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

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