Interview: The Undertones (part 2: John O’Neill)
Published on May 27th, 2013 | Theo Gorst
Following on from Rocksucker’s recent chat with The Undertones drummer Billy Doherty, Theo Gorst was granted a private telephone audience with the legendary Derry group’s rhythm guitarist and principal songwriter John O’Neill…
When Rocksucker was granted the pleasure of a conversation with John O’Neill, it was notable how his emphasis was very much on having ‘fun’ within the band. This seemed fitting for a group whose most recognisable song is about the reckless abandon of youth. It’s clear O’Neill approaches music as a fan and as such is only motivated by the possibility of keeping things interesting for both himself and the new generation of audience members that populate recent shows.
Despite 35 years having elapsed between their breakthrough single and now, O’Neill’s enthusiasm for music remains undimmed; as he points out, he “loves music”. Whether this is the Nuggets compilation, which he refers to as his “bible”, or newer records from the likes of Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall, it becomes obvious that such passion is infectious and has continued to galvanise fans from the ’70s into today.
Speaking candidly about inter-band relationships, O’Neill felt that The Undertones’ fourth album Sin of Pride suffered due to tensions within the band; now though, they are untethered by notions of an enduring career that allows audiences across the world to share in the excitement that comes with performing one of punk rock’s greatest back catalogues…
It has been fourteen years since you reunited, which is longer than you were together originally. How have things changed? What’s it like being in The Undertones now?
Well, it’s now just a bit of fun; it’s not anything we’re expecting a career out of. There’s no pressure, we just play whenever it suits everyone. Most of us have day jobs so we just have to work around people’s holidays and bank holidays. It’s a different thing, it’s now more for the fun of doing it as opposed to making a career.
Do you see fans from original gigs now?
Oh yeah, there are people from the original time that still come and see us. I don’t really keep in touch as much as the other members of the band though.
It must be a real thrill to see a new generation of fans coming through and enjoying the music.
That’s the most fun, interesting and surprising thing. I think the audience seems to be getting younger, which is really strange.
I can see why. For example, the themes of teenage angst on the first LP appeal to people of that age and will continue to do so.
It does seem that way. There seems to be a universal resonance. We were never the most original band in the world.
Your words not mine!
Well, they were never original subjects either, but we seem to strike a chord with teenagers.
I saw you play in Norwich with The Fall last year and there did seem to be a good few younger fans present.
Yeah, the songs aren’t the most complicated ones in the world, they’re fairly short. It goes back to the influence The Ramones had on us at the time. Going further back I always loved early rock ‘n’ roll and glam rock. The idea of short pop songs was ingrained in me.
Who would you say was the greatest influence on The Undertones when you were starting out?
I suppose the obvious things with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. That was a factor that got Damian and Billy listening to records together. Then I started to delve deeper, I discovered the blues and who it was that influenced the Stones, and the whole ’60s beat movement of The Kinks. Then onto early rock ‘n’ roll with Dion and the Belmonts.
I just love music and hearing new stuff. When we were growing up, I got into those early rock ‘n’ roll records, as the glam rock era borrowed heavily. As a result, record companies would rerelease records by Dion and the Belmonts and these records would be on the radio – it was like reliving the early ’60s. That was certainly a big influence on me in terms of realising what I did and didn’t like.
I really didn’t like heavy metal, or bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath; a lot of peers at school were into that but I preferred David Bowie, Roxy Music and T. Rex, that element of things. Then discovering The Velvet Underground, who had a real influence on Roxy Music; the Velvet Underground was a real eye opener. I consistently keep discovering new things.
You say you keep discovering bands. As a rule of thumb do you look backwards or do you have your ears to the ground, so to speak?
I suppose at my age I’m not really that much in touch with what’s going on. I just love ’60s garage and there’s a lot of that stuff still out there, some great compilations.
Like the Nuggets one?
Yeah, that’s kind of my thing. I love Can, that Can box set that came out with all the lost tapes was great to hear. In terms of new stuff I love Thee Oh Sees, and I think Ty Segall is fantastic.
Have you heard the new Mikal Cronin record? He plays with Ty Segall.
No, I’ll definitely check that out.
It’s the 35th anniversary of “Teenage Kicks”. What are your memories of writing the song? As soon as you’d written it, did you know you’d written an absolute classic?
At that time we were playing at the Casbah in Derry – we’d play once every two weeks – and the plan was to have a new song written and one or two new cover versions to play, to keep it fresh for ourselves. “Teenage Kicks” was just another new song; we must have obviously thought it was good as we put it on the EP but we weren’t really aware of how special it was at the time.
That leads into my next question: we spoke to Billy recently and he said the others wanted to release “True Confessions” as the lead single from the EP, yet he insisted on “Teenage Kicks” should be released. Is that how you remember it?
That’s true, at first we felt “True Confessions” was our best song and our most original. “Teenage Kicks” didn’t really seem to go down better than any other song, so we had no inclination it was that good. Calling the EP the Teenage Kicks EP made sense as we were still teenagers anyway so then releasing that song seemed like the obvious then to do.
We released an EP because we loved the Spiral Scratch EP by Buzzcocks and we listened to all four songs in the same way, so we assumed people would listen to all four songs on our EP and not necessarily focus on one song. Obviously once John Peel played “Teenage Kicks” the rest was history. After John Peel played it, it became this iconic thing.
Have you listened to One Direction’s cover of it?
Yeah I’ve heard it. I got an email before Christmas asking me if I was okay with it and to be honest I’d never really heard of One Direction, but when I asked people what they thought, they said you’d be crazy not to agree with it because of the chances of it charting and the exposure we might get from it. I don’t really like it, though.
You were talking about growing up in Northern Ireland and obviously the Northern Irish Troubles were going on then, yet your first LP focuses more on universal themes. Was that more a reaction to what was going on, to not reference it?
Well, not so much a reaction, more an instinctive thing. Obviously we were aware of Stiff Little Fingers and Suspect Device, but to tell you the truth we were never really fans of Stiff Little Fingers. Especially after we found out the lyrics were written by an English journalist, we just felt it was an obvious thing – too obvious almost – to start writing clichés about living in war torn streets of Northern Ireland, it just seemed a bit twee and obvious.
Obviously there was a political element to punk, but steering clear of it was almost a political thing in itself. Even though we were growing up with horrific things going on around us, people still had to have relationships, people still wanted to find partners and love. That happens in any scenario whether it’s living in a war torn situation or normality.
Punk’s about subverting expectations, and in doing so that’s what you did.
Yeah, most of the time journalists did say that. They’d never ask about the Troubles and our stance; just because you’re living in it, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to talk about it. Especially with that first record.
We were about to break up after the Teenage Kicks EP, we didn’t think we were all that good. We didn’t think our songs were particularly special so we never really put that much emphasis on a long-term career. A lot of what happened was all spontaneous: as we grew a bit older and as I gained a bit of confidence in my songwriting ability, I tried to turn a bit of attention to where I came from.
Is that what made you write about the troubles on Positive Touch, more awareness?
It was, yeah. On a personal level I was against making a standpoint for the civil rights movement or trying to change the state in Northern Ireland, but I was aware there was a need to try and address it in some way. I had to be careful too, as everybody had slightly different political opinions, so I didn’t want to be speaking what I felt and making the rest of the band feel uncomfortable.
You said you expected to break up after the first EP. Was this the game plan from the start?
Well, we never had a game plan, which was perhaps part of the problem. We never sold that many records, it was always made up ad hoc at the time, and throughout our career. The tension between Feargal [Sharkey] and the rest of us was there from the very start anyway. There were fights between Feargal and us, so that would have been a contributing factor to breaking up.
When we got signed, those sort of things were put aside but they eventually reared their head. As we sold less and less records, Feargal was frustrated with our, especially my, easy going approach. I never really wanted it as a career but Feargal – maybe because he didn’t write the songs – knew he had to have a career out of it.
So the freedom you enjoy now must be a relief then?
That’s exactly why we’ve lasted so long, I think, because there is no pressure now, we’ve done what we want to do and we play when we want to play. As you were saying, the audience seems to be getting younger, which keeps it fresh for us too.
Do you have any contact with Feargal these days?
No, Feargal severed all ties after we broke up. The last tour we did there was no conversation between us, he’d sit in the front of the van and the rest of us would be in the back. That was why when he said he was leaving the band, it was a big relief. The fun had been sucked out of it. It was always meant to be fun, and while compromises have to be made along the way somewhere, the fun still had to be the main thing about it. The fun had definitely gone by the Sin of Pride period and I think that record reflects that.
When touring now, as there’s less pressure, do you feel like teenagers once more?
(Laughs) I certainly don’t! The songs are short: we play about 25 in a set, changing the set around keeps it fresh and fun. I do get a bit bored at times and I definitely think we’re playing half of the set less and less as time goes by, but when we do play it’s fun.
You were talking about Buzzcocks earlier. Around the time you were first going, were there any other bands you considered to be your peers?
Well, Buzzcocks were a huge influence due to the pop influence they had in their songs. You were talking about The Fall earlier and they’re probably my favourite all-time band, they’re unbelievable. I know Mark E. Smith has a few problems but he’s definitely a genius. The band he has now are amazing.
I saw them recently and they’re undoubtedly a very tight band, and he’s kept them longer than most other lineups which is perhaps testament to how good they are.
Yeah, that’s true. Throughout every decade they’ve been phenomenal. There’s nobody better.
Would you consider them peers at the time, The Fall and Buzzcocks?
I didn’t really know much about The Fall when we first started, I got into them through John Peel, they were his favourite band of all time so that was recommendation enough. They were probably a bigger influence [around that time] than The Undertones. The Ramones were probably our biggest influence with the songs and the structures, we always loved stuff like that Nuggets compilation; that was our bible. That was what we learnt to play, we played about ten songs off that record. That ’50s and ’60s garage thing has always been my main influence and I still can’t get enough of it.
What do you think of the whole punk scene in hindsight? Do you think there was a community of sorts? Also John Lydon said punk rock died in 1978: do you think this is true, if it did die at all?
I don’t think it died in ’78 but we kept ourselves to ourselves. We were very insular; we stayed in Derry, we made that decision not to move. A part of the punk mentality for us was to stay close to your roots. I never really met anybody from other bands. We supported The Clash in America and we didn’t even talk to them, I never met them the whole time we played. I didn’t feel I was good enough, I didn’t know what to say to them, I was just in awe. In terms of a punk community I was very diffident; I’m uncomfortable having conversations with people I don’t know very well, I tend to keep myself to myself.
Sin of Pride is notable for the traces of Motown and soul shown on it. What prompted the decision to include these influences? Was it that you found punk quite limiting?
I always loved Northern soul. Also [the change in direction was] partly [prompted] through people asking us about why we weren’t writing songs about what was going on in Northern Ireland. I discovered Marvin Gaye and those early Temptations records: fantastic songs, great tunes! I tried to allow as much as possible to influence me as a songwriter. I was listening to that at the same time as listening to Tim Buckley, so it wasn’t just a soul influence.
That’s interesting how you say you try to open yourself up to new influences. I saw a quote of yours from last year were you’re saying how you love Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack, and how you dabbled in sampling and using a Midi. Do you still use samples and a Midi?
Yeah I formed a band called Rare and we made one record, which is probably the best I’ve ever made. It didn’t sell anything but it’s probably one of my proudest possessions. If anything it was probably a bit too similar to trip-hop and Portishead, which was probably why it wasn’t that successful. We’ve actually reformed here in Derry and we’re playing again, so I’m still sampling and messing about.
In the same quote you also said you didn’t like Britpop: what about it didn’t you like?
I was just turned off by guitars, I was getting so bored with it. I never really liked Oasis, I never really saw what the big deal was. I like Blur better. I just found Tricky, Massive Attack and Portished more interesting.
There’s an infamous Human League reference in “My Perfect Cousin”. Did you ever become fond of synth-pop?
I loved Donna Summer and Kraftwerk, the Human League made some great songs too. I didn’t write that myself, but it was all a bit tongue in cheek.
Finally, have you heard any bands that you feel have ripped off The Undertones?
Not really, we ripped that many other people off that I can’t really accuse anyone of doing the same to us! Sometimes I hear Graham Coxon and think he sounds like Damian, I’m not sure if he was influenced by us. Perhaps their influences are similar?
John O’Neill, thank you.
An Introduction to The Undertones will be released on June 3rd by Salvo Sound & Vision. The bundle includes:
* 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 Derry
* Exclusive live footage from 1979’s Northern Irish Shell Shock Rock documentary and France’s Chorus: The Undertones – Live at Le Palace (1980)
* Seven promo videos and studio performances from The Old Grey Whistle Test and The Tube
For more information, please visit The Undertones’ official website.