Way back in 1980 Stiff Little Fingers released their second album, ‘Nobody’s Heroes’. The year previous they released ‘Inflammable Material’, one of the best albums of that era, and as fine a debut album as a band – any band – has come out with since. 2014 marks not only the thirty-fifth anniversary of that debut, but the release of the band’s tenth studio album, ‘No Going Back’…but we’ll come to that. First there is a question that need to be answered, one that stretches back to ‘Nobody’s Heroes’, and concerns the subject of the dedication that adorns its inner sleeve – “This album was not produced by Nick Lowe”. It was a “bit of a daft in-joke, really” Ali McMordie tells us, seeing as “Lowe seemed to be producing every hip contemporary act that hit the charts at that time.” Now that we’ve cleared up any longstanding misconceptions about a Lowe/Stiffs rift, let’s get on with it.
McMordie has been with the band since taking over bass guitar duties from Gordon Blair back in the pre-Stiffs days, when they played covers under the name Highway Star. The arrival of punk (“electrifying!”) was the jolt that spurred them on to write original material – “Nothing else we had heard so far had the power and excitement of those early records” – and to take on a new moniker, nicked from the title of a Vibrators song.
The overarching catalyst for this change in operations came from across the pond, and a band that has much to answer for in terms of influence according to McMordie, “Hearing the Ramones album for the first time! The bass player with Highway Star – Gordie Blair – allegedly wasn’t as enamoured with punk rock as the rest of the band and promptly quit. I was introduced to the remaining members by a mutual friend Stephen Lynd (who sadly passed away a couple of years ago) who said I should meet the band who ‘like that same shite you listen to’ and we arranged rehearsal in whatever local community centre we could blag for free. Original songs soon followed once we launched the band with a two hour set of punk rock covers…”
Original material did indeed follow, and their debut single Suspect Device was released on the band’s own Rigid Digits label in ’78. Ali espouses the band’s DIY ethic even back in those fledgling years, “It came about by not being able to get a record deal! DIY was the order of the day until the labels woke up. Gordon Ogilvie, the manager and ‘fifth member’ of the band, came up with the idea and the name, and provided the apartment space we used to package the first singles up in homemade photocopied picture sleeves.” The song was as an incendiary burst of punk as its title suggests, a commentary on The Troubles in Northern Ireland at the time, and brought the band to the attention of John Peel.
“We were heavily influenced by John Peel’s Radio One late night show” McMordie tells us when asked of the influence of Jamaican music (the band covered Bob Marley’s Johnny Was on their debut, a live favourite to this day) in their sound. “There was very little publicity back then for underground sounds and the weekly NME as well as the now-defunct Sounds and Melody Maker were our only exposure to what was going on in the rest of the world. Jamaican music reflected the street politics of the time and even though the beats were eons apart it struck a chord in our Irish hearts and minds.”
Their political outlook and embracing of this music had parallels in England with the 2 Tone movement, and SLF also covered The Specials’ anti-racism song It Doesn’t Make It Alright on ‘Nobody’s Heroes’. “We nicked the Specials’ tune even before it was released! I’m not sure if that denotes a ‘relationship’ although we were on the same label which influenced our decision to sign to Chrysalis. Much later on Jake Burns from SLF and Pauline Black from The Selecter toured together doing unplugged sessions, so apart from always liking ska we also got on well with the 2 Tone crew.”
Street politics did indeed form the basis of the band’s lyrical themes, even if it did lead to accusations from certain of their contemporaries that they were sensationalising the conflict in Northern Ireland. But how were relations between bands in the North at the time? “Stormy. There was a fair bit of competition, and not always friendly, between the various bands of the time despite the occasional bouts of camaraderie – The Undertones, Moondogs, Rudi, Outcasts, Protex, Ruefrex – although we would still hang around together…safety in numbers really”
Despite whatever was going on politically at the time, whether on the streets or between the bands, it seems there was a united front in terms of people seeking out music. “We toured all over Ireland, wherever we could find bars or clubs either enthusiastic or ignorant enough to have us play – often to just a couple of bemused farm workers and maybe the odd punk rocker. Any band that came to the North was well received, and even though the border was only forty miles away those that made it up from the South seemed so much more exotic. Broadly speaking the Northern bands veered more towards rock whilst the Southern acts seemed more experimental….maybe it’s the legacy of our showband tradition”
It could have all gone so differently, though, had Jake Burns’ short-lived acting and presenting career taken off. The band, and Jake most overtly, were involved in the BBC Play For Today, ‘Iris In The Traffic, Ruby In The Rain’ and likewise the ‘Bout you!’ TV show. “Hmmm ancient history here…I think someone at the Beeb liked the band and it went from there – always about who you know. Jake’s character (‘Ducksy Boyle’!) was a first for him outside of school plays and there was a fair bit of Dutch courage in the performance….so much so that the combination of Belfast accent and many pints of Harp lager meant his lines had to be overdubbed later!”
Fortunately or not for the viewing public, a music career took precedence and the band released two more album’s before deciding to call it a day in 1983. “We grew apart” says McMordie. “We weren’t getting on and had drifted into different camps. I got married and my (now ex) wife wanted to be involved in the touring side of things, that didn’t help. It was all a bit like a punk rock Spinal Tap…a movie incidentally that every band should watch!” Frontman Jake Burns formed Jake Burns & The Big Wheel in the interim, until the band decided to reform in ’87. McMordie departed once more, to be replaced by ex-Jam man Bruce Foxton before 1991’s ‘Flags & Emblems’, but busied himself with a different project – the ‘Peace Together’ LP.
The project, based on the success of Live Aid, was designed to raise awareness about problems faced by young people in pre-ceasefire Northern Ireland. An ambitious plan for triple satellite linked concerts in Dublin, Belfast and London didn’t come to full fruition, with only the Dublin concert going ahead. “Belfast had Peter Gabriel headlining but there was a bomb just a few days beforehand that blew up the hotel all nine bands were staying in and Mr Gabriel’s band mutinied!” While not the success all involved had envisioned, the collaborative album that resulted raised enough to fund a studio in Belfast affordable enough for unemployed musicians to use for rehearsal and recording (“I think Snow Patrol used it once…”)
Foxton continued with the band up until 2003’s ‘Guitar & Drum’, with McMordie re-joining three years later. Their latest album, ‘No Going Back’, had a slow gestation according to the bassist – as evidenced by the ten year gap since the previous release – but the band’s passion and anger is undimmed. “Maybe it’s part of the process of growing older and the realisation there’s no rush, no pressure apart from us not wanting to ever be considered a nostalgia act, which was the motivation towards getting a new release out there. Plus there are so many stupid or devious bastards in power positions calling the shots today – this is our only way of shouting back. The anger and frustration is still there and we had to get that out!”
‘Guitar & Drum’, as the title suggests, was more of a back to basics approach, and one that was well received by fans. It seems they’ve found no reason to deviate from that formula, with the focus remaining on four men taking a workmanlike approach. “Very much so, with what’s hopefully a ‘live’ feel, few overdubs and no keyboards! Guilty As Sin is the one exception with a couple of traditional instruments taking the lead.”
With Jake Burns now living in Chicago, McMordie in New York and guitarist Ian McCallum and drummer Steve Grantley similarly dispersed, the bassist concedes that they don’t have much interaction outside of rehearsals and the occasional band meeting. This obviously had an effect on the usual processes of writing and recording. “The logistics of getting together to work out arrangements etc. meant we often had to compromise – meaning we had to put off recording a couple of years after announcing a new album was to be released imminently”
This disparity in their geographical scatterings, as well as individual personal situations, also had a bearing on the lyrical side of the new material, although certain themes do echo those of SLF songs past. “I would like to think they are more general in thinking, but inevitably they stem from how we see things personally. The influences we would like to state that shape our lives are often not those that actually determine how we view the world….parents, teachers, gangs anyone!?”
While the new material may speak to a more empirical world view than that of the young men on those early records, Jake Burns certainly took things closer to home with his My Dark Places, a song that seems to strike a nerve with audiences when played live. “It was a very personal song from Jake dealing with depression and the lack of sympathy or treatment you can get for that condition, so it’s all the more encouraging to see the upbeat reaction when played live.”
Just like that first single in ’78, present-day Stiffs decided to go it alone and gather up the money for their latest album by themselves, using PledgeMusic.com to generate funding. “I mentioned this a year ago when I noticed Bruce Foxton had funded his solo album using PledgeMusic after leaving SLF, and also seeing as the initial reaction from labels was lukewarm we decided to go ‘independent’ and the response and support from the fanbase was nothing less than astounding”.
At the time of writing there are 3201 pledgers on the site, and just under a month left on the clock. “It meant we could record the album we wanted to rather than the one we ‘had’ to and seems to have worked.” A master of understatement is McMordie, it seems; work it did, with the band reaching their target in under twelve hours, and exceeding it beyond all expectations. This success has welcome repercussions for a project dear to the band’s heart.
A percentage of the money from the Pledge fund goes to the Integrated Education Fund, an initiative dedicated to providing the opportunity for school children in Northern Ireland to be educated together. “The band supported the IEF previously at a show at the Ulster Hall, donating 100% of IEF/SLF t-shirts to the fund, and they all sold out, so it seemed only natural to continue this support using the Pledge. The initial interest came from reading a feature in their quarterly magazine about how pupils from my old Primary school Cliftonville in North Belfast had raised funds for the IEF from a sponsored walk. It was only then I realised the school had achieved integrated status after many years of flux as the area had suffered badly during the conflict and the school nearly closed.
“I visited the old school for the first time since I left over forty years ago and gave an impromptu speech in the assembly hall that seemed well received by the kids – despite the fact I interrupted their cartoon time – and also learnt about the curriculum that taught respect for each other’s racial and religious backgrounds. The aims of the IEF seemed like common sense to us, thorny subject though it may be to some, but well worth supporting.” A lot of the parents involved must have gotten a kick, or a shock, to see these one-time punk upstarts from their youth getting involved in the project. “Well I would like to think it was positive, although I couldn’t help thinking that back when we started in ‘77 parents then would have run a mile!”
Another aspect of the Pledge is the various reward packages on offer at different pricing structures. One such package, alongside the more modest offerings of a signed setlist at £25 or your name in the album credits and a signed CD for £75, is a special tour of Chicago with Jake Burns for the princely sum of £3000. “Judging from the reaction of the one guy who took up the Chicago offer, the time he spent there was great. It basically involved doing all the things that Jake would do of an evening or two – visiting The Liars’ Club for example, seeing bands and maybe even having a pint or ten…hangover included!”
One tantalising aspect for generations of SLF fans is the opportunity to get up onstage and play with the band. That’ll cost you £250, but it seems a few pretenders have put their money where their mouth is and come up with the goods. “Too good – I’m out of a job now. No but seriously, we had a half dozen or so guys strut their stuff on guitar and drums, mostly from Britain, but one came from France and they were all great! It’s always interesting to hear different takes on established songs.”
The band are clearly pleased with the rewards their independent approach has reaped thus far, and are more fortunate than most in the support they can claim from fans. How sustainable it may prove to be in the future remains to be seen, but the traditional record company route may well be a thing of the past for SLF; as McMordie says, though, “Never say never.”
Browsing the rest of the items on the Pledge list, there are different variations on the formats of music that people can avail of, both digital and physical. With a band whose career has spanned every format worth talking about we were curious as to how people are listening to SLF these days. “Vinyl has definitely picked up and with the right gear is still the best format, although i don’t know how people can afford it these days – at $25+ a pop I can’t!”
If some of the prices may seem beyond what most would pay for such items, the band has always tried to look after the fans when it comes to hitting the pocket. See the ‘£1.10 or less EP’, released in 1982 and emblazoned with that very instruction so the high street couldn’t rightly charge any more. Even so, you’ll do well to get it for that these days and Ali has certainly seen the price rise a bit since its release – “Twenty quid on eBay.” That’s just takin’ the piss.
The touring machine rolls ever onward, though, and the band has just completed an Australian jaunt. “The Soundwave Festival (with what seems like two hundred metal bands on tour and Green Day headlining) has got us out to new territories and it is quite humbling – and inspiring – to hear from fans who waited over thirty years to see us. Hope it wasn’t too much of an anti-climax when we clambered up on stage #7…”
Despite touring destinations far from their Belfast roots, the band still attracts a faithful crowd of wanderers. “We get quite a few ex-pats eager to re-live their youth! With overseas audiences we sometimes have to work harder to get a good reaction and not just because of unfamiliarity – differences in culture and tradition play a role in audiences’ reactions. In Japan we thought we had bombed because of the silence between songs when we were used to general rowdiness…then we figured out they were too polite to interrupt Jake’s song introductions even though most didn’t cop a word.”
The touring life clearly still throws up the odd Spinal Tap moment, as Ali recounts from the Sydney leg of the Soundwave tour. The band’s Facebook page played host recently to a heated discussion between fans about a spat of sorts with English psychedelic rockers Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats. We got the lowdown from Ali – “The stages were right next to each other, the idea being that as soon as one band finished, the other would start. However at the second gig in Sydney, a couple songs into the set we heard what sounded like PA feedback but realised (along with a few irate members of the audience) it was said Uncle thingy blattering away on guitars for their soundcheck next door.
“Now there is a way of doing this without disruption, but when they were accosted – and a few missiles were hurled in their direction – and asked to refrain, they countered with a kinda bitchy ‘well they ran 10 minutes over yesterday’ which under the circumstances wasn’t really the best response. Anyway they decided it might not be astute to continue – Los Angeles band Pennywise, who had been watching side of stage were fighting our corner – and hushed up after that. And we finished on time for all the other shows…” Ali is less vocal however when asked about the band’s relationship with XSLF, the band consisting of Jim Reilly and Henry Cluney , two ex-members of SLF, who recently played here in Dublin – “Whatever floats yer boat”
Looks like the “not-always-friendly competition” Ali mentioned earlier still manages to raise its head no matter what age the band, but we hope they manage to reconcile their difference with Uncle thingy. The next stop on the tour is Tokyo, before SLF make their way back to these parts to play what will no doubt be the kind of celebratory events Stiffs gigs usually end up being. How can you fail when you have Alternative Ulster up your sleeve? After a decade of recorded inactivity ‘No Going Back’ brings with it a band re-energised, it seems, and Ali leaves us with a straight to the point, one-word affirmative when asked of more Stiffs material in the near future. Onwards and upwards.
You can catch Stiff Little Fingers when they play The Academy, Dublin on March 13th, and Belfast’s Ulster Hall on the 14th.