The Undertones in Southampton tonight
It wasn't the most auspicious of starts, a gig in front of a bunch of ten-year-old cub scouts brought together by their scout leader.
But that scout leader was the band’s frontman, a certain Feargal Sharkey, and the band was The Undertones. Great things weren’t so very far away.
The band looks back on that first concert as it marks its 40th anniversary with a tour taking in Southampton’s Engine Rooms (with special guests The Membranes) on Thursday, October 20.
Damian O'Neill was in that first incarnation of the band, alongside his brother John. Damian had come in as a replacement for their brother Vincent who’d been told that he had to concentrate on his O levels.
“But it was 40 years ago this year that we played our first concert, a scout hall in front of a bunch of ten-year-olds. You’ve got to start somewhere! Feargal was a scout leader, which wasn’t very rock ‘n’ roll. But they were a great audience. It really didn’t matter to them how rubbish we were. They would have been happy with anything. It was very exciting for them!”
It was to be another couple of years, though, before the band took off: “We recorded Teenage Kicks in June 78, so it was two years before things started to happen. But in between the scout hall and Teenage Kicks, we just started learning to play our instruments. The next step up was to get some gear, and we had to get a loan from Provident loan company who I think are still going. We had to be paying it off every week.”
The first year was difficult, but in the second things clicked, thanks partly to getting a pub residency in their hometown Derry: “That’s when we got more serious, when we started writing our own songs. The punk thing happened in 77 and we identified with punk music straight away, the excitement of it, the fact that you didn’t have to be great musicians! We started doing punk covers and also our own songs. We were hoping something was going to happen, and the break came in 78 when we were offered the chance to make a record.”
Teenage Kicks is acknowledged as one of the great songs of the era. The band didn’t necessarily see it that way at the time.
“We didn’t know it was a great song. When we got the record back, we didn’t even like it. We were disappointed. We didn’t think it sounded very good. It took years to appreciate how great a song it is. But we have got John Peel to thank for the next break. He loved that song. It was his favourite song ever. Without John Peel, that song might still have disappeared through the cracks. He just loved it so much, and then Peter Powell made it record of the week, and things took off.”
Success sat easily with the band: “We weren’t instant number ones, and it was the fact we still lived in Derry. We didn’t move to London, and so we kept our feet on the ground. We made a dreadful record deal to start with, but afterwards we managed to get a second deal which was better.”
Feargal left in 83: “By then we had done our fourth LP, and it didn’t sell very well. It was a bit demoralising. When Feargal wanted to leave, we all agreed. It wasn’t fun anymore. Feargal was more ambitious. He thought he could have a good solo career, and he did for a short while.”
The Undertones got back together in 99, but with a different vocalist: “When we started again, we didn’t even ask Feargal because we knew what he would say. You have got to remember he didn’t write any of the songs. I am always pointing that out to people. We had every right to reform without Feargal. They were our songs. If they had been his songs, it would have been a bit sad, but they were our songs. We had written them.”
And Damian’s point is that they are songs that deserve to be heard: “We are better now, to be honest. There is no pressure from the record companies for the next single. We play when we want to play, and we are not full time. But we are a really tight band, and we are playing better than ever.”
The Undertones: Thursday, October 20 – Engine Rooms, Southampton. Box office: 0844 478 0898. Website - http://engineroomssouthampton.com/event/the-undertones-40th-anniversary-tour/. Doors: 7.30pm. Tickets: £20 (advance).
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