In September of 1979, one of the most singularly stupid bookings in Toronto concert history took place.
Mere weeks before the release of their sprawling double-disc masterpiece London Calling, the Clash were inexplicably booked to play the staid interiors of the O'Keefe Centre (now the Hummingbird Centre). And to the surprise of absolutely no one, the joint got trashed. The show ended in a riot. Dozens of theatre seats were collapsed. And somewhere backstage, the Clash's mischievous Irish support act were either clutching the walls or having a good giggle. I'm guessing it was the latter.
The support act in question was the pop/punk pioneers the Undertones, perhaps the finest Irish musical export of the last half centuryÖyes, U2 included. The Undertones recently performed their long-awaited encore in Toronto, more than 25 years after the fact. They were a little more gray around the temples, were sporting a new lead singer in Paul McLoone (he replaced original vocalist Feargal Sharkey in 1999) but otherwise, the band sounded every bit as vibrant and more importantly, as relevant as they did many moons prior.
"Yup, the Clash gig was the last time the Undertones played Toronto," confirms guitarist John O'Neill after a pregnant pause and a bit of prodding. "I played here a couple of times with [O'Neill's post-Undertones project] That Petrol Emotion. It's all merged into a blur for me but it was definitely a long while ago."
The Undertones hail from Derry in Northern Ireland and are filled out by bassist Michael "Mickey" Bradley, drummer Billy Doherty and John's brother, guitarist Damian O'Neill. Known best for their era-definitely debut single "Teenage Kicks", the Undertones had a string of popular UK hits up until their 1983 demise. Feargal Sharkey went on to pursue a solo career while the other Undertones dispersed into various other vocations. The band ultimately reformed in 1999, this time with McLoone at the mic stand and a new album (2003's Get What You Need) on the horizon.
"Irish guitar bands like Ash and Snow Patrol have acknowledged our influence so why shouldn't we go out and play?" says McLoone, commenting on both the reunion and the timing of the Undertones' first full North American tour. "Look at a band like the Pixies. First time around, they couldn't get arrested in America and had to come to England to be heard. And now, they're playing stadiums. They never could have done that in the first wave. It's the influence and relevance that's still there, and I think the same is true to some degree for the Undertones."
With regards to the crowds the band has been attracting, O'Neill says, "It's been a really young audience everywhere. Same thing over in Ireland and the UKóthe age breakdown has pretty much been halved since we first got back together. I think the popularity of newer guitar bands like the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs has helped us, especially when the young fans are eager to check out who influenced these acts."
The Undertones enjoyed something of a reprieve last fall, albeit through no fault of their own. Legendary UK radio presenter John Peel passed away suddenly in late October of 2004, bringing a planet of music fans to their collective knees. Peel had long acknowledged the Undertones' "Teenage Kicks" as his all-time favourite track. In fact, he famously declared that when he first encountered the track by radio whilst in transit, he was forced to pull over his vehicle, lest he crash from the shared feelings of shock and celebration. McLoone and bandmates soon found themselves pulled into the public eulogy that resulted from Peel's death ("Teenage Kicks" was eventually played over the PA system at Peel's funeral).
"I was in Dublin at the time and our bassist Mickey was never off my television. He literally was on Sky News and the BBC with Mark E. Smith [from the Fall] non-stop. It's to be expected because the association was so strong between the band and him. And it might sound awful but I was really glad I got to meet him before he died. The relationship people had with John was much more personal than you had with your average DJ. He was basically a honorary 'Greatest Living English Man'óhe really was."
O'Neill adds, "Obviously, we felt honoured that he loved ["Teenage Kicks"] so much. When you think of all the great records that came out during the punk era, it was pretty remarkable that he picked up on 'Teenage Kicks' of all things. He could have easily gone with 'To Hell with Poverty' by Gang of Four or 'Atmosphere' by Joy Divisionóto me, those are better and more innovative records but somehow, he really identified with the honesty and freshness that 'Teenage Kicks' had. I think it reminded him a lot of the early rock and roll he listened to growing up and he loved so much."
The Undertones will be active on the European festival circuit this summer and hope to begin work on another disc of originals by end of year. In the meantime, they are happy banging out new ideas and revisiting chestnuts from their back catalogue.
"For a lot of the bands coming back these days, they might have split up for whatever reason but they're still very young men," McLoone reasons. "They go through all their experiences and are finally ready to play those songs again. It's the natural human thing to doógo forward and get on with it."
For more information about The Undertones, please visit their official website at www.theundertones.com.
Writer: Cameron Gordon