When it’s their turn, they mount one of the tiny stages and try to make their miming look convincing.

Suddenly everything stops. Technical hitches. Everything must go again, “from the top” as they say.

“Is this what I pay my TV licence for?” complains Feargal.

During the half hour break that follows, a few of the more confident girls from the studio audience roam around snapping up autographs. One of them approaches Feargal, obviously with no clear idea of who he is. She holds out her book and he signs.

“Are you the singer?” she enquires, “No,” he says deadpan, “I’m the drummer. There’s the singer.” He indicates the manager. she giggles and retreats

The manager, who’s been left to hold the guitars, gazes round the studio and remarks that all the other acts seem to be dressed exactly the same. They’re all sporting fashionable sports jackets and narrow ties.

Joe Strummer advice

His charges, however, mooch around in their usual shapeless sweaters and rolled up Levi’s as if they were on their way to a kickabout in the park. Feargal’s hacking jacket and bright red polo neck are the only concessions made to “being on the telly”

Touring America recently with The Clash, they received some advice from Joe Strummer: “Get an image together. Get some clothes some clothes, y’know.”

Feargal laughs. But even he would have to admit that he’s in the business of being a pop star.

The Undertones have everything else they might need to see them through The Eighties; talent, imagination, enormous spirit. But they’re going to need to grow up just a little, if only in order to protect themselves.

John had spent some of the morning discussing publishing deals with his manager. You could tell that he found it all ridiculously complicated and confusing. He just wanted everybody to get what money was coming in. He didn’t really want any more than anybody else even though he does write the majority of the songs.

But there’s been many a band who’ve been dazzled by small success during the early part of their career only to wake up some years later and find that somebody else had got the money that should have been theirs.

You’ve got to deal with percentages, taxes, record companies, contracts and people, and you’ve got to do it at the same time as you’re trying to stop people spitting at you on a Tuesday night in some Civic Hall. And you’ve also got to be good.

Then you can have the money, wealth and fame. I can’t think of five guys who deserve it more than The Undertones. I also can’t think of five guys who could use it less.

As the band left for Derby, I remembered what Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks had said about life on the road. “The worst thing about touring,” he decided, “is you can never make yourself a cup of tea.”

Smash Hits, November 1979

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