The Undertones bringing their Irish rock ‘n’ roll to Australia for the very first time

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The Undertones bringing their Irish rock ‘n’ roll to Australia for the very first time

They were dubbed ‘The most improbable popstars, from the most unexpected place,’ but forty years after performing their debut single, ‘Teenage Kicks’, on Britain’s Top of the Pops, Northern Ireland’s answer to punk and new wave the Undertones, are winging their way to us for the very first time. “We are finally bringing our Irish rock ‘n’ roll to Australia!” smiles guitarist and primary songwriter John O’Neill.

Laughing about the fact that despite his band is being touted as ‘The most successful band to have ever emerged from Derry’, they sometimes struggle to make a living from touring. “We are asked all the time, ‘When are you coming to Australia?’, but you have to remember, we don’t do this full-time, we all have day jobs so touring has to fit around everyone’s schedules. This year we’re able make it work, and it’s excellent to have an opportunity to come and play some shows.”

Formed in Derry amidst the growing unrest and uncertainty of Northern Ireland in the mid-seventies, known as ‘The Troubles’, the Undertones single-handily introduced the new wave and punk DIY ethos to their peers playing covers of their favourite bands at scout halls, school and other local venues. “There were a few local bands playing around at the time, but they weren’t what we were into. The bands played either pop-type music, stuff that they had heard on the charts, or they were playing Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin, which we detested at the time,” says O’Neill. “And because of the war there were not a lot of bands coming over [to Northern Ireland]. People were afraid to be here.

“We loved the early Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and The Animals” he adds. “So we rented a place together around 1975 and that’s when we first came up with the idea to form a band. We started playing together just in the living room sorta thing. We knew that nobody was playing anything like that in Derry and we weren’t even thinking about anything outside of that.”

At this time the Undertones line-up was O’Neill, his brother Damian, Michael Bradley, Billy Doherty and lead singer, Feargal Sharkey (since replaced by Paul McLoone in 1999). “Lucky for us the punk thing was really taking hold in New York and we’d read about it in NME. We read about a groups like Television, the Ramones and Blondie. Obviously that had a knock on effect in England with bands like the Clash. “We loved the indie rock thing. It was like if you could play a chord and then play two chords, you could form a band,” he laughs.

“We loved the ethos and we believed in it. Covering those bands helped to give us some momentum and then we started reading about bands like the Stooges, the New York Dolls, and the Velvet Underground. You couldn’t buy those records in Derry because they were so obscure but we had a friend of a friend in Dublin who would lend them to us,” O’Neill explains. “So we were able to pick songs from those records to bulk up our repertoire.”

Soon the Undertones had perfected their short, sharp songs of adolescent angst and they found themselves with a residency at one of Derry’s most iconic clubs of the day, The Casbar. Around this time, the legendary BBC1 DJ John Peel got a hold of their debut single ‘Teenage Kicks’, and after declaring ‘It doesn’t get much better than this’, he played it twice in a row. Suddenly everyone wanted a slice of the Undertones.

“We never took the band that seriously before that. We thought we’d make a record and then we will break up, but at least we will prove that a punk band came from Derry in 1977,” O’Neill admits. “But as soon as John played our record, the phone started to ring from various record companies wanting to come over to see us so we thought well we’d better not break up!” he laughs. “There might be something happening here.” And the rest is history.

When & Where: Corner Hotel, Melbourne – July 14

Written by Natalie Rogers