Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Nobody's Heroes' by Stiff Little Fingers.
Ali McMordie cleared up a long-standing source of puzzlement for this writer when he spoke to Goldenplec just after the release of Stiff Little Fingers’ tenth album, ‘No Going Back’, in 2014. “This album was not produced by Nick Lowe” reads the dedication that adorns the inner sleeve of ‘Nobody’s Heroes’ - SLF’s second album, released just a year after their 1979 debut, ‘Inflammable Material’.
How the hell did Nick Lowe – songwriter of high esteem; pub rocker extraordinaire; in-house Stiff Records producer; production helmsman of The Damned’s New Rose, the song that stakes a claim as the very first English punk single – manage to fall out with a bunch of Belfast punks? More pertinently, though, for me at that particular time: who the fuck is Nick Lowe? It was a “bit of a daft in-joke, really” the bassist recalled. “Lowe seemed to be producing every hip contemporary act that hit the charts at that time.” So, not quite as remarkable a reason as first thought – just SLF ripping the piss.
Like innumerable bands before and since, The Ramones proved the catalyst for the band’s transformation from playing covers as Highway Star to writing original material under their new name, cribbed from the title of a Vibrators song. The Suspect Device single was released in ’78, a John Peel favourite and as provocative a statement of intent as you were likely to hear at the time (Boney M’s Rivers Of Babylon, two tracks from Grease, & The Commodores’ Three Times A Lady accounted for that year’s best-selling 7”s. The vast majority of the savvy, record buying public clearly couldn’t get their hands on SLF’s modestly-numbered DIY release, otherwise the stats could have been so much more Ulster-oriented).
The defining Alternative Ulster single followed, appearing on the subsequent ‘Inflammable Material’ album; a rough and raucous collection of diatribes on racism, violence, oppression and that faithful old punk axiom, boredom. ‘Inflammable Material’ remains one of the most visceral musical documents of the era. For their next album, ‘Nobody’s Heroes’, the transition of their own Rigid Digits label from Rough Trade to Chrysalis brought with it a more polished sound, and the more consolidated songwriting partnership of singer Jake Burns and manager Gordon Ogilvie.
Opener Gotta Getaway hammers straight home the sense of isolation and claustrophobia, written from the perspective of a band barely into its twenties (“You know there ain't no street like home/ To make you feel so all alone”), while Wait and See is the their response to those who doubted them, an affirmation of past achievements and future ambition, as well as a poignant commemoration to a departed comrade. The military snare of Jim Reilly opens a similarly cynical At The Edge - “Taught me to defend myself and to be a man/ How to kick someone and run away” – with another run of Burns’ barked denouncements powered by a taut backbeat to aggravate the dissatisfaction.
Like the 2-Tone movement in the UK spearheaded by Jerry Dammers and taking its cue from Jamaican ska, reggae and rocksteady, SLF felt that Jamaican music reflected the street politics of the time, indicated by their choice of cover tracks across their first two records. Bob Marley’s Johnny Was appeared as an extended cut on ‘Inflammable Material’ and forms a central pillar of their live show to this day, while The Specials’ anti-racism song It Doesn’t Make It Alright turned up in cranked-up form on ‘Nobody’s Heroes’ before the Coventry band even released it themselves. A more dense Jamaican influence informs a slowed-down, rhythm-heavy and dub reggae inflected Bloody Dub, the band’s instrumental reimagining of their jagged Bloody Sunday B-side.
I Don’t Like You, in contrast to the more pacific sentiments of The Specials’ classic, is a less forgiving slice of vitriol directed at an unnamed person - not Nick Lowe, though. Burns spits out damning couplets over a snappy two and a half minutes (“You don't entertain ideas/ You simply bore them/ You couldn't find your feet/ If you were looking for them”), leading into a briefer still, but equally acrimonious No Change - “Why should things be different now?/ I try to talk but you just row/ It seems that's how you want it anyhow” The rest of the album’s tracks approach and broach the three minute mark, less inclined to burn themselves out so soon in a blaze of belligerence, bile and regret-fuelled indignation.
The title track’s central couplet is a summation of the album’s themes of personal empowerment over a failing system, be it governmental, domestic or otherwise - “But don't let heroes get your kicks for you/ It's up to you and no one else” The Stiffs are nothing special, just a band, but they’ve taken control over their own destiny, a freedom not afforded to the protagonist of the album’s closer. Tin Soldiers is a stark account of military service (“At the age of 17 how was he to know/ That at the age of 21 he'd still have one to go?”) set to one of SLF’s angriest compositions; a loss of identity and independence, with the band repeating the final dark warning that proves the record’s resounding full stop, “Sign away your life”.
By the time ‘Nobody’s Heroes’ was written SLF had seen a bit more of the world and of the industry. Its lyrics are every bit as political, socially conscious, and confrontational as those on their earlier releases, but there’s a bit more humour behind the bite this time around (“Give me a kingdom where people are free/ Free to do and free to be/ Free to screw you before you screw me/ Gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme...”). The band even got invited on to Top Of The Pops with At The Edge and Nobody’s Heroes, although the BBC felt they weren't taking it seriously enough because they weren't playing live and forbade any further appearances. They didn't stick to their guns, though.
As second albums go the fire and fight remained undiminished, but pity any band that would have to try and top, or at the very least match, a debut like ‘Inflammable Material’. It’s debatable whether they did either with ‘Nobody’s Heroes’. We’ll debate it, though.
This article was not endorsed by Nick Lowe.