Getting our kicks with The Undertones

Music and Art

“We’re not a one hit wonder. Obviously, we’ve proved that,” the guitarist of The Undertones, Damian O’Neill, explains. I reassure him: ‘Of course not.’ Yet in the back of my head I am well aware that when I mentioned I was interviewing the band nearly everyone responded by humming the same opening riff to ‘Teenage Kicks’. Having now been reformed since 1996 with a new lead singer, will they ever escape these associations, and more importantly do they want to?

The band grew out of Derry, Ireland, and by 1979 were sending their demos out to radio stations, but no one seemed to pick it up. “John Peel was the last man standing. If he hadn’t liked it we would have just broken up. But, after he played it we started getting all these calls.” John Peel didn’t just like it; he played it twice when he first heard it, and until the end of his life claimed it was his favourite song. He even had a lyric from ‘Teenage Kicks’ as his epitaph. After the song reached #31 in the charts, they had subsequent success with ‘Jimmy, Jimmy’ and ‘My Perfect Cousin’, but after their first three albums they lost favour and tensions with the lead singer, Feargal Sharkey, led the band to break up. Whilst their self-titled debut is frequently featured in best album charts, the rest of their discography tends to be forgotten. “I’m not sick of playing ‘Teenage Kicks’ – it will be a sad day when that happens. But it is annoying to be only known for one song. But we will probably go down in history with that song – so it is unfair in some ways, as we had some other hits, but it’s not unfair in others.”

Once the band decided to break up, it might have felt like they would never play it again, but sixteen years after the split, the band decided to reform. “We didn’t even ask Feargal, we knew he wouldn’t be interested.” Instead they decided to try a singer from a separate project from back home. “We tried Paul out right away, and he was from the home town which was nice.” Did Feargal mind the band reforming without them? “I don’t care what he thought. You would need to ask him if he cared.”

However, despite these protestations there must be doubts as to whether the fans can accept a band once as the lead singer has departed. The band are now about to embark on a tour replaying their first album from start to finish. With them giving their old fan-club, The Rocking Humdingers, free tickets, Damian isn’t worried about the fan reaction. “Since we’ve reformed we’ve been together longer than we were with Feargal. Most fans have already seen us live since then.”

He also isn’t worried about the fans that haven’t seen the band before. “We won’t disappoint them. We’re better now than we were back in the day. Paul is better than Feargal ever was as a front man.” Damian claims in part this is because they have had plenty of time to practice, but also: “Back then it was more of a job, now it is just good fun, there is no pressure.”

Now most of the band members have day jobs, so in theory this isn’t for the pay checks. Yet with four compilation albums in the past ten years, with another one being rereleased this year, it might seem that they are milking that cash cow quite effectively. “It can feel a bit like flogging a dead horse, but this compilation was the best and sold the best last time it was released… it has different sleeve notes.”

Perhaps this isn’t the most convincing defence of their numerous anthologies, but they don’t see the band itself as a dead horse at all. “With the refashion of guitar bands in recent years we have lots of younger people listening to that earlier punk stuff. Yeah, we can still cut the mustard.”