Monday, 11 June 2018

Stiff Little Fingers - Inflammable Material (1979)

Inflammable material planted in my head....


Released February 1979

Recorded in Cambridge


1. Suspect Device
2. State Of Emergency
3. Here We Are Nowhere
4. Wasted Life
5. No More Of That
6. Barbed Wire Love
7. White Noise
8. Breakout
9. Law And Order
10. Rough Trade
11. Johnny Was
12. Alternative Ulster
13. Closed Groove                                  

Stiff Little Fingers' rudimentarily-recorded and comparatively long-awaited debut album is their equivalent of the first Clash album, even to the extent of featuring lots of two minute, searing punk thrashes and one extended cover of a reggae number, in this case Bob Marley's Johnny Was. Where The Clash was punk perfection, however, this is just slightly patchy, to be honest, taking off my nostalgic spectacles for a minute.

Suspect Device, all buzzsaw guitar and throaty, angry vocals is just a magnificent starter, though. One of their best tracks, undoubtedly. Even now it sends shivers down my spine when I hear that intro. Glorious stuff. State Of Emergency has all the punk attitude and vocal attack, but it is a bit chugging, musically, like a pub rock band, playing punk by numbers. A couple of Jam-style guitar runs and a 1-2-3-4 near the end does not a punk classic make. It's ok, but I find it a bit uninspired. Here We Are Nowhere does the job though, 100 miles an hour and over in less than a minute!

Then we get the potency, fury and power of the mighty Wasted Life as singer Jake Burns rails about life in Belfast in 1977, the British Army presence, the bleak outlook, the waste of life. Unlike many punks, Jake and his band really did have something to moan about. This song is a raucous slab of pure punk protest. No More Of That is less memorable, however, another pretty ordinary punk thrash. Barbed Wire Love sees a return to quality, a tale of "Love at Bogside" with a catchy opening punky guitar riff. "I met you in no-man's land, across the wire we were holding hands.." is an example of some cutting lyrics. It also has a slightly incongruous fifties "doo-wop" bit in the middle, which was unusual for a punk record. White Noise is a slightly lyrically clumsy song about racism, although its heart is in the right place. Breakout has a catchy refrain to it above the usual Ramones-style punk riff grinding along.

It all just takes me back to those early Fingers gigs, pogoing and fist-pumping. I first saw them in 1978, supporting The Tom Robinson Band. I had come to see Tom, but SLF just blew me away. An electric, angry, searing wall of sound. Jake Burns sang, guitar in hand, with such a visceral intensity. Henry Cluney looked like a school nerd who somehow ended up in a band. That three guitar attack of Jake, Cluney and Ali McMordie. Wow. I was hooked from that moment. One of the finest support acts I ever saw, and that includes Dire Straits supporting Talking Heads and U2, also supporting Talking Heads.

The sound throughout the album, however, is basic, shall we say. Nowhere near as good as on subsequent albums. This is mainly due to the low budget it was recorded under and therein lies some of its raw, edgy appeal, I have to admit.

Law and Order starts the old "side two" with more of the same breakneck punk and spat out angry lyrics. Whereas The Clash and The Ramones still have their appeal as debut albums, while I still like this, I have to admit it has not aged as well as the other two, but then again, Fingers, however lovable they were, were not The Clash or The Ramones. Top of The Championship as opposed to Premier League.

Rough Trade was supposedly not about their first record label (before going to Chrysalis) but it sings of record industry corruption and misleading contracts etc. Coincidence? Somehow I think not. Johnny Was, though, is a titanic, mighty cut. It turns a roots reggae groove into an eight minute slowed down guitar rock anthem with that powerful military drum intro and then those industrial guitar chords - like machine guns. One hell of a potent song for the sadly euphemistically-named "The Troubles". Great guitar solo in the middle too and some good bass, which showed that the lads could play.

Alternative Ulster is a fast, frantic "punk anthem". Perfect. Up there with Suspect Device as the best punk cuts on the album. Unfortunately Closed Groove  is something of a waste of a track at the end. Strange vocal delivery and lots of repetition and pointless feedback noises at the end. The 'b' side 78 rpm would have been a better inclusion. Closed Groove was all a bit "post punk" before it had really kicked off.

Overall, while enjoyable, there are undoubted patchy moments on the album. I much prefer the follow-up, 1980's Nobody's Heroes, though. Listening to this album while writing this, I realise I am writing at a hundred miles an hour, barely pausing for breath. There must be some inflammable material planted in my head.


Below is a very early clip of Fingers performing Suspect Device.


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