Regarded as one of Ireland’s best punk groups, the Undertones entered the rock world as inexperienced teenagers, playing light-hearted tunes in the style of the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the Buzzcocks. “They were young louts whose songs were short, loud, hook-laden gems that softened punk with catchy melodies,” as described by People magazine. Over time, the members of the group evolved into first-rate musicians, incorporating ballads, intricate guitar solos, and instruments such as piano, trumpet, and xylophone into their repertoire. However, these honorable diversions were not without career consequences. Fans who were originally drawn to the Undertones’ raw simplicity hissed at the band’s ambition. Amid decreasing popularity, as well as complications within the group itself, the Undertones disbanded in 1983.
The Undertones—vocalist Feargal Sharkey, brothers John and Damian O’Neill, both guitarists, bassist Michael Bradley, and drummer Billy Doherty—formed in 1975 in Derry, Northern Ireland. The five friends started out playing rock ‘n’ roll cover songs at local clubs. Then, around 1977, an increasing interest in the punk and glam-rock movements in England inspired the Undertones to try writing original material. Ultimately, they became the first punk band to come out of Ireland. “We were the scene, to be honest,” Bradley commented in an interview with the Muse website. “That’s not being big headed, there was no one else, really. There were older bands, playing rock covers, but in terms of any punk groups, nobody. Compared to what the music business is today, it was very, very innocent, almost amateurish.”
Hoping to secure a recording contract, the Undertones circulated demo tapes to labels throughout England, but they failed to stir up any interest. Thus, they turned to Belfast-based punk pioneer Terri Hooley, who offered to release an EP for the Undertones on his Good Vibrations label. Hooley next sent the completed record—featuring the lead song “Teenage Kicks,” as well as “True Confessions”—to the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) legendary John Peel.
Peel, who still describes 1978’s “Teenage Kicks” as his all-time favorite pop song, played the song over and over again on the radio, generating instant attention for the Undertones. “John Peel’s support surprised us,” recalled Bradley for the band’s official website. “One night he played it twice in a row. I was working at the time in a builder’s merchants, and Peter Powell made it his Record of the Week, which meant it got played at lunchtime. I was a bit embarrassed, actually.”
Subsequently, the group signed a deal with Sire Records and made numerous appearances on British television. After the release on Sire of a second EP, Get Over You, the Undertones arrived with their debut self-titled album. Released in 1979, The Undertones includes unpretentious pop gems such as “Jimmy Jimmy,” “Here Comes the Summer,” “Male Model,” “Family Entertainment,” “She’s a Runaround,” and “Casbah Rock,” a 30-second tribute to the venue where the Undertones performed frequently in their earlier days. Unlike other Irish groups also gaining attention on the punk scene, such as the Boomtown Rats and Stiff Little Fingers, the Undertones concentrated on the simpler subjects of everyday life in the suburbs and teenage love.
In 1980 the Undertones released a second album entitled Hypnotised. It includes “You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It),” a single, released in late 1979, that features one of pop music’s most bracing and memorable guitar riffs. “John wrote this during summer 79, and he played it for us, and our jaws dropped to the ground,” Bradley said on the band’s website. “It was brilliant. Still is.” Other noteworthy tracks from Hypnotised include “My Perfect Cousin” and “Wednesday Week,” both of which climbed the British charts in the summer of 1980. According to Salon.com contributor Gavin McNett, Hypnotised “is cheerful like sappy records want to be and touching like weepy ones aren’t. It’s shot through with throwaway ‘60s pop, jacked up with tough, choppy guitar and loaded with perfect hit singles.”
Positive Touch, the Undertones’ third full-length effort, released in 1981, marked somewhat of a departure for the group. The song “It’s Going to Happen” proved another popular success, entering the British top 20 and receiving regular rotation on MTV, and the album as a whole displayed the increasing musicianship of the members of the band. This more sophisticated
Members include Michael Bradley, bass guitar; Billy Doherty drums; Damian O’Neill guitar; John (also known as Sean) O’Neill, guitar; Feargal Sharkey, vocals.
Formed in Derry, Northern Ireland, 1975; released Teenage Kicks EP, 1978; signed with Sire Records, released debut album The Undertones, 1979; released Hypnotised, 1980; released Positive Touch, 1981; released The Sin of Pride on their own Ardeck label, disbanded, 1983.
Addresses: Record company —Rykodisc, 27 Congress St., Salem, MA 01970.Website — The Undertones Official Website: http://www.theundertones.com.
approach pleased critics, but many fans, expecting the simplicity and accessibility of the Undertones’ previous records, expressed displeasure.
The Undertones continued to experiment with new sounds for their next album, The Sin of Pride, containing such elements as gospel choirs, psychedelia, the harpsichord, and marimbas. Issued on the band’s own Ardeck label in 1983, the record won praise from critics. However, fans again felt betrayed, calling on the band—while on tour in support of The Sin of Pride —to perform old songs such as ‘Teenage Kicks” and “Mars Bars” instead of the new material.
As the division between fans and critics widened, so did the division among the individual members of the Undertones. Because of his songwriting input, John O’Neill asked for a fairer share of the royalties, a request basically ignored by Sharkey. Furthermore, the members disagreed over the final track-listing of The Sin of Pride. Unable to settle various differences, the Undertones dissolved in 1983. Afterwards, Sharkey formed the Assembly with Vince Clarke, formerly of Depeche Mode and Yazoo and later a member of Erasure. He then embarked on a solo career, hitting the number-one position on the British charts with a cover of the Maria McKee song “A Good Heart.” He later took a job with a music consulting firm. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, rumors repeatedly surfaced of an Undertones reunion, yet none ever came to fruition.
Meanwhile, John (by now known as Sean) and Damian O’Neill formed the group That Petrol Emotion in 1984 with songwriter/drummer Ciaran Mclaughlin, guitarist Reamann O’Gormain, and American-born vocalist Steve Mack. The band’s 1986 full-length debut, the abrasive guitar-pop album Manic Pop Thrill, garnered favorable reviews, as did the group’s 1990 effort Chemicrazy. Unfortunately, That Petrol Emotion failed to catch on in terms of record sales. They split up in 1994 following the 1993 release of Fireproof, issued on the band’s own Koogat label.
The Undertones, Sire, 1979; reissued, Rykodisc, 1994.
Hypnotised, Sire, 1980; reissued, Rykodisc, 1994.
Positive Touch, Harvest, 1981; reissued, Rykodisc, 1994.
The Sin of Pride, Ardeck, 1983; reissued, Rykodisc, 1994.
The Peel Sessions Album, Strange Fruit, 1989.
The Very Best of the Undertones, Rykodisc, 1994.
That Petrol Emotion
Manic Pop Thrill, Demon, 1986.
End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues, Virgin, 1988.
Chemicrazy, Virgin, 1990.
Fireproof, Koogat, 1993.
Buckley, Jonathan, and others, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1987, p. 83.
People, November 28, 1994, p. 27.
Washington Post, July 29, 1987, p. D7.
“Teenage Kicks,” Salon.com, http://archive.salon.com/weekly/jamside960729.html (July 2, 2002).
“The Undertones,” Muse, http://www.muse.ie/archive/interviews/u_index.html (July 2, 2002).
The Undertones Official Website, http://www.theundertones.com (July 2, 2002).
“Undertones,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 2, 2002).
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