The Undertones

Bubblegum and Punk? Hmmm... Chewey! Snappy!

Let me introduce you to the Undertones. Like the Stiff Little Fingers, they came from Northern Ireland, but unlike the Fingers, they didn't sing about politics, they sang about girls. Still teens when they released their first album, their songs were set in a Tiger Beat world where your biggest source of angst is finding a date Saturday night. They started out as a rudimentary punk band - like the Fingers to the Clash, the Undertones were often called the Irish Ramones. However, these boys grew up fast, with each album making marked advances musically over the previous one; by the time they'd broken up, they had made forays into light psychedelia and neo-soul. The quintessentially lightweight, infectious pop band, it's hard to believe they came from the grim streets of Northern Ireland. I guess boys will be boys all the same, no matter where they live. By general consensus, they were the greatest band ever from the Protestant section of that little island in the North Atlantic, and might be the greatest band from the entire island ever, too, if not for U-know-who.

Reader Comments

Chris Freeman,

The Undertones do NOT come from Belfast, they come from Londonderry, or as they would say just plain "Derry".

The Undertones (1979) ****

Okay, so it's not as perfect as some pundits might have you believe: a few of these 23 songs (counting 7 bonus tracks on the reissue) are throwaways that don't go anywhere - "I Know A Girl", well don't we all. And if you're not in the mood for relentlessly cheery pop music, then there's not much reason to listen. Okay, now I've just pointed out the only flaws on this album, 'cause otherwise it's perfect. There are so many great to very good tracks that you easily ignore the few weaker tunes, and it all whizzes by so fast the not-so-great moments are over before you can bother to reach up and fast-forward. The Undertones share a basic three-chord sound with punks like the Ramones, but this is way too wholesome and poppy to really count as what your average person thinks of as punk - heck, it's "Family Entertainment" for all ages. Think the Bay City Rollers on speed, without the icky ballads and a few good songs for a change. Or think a non-neurotic, teenaged Buzzcocks: in other words, pure punk-pop bliss that makes Green Day seem, in comparison... Well, there's no point in my putting down Green Day, is there, since we all know they're mediocre. But at least Green Day do have a handful of good singles, don't they? Okay, then do the math: multiply your favorite 3 Green Day singles by 7, discard all the sucky crap, and lo and behold - you've got a kickin' Undertones album! Sheesh it's hard to figure out my favorite song: "Male Model" almost makes me consider a career posing for Calvin Klein; "Teenage Kicks", the band's debut, is one of the greatest songs about said subject in the post-C. Berry era; "Get Over You," ditto; "Here Comes Summer" is as good a Beach Boys filtered through the Ramones as you'd wish for; "(She's A) Runaround" does the same for Dion & the Belmonts; "Jimmy Jimmy" and "True Confessions" are simply impossible to get out of your mind. In fact, the same goes for the whole album: be careful, it's very contagious. Only listening to one song off this album is like only eating one piece of chocolate: before you know it, you've consumed the entire stash. Only this album won't make you feel nearly as guilty.

Hypnotised (1980) ***1/2

The brothers John and Dennis O'Neill, who play guitar and write all the songs, have fallen into formula on this release. When I first heard it, I wasn't too impressed; all the songs seemed a bit too calculated and formulaic. However, I've grown to like it, as it displays a good grasp of '60s pop form ("See That Girl" with its ba-ba-ba-ba's), and nearly all these 15 humdingers are pretty catchy (except for the cover of "Under The Boardwalk" - the Undertones still aren't musically accomplished enough to pull it off). One problem is that it's too thinly produced - a problem that would plague the Undertones - and doesn't give this power-pop much help in the power department. "Wednesday Week" is simply lovely, an acoustic chimer that points the direction the Undertones would take away from punk on the next album. "Girls That Don't Talk" might be my favorite rocker, while "Boys Will Be Boys" is short and to the point, brilliantly compressed. With self-deprecating irony, the Undertones begin the album by announcing "More Songs About Chocolate And Girls", and if you think that sounds nifty, then you'll probably like what's here. The CD reissue adds some so-so B-sides along with the great, impossibly catchy rocker "You've Got My Number (Why Don't You Use It)", which towers over everything else on the CD and is one of the Undertones' greatest moments.

Positive Touch (1981) ****1/2

And now for something completely different....I'm amazed at the creative growth the Undertones display within the span of one year - it doesn't even sound like the same band. Pretty much abandoning punk completely, the Undertones opt for a pop sound that bears traces of light psychedelia a la Love and the Zombies. Some of these songs aren't as immediately catchy as their earlier material, but they're more rewarding. There are a lot of lovely passages ("Julie Ocean"), and a melancholy, introspective undercurrent runs through much of this album. There are still bright little numbers like "His Good-Looking Girlfriend" and "Boy Wonder" that sound like the old Undertones, but other highlights like "You're Welcome" and the '67 Stones-style "When Saturday Comes" would have sounded completely out of place on previous albums. The single was "It's Going To Happen", which obliquely addresses the "troubles" ("stupid revenge is what's making you stay"), and overall the lyrics show the Undertones growing out of their teens and finding more compelling subjects to write about than girl troubles. The B-sides and singles on the reissue are generally excellent, especially the pretty "Beautiful Friend", and Dennis' Toppermost of the Poppermost satire "Fairly In The Money Now". A deep and highly pleasurable album that is hard to believe was made by the same band that had been doing basic three chord numbers a couple of years earlier.

The Sin Of Pride (1983) **1/2

Well, at least the title's accurate. The Undertones' ambition finally gets the better of them; delving into horn-punctuated soul proves disastrous, mainly because the Undertones' hooks are buried underneath the mass of overproduction and overorchestration. I'd like to talk about the good songs on this album, but there aren't really any, at least none that I can remember. The '80s are upon us - why did the Undertones feel that they had to compete with the likes of Spandau Ballet? Just check out the cover: here the lads are all dolled up like bright, trendy young conservatives, matching suits and makeup in a sumptous yet tasteful setting. What happened to the ragamuffin street boys we came to know and love? Sigh....sometimes growing up ain't all it's cracked up to be.

The Undertones broke up after this record, with the rhythm section leaving the music biz. Lead singer Feargal Sharkey pursued a solo career and had a hit, "A Good Heart", before becoming a one-hit wonder trivia question. The O'Neills formed That Petrol Emotion, an angry politicized rock band that bears no sonic resemblance whatsoever to the Undertones. If you like the Fall, you'll like That Petrol Emotion; I've never cared that much for either since in general I don't like noise bands - a weird end to a band that personified pure sugar pop.

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