SALON: Teenage Kicks

Teenage Kicks


By GAVIN McNETT

The Undertones went too far, too soon. When they began, they were a bunch of teenage Ramones-heads, and the only punk band in Ireland. When they finished, they were a complex adult soft-pop ensemble playing to bunches of teenage Irish Ramones-heads -- none of whom cared beans about anything but their first album.

Their first big break came from BBC Radio guru John Peel, who played their 1978 indie single "Teenage Kicks" until the grooves wore flat. From the first, they were heralded as pop saviours. They were juvenile, stupid and, above all, lighthearted in a year of gnarly, second-generation punk bands and incipient doom-rockers. Their songs were all priceless throwaways with boundless charm and no relevance at all. They embodied the punk aesthetic without being difficult or confrontational, and everybody who still had hope for the punk ideal, but who'd had their fill of songs about dole queues and youth rebellions, fell for them at once.

But the Undertones didn't stay stupid for long. The churning Hiberno punk of their first album, "The Undertones" (1979), quickly gave way to the bouncy guitar-pop of 1980's "Hypnotised," and while their audience decided to indulge them in it, ripples of discontent were already beginning to echo back and forth among the critics who'd championed them.

Still, "Hypnotised" is a rare album. The Undertones were too innocent, too credulous to be cool, and songs that in other, cooler hands would've been kitschy and unpalatable are, in theirs, delightful. "Hypnotised" is cheerful like sappy records want to be and touching like weepy ones aren't. It's shot through with throwaway '60s pop, jacked up with tough, choppy guitar and loaded with perfect hit singles. "Wednesday Week" and "My Perfect Cousin" were the ones that hit biggest, which wasn't too bloody big at all. The first is a paisley underground heart-grabber with singer Feargal Sharkey's trademark microtremulated vocals floating languidly over strumming acoustic guitars. The second is crisp, four-beat punk rock. Each sticks in the mind forever. There are as many treasures on "Hypnotised" as songs, and none are alike.

Things started to get dicey for the poor Undertones with "Positive Touch" (1981). The quick, chiming "It's Going To Happen!" saw rotation on the fledgling MTV, but the rest of the album did them in. It wore out their fans' indulgence by being less than accessible, less than immediate. There were long, slow ballads, and barking trumpets, and greasy slide-guitar solos and disco beats. There was xylophone and tack piano. There were torch song vocals. It was weird. And when "The Sin Of Pride" followed, things just got worse. "The Love Parade" was prime radio fodder, but the rest of it... Gospel choirs? Harpsichord? Marimbas? They were out of their minds.

But, like "Positive Touch," it was brilliant. The Undertones had turned from perpetual adolescents into mature, world-class artists, and their audience couldn't keep up with them. When they gigged to support "The Sin Of Pride," the crowds still shouted for "Teenage Kicks" and "Mars Bars," and hissed the new material. And the boys decided to pack it in. Seldom has so much been offered and so little returned.

The entire Undertones catalog was quietly reissued by Rykodisc beginning at some point in 1994, with each of the four albums in the series featuring four to six bonus tracks culled from single B-sides and EPs. When Ryko was finished, there were no Undertones songs left unaccounted for. For the noncommittal, Ryko's 25-song best-of sampler does an excellent job of hitting most of the highlights, and eclipses even the Undertones' own sampler, "Chair o' Bowlies," which found only limited release on their own Ardeck Records.


Are the Undertones underrated? Tell us what you think of the "Irish Ramones-heads" in Table Talk.

[Sound file]
Download a clip (1MB) of "Teenage Kicks" from "The Undertones"



To front page of Salon

Back to Never Mind the Sex Pistols...