By J.P. O’Malley
It’s a Saturday afternoon at Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea Football Club. In just a few hours a performance will take place, but not of the sporting kind. Instead, an army of hard-core sentimental punks will lose themselves in the dark surroundings of an underground bar — outside the stadium — singing along to anthems about lust and teenage dreaming. When I meet Michael Bradley — the bass player, and one of the founding members of The Undertones — backstage, he is in jovial spirits having completed a sound check.
In 1999 when The Undertones reformed, after a 16-year hiatus — with Paul McLoone replacing Feargal Sharkey on vocals — few would have predicted the second line-up would have outlasted the original. Bradley maintains this second coming, so to speak, is built on pragmatism, and friendship, rather than the ruthless ambition that accompanied the early years. “The band is far less concentrated than it was from 1975 to 1983,” he says. “When we started out, we were learning how to write songs, play live, and then eventually we started making records. Back then we made four LPs in the space of four years. Since 1999 we have made just two LPs.”
The Undertones story began with typical rock ’n’ roll mythology. Five young working-class teenagers formed a group. It began not with instruments, or a thorough plan, but with a love for The New York Dolls and The Stooges. This musical apprenticeship took place at 22 Beechwood Avenue in the front room of the O’Neill household, where the vast collection of records inspired the young guitarist, John O’Neill, to attempt a go at songwriting himself.
As punk fever took on a life of its own in London in the summer of 1976, Derry was experiencing an anger of a different kind as the violent conflict of The Troubles worsened. This meant that very few British bands would play in Northern Ireland at that time, says Bradley. “Bands like The Sex Pistols, Dr Feelgood, or Eddie & the Hot Rods would never come to Derry. But that wasn’t a bad thing, because you were allowed to develop as a band without anyone noticing you. I have a theory that because we didn’t see live bands, we expected them to be brilliant. So we had high expectations, which meant we pushed ourselves a lot.”
In 1977 The Undertones began playing regularly at the Casbah, a venue that hosted gigs at the time. The band had previously recorded some rough demos, which they sent to record companies in England. The result was a few polite rejection slips that arrived back in the post. What they needed was a stroke of luck. That seminal moment came in June 1978 when they were introduced to Terry Hooley – the owner of the record shop, and label, Good Vibrations, based in Belfast. “There was a friend of ours, Bernie McAnaney, who knew Terry,” Bradley says. “The night before we recorded The Teenage Kicks EP, we played a battle of the Belfast punk bands. The next day we went down to Wizard studios in the centre of Belfast and made the record. About a week later, Terry got us to go down to the post office to send the EP to record companies and to the BBC. I think it all happened really when John Peel played Teenage Kicks on BBC Radio 1.”
To say the late John Peel was an enthusiastic fan of the band’s work would be an understatement. In St Andrews Church in Suffolk, a headstone now commemorates his final resting place with the simple words, ‘Teenage dreams so hard to beat’. Peel travelled to Derry in 2001, three years before he died, for the filming of the documentary Teenage Kicks, where he interviewed the band. Despite their friendly relationship, Peel’s humble personality meant he kept a healthy distance at all times, from the bands he championed, says Bradley. “I always got the impression that he felt a bit uncomfortable around bands. He made careers, but he was realistic to know that he didn’t actually make the record. He was also very careful not to get involved in the internal politics of a band. When he was talking about The Undertones, in later years, he would say, nice bunch of fellas, as indeed is Feargal Sharkey.” Since The Undertones’ original line-up split in 1983, Bradley says the four remaining members have had little contact with Sharkey, who moved to London, where he began a career as a solo artist, eventually becoming a lobbyist for UK Music.
Did this decline in the relationship happen towards the end of the group’s demise? Bradley seems to think the conflict was innate from the very beginning. “Aye, it was always kind of the four of us, and then Feargal,” Bradley says. “The difference was Feargal wanted success, and while the rest of us would have liked success, we weren’t prepared to change to get it. Feargal saw that The Undertones weren’t going to be successful, and he basically wanted out.”
The Undertones ended the first phase of their career just as they started it — in true punk style; never prepared to compromise or to be perceived in a fashion that would make their music seem unauthentic. “When we made Teenage Kicks, punk rock wasn’t about careers, playing big venues, or having hit records. The idea of getting a record company to change your record so that you could sell more, well that was just not us,” says Bradley. Despite an occasional reality check — that comes with the process of playing in a rock band in middle age — Bradley sees no reason why The Undertones would turn off the amplifiers any time soon.
“I have no idea when we will stop,” he says. “Recently I have started to think, ‘Can we still do this?’ You are definitely more self aware at 53, but you are also more confident. When you are 18, you are thinking, ‘Is this any good?’”
The Undertones play Norwich Arts Centre on October 10. Box Office 01603 660352 or online via www.norwichartscentre.co.uk