Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Stiff Little Fingers



"A little background – at the time this 'Nobody's Heroes' was released I was an 18-year-old soldier serving in Germany with a regiment that had recently returned from a tour of duty in Northern Ireland. This great band championed by John Peel was singing about things I understood – the troubles in Ireland, the loyalist paramilitary, the army, hate, racism, all sung at a frantic heart-pounding pace. Hell 'Tin Soldiers' was about me (joined the army at 16 not realising the first two years didn’t count)” - An unnamed British soldier

One of my lasting memories of the early eighties are the moments when the lights went down, searchlights strafed the stage from the rear, the theme from “The Dambusters” blasted out from the PA and Stiff Little Fingers took to the stage. They burned with an electric energy that was hard to beat. I still feel the excitement now, just thinking about it. Anyway, on with the show, and what a show they always gave us. Honest, ideologically sound and committed, they may not quite have been up there with the absolute best of the genre, but they were certainly one of the most loved. The Mott The Hoople of punk.

  

Inflammable Material (1979)


Suspect Device/State Of Emergency/Here We Are Nowhere/Wasted Life/No More Of That/Barbed Wire Love/White Noise/Breakout/Law And Order/Rough Trade/Johnny Was/Alternative Ulster/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'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 JakeCluney 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. I can't ever get enough of it.

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.



Photo by Geoff Tyrell.

** The non-album material from this period incurred the Alternative Ulster b side, the very similar-sounding 78 rpm (which stood for 78 revolutions per minute). It is a brash, singalong fast paced punky number; Bloody Sunday, a chunky slice of reggae-styled rock a bit like Johnny Was that breaks out into a fast and furious bit of punk invective the subject matter of which is clear from the title and Straw Dogs, a stand alone single about mercenaries with a furious attack to it. The strange thing about it, though, it that I have never found that it sticks in my head much, even after all these years. 

Its b side was You Can't Say Crap On The Radio, which was even more breakneck, with the band complaining about about censorship on the radio. It launches into a pastiche of The Clash's Capital Radio right at the end.

 

Nobody's Heroes (1980)


Gotta Getaway/Wait and See/Fly The Flag/At The Edge/Nobody's Heroes/Bloody Dub/Doesn't Make It All Right/I Don't Like You/No Change/Tin Soldiers    

After the raw, spiky, buzzy blast that was Stiff Little Fingers' bristling debut Inflammable Material this follow up saw them serve up a much different, more polished offering. It was now 1980 and punk was already old hat in many ways. New wave, white reggae and Post Punk was now de rigeur. SLF had been slow to come to the party, recording contract-wise and by now the pressure was on to be new wave and commercially appealing as opposed to griping, fist-pumping, angry disaffected punks. They duly responded and for many, this meant that Stiff Little Fingers had already sold out to the mainstream, leaving behind their indie label days at Rough Trade, signing to Chrysalis and soon appearing regularly on Top Of The Pops. They had become those nice punks next door as opposed to angry young men hanging around on street corners. I remember a friend of mine at the time totally losing interest in them at this time, somewhat unfairly, I thought.
                                                  
Just as Give 'Em Enough Rope was not The Clash, so this album was not Inflammable Material. However, it must be treated on its merits and, for me, it is the better album. The sound is far superior, being warmer, cleaner and more polished, a bit like Rocket To Russia compared to Ramones. The other groups had, to an extent, moved their sounds and delivery on from their punky debut offerings and so had SLF. So, what we got was a punk album but with clear rock, new wave and white reggae tones. To be honest, if they wanted to keep abreast of the times, they were left with no choice. 

The old “side one” is a classic - the great bass intro to the riff and catchy Gotta Gettaway and the autobiographical Wait And See (about the band’s previous drummer, Brian Faloon) are a great start. 

Ironically, Wait And See is brought to life by the excellent drumming of new man Jim Reilly, particularly at the end of the track. He used that drumming style popular in the punk days that is impossible to describe in writing, but instantly recognisable. 

  

The anti-government/British Empire Fly The Flag with its “Rule, Britannia” guitar kick keeps up the pace and we finish with the frenetic hit single, At The Edge, and the title track Nobody's Hero that sees Jake Burns spitting out the lyrics with typical throaty venom against the back drop of that punk 1-2 drum beat. That's the beat I was talking about. These first five tracks had been excellent and reminded me a lot of the first five on the old "side one" of The Clash's Give 'Em Enough Rope in their "polished punk" sound.

The old “side two” sees the quality drop just a little, however. The punky reggae instrumental Bloody Dub is ok, but a bit of a waste really, you have to say, but their cover of The Specials’ Doesn't Make It Alright is a triumph, with a great breakneck ending. 

I have to say, though, that the acerbic I Don't Like You and the poor quality punk of No Change are a bit throwaway, but the album finishes with another Fingers classic, Tin Soldiers, with its atmospheric marching beat and menacing guitars. Along with Fly The Flag, this was the only other clearly Belfast-related number. They were not quite as "one-issue" as many had presumed them to be. 

  

I don’t think it got much better than this for SLF. Subsequent albums didn’t reach these highs, times changed and they became a bit of an irrelevance, but not quite in 1980. They had managed to keep up with the pulse, particularly with the "white reggae" stuff. So the years of 1980-1981 were undoubtedly still two great years for SLF. I saw them live several times in this period. They put on a seriously energetic, committed show. Bristling with excitement. Thanks for some great memories lads!

** The non-album songs from the period were Back To Front, a rather unremarkable stand alone single rather in the same way that The Jam's News Of The World was. There were hints of some of the tracks from the eventual album in it, Wait And See in particular. 

Its b side was a cover of a Wailing Souls reggae number called Mr. Fire Coal Man. It is a nice, bassy serving of white reggae, musically, although Jake Burns' vocal leaves a bit to be desired, not quite doing it justice. 

  

Hanx! (1980)


Nobody's Heroes/Gotta Getaway/Wait And See/Barbed Wire Love/Fly The Flag/Alternative Ulster/Johnny Was/At The Edge/Wasted Life/Tin Soldiers/Suspect Device   

This is a fantastic live album from a magnificent, raw, raucous live band. It serves as a permanent reminder of just what an incendiary and truly exciting live act SLF were over the 1978-1982 period. 
                             
The album has an excellent remastered sound, full, big and bassy. Of course, the highlight is the ten minute cover of Bob Marley’s Johnny Was, which was recorded at The Rainbow in London in July 1980. All the other tracks (apart from the bonus encores, which were from Aberdeen) were taken from July 1980’s performance at Friars, Aylesbury. Guess what? I was lucky enough to be there. Enough said. Great memories of a great live band. Saw them five times live in all from 1975-82. For more information on SLF at Friars, Aylesbury, check out https://www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk.

There are some great Fingers' classics on here - Nobody's HeroesWait And SeeFly The FlagTin SoldiersAlternative UlsterSuspect Device. All from their first two albums, which were all that had been released at the point of the gigs that were recorded. It is a bit of a shame that a live album couldn't have been recorded about a year or so later when it would have included material from the Go For It album, however. This is slightly nit-picking, though, as the group deliver some fine, energetic and frantic performances here. 




Go For It! (1981)


Roots, Radicals, Rockers & Reggae/Just Fade Away/Go For It/The Only One/Hits And Misses/Kicking Up A Racket/Safe As Houses/Gate 49/Silver Lining/Piccadilly Circus  

Released in 1981 after the cult success of Inflammable Material and the more mainstream punk (if there was such a thing!) of Nobody's Heroes, this was as good as it got for Fingers.  
                                                
They were now seen as punk/new wave and why, they were almost "respectable", playing mid-size venues on larger tours as opposed to sweaty little dives. This album unfortunately showed a far more polished side to the angry young Northern Irish lads who barked out about suspect devices and the R.U.C. against a raucous buzzsaw guitar backing. This was something that worked against them, as it had around the same time for The Ramones. Many fans did not want their punks on Top Of The Pops, deeming them to have sold out. Even their regular dabbling in white reggae in a Clash/Ruts style didn't seem to help matters. Punk/new waves' time was running out. The Jam and The Clash probably called it a day at the right time a year later.

  

There are still a few crowd-pleasing fist-punchers on here though, the vibrant Roots, Radicals, Rockers & Reggae with its killer guitar riff, the catchy hit single Just Fade Away and the professional-sounding but anthemic Hits And Misses (about domestic abuse) and Piccadilly Circus (a sad tale about a friend of theirs who was attacked in London). 

The instrumental Go For It is a pumping number and was used effectively as the "when the lights go down" opener to their excellent live gigs and still is today. Jake Burns' songwriting had become more darker and concerned with  subjects such as domestic abuse, violent mugging and relationship frustrations. The old railing about the situation in Belfast seemed a long time ago. 

The Only One and Safe As Houses are examples of Fingers' reggae/rock which they did quite well, but Kicking Up A Racket is throwaway and lazy and Henry Cluney's folky little ditty about an airport Gate 49 was hardly likely to get crowds pogoing. 

Silver Lining was a bit of a messy attempt to integrate a brass section. It is ok, but not the essence of SLF, to be honest. It all seemed to be getting a bit like "let's show we can diversify too, like The Clash" about it. I understand why they did it, though.

  

As an SLF fan who saw them live several times and enjoyed them immensely, while I liked this album at the time, I had a feeling, even then, that we may have seen the best of them. Unfortunately, my fears were proved right, really. They never released anything as good as their first three albums. Diehard fans of the band will make cases for the next album, Now Then... or the one following that, Flags And Emblems. Not quite for me, despite some good parts to those albums. Sorry.



Photo by Geoff Tyrell.


...Now Then (1982)


Falling Down/Won't Be Told/Love Of The Common People/The Price Of Admission/Touch And Go/Stands To Reason/Bits Of Kids/Welcome To The Whole Week/Big City Night/Talkback/Is That What You Fought The War For?   
                
BONUS TRACKS

Good For Nothing/Listen/Sad Eyed People/That's When Your Blood Bumps/Two Guitars Clash


By late 1982, post punk had swallowed up punk, two tone had virtually been and gone and New Romantic was well on the way. Chart sounds and also general musical trends were on the change. Personally, although I had loved Stiff Little Fingers for four years now, having their three previous studio albums and having seen them live on several occasions, it was now that I sort of let them go. This album seemed to me to be a punk meets new wave creation with ideas of crossing over into the Tom Petty/Springsteen style of "serious" but upbeat rock. Jake Burns' influences were as much in the latter two artists as with any punks. This was an attempt to put out a far more serious album - a "proper" rock album as opposed to a rabble-rousing punk fist-pumper. To a certain extent they succeeded and there is a fair case for claiming that there is far more musical invention around on here and lyrical maturity than there ever was on their searing debut album. That is somehow missing the point though. That album was successful because of its seismic attack and tinny machine-gun sound. This was just different, while at the same time still ploughing the new wave furrow. Yes, The Clash and The Jam had both diversified considerably by now and Fingers obviously felt they needed to do the same or get left behind. Notably, though, those two groups promptly imploded and split up, having reached their respective peaks, leaving Fingers to carry on, sounding more and more dated, however hard they tried. Yes, this could well be Fingers' most polished and fulfilled album, but, for me, their best was way back in 1978-1980. You know, however, maybe I should give it more of a chance. In 1982 I dismissed it but I do so less less nowadays. That can only be a good thing, can't it?

 

Falling Down begins with a powerful riff and breaks out into a mid-pace, early eighties punk/new wave rock song by numbers. Jake Burns' voice is strangely muted on the verses, slightly lacking that trademark angry rasp. That is being a little churlish, though, as it is still a pretty good track. It just somehow lacks that something special that some earlier songs had. 

Won't Be Told, after a low-key intro, breaks out into a big, riffy rousing number. Both these songs, while "in-your-face", are far more Tom Petty-ish rock than they are punk. You can certainly tell Burns is trying to change things a bit. Unfortunately, the songs cannot help but seem like pale imitations of what went before. As much as I loved SLF, they always remained just out of the top places in the league.

A reggae cover seemed to be something that had to be done around the late seventies/early eighties. Here, Fingers attack Nicky Thomas's Love Of The Common People enthusiastically. It shouldn't really work, but it does, coming over energetically and full of Irish punk vigour. The multi-vocal bit at the end is pure Fingers. 

The Price Of Admission is a somewhat clumsy song about male infidelity/fecklessness. Unfortunately, the song shows that Burns can't really carry a slow song. Although the song means well, it has never really worked for me, coming over as trying too hard to be earnest. "She loves you, so she has to open wide, she lets you in up close and blows away your pride...". See what I mean? It is probably the worst track on the album.

  

Touch And Go is typical Fingers, with that trademark double-beat drum sound. New drummer Dolphin Taylor had now arrived from The Tom Robinson Band, but he drums in the same style as Jim Reilly, the previous incumbent. This track sounds as if it could be from either of the previous two albums, but is not as good as the stuff on there. The riffs are good, though, as you would expect. They could do songs like this in their sleep by now. 

Stands To Reason is a vaguely white reggae-ish condemnation of the media and stereotyped headlines. Bits Of Kids again starts in a low key fashion before bursting out into typical SLF. It was a good track, and a good single, but somehow by 1982 it felt like something I had heard before and it was just treading the same old water.

Welcome To The Whole Week is an infectious new wave piece of Jam-influenced riffery. Big City Night has some interesting, beguiling spoken vocal parts and a sumptuous dubby bass line. It sounds like some of the material on The Clash's Combat Rock. Fair play to them for trying to do something a bit different. 

Talkback saw SLF experimenting with a brass section just as The Jam had done at around the same time. It was the thing to do - get a brass section in and go all Dexy's Midnight Runners. It is a catchy song in some ways, but I remember at time thinking that I was just liking it because I felt I ought to, out of loyalty. Last up, though, Is That What You Fought The War For? is a lively throwback a couple of years to the best of SLF and a good one to end the album upon. This remains an eminently listenable album, but one that always has the air of being out of its time and unable to break out of that, despite valiant efforts. It can't help but sound like a duller version of its two predecessors. You have to put it into context. In 1982, it just didn't cut it.

** The bonus tracks were from earlier in that year, when an EP was released. Again, the tracks show an attempt to diversify - the dull rock balladry of Listen, the post-punk nod of Sad Eyed People and the dub-influenced That's When Your Blood Bumps. Only on the excellent Henry Cluney track Two Guitars Clash and the 'b' side Good For Nothing do we get a flavour of those great SLF days.


 

Flags And Emblems (1991)


(It's A) Long Way To Paradise From Here/Stand Up And Shout/Each Dollar A Bullet/The Cosh/Beirut Moon/The Game of Life/Human Shield/Johnny 7/Die And Burn/No Surrender
                                                            
This was Stiff Little Fingers' first album for nine years, since 1982's Now Then... and it contains some underrated stuff. The Jam's Bruce Foxton had replaced original bassist Ali McMordie and the album has some heavier, denser material than on the band's four preceding punkier offerings. It is quite a political album, in contract with the previous one and, although a little bit of that searing, guitar clashing early punky ire has been slightly dissolved, replaced by a heavier sound, it is still an ebullient, confrontational, "in your face" piece of work. It is their most issue-driven album since Inflammable Material.
                                     
(It's A) Long Way To Paradise From Here is a punchy, semi-heavy rock thrash, more rock than punk and while its ok, I have always found it sightly dull, somehow lacking that catchy, energetic spark that the classic Fingers era of 78-82 material had. It actually sounds a bit tired and world-weary. Dr. Feelgood's Lee Brilleaux contributes some excellent blues harmonica on it, though, and the album gets much better from the next song onwards. Maybe I'm being a bit unfair on the song, as it does grow on you and certainly doesn't lack anything in attack. 

Stand Up And Shout has some nice chunky riffs and, given its title, an unsurprisingly rabble-rousing chorus. It is still relevant, possibly even more so, in 2019. This is a bit more like it. Bruce Foxton's bass is as you would expect - reliable, deep and rubbery. This track probably should have been the album's opener.


Each Dollar A Bullet is one of the album's highpoints - a passionate, hard-hitting condemnation of American second or third generation ethnic Irish and also British governmental financing of Irish terrorism, on both sides of the divide. Jake Burns hadn't dealt with "The Troubles" lyrically much since the band's first couple of albums. He he gives his opinions without holding back over a lively, Celtic-influenced baking. He doesn't take sides - he just wants the violence to stop. Fair enough. 

The Cosh is also a lively number with more politically-motivated lyrics about economic collapse due to corruption and mismanagement - we are all being coshed to the ground. 

The "message" theme continues on Beirut Moon which concerns the taking hostage of British Journalist John McCarthy by terrorists in Lebanon. It is another good one in what has been a run of rousing tracks.

 

The Game of Life has a big Stonesy riff powering along another impressive song. There is also something latter-day Ramones-esque about it. 

Human Shield is one of the heaviest things the group had done, full of industrial guitar and pounding drums. Johnny 7 is a real throwback to the Tin Soldiers era. It is a frantic reminder of 1980. 

Die And Burn is an aggressive, ranting diatribe against petty nationalism. A nice bit of Celtic guitar enhances it half way through. 

No Surrender also revisits the classic Nobody's Heroes sound and it is great to hear, but in 1991 it all sounded a bit retrospective. Things had moved on and while it was a pleasure for people such as myself to hear good old Fingers back spewing out the invective, the album sounded very much like something from the past. Listening to it now. however, it has a sort of reassuring quality to it. Fingers stuck to their principles and they kept hammering out their messages. They still do. UB40 are the same. Fair play to them.



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