Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Stiff Little Fingers (Part 2)

(continued from Part 1)

When the band finally dissolved in early 1983, Henry returned to Belfast and Ali spent time with Funk band Friction Groove before moving into Tour Management.
Jake and Dolphin remained together in the hope of getting a new project of the ground.  Studio time was booked, and rehearsals convened with a number of Bass players, including Bruce Foxton who had just left The Jam.  Unfortunately, this project never got further than some early demo recordings, and Dolphin left to drum for Spear Of Destiny.  Undeterred, Jake put together his own band (Jake Burns & The Big Wheel).  
The Big Wheel included ex Dexys Midnight Runners keyboardist Pete Saunders, ex-Starjets bassist Sean Martin (who Jake knew from Belfast) and drummer Steve Grantley (who will pop up again later), and the sound/feel is best described as late-period SLF mixed with with Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello overtones.
Despite playing regularly, no major record company interest was forthcoming.  They did however release 3 singles.
The first two singles "She Grew Up" (1984) and "On Fortune Street" (1985) were released on Survival Records, and also included a catalogue reference to a resurrected Rigid Digits Records.  The third single, "Breathless" (1987), was released on Jive Records - nearly a major label, but no further interest was gained other than this initial release.
Following this release, and with no breakthrough seeming on the horizon, The Big Wheel called it a day.
The 3 singles (A & B) Sides and various Radio 1 Sessions were collected together on a compilation in 2002.  The development of the band, but the obvious root of the songwriting and performance, gives a potential clue as to what a fifth Stiff Little Fingers album may have sounded.

Later in 1987, Jake met up with Ali, following a Tom Robinson Band Re-Union Show, and they agreed to undertake a series of re-union shows themselves.  The prime motivation of the shows was to earn a bit of cash, and to get home to Belfast in time for Christmas.  The last incarnation of the band re-grouped and organised a couple of low key warm-up shows.  The audience response, and ticket sales, convinced the band to extend the number of shows and to book larger venues. 
Such was the popularity of the reformation, it was decided to do book a full scale tour culminating in two sell out shows at the Brixton Academy, convincing the band to make the reformation permanent.
The December 1987 Reformation shows at the Kilburn Ballroom had been recorded, and were made available by two separate independent  labels (Link Records under the title 'Live and Loud', and Kaz Records under the title 'No Sleep Til Belfast').  Further product was available, on another label (Skunkz Recordings), in the shape of the 12” EP “No Sleep Til Belfast” and including the title track, "Suspect Device", "Alternative Ulster" and "Johnny Was" culled from the Kilburn National recording.

Touring continued in the new year, and The Brixton Academy hosted the (soon to be traditional) St Patricks Night concert.  This show was recorded and would be issued as a Double Album and VHS Video Cassette (remember them?), both titled 'See You Up There'.
A distribution deal was arranged with Virgin Records - so one of the record companies courting the band in 1979 finally got their business.
A single was taken from the album – a cover of the Irish Folk song (drinking song?) “The Wild Rover”, coupled with a live version of “Love Of The Common People”.
The song was originally recorded for the 'Now Then' album in 1982.  It featured as part of their live show on the supporting tour, and they were asked by the lead singer of the Q-Tips if they had any plans to release it as a single, and if not then he may just do his own version.  9 months later, Paul Young sat at number 2 in the charts with his version.  And now, 7 years later, Stiff Little Fingers were trying to re-dress the balance.  As is the way with SLF singles, this version made no impression on the charts.

The March Tour/St Patricks Night was repeated the for following two years along with jaunts across Europe and to Japan.
Around this time, it was decided that if the band were indeed a going concern, and to prevent the “cabaret punk band” tag, new material should be recorded.
Ali McMordie was unable to commit full-time to recording and touring, and left the band in early 1991.  Bruce Foxton was installed as the new Bass player, and within two weeks was on a plane to Japan for his first shows with the band, and recording of a new album commenced upon their return.
'Flags & Emblems' was released on Essential Records (a subsidiary of Castle Communications) in October 1991.
The record suffers from lumpen production, and a couple of the songs are “not quite there”.   There is an air of Pub Rock about openers “It’s a Long Way To Paradise From Here” and “Stand Up And Shout”, but both bear all the hallmarks of SLF of old – ‘be what you are / hold on to your own beliefs’ lyrical theme, and a rousing, anthemic tune and melody.
“Each Dollar A Bullet” ranks alongside the best songs Jake Burns has written, and the closing tracks (“Die and Burn” and “No Surrender”) give this album a very strong ending.
Guest musicians can be found in the guise of Lee Brilleaux providing harmonica on “It’s a Long Way To Paradise From Here” and Rory Gallagher providing Slide Guitar on “Human Shield”.

One single was released from the album, and promptly banned by the BBC on the day of release – “Beirut Moon” was written about the UK Governments lack of intervention concerning the kidnapping of journalist John McCarthy.

Another live album ('Fly The Flags') recorded at Brixton Academy (again) in October 1991 was released the following year on another subsidiary label of Castle (Dojo), and then the band returned to the studio (in between tour commitments) for the next album.
During preparations and recording in 1993, Henry Cluney left the band, leaving Stiff Little Fingers to complete the recording of the next album as a 3 piece for the first time in their career.  The resultant album, 'Get A Life' was released in late 1994.  Probably not their greatest collection, but still contains some fine songs.  The opening track “Get A Life”, second track “Can’t Believe In You” and the (almost) venomous denouncement of racist prejudice, wrapped up in a fine acoustic riff “Harp” are worth the entry fee alone.  Add to that the closing ‘none-more-punk’ thrash of “What If I Want More”, and there is a lot to like here.  There is a maturity to the writing and the subject matter, with a stronger social conscience/personal statement than previously.  It’s just unfortunate that being released on a small independent label, very few people got to hear the songs.

For touring purposes, the band were augmented on tour by additional guitarists Dave Sharp (The Alarm) and Ian McCallum.  They continued their traditional March/St Patricks Night touring, which had been re-located to Glasgow Barrowlands in 1992.  The 1993 show featured a guest appearance from Ricky Warwick (The Almighty) and was recorded and issued as 'Pure Fingers' in 1995.
As far as “Silly Encores” go, this is either inspired, or a new low, containing a cover version of Val Doonican’s “Walk Tall”.

In Summer 1996, Stiff Little Fingers were added to the bill for the Sex Pistols reformation shows.  The apocryphal story is that the Pistols shows in Glasgow were not selling at levels expected.  Stiff Little Fingers were added to the bill, and the shows were sold out within 24 hours.  Now it is true that SLF are held in great esteem in Glasgow, and the Barrowlands St Patricks show are something of an annual pilgrimage, but if the ‘Fingers added to the bill – show sells out’ story is true , then it is definitely one in the eye for John, Steve, Paul and Glen.
Towards the end of 1996, Dolphin Taylor left the band to spend more time with his family, and devote more time to his newly formed production music company, Extreme Music.
Dolphin’s replacement was Steve Grantley, who had played with Jake in The Big Wheel.
Continuing as a 3 piece, ably supported by guest musicians (primarily Ian MacCullum), the band continued to regularly tour, and stop off for the annual St Patricks shindig at Glasgow Barrowlands.
SLF signed with Spit Fire Records, a subsidiary label of Abstract Sounds , and in 1997 'Tinderbox' was released.  Not long after the release, Abstract changed their distributors to Pinnacle, just as Pinnacle were on the verge of going "belly-up", resulting in the distribution/availability of the album being severely affected.  For a few years (until the signing with EMI, which sorted out the licensing, re-issue and (proper) distribution) 'Tinderbox' remained a “lost” album.
Opening in fine style with “You Never Hear The One That Hits You”, “I Could Be Happy Yesterday” and “Tinderbox”, the album continues at a fine pace.  There is an ambivalence throughout the songs, with many containing an undercurrent of raw anger and shoutiness (albeit more in “feeling” than delivery), whilst never detracting from the air of optimism throughout.  All the way through, you can hear the band stretching themselves, none more so perhaps on the closing track, the mini-epic “The Roaring Boys (Parts 1 & 2)” – opening with plaintive piano and voice, splashes of brass push in, before a penny whistle break and then the signature sound of SLF kicks in.  Other highlights include “Hurricane” and the cover of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”.

Ian MacCullum had been providing additional guitar support to the band on tour, and in 1998 became a full-time member, returning the band to a 4 piece unit.  This move coincided with signing to EMI, and preparation for their next album.

After spending the initial years of the reformation knocking around small independent labels with little production/publicity muscle, the signing to EMI was something of a surprise.  As alluded to earlier,  Virgin were one of the labels who wanted the band in 1979, but lost out to Chrysalis. Chrysalis was taken over by EMI in 1990, so presumably the SLF catalogue came with the deal, and the whole catalogue was remasterd and re-issued on on EMI.
So the signing to EMI may have been a result of circumstances (about time the band had a bit of luck!).  Maybe EMI didn't realise, or know what to do with the band and so them a couple of album deal to "buy them out"?

'Hope Street' was released in 1999, and a the behest of the record company was packaged with a new compilation ('… And Best Of All' – which opened with “Suspect Device” and the culled 3 tracks per album from the 1978-82 period).

The optimistic mood prevalent on 'Tinderbox' is reprieved (and then some!) on this album.  The name “Hope Street” offers a clue to the content, which are some of the most optimistic songs the band have recorded.  There is also a touch of 'Nobodys Hero' about the songs being concerned with recognising and fulfilling one’s own potential.  The obligatory cover this time around is Jimmy Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want It”, and sits perfectly with the theme of the album.  As is the way with Stiff Little Fingers albums, politics and injustice also make an appearance in the shape of “Last Train From The Wasteland”- written in response to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland – and “Half A Life Away” – an electro/acoustic exercise about wrongful arrest and imprisonment in segregated America of the 1950s.
Sadly, most reviews across the media and the internet centre on the “Greatest Hits” set, and unfairly dismiss the 'Hope Street' as an afterthought and/or cynical exercise to sell more units (which, to be honest, was probably in EMIs thinking at the outset).  Later re-issued as a single disc set (with a different front cover), 'Hope Street' is a natural progression from 'Tinderbox', and includes songs like “Bulletproof”, “No Faith” and “All I Need” which should/could (but sadly don’t) appear in Stiff Little Fingers live set today.

2003s 'Guitar and Drum' has a tougher sound than its Phase 2 predecessors.  Still rooted in rock but veering back towards their earlier punk/power-pop sound.   Indeed, the sound emanating from this album is probably closer to their live sound (in cleaned-up studio form, but not totally polished – the raw edges remain).
The title track opens the album in exceptionally strong style – to some ears it may read like an old duffer bemoaning the musical and entertainment landscape, and indeed does include the line “but that don’t amuse this cynical old bastard”.  But wait, the message here is that there is more power emanating from a Guitar and Drum than the plastic, indentikit, auto-tuned, blandfest that passes for music.
From there, it is straight into a stomping tribute to Joe Strummer (“Strummerville”), followed by a veiled (or not so) veiled attack oat Record Companies and/or Big Business (“You Can’t Get Away With That”).  The Byrds-ian guitar and harmony of “Dead Man Walking” is a real change of pace and style, yet still has SLF trademark stamped all over it.  As does, the storming “Who Died And Made You Elvis”, featuring a riff that gets stuck in your head for what seems like ever.
In short, this is the best album the band have released in Phase 2, and right up there with material from their first incarnation.  35 years since they began, a song like “Still Burning” encapsulates (a) why there still around, and (b) they may be here for some time yet.

In 2006, Bruce Foxton announced his departure from the band, subsequently joining From The Jam (meaning the foremost Jam Tribute band now contained 2 original members).
Ali McMordie was offered the chance to re-join on Bass, which he did where his Tour Management and other commitments allowed.  10 years later, he is still in the band.

New material had been on the drawing board since Ali’s return, but it was to be 11 years before a new album appeared.  The delay can be traced to several reasons: record company representation, personal upheaval, scrapping many songs at the working stage and starting again.
Free from Record Company distraction, and since the early days always effectively being in control of their own catalogue, Stiff Little Fingers went totally independent again.  The Rigid Digits imprint was resurrected, and crowd-source funding was sought through Pledge Music.  The band gave themselves 2 months to achieve the target funds required for the recording, mixing and release of their next album.  12 hours after going live, the target had been reached (and far surpassed).   
The 12 new songs that make up 'No Going Back' bear all the hallmarks of the bands history.
Echoes of previous outings, replete with hammering riffs, soaring guitar, solid bedrock bass and pounding drums are much in evidence.
The songs retain an anthemic quality, with a call to arms in places, and the ability to provoke thought and discussion by offering a new way, or a personal viewpoint on a particular situation.
Stiff Little Fingers will often be associated with political statement, and opening track "Liars Club" maintains this expectation with a sideswipe at politicians
"My Dark Places" documents Jake Burns personal battle with depression.   It is both poignant and powerful, conveying the message in a clear personal tone, and offering an element of hope at the end of it.
"Full Steam Backwards" is an attack on the unscrupulous nature of the banking industry, and the re-distribution (or lack of) wealth in society.  The bass track underpinning this song confirms a belief that Ali McMordie is in the top 3 of punk/new wave bassists alongside Bruce Foxton and Jean-Jaques Burnel.
And then there is another change of pace.  The pipe introduction for "Guilty As Sin" offers no clue to the subject matter therein.  The difficult and taboo subject of the effects of child abuse and the hypocrisy of the Catholic church are tackled, in an honest and straightforward matter (what else did you expect from SLF?).
Closing on two tracks questioning just how far the world has moved in the last 20 or 30 years.
"Since Yesterday Was Here" has all the anthemic, air punching trademarks you expect, plus a nifty little guitar solo in the middle.  "When We Were Young" is a review of the past, and the realisation that yep, nothing much has changed.  Completing the "full circle" motif, almost eerie echoes of "At The Edge" can be heard in the playout track.
The 5 albums released since the reformation have been steadily improving in composition and clarity, and this album represents a welcome addition to the cannon.  The album has a wonderfully clear and bright sound, with none of the band getting lost within the mix, and there is no doubt about the bands focus and pride.

March 2016 will mark the 25th consecutive St Patricks bash at Glasgow Barrowlands.  To mark this event, the show will be recorded for both CD and DVD, and these packages (and a host of others) are available through the latest Pledge Music campaign.

And there are already rumblings about another studio album sometime in 2017 ...

SLF (Part 1) lasted 4 years, SLF (Part 2) is approaching it's 30th birthday.  Not bad for a bunch of shouty Belfast kids singing about bombs and boredom.

Can't Believe In You

Guitar & Drum

When We We're Young

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