Record Review: The Undertones

the undertones - USCDA

Rykodisc | US | CD | 1994 | RCD 10293

The Undertones: The Undertones US CD [1994]

  1. Family Entertainment
  2. Girls Don’t Like It
  3. Male Model
  4. I Gotta Getta
  5. Teenage Kicks
  6. Wrong Way
  7. Jump Boys
  8. Here Comes The Summer
  9. Get Over You
  10. Billy’s Third
  11. Jimmy Jimmy
  12. True Confessions
  13. (She’s A) Runaround
  14. I Know A Girl
  15. Listenin’ In
  16. Casbah Rock
  17. Smarter Than You
  18. Emergency Cases
  19. Top Twenty
  20. Really Really
  21. Mars Bars
  22. She Can Only Say No
  23. One Way Love

Talk about being late to the table! I remember when chasinvictoria was toting this album around in the high school radio station that we worked at. I had not had the pleasure of hearing it and when I asked him what it sounded like he replied “they’re the Irish Ramones!” Truth be told, I felt at the time that one Ramones was sufficient and I didn’t really bother with The Undertones for many years to come. It remained until the Ryko US CDs were issued [with generous bonus tracks] that I managed to snag copies of “Hypnotised” and “The Sin Of Pride.” This was years after the point [1995?] where I finally warmed to the merits of That Petrol Emotion; the band that the O’Neill brothers formed after the split of The Undertones in 1983. I thought it was time to hear what I missed. For many years, these were the only two Undertones albums I’d heard.

<flash forward 19 years>

DIY - teenaged kicksUSCDADIY - starry eyesUSCDALast year, I finally saw used copies of “The Undertones” and “Positive Touch” and I was more than ready to snap them up. At first blush, the debut album sounded like chasinvictoria hit the nail on the head, all those years ago. These were gum-snapping punk tunes graced with a few more pop hooks [and possibly a chord or two] than The Ramones usually dealt in, but when “Male Model” came on it sounded every inch the lost track from “Rocket To Russia.” Obviously, even I had heard a few of these tracks earlier. One would have to live under a tarp not to have heard the wonderful “Teenaged Kicks” at some point or another. And I had two of the D.I.Y. series of 1993 Rhino comps with not only that John Peel classic but also “Get Over You” on the other.

But the relatively baroque pop of those two singles, with their running times in excess of 2:00, hardly prepared me for the succinct charms of the first Undertones album, where over half of the original songs were far more brief than that. The US Sire Records copies of “The Undertones” had the two non-LP singles mentioned last paragraph appended to its brief running time, and in a move like the US adding “Virginia Plain” to the first Roxy Music album, this somehow became canonical for subsequent copies.

Another track, “Wrong Way” reeks so completely of “We’re A Happy Family” until the song goes into a major chord shift for its poppy chorus that the Ramones claims garner much credence here. The big difference between The Ramones and The Undertones, who were certainly influenced by them, was that The Ramones were all pushing 30 by the time they got it down in a studio. Their unique worldview issued from an older, much darker perspective filled with self deprecating black humor and fatalism that probably came from waiting for exciting things to happen for so long while marking time. The difference in The Undertones point of view can probably be put down to their ages; nearly a decade younger than The Ramones. These tunes fairly burst with youthful energy and enthusiasm in spite of growing up in the tense, violent city of Derry, which was a flashpoint for The Troubles during their young lives.

undertones - herecomesthesummerUK7AOne would not know it from hearing these peppy, energetic songs that mostly deal with the topics of growing up. The singles were all fairly begging to be played on the radio, but a tuneful corker like “Here Comes The Summer” was only 1:40 long! That left barely enough time for any DJ to cue up the next record. But the bouncy organ that livened this up was perhaps the ‘Tones response to “Rockaway Beach” or the farfisa in “Let’s Dance.”

undertones - getoveryouUK7AAbsolutely my favorite tune here was the single “Get Over You” which had incredible production by Roger Bechirian with dense, booming drums pounding a simply gorgeous motorik big beat. There are times when I just want to hear a punk drum break as produced by Phil Spector and records like Holly + The Italians’ “Do You Say Love,” this song or even “Let’s Go” by The Ramones, are the only ones that will do.

I’m known for not being a fan of vibrato, but singer Feargal Sharkey pushes so far into the red there with his tremulous tenor that one can only hold on for the ride and laugh. Elsewhere, the rest of the band contribute some ace background vocals, particularly on a track like “Get Over You” where their harmonies shine beautifully.

I love how the album ended with “Casbah Rock;” a primeval “Louie Louie” re-write that sounds like the first thing the band might have recorded in their garage when they were 15 or so. The lo-fi track sets a brevity record here at 47 seconds in length, just enough I think as the fidelity of the cut was miles below all others here. The album had been recorded piecemeal and there were many shifts in tone and quality, but this one was almost like a hidden bonus track, before there were such things.

Speaking of bonus tracks, all of the correct B-sides were appended to the disc and these had some real heights hit, particularly with the brilliantly cheeky “Mars Bar!” This 2:07 ode to the candy bar better known in America as the Milky Way could almost serve as an advertisement, were it not so cheeky and witty. The familiar “work, rest, or play” slogan was roped into the chorus and I absolutely love the foley effects of a breaking plate when Sharkey sings “I never eat my dinner, I push away my plate [crash] you can see I’m getting thinner, because I just can’t wait… to get my Mars Bar…”

“She Can Only Say No” was a live B-side, a 51 second amphetamine punk skiffle song that the boys played when a guitarist had to restring. It’s the only song here where a voice other than Sharkey leads. Finally, One Way Love” was a B-side that showed the growth these young men were undergoing. It sticks out because the song took the point of view of a girl who has to let a besotted younger boy down easy. At the time of “Casbah Rock” I daresay the song would have been written from the point of view of the young man who surely had problems that hit close to home for all of them at one time or another. That they were adopting the other perspective to their writing shows how they were developing by leaps and bounds at this stage in their lives.

– 30 –

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11 Responses to Record Review: The Undertones

  1. Echorich says:

    Punk-Soul-Power Pop! The Undertones were all this and a veneer of escapism from the seriousness of life in 1970’s Ireland. No matter how grave, serious or troubling life was in Ireland, teenage NEEDS ruled teenagers. Love, sex, fitting in, and breaking free of family are all amply addressed and in an infectious, stirring fashion. The debut album, along with The Buzzcock’s Singles Going Steady and The Jam’s All Mod Cons got played constantly at home or in friends bedrooms throughout high school.
    It was easy to draw a line between Ramones and The Undertones – both traded in short and sharp pop/rock and splatter painted over it with 60’s soul. The both flirted with a “wall of sound” as their careers progressed as well.
    As John Peel’s epitaph reads – “Teenage kicks, so hard to beat.”

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Well, they certainly shifted to 60s soul by the time of “Sin Of Pride.” A much better white soul record than much of 1983-5. There was a lot of that going around and looking back, it’s hard to think that they failed to chart with their attempts.

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      • Echorich says:

        I always thought they missed the mark by not releasing Save Me as a single. I think by the time Sin Of Pride came out the band members were moving in different directions, so the writing was already on the wall. That Sin Of Pride only reached the outer edges of the UK Top 40 was that wall coming down.

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  2. Simon H says:

    Really enjoyed the Sin of Pride at the time and was lucky enough to see them on the subsequent tour…great gig but sadly under attended. It was clear the times were changing and their audience had moved on. As Echorich says,it was clear the writing was on the wall.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Simon H – I think with “Sin Of Pride” the band were in step with the times. But the audience would not accept the band swimming with the tide, as it were. Ironically, when Sharkey went solo afterward [with weak material] it went down very well. I only bought the goopy “Loving You” non-LP single at the time due to the elaborate packaging [white vinyl/PVC sleeve/poster] so I guess that marketing ploy worked. I’ve not listened to that in 30 years. Time to dust it off? I can remember mostly the cold, abrupt ending of the B-side more than anything.

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  3. Simon H says:

    Elaborate packaging very often worked with me, sometimes hard to resist!
    Funny Sharkey went on to be head of the British Phonographic Institute….

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Simon H – I respect Sharkey for not joining the Undertones reformation bandwagon. Can you imagine a man in his 40s-50s singing songs from the first album? That’s just wrong.

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  4. Simon H says:

    Yes, tend to agree.
    I have to recall my childish behaviour at the gig in question, a balloon was being flicked around over the heads of the crowd, unintentionally I flicked it and it hit him in the face….shocking behaviour! Never forgotten how mortified I was….

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  5. Simon H says:

    Hah! No doubt….I was only 16….my excuse!

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  6. Needless to say, as an early champion of that first album, The Undertones appealed to my naturally-fun-loving nature even more than the Ramones (though I was seriously in love with most of the funnier songs on Rocket to Russia by that point). Having first visited the UK during the height of “the troubles” and followed the stories closely when back at home, I was well aware that what made this the greatest pop-punk record ever (IMO) was its DIY spirit of determination to replace their own reality with a new one, a happier one. Since I’m apparently one of the few in this bunch who heard the albums in order, I have to say that “Hypnotised” was even more of what I loved about the band — the cheekiness! “His Good Looking Girlfriend” and “There Goes Norman” accompany “Male Model” as embodying the mindset of the insecure yet self-centered teen brain.

    I remember thinking at the time that “Positive Touch” was a much more mature work, and though I warmed to its more sophisticated production and songwriting over time, it felt at the time very transitional, and it didn’t seem to me that the new, more serious Undertones were going to work out. Once the Monkees, always the Monkees, you know? Same for any band that starts off with a fun, light-hearted image — you get put in a box you can’t really get out of, though I have to admire the Undertones for taking the cleverest escape route I’d seen to that point by way of “Northern Soul.” I think the end of their careers as a unit was as influential on some bands as their early days had been on others. It wasn’t to last, and it wasn’t till Feargal and Vince Clarke came up with “Never Never” that I really warmed to that voice singing something more adult than teen anthems. After that I saw his solo career in a warmer light and still enjoy a number of his songs today.

    There’s a video I ran across (actually two, shot by different cameraphones at the same gig) of Feargal singing in public again for the first time in 20 years at some concert honoring Vince, with Andy Bell on backup (no sign of Alison in this particular video but I’m sure she was there) doing “Never Never” and absolutely nailing it after a half-lifetime away from all that. Quite a moment really, and makes you wish for things that could never have been. At least he knows that some of us still remember.

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