by John O'Neill

1977 was a great year for rock’n’roll in Britain and America, with bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Ramones shaking up the Music Industry and encouraging thousands of bands to come out of their bed rooms and perform in clubs and bars throughout the UK and beyond. However Derry City centre, like the majority of towns and cities throughout the North of Ireland, by night, was a virtual ghost town, sealed off by army check points and barricades. As a consequence the most popular bars tended to be either outside the City Centre or just on the edge of it. For teenagers, the nearest thing to night time entertainment was the possibility of a riot whenever the army landrovers ventured into mainly Nationalist areas like the Bogside or Creggan.

The background to the growth of the punk movement in England is seen in parallel with the sharp rise in unemployment and the growing inner city racial tensions between black youth and the police in the early to mid seventies, however, in Derry, unemployment was almost a way of life, and, combined with a constant diet of bigotry, sectarianism and police/army oppression, what was happening in England was seen as small fare compared with what was happening here on a daily basis. Although being the second largest City in the North of Ireland, Derry was luckier than Belfast in that being at least 85% Nationalist it lacked the divisive sectarian edge that Belfast has been infamous for. Subsequently, if daily life on the surface was abnormal, at least there was a natural resolve to try and live as normal a life as humanly possible despite what was happening on the streets and within political circles. It was within this context that new Derry bands such as the Undertones, the Moondogs, Dick Tracy and the Green Disaster and Idle Threats came into being.

Before the explosion of punk, the Irish music scene mainly consisted of either showbands or heavy rock bands making a living out covering the latest hits of the day. Musical proficiency was seen as a priority rather than imagination and originality. Bands were judged on how close they could mimic other established bands rather than how they could bring their own individuality to them. Ironic for a music that was supposed to be about expression and style. Most cities would have had at least one club/pub that would house any local rock bands to cater for the predictable student tastes of improvised blues and rock music, the Casbah was such a place in Derry. The Casbah was seen as bit of a ‘dive’ which romantically enhanced its reputation as being the place to go as an alternative to hearing the predictable top 20 hit showbands that other pubs, with a more respectable reputation, offered. For a young band like the Undertones, the Casbah was not only the obvious place to get gigs but also the only place.

The Undertones had started out covering fairly basic R ‘n’ B stuff, early Rolling Stones and Dr. Feelgood songs etc as well as more contemporary songs by T.Rex and Slade, but once the Punk explosion began to filter through to Derry,the punk attitude of the emphasis on short and fast songs and spontaneity was exactly the sort of catalyst the band had needed to have the courage get out of their practice room and start performing to an audience. From regular appearances in the Casbah, they were then able to start attracting a small following of like minded people and it also gave them the opportunity of writing their own songs and basically learn to become reasonably proficient as well as having a great time in the process.

In 1978 the Good Vibrations record shop in Belfast, run by Terri Hooley, was the Saturday afternoon meeting place for Belfast punks and became the nerve centre for their local scene. Sensing something was in the air, he formed his Good Vibrations record label after seeing local bands Rudi and the Outcasts perform live in the Pound Bar. He then proceeded to release records every couple of months. It was also around this time that Belfast band, Stiff Little Fingers were signed to Englands most influential Independent record label Rough Trade and released their ‘Suspect Device’ single to much critical acclaim.

Inevitably after a certain time the idea of releasing a record and having some sort of tangible evidence that Derry had at least one punk band became a priority for the Undertones and luckily, through a friend, they were able to go to Belfast and record the Teenage Kicks EP for the Good Vibrations label.

When the record was released in September 1978, at least a couple of other bands with a similar attitude had started writing their own songs and playing live, and a small scene was slowly growing based mainly around the Casbah, however, no one was really prepared for the reaction that Teenage Kicks would receive once released.

The most important DJ on Radio One who had been championing the punk movement, was John Peel and he instantly began playing Teenage Kicks on his show every night. After that, the band were able to sign up to a major label and for a few years had reasonable success in the UK and fulfil their ambitions of making a living out of music, releasing four L.P.s and having four top twenty hits.

The most important response to the success of the Undertones was the gradual awareness on other local musicians that perhaps Derry was not so isolated after all. That there was a possibility of a local band writing their own songs who could get signed to a record label and find success, however fleeting. The Moondogs also signed to the same label as the Undertones and although they only released four singles, they did get to present their own programme on National T.V. for a series and, it once again showed that Derry was not necessarily so geographically disadvantaged as once thought.

Punk was both a positive and a creative force throughout Ireland. As well as those who picked up musical instruments for the first time and joined bands, there were others who put pen to paper and created their own magazines (fanzines). Others designed record sleeves, organised gigs, promoted or managed bands and set up Musicians Collectives. In Belfast in particular, it brought numbers of people from different backgrounds together. Young people from Catholic and Protestant areas mixed freely in venues such as the Pound or the Harp without fear and intimidation. Although the whole punk phenomenon only lasted a few years, its legacy has continued to reverberate up to the present day with the example of new young bands writing and performing their own songs without a second thought and although it may still be difficult to attract record company A&R men, the dream now doesn’t seem so far fetched.

John O'Neill is the Bass Player and principal song-writer for the Undertones. He currently works at the Nerve Centre in Derry producing and developing new music in Northern Ireland.

Published by: The Nerve Centre
Year written: 2000
Copyright owned by: John O'Neill

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