Interview: The Undertones (part 1: Billy Doherty)
Published on May 21st, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
It’s the 35th anniversary of The Undertones’ immortal “Teenage Kicks” single, so Salvo Sound & Vision will on June 3rd be releasing the CD + DVD package An Introduction to The Undertones. Let’s tell you about An Introduction to The Undertones.
Basically, An Introduction to The Undertones comprises of a 22-track CD, a two-hour DVD featuring Teenage Kicks: The Story Of The Undertones in which John Peel makes a pilgrimage to meet the band in their hometown of Derry (which just so happens to be the European Capital of Culture for 2013), exclusive live footage from 1979’s Northern Irish Shell Shock Rock documentary and France’s Chorus: The Undertones – Live at Le Palace (1980), as well as an additional seven promo videos and studio performances from The Old Grey Whistle Test and The Tube. Sounds like a pretty nifty introduction to us.
Furthermore, they’re playing at London venue KOKO on Friday, followed by dates in Manchester the next day, Wolverhampton on the 26th and Reading on the 27th. After that they’re off to Europe, dates for which you may browse on their official website. Now we’re done updating you, let’s get on with what you came here for.
Rocksucker had the honour and pleasure of a private telephone audience with drummer Billy Doherty, which we shall follow up by talking to rhythm guitarist/principal songwriter John O’Neill. In the meantime, here is our conversation with the sticksman of one of history’s most enduring and endearing rock bands…
You must be sick to the teeth of being asked about “Teenage Kicks” but it is its 35th year anniversary so we ought to lead with it. Do you remember the first time you heard the song, and whether it stood out as something special even then?
The minute John had written “Teenage Kicks”, I knew immediately it was a great song but I didn’t realise quite how good it was going to be, that the song would take on a life and an energy of its own after we’d recorded it. When we did the Teenage Kicks EP, the guys wanted to release “True Confessions” as a single instead but I objected profusely. I said, “Guys, stick with me, you’ll go far!” (Laughs) Even though I wasn’t very confident about the drumming on it, but we kept it.
One guy who deserves a lot of credit is Davy Shannon, the engineer who recorded the track, because we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. We went into the studio, set up, checked the levels and just did it. I think we only did one or two takes and that was it.
“True Confessions” is a great song too, but it’s a good thing you stuck to your guns!
That “Teenage Kicks” has taken on a life of its own is well evidenced by the fact that One Direction have covered it. What do you think when you see stuff like that?
A lot of people have asked me that and I don’t mind at all. Music is important but on the scale of things I’ve got more important things in life, so I’m not bothered at all. In fact, my nieces are at the age where they like One Direction and they’re absolutely thrilled because uncle Billy can get signed One Direction stuff for them. That’s great for me because my nieces are very fond of me now. I’m delighted to be seen as a cool uncle!
Was being in The Undertones not already enough to establish you as a cool uncle?
Not when you’re 54 and in a fuddy duddy old punk band of grumpy old men!
Do you listen back to those early Undertones recordings often?
Not really, no. The only time I’d have to listen to it is if we were going to do a song we hadn’t played in a long time, but no I don’t listen to a lot of old Undertones stuff. In saying that, I do listen to a lot of old material – I generally look back instead of looking forward, which is probably pretty bad on my part – and sometimes when I’m getting disillusioned or a wee bit fed up with music, I always play a track called “Gloria” by a group called Them because I love the drumming on it.
The drumming on that track was by Bobby Graham, who thankfully I got to speak to – he’s since unfortunately passed away – and it’s such good drumming that it puts your enthusiasm and faith back into what you do.
When you originally started drumming, had you been inspired by other drummers or did you simply find yourself drawn to the drums?
Probably a mixture of both. I was just naturally drawn to drummers. I’m a huge fan of Charlie Watts from The Rolling Stones. Whereas guitarists slag off other guitarists and singers slag off other singers, drummers are generally seen as being more social, like a union. We’re like the goalkeepers of the band: we keep the goals from going in, shout at the players if they’re not doing things right. That’s kind of what I do in The Undertones!
Who chose the tracklist for the new compilation An Introduction to The Undertones?
I’m not really on board with that kind of thing. I’m usually the one who finds out about it afterwards, which doesn’t bother me in the slightest; I actually prefer it that way. The tracklist was probably chosen by Andy Ferguson, who was and still is our manager, and probably [bassist] Michael Bradley and [lead guitarist] Damian O’Neill. They were probably coordinating with the record company as well.
You guys released new single “Much Too Late” for Record Store Day. Does this mean you’ve got more new material in the offing?
Well, we released a thousand singles of “Much Too Late” and they all sold. We did it in Toe Rag studios where White Stripes have recorded; it was done very quickly but not so quickly that it was rushed, just “get in, get it done quickly”, bish bash bosh. We recorded it as ‘live’ as possible, which is one of the things I kind of regret with The Undertones; we probably should have been doing that from day one, as opposed to putting in the drums and bass then adding everything else afterwards.
I think we sound better when it’s done spontaneously, almost live. We’ve just got back from Lugano and there’s talk of doing a few more tracks like that. I hope so because I love doing it, I love the recording process. Before the year’s out, I think we’ll do more new material. I hope so, anyway.
With a view to a new studio album?
The thing is, we’re not very organised. We’re very hit and miss. We could be on tour, someone could ask where we’re playing on Monday, and someone might reply with “Machester” and someone else with “Boston”. We’re all over the place so if it happens it’ll be a miracle in itself! I think we’ll make the effort though.
Will you be doing anything more to mark the Capital of Culture year in Derry?
We were asked to do a few things but it’s actually quite difficult to get things organised. The Capital of Culture thing is a good idea in principle but I think the logistics of putting it together are lacking. They asked us to put on a week of gigs from bands that The Undertones like or that had an influence on The Undertones but I think that was a wee bit ambitious. I’d have loved it to happen but I don’t think it will. We are going to do something for City of Culture at some stage before the year’s out.
We gather you missed the best part of the Terri Hooley biopic Good Vibrations at the premiere…
That’s right. I went out to the loo and when I came back in John [O’Neill] said, “You missed the best part of the film!” Then they told me what happened. I actually saw the part they were referring to on The Culture Show on the BBC. The film was shown as part of the London Film Festival and they were saying that it was one of the best films they’d seen there, and that it was one of the most moving scenes they’d ever seen in a film. The guy chairing the show cried, as did one of the guys on the panel.
For me, the scene where John Peel plays “Teenage Kicks” twice back-to-back on the radio is so good: it captures exactly the way we felt, we just couldn’t believe it. We idolised John Peel. You’ve got to remember that it was 1978 and there were troubles in Northern Ireland, so getting hold of a bag of sugar was difficult enough, let alone getting a producer to produce your record and getting it played on the radio. In a way, that was a small miracle in itself, but getting it played on Radio 1 by John Peel, then getting it played straight after again, that was just unbelievable. I think we’re the only group that that’s ever happened to on Radio 1.
My ambitions were fulfilled very quickly. I wanted to make a record, which I got to do. I wanted it to be played on the radio, which happened. I wanted it to be played by John Peel, which happened, and I wanted it to get on Top of the Pops, which happened. My aspirations were fulfilled in a very short space of time – I could have died happy – so anything after that was a bonus for me.
Were you close to John Peel personally?
Not really. People are bombarded with music these days; I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing but in our day you had to really hunt out records, so if there was any music on TV – The Old Grey Whistle Test or whatever – then it was compulsive viewing for us. We’d check out how they played their guitars, how they did their drumming, et cetera, but John Peel was particularly important because he was playing records we’d never heard of before. It was compulsive listening. He was such a huge influence on the band and he was so good to us as well.
We were at John Peel’s funeral and when they lifted his remains and lifted the coffin down the aisle, they played “Teenage Kicks”. That was the most bizarre, surreal thing, because we never knew when we did the record that it would take on a whole new life. We just made the record because that’s what we did, so to hear it played at someone’s funeral – and to hear people outside the church singing it as well – was the most unbelievable thing.
There are four guys who were key to The Undertones: Terri Dooley of Good Vibrations, who gave us the opportunity to make a record; John Peel, who played the record; Peter Powell, who made it Record of the Week; and Joe Strummer, who took us on tour with The Clash. Joe Strummer was so good to us, such a nice man. We all got on very well with him.
It all sounds truly mind-boggling. How old would you guys have been around then?
Around 20/21. Myself and Michael the bass player used to watch The Clash every night because they were brilliant live. They were so cool to look at, the complete opposite of The Undertones: we felt awkward onstage and didn’t really have the right poses, but The Clash had all that. They were a powerhouse live.
Billy Doherty, thank you.
An Introduction to The Undertones will be released on June 3rd by Salvo Sound & Vision.
The Undertones will play the following UK shows over the next couple of weeks, before moving onto Europe:
24th – Koko, Camden, London
25th – Strummercamp, Manchester Rugby Club, Manchester
26th – The Slade Rooms, Wolverhampton
27th – Sub 89, Reading
For more information, please visit The Undertones’ official website.