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

Tuesday 19 January 2016

Stiff Little Fingers (Part 1)

Everyone has that ONE band that they own damn near everything ever released, will defend their greatness to the end and have a very deep, almost autistic, knowledge of their history.

For me that band is Erasure Stiff Little Fingers

To qualify my relationship with the band - I was blissfully unaware of their existence in their original lifetime (1977 to 1982), and only became aware of them in 1987 (or 88?) when I heard a track on a Punk compilation.  Something obviously clicked, because within 3 weeks or so I had the Best Of compilation and their first three albums.  And the amassing of SLF related music has not abated since then.

At first I thought that a simple write-up about the band's career and releases would be over in a flash, but as I started it I got a bit carried away.
So what you, the (potentially bored) reader now have is my aimless whitterings split into 2 parts.
I did think about editing it down, but then decided to Go For It.
So, are you sitting comfortably?  No, well never mind ...

Initially formed as a Rock covers/show band under the name Highway Star, and comprising Jake Burns (Guitar/Vocals), Henry Cluney (Guitar), Gordon Blair (Bass) and Brian Faloon (Drums).
This band played a mixture of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Rory Gallagher songs.  At one point, when they were offered a residency (or, at least a series of Saturday night gigs at a single venue), the offer was dependent on the band NOT containing Henry Cluney.  Henry left the band for a short while, and it was during this period that the first rumblings of punk came to his attention, initially via Eddie and The Hotrods EP “Live At The Marquee”.
It was Henry’s discovery of the Damned debut album which precipitated a change in style and name.  Initially named The Fast, this was soon changed when Jake discovered there was a band in the US with that name, so another moniker was required (like there would be a conflict/mis-understanding between a US Rock Band and a small Bar Band from Belfast?).  The new name was taken from a Vibrators album track (the apocryphal story of the B-Side of the “London Girls” single does not hold up as the band members state that none of them ever owned the single.  If the album story is the true one, the band could’ve ended up being called Yeah Yeah Yeah,  Keep It Clean or Whips & Furs).
The bands sound, and shows, took on an altogether tougher stance, including tracks from the New York Dolls, Dr Feelgood, Eddie & The Hot Rods, The Damned and The Ramones.
Jake Burns remained unconvinced by this new direction, and it wasn’t until he heard the debut album by The Clash that he became totally convinced. 
Gordon Blair (later of Rudi, The Outcasts and Ruefrex) was replaced around this time by Ali McMordie.
Regular gigs on the Belfast circuit at venues including The Trident, The Pound and The Harp Bar led to local journalists Gordon Ogilvie and Colin McLelland offering support and management (in the case of Ogilvie this support went one stage further becoming lyricist/co-writer with Jake Burns).
In early 1978, the band entered a Belfast Radio Studio and recorded “Suspect Device” and “Wasted Life”.  These tracks were released on their own independent label (Rigid Digit Records).  The first pressing was limited to 500 and was housed in a hand-folded Picture Sleeve.  There is a good chance that some of these sleeves may have that evenings Fish & Chip Shop order scrawled on the inside, or perhaps the legend “Ali is a wan*er”.  My own copy of the single (which doesn't have the picture sleeve, but all the attributes of the label are correct, so I'm assuming it is one of the 500) has the name ‘Jake’ written on the label, although I think this is nothing more than a coincidence.

A copy was sent to John Peel, who played it several nights in succession.  This patronage and exposure resulted in a second pressing with a machine cut picture sleeve, and various coloured labels (Red, Yellow, White and (slightly) off-White being the generally accepted norm – although it has been suggested there may even be Green or Blue variants somewhere).
Copies of the signle were shipped from Belfast, via the Stranraer Ferry and then down to Rough Trade in London, where they sold out almost as quick as they arrived.
The band were invited to London to record a demo session for Island Records.  The session was relatively successful, and Island were on the verge of offering the band a contract.  However, at the eleventh hour, just as the band had quit their jobs and were preparing to leave Belfast, Island pulled the plug (this event inspired the song “Rough Trade” which would be included on their debut album).  And it was to be Rough Trade Records who would issue the bands next single.
“Alternative Ulster” was originally intended to be given away as a free flexi-disc with the local Fanzine of the same name.  the song was one of four demoed for Island Records.  The Master Tapes were “acquired” from Island Records as they were in the process of moving offices.
Armed with the Master Tape, the band along with Geoff Travis and Engineer/Producer Doug Bennett remixed the Island version, along with the B-Side (“78 RPM”) and issued the single on Rough Trade.

Rough Trade were the prime distributor of the debut single on the mainland UK, and as a result of continued demand, a Rough Trade version of “Suspect Device” was also issued.

The band played their first shows outside of Northern Ireland or London courtesy of an invitation from Tom Robinson for the Power In The Darkness Tour. A support slot was secured on the Tom Robinson Tour (in support of Power In The Darkness).
The prospect of an album was suggested by the band, to which Rough Trade agreed.  The deal was on a 50/50 basis, meaning after initial studio and recording costs, the band and the label would split any profits.
Studio time was booked, and the bands live set was quickly committed to tape.  Upon release, 'Inflammable Material' became the first independent release to enter the Album Chart, reaching a high of Number 14 and selling in excess of 100,000 copies.
The album is an indispensable part of Punk history, containing a mixture of hard driving punk (“Suspect Device”, “Wasted Life”, “Alternative Ulster”, “White Noise”), teenage frustration (“Breakout”, “No More Of That”, “Here We Are Nowhere”, “Law and Order”), tinges of reggae (a storming 8 minute cover version of “Johnny Was”) and even a Beach Boys/Doo Wop pastiche (the middle section of “Barbed Wire Love”).
The last track however “Closed Groove” is completely disposable.  The only blemish on an otherwise perfect debut album.
Following the Tour, and the recording & release of the debut album, drummer Brain Faloon left the band and returned home to Belfast.  New drummer Jim Reilly was recruited through an advert in Melody Maker, and he arrived to play on the bands next single and participate in the Rock Against Racism shows in late 1979.
The relationship with Rough Trade continued for one more single, “Gotta Getaway”, whilst the band were being courted by just about every major label in the UK.

Eventually signing to Chrysalis, the deal was in effect a licensing agreement whereby the band retained artistic control, and Chrysalis footed the bills (which would obviously be re-paid once the £££ started rolling in) and provided the marketing muscle.
The first single presented was “Straw Dogs”, and the backing of Chrysalis ensured this single entered the Top 50.  Not perhaps a true breakthrough moment, but an impressive performance nonetheless when dealing with this overtly sneering tune, and a lyrical theme based on violence and racism apparent in mercenary armies  (what a tune, though!)

The Top 20 breakthrough (and to date, highest placing) came with the next single.  “At The Edge” was the lead single from the bands second album 'Nobodys Heroes' released in March 1980.
Perhaps the most “pop based” single so far, the lyric repeating virtually verbatim Jake’s Dad.  This single peaked at Number 15 and saw the band on Top Of The Pops, although they accused by the producers of not taking it seriously.  I think it is fair to say, by their own admission, that they were ‘well oiled’.  Jake (half-blind without glasses) staring directly down the camera, Jim Reilly attempting to eat the plastic drum covers, and a healthy amount of “sodding about” probably didn’t help matters either.

Second album 'Nobodys Heroes' was released in March 1980.  Opening with final Rough Trade single “Gotta Getaway”, the album has a cleaner sound than the debut.  The songs mark a change in writing style and subject matter, moving from teenage angst and growing up in Belfast, to songs of political posturing (“Fly The Flags”), injustice (“Tin Soldiers”), self belief (“Nobodys Hero”) and inequality/prejudice (a cover of The Specials “Doesn’t Make It All Right”).  Dub Reggae also makes it on to the album in the shape of “Bloody Dub”, a re-recording/studio treatment of “Bloody Sunday” which originally appeared as the B-Side of “Gotta Getaway”.
No less valid than the debut album, although the change in style to a more punk-pop/power-pop sound alienated some of the early fans.  The album achieved a Top 10 placing, hitting number 8.
The title track was coupled with “Tin Soldiers” for the next single release as a double A-Side.  Despite the producers promise that SLF would not be invited back on Top Of The Pops, they were back on the box performing “Nobodys Hero”.  It was a more restrained performance, even if Ali can be spied walking up the stairs behind Peter Powell before the playback starts, arriving on stage only seconds before the camera turns to him.

A first visit to the US was pending for the autumn of 1980, and as Rough Trades distribution was minimal (if non-existent in the US) Chrysalis suggested a Live Album to introduce the band to American punters.  The album was intended only for the US Market, but the band had concerns that UK fans would be paying vastly inflated prices for Import versions.  A deal was struck that the album would also be issued in the UK, but made available at a lower price.

Prior to another UK tour in the summer of 1980 (when were the band not on Tour in 1980?), a non-album single – “Back To Front” – was issued.  Housed in possibly the only sop to marketing SLF ever undertook, the songs lyrics were printed on the front cover, and the front cover was printed on the back cover (Genius! Back to Front – geddit?).  To complete the overtly annoying principle, the band name and song title text should also have been reversed, and the A Side should play the B Side (and vice versa).
A song emanating from the revival of Skinhead violence, particularly at seaside towns, had a whiff of The Who about the sound, but was ostensibly a tougher version of the sound employed on the previous album.
Backed by a reggae cover version, it showed (or at least attempted to) that there was more to the band than a bunch of Northern Ireland Punks singing about ‘the Troubles’, who got lucky, landed a major record deal and became soft (at least in the eyes of many second-wave spiky haired, punk rockers).

The July Tour provided the raw material for the planned Live Album.  The show recorded at Aylesbury Friars was selected as the best performance, and the performance of “Johnny Was” from The Rainbow, London was added to the mix.
'Hanx!' is a true reflection of an SLF show – flowing with energy, commitment, passion, and audience communication.  The only thing missing to give a 100% experience are the ‘Silly Encores’ which had been a mainstay of the shows since the early days.  In this instance, the two ‘Silly Encores’ were “Running Bear” segueing into “White Christmas”.  These particular tracks had previously been released on the B-Side of “At The Edge” (albeit from an earlier Tour).  This became their second Top 10 album, achieving number 9.
Early 1981 saw the band in the Studio recorded their next album.  The first single to emerge was “Just Fade Away”, a glorious slab of power-pop with an incessant chiming guitar riff, a gravel voice delivery, and a powerful, memorable coda.  This should’ve been the single which propelled the band to public acclaim and media success – indeed the reviews were exceedingly positive with many publications branding it ‘Record Of The Week’.  What happened?  Was it the production, was it the promotion?  Was it the name of the band on the record sleeve?  Who knows - but for whatever reason the record stalled outside the Top 40.
The single marked another shift in sound away from the 3 chord thrash of Punk, and this cleaner, brighter sound was very much in evidence on their third album 'Go For It'.
The original intent for the album was to write 10 hit singles (or 9 songs plus 1 cover version (“Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae”)) .  In the main, I think they achieved this with the previous single “Just Fade Away”, the horn driven next single “Silver Lining”, the instrumental “Go For It”, the punk manifesto of “Kicking Up A Racket”, the rockabilly of “Gate 49” and the storytelling of “Piccadilly Circus”).
The album secured another Top 20 placing (number 14), but the change in sound and style/appearance probably alienated further much of their original audience, without picking up as many new converts to ensure this level of success could be maintained.
Like “Just Fade Away”, “Silver Lining” (a song of injustice, complete with a horn section courtesy of the Q-Tips) failed to break the Top 40.

Towards the end of 1981, Jim Reilly announced his intention to leave the band.  Not wishing to leave the band in the lurch, he agreed to stay on until a replacement was found.  More Melody Maker ads were placed, and more auditions conducted, ‘little black books’ consulted (Rat Scabies (The Damned) and John Maher (Buzzcocks) were mentioned in dispatches) before the band invited Dolphin Taylor (ex Tom Robinson Band) to fill the vacant drum stool.  Jim Reilly left the band at the end of November 1981, and by January 1982, Dolphin Taylors first recorded work with the band was issued in the shape of the “£1.10 Or Less EP” (featuring: “That’s When Your Blood Bumps”, “Two Guitars Clash”, “Listen” and “Sad Eyed People”).

Both sides of the single were shown as Side A, meaning there was no lead track.  However, the Promo records issued to DJs contained “Listen” as the lead track, and it was this one which received the airplay, and no doubt helped by the ceiling price, the EP achieved a chart placing of 33.
With the next album in the early phase of recording, a new single was released in April 1982.  “Talkback” marked a continuation of the soften of the sound (if not the lyrical content and gruff delivery), again using the Q-Tips horn section, and again failing to make an impression on the charts.

Rehearsals and Recording for the next album ('Now Then') were affected by a couple of major events:
  1. Northern Ireland were advancing in the World Cup in Spain, resulting in more time being spent in the pub than the studio
  2. Henry’s desire to spend more and more time in Belfast, rather than the recording studio in London.  Indeed, it has been said that he recorded his vocal track for one song with his bag at his feet so he could make a quick getaway as soon as the take was finished.  There are also suggestions that Henry was the most affected by Jim Reilly’s departure, feeling that “a lot of the fun” had gone from the band.  The fact that he wasn’t getting on with Dolphin Taylor certainly didn’t help matters.
  3. Relationships in the band were deteriorating – after 5 years recording together, they were seemingly now each moving in different directions

With all that was going on, the album that came out of the studio is surprisingly strong.  Whilst not containing many tracks that would be considered true Fingers Classics (“Is That What You Fought The War For”, “Bits Of Kids” and the cover of “Love Of The Common People” being the notable exceptions), this is perhaps their most thematically complete.  It is also the most commercial sounding offering in the catalogue.
Released at the same time as the album, the single “Bits Of Kids” is notable for being the first SLF release on 12” format.

The Final Tour in support of this album was not an easy one for the band, involving silent tour buses except when that days tensions amplified to full blown arguments and flying fists.
As a result of the fractious tour, and disappointingly low sales of the album, Jake Burns announced his departure from the band, and Stiff Little Fingers were no more.
One more single (another double A-Side “Price Of Admission” / “Touch And Go”) was released in February 1983 in a final attempt to place the Stiff Little Fingers name in the charts.  Alas, to no avail.

A final compilation, rounding up all the Singles (A & B Sides) was released at the same time.  Achieving a chart placing of 19 meant that the band did at least sign off on a relative high, if never really achieving the Single success they perhaps deserved.

So that was that then ... or was it? (see Part 2)

Suspect Device

Nobodys Hero (Live)

Just Fade Away

Tuesday 12 January 2016

The passing of David Bowie got me wondering …

The events of yesterday have been likened to the deaths of Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Freddie Mercury.
If we’re honest, we knew this day would come – just no-one was expecting it when it did actually happen.

Lemmy popped off just after Christmas, and whilst his life was widely reported and celebrated, it was on a much lower scale than what occurred yesterday (and if I'm honest, rightly so).
(John Bradbury went on the same day, but his lower profile meant there was little mention across TV, Radio and Print media)

The events of yesterday got me pondering …

Of the big hitters (or MASSIVE hitters) still with us, beyond Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan (although probably to a lesser extent in the UK), would anyone else garner the same sort of attention and affection?

(and this is where I apologise if the tone begins to sound morbid)

I think back to George Harrison – undoubtedly a shock, but after two of three weeks of “My Sweet Lord” on every radio station, and several write-ups of “My Life With George …”, the world returned to where it was previously.
I think when Ringo finally shuffles of this mortal curl, the response will be similar.
Not because they don’t deserve the plaudits and grieving, but because they maybe haven’t “touched” people in the way David Bowie did (always changing, always influential).

The sad day will come for Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, or any other Music Royalty you care to mention. But can they be considered as eclectic, innovative and influential as Bowie?

Of those who came to prominence in the late 70s (Elvis Costello, Paul Weller, to name but two) do they have the same presence as Bowie. When their time comes, huge numbers of people will be affected by the loss, but on the same scale as yesterday?

Love him or loathe him (and there are some in the latter camp), everyone knew of him and was aware of at least one song by him (even if it was only due to watching Life On Mars, or seeing Astronaut Chris Hadfield on the News).

This is a massive loss, but who’s coming through to fill the void?

The world will recover, because it always does, but I don’t see anyone stepping up to the Top Table. It is gradually clearing, and when it is empty I fear it will stay that way, with no-one being able to be quite as omni-present as the previous and current tenants.

So, Where Are We Now?

Friday 8 January 2016

Boomtown Rats

Mention the Boomtown Rats to most people, and the response will be:
"Rat Trap"
"I Don't Like Mondays"
"Bob Geldof" followed by an impression of Geldof on Live Aid saying "Give us your f***ing money!" (a phrase he never actually said, but one that impressionists have been dining out on for years)

But is there more to the band than 2 singles, and a gobby lead singer?

Yes there is ...

Formed in Dublin in 1975, the original members were Garry Roberts (Guitar), Johnnie Fingers (Keyboards), Pete Briquette (Bass), Gerry Cott (Guitar) and Simon Crowe (Drums).
Vocalist Bob Geldof was originally invited to be the bands manager, but was offered the role of vocalist.  According to Garry Roberts:
"I had enough to do with trying to play the guitar, without having to do the singing as well.  He looked the part and could play the harmonica fairly well"
Originally called The Nightlife Thugs, history, myth or fact states that they changed their name to the Boomtown Rats (taken from the name of a childrens gang in Woody Guthrie's autobiography) during the interval of their first gig.
They relocated across the Irish Sea in 1976 in search of a record deal, and signed with Ensign, a newly formed independent label which was distributed and seemingly wholly funded by Phonogram (so not really an independent then ?)).

Their first single was released in August 1977, followed by debut album in September.
The single ("Looking After Number 1") took their formative influences of The Kinks, Rolling Stones and Yardbirds, bolted it to the sound of Dr Feelgood, and issued forth a sneering lyric of selfishness played at breakneck speed.
The album continued the R&B/Punk/New Wave hybrid sound, but there was evidence of a greater ability and texture.  There is a darkness about "Neon Heart" and "Close As You'll Ever Be", and a big epic story song/ballad in the form of "Joeys On The Street Again".
Second single "Mary Of The Fourth Form" (also on the album) retains the sound and urgency, perhaps with a bit more Stones-esque riffology going on.

Their next single, "She's So Modern" was unleashed in March 1978 and continued where the debut album left off - high energy punk/new wave R&B, possibly with a bit more polish in the production.
June 1978 heralded the release of the single "Like Clockwork" and the parent album 'Tonic For The Troops'.  This album showed the band to capable of more than 3 minute R&B thrashes - there is a noticeable ambition and musicianship that marks them out from many of their original peers.
The ambition can be seen in the subject matter of some of the songs: the tried and trusted anoyance of mundanity is dealt with on "Like Clockwork", similarly a warning of the media on "Don't Believe What You Read".  Thoughts of suicide prevail on "Living On An Island".  But then you get a tounge-in-cheek re-working of "Leader Of The Pack" (at least in intent) with "I Never Loved Eva Braun", and a suggestion of the sick bed of Howard Hughes ("Me And Howard Hughes").
The album closes on the song that brought them to the big time - "Rat Trap".
This song knocked John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John from the Number 1 spot (after what seemed like 212 years), and was performed on Top Of The Pops after Bob Geldof had torn up a picture of the aforementioned duo.  Another epic story ballad, from the same cloth as "Joeys On The Street Again".  The song was even compared in some quarters to Bruce Springsteen.
Apart from the tearing up of the picture, the Top Of The Pops performance is also memorable for Bob Geldof playing a candelabra in place of a saxophone (when you are 8, you remember these things for some reason)

A charismatic and errudite performer, Geldof was a lyricist who was not afraid to use long words.  His interviews were often entertaining, but not to everyones tastes (he was the subject of a long "hate" campaign from the NME).  He earned the nickname "Bob The Gob" and it was statements such as this which just proved the label:
"All I want out of pop music is to get rich, get famous and get laid"

Into 1979, the band were undertaking a world tour visiting America, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.  It was on the American leg of the tour that Bob Geldof became aware of the story of a 16 year old schoolgirl who had randomly fired in a school playground killing two teachers and injuring a number of children.  When asked why, she replied "It livens up the day.  I Don't Like Mondays".
That phrase, and the circumstance of the storys discovery were retained, and Geldof, with the assistance of Johnnie Fingers, composed a song intended for the next Boomtown Rats album:

"I was doing a radio interview in Atlanta with Fingers and there was a telex machine beside me. I read it as it came out. Not liking Mondays as a reason for doing somebody in is a bit strange. I was thinking about it on the way back to the hotel and I just said 'Silicon chip inside her head had switched to overload'. I wrote that down. And the journalists interviewing her said, 'Tell me why?' It was such a senseless act. It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it. So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it. It wasn't an attempt to exploit tragedy."

"I Don't Like Mondays" was released in July and was soon to be the second Number 1 single.This was followed in November by the album 'The Fine Art Of Surfacing'.
Now, it is probably fair to say that sales of the album were no doubt boosted by the previous single.  But that would be too simplistic, and completely avoids the fact that this album marks the absolute high point for the band.

Opening with an exceedingly strong track ("Someones Looking At You" which was to be their next single later in the year), the attention and pacing of the album holds the listener (although the album could probably do without "Episode #13" (which was originally a hidden track anyway)).  The album is full of charisma, wit, direct and tuneful punk-pop with different styles making an appearance (the flamenco driven "When The Night Comes" for example).  On the whole, this is very much a logical extension to 'Tonic For The Troops', but it has something indefinably extra which sets it apart.
It has frantic, pop-punk thrash moments in the shape of "Nice n Neat" and "Keep It Up", Cars influenced big American Rawk on "Diamond Smiles", more Spanish guitar and solid bass on "Wind Chill Factor Minus Zero".  Whatever the musical style chosen, the lyrics and delivery remain steadfastly that of a wide-eyed storytelling Bob Geldof.
And now the downside ... whilst the album as a whole is more consistent and feels more focussed than 'Tonic For The Troops', you do begin to feel like you've heard all the tricks before and the band are not stretching themselves too much.

And then they did stretch themselves ... oh, dear.

Mondo Bongo arrived in 1981, and it seemed the new decade marked a new chapter for the band.  The punk/new wave tinged RnB was stripped back and self-indulgent experimentation took over.  Opening track "Straight Up" has the hallmarks of previous offerings, as does "Elephants Graveyard".  After that it all becomes a bit wishy-washy and sometimes plain unintersting.  Parts of the album read like a State Of The Nation address, namely "Another Piece Of Red" and the reggae driven, overtly political "Banana Republic".  In other places the record just sounds like a mess "Please Don't Go" and "Mood Mambo" being the worst offenders (to my ears).
At the end of this album, you'd be forgiven for thinking the game is up.

By 1982s 'V Deep', guitarist Gerry Cott has left the band, and there was a general loss of public interest.  To be honest, I think there was a bit of a loss of band interest too.  At times, you feel like they are treading water, or glossing the production to fit the prevelant 1980s sound (there are moments when the songs sound like out-takes from a Human League album).  There are nearly some great Rats songs on here ("Never In A Million Years", "He Watches It All" and "Skin On Skin").

Still together, but not really selling in the numbers they did before, possibly one last throw of the dice came with 1984s 'In The Long Grass'.  The opening track "Dave" is up there with their finest moments.  It is one of the Rats epic story songs, but this time delivered in a more sombre, downbeat tone.  "A Hold Of Me" is another highlight, if a little too much Stadimu Anthem-y, and "Drag Me Down" showed they still knew how to write an earworm-y type song.  But sadly, the rest of the album is largely forgettable.

After seeing the now infamous News Report in 1984, Bob Geldof's original intention was to pull the band back in the studio to record and release a single to show his support.
He had a moment of realisation that as The Boomtown Rats would have trouble getting arrested at the time, let alone sell enough singles to make a difference, maybe he should coral his friends and acquaintances.  This he did (as we all know) and The Rats also appeared on the record.  They're picture can be seen on the back cover, and I am sure that many a viewer looked at the photo, and in unison said "who are they?"

After a sell-out tour in early 1985, and then they're biggest ever performance at Live Aid (Bob Geldof had to be cajouled onto the stage), the band fizzled out, and Geldof commenced a solo career in 1986.

A series of partial reformations took place from 2008, in various permutations, but it wasn't until 2013 that the band properly reformed (sans Gerry Cott and Johnnie Fingers) and played at the Isle Of Wight Festival.
The reception led to a new 'Best Of ...' being released, containing two new tracks "The Boomtown Rats" and "Back To Boomtown", which are worthy tracks and almost make the compilation worth buying (as opposed to just being another cash-in repeating tracks you already own).

When I saw the band live in 2014, it was interesting to note that they played these two new tracks, and the rest of the set came from the first 3 albums.  Bar the inclusion of "Dave", the final two albums remain un-represented.  An admission of guilt, or just giving the public what they want to hear?

Looking After Number One

She's So Modern

Someones Looking At You