Sunday 24 September 2017

The Undertones: still kicking

This week is the 35th anniversary of 'Teenage Kicks' and it's still as fresh as ever

Derry darlings: a very youthful looking Undertones line-up
Derry darlings: a very youthful looking Undertones line-up
Ed Power

Ed Power

The Undertones' 'Teenage Kicks' is widely agreed to be one of the greatest rock songs ever. Celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, the deceptively simple ode to young love has been covered by everyone from Green Day to One Direction via Jedward and U2.

It was the favourite tune of iconic British DJ John Peel (his gravestone bears the lyric 'Teenage Dreams, So Hard To Beat'). When graffiti quoting the opening line of the song was removed from a Belfast flyover recently, there was an outcry.

The genius of 'Teenage Kicks' lies in its simplicity says Paul McLoone, the Today FM DJ who took over as Undertones frontman when the group got back together in 1999 (replacing original vocalist Feargal Sharkey).

"It's got this boy meets girl lyric," he says, adding that the urban myth that the tune is about a self-administered sex act is untrue.

"The structure is classic pop. It goes back to Phil Spector. It was well performed and beautifully recorded. You can't analyse it – it just sounds great. For something put together in a small studio in Belfast it is astonishing."

Youthful anthems are often quick to lose their lustre. 'Teenage Kicks', though, speaks to listeners regardless of age. Which is why The Undertones, now in their mid 50s, will be able to stand in front of an audience of equally careworn fans in Dublin tomorrow night and perform the track with the same passion as on the day they recorded it.

"Funnily, it was not our favourite song," chuckles Undertones guitarist Damian O'Neill.

"We worried it was too catchy. This was the middle of punk and we were very anti commercial. We were making our debut EP and we seriously thought about leaving it off. Nobody in the band had any inkling it was going to be a monster."

"John Peel played the record – there was this moment of 'my God, something is happening here'," he continues. "We became accidental pop stars."

In fact, immediately after 'Teenage Kicks', The Undertones had considered breaking up. They'd recorded an EP, which, to their knowledge, was more than any band from their native Derry had ever done.

It was absurd to think they could actually go further and earn a living from music. They were happy to have simply seen the inside of a real recording studio.

"'Teenage Kicks' was our testament," says O'Neill. "It showed we existed. We felt we could bow out. And then the phone started ringing and it didn't stop."

Fastest off the mark was Seymour Stein, the legendary boss of Sire Records. He dispatched one of his top men to the city with orders to sign The Undertones, no matter what.

'It was funny," recalls O'Neill. "He came over to meet us – I think it was at Feargal's house. We were there with a group of our friends. He didn't know who was in The Undertones and who wasn't. We truly were a bunch of kids."

"We always do it three quarters of the way through the set," says McLoone.

"It gives the crowd a great gee-up. It is never a drag to play. Even at festivals, where people may not know our songs ... as soon as we do 'Teenage Kicks', everyone is listening.

"No matter how old and decrepit you grow, you never lose the teenager within. 'Teenage Kicks' is a celebration of what it's like to be young. If anything, as you age maybe you appreciate even more."

The Undertones went on to record five studio albums (three prior to their break up in 1983, two since 1999). Nothing they released came close to the impact of 'Teenage Kicks'.

"It used to annoy me," says O'Neill.

"Now it doesn't. If you step back and think about it – we did okay, you know? We have written better songs. But we are going to be remembered for something and that's 'Teenage Kicks'. It's fine with me."

However, anyone holding out for a reunion of the original line-up will have a long wait. Last week singer Feargal Sharkey confirmed he was out of the rock game for good.

"The last time I saw Feargal was at John Peel's funeral [in 2004]. We shook hands," says O'Neill.

"I don't think we'll ever see each other again. It's sad because we had some great times. You think, how did it ever end like that?"

The Undertones celebrate the 35th anniversary of 'Teenage Kicks' with a special concert at The Village, Dublin, tomorrow

Irish Independent

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