Saturday, January 3, 2009

Song of the Week: The Undertones - Teenage Kicks

Woo Hoo! The first Song of the Week for 2009! And what a doozy it is. Today we find ourselves on a cold, rainy day standing under the awning of the front door of Austin's Department store at #2, Diamond Street in Derry (aka Londonderry), Ireland. It's 1978 and a sparkly Swedish band called Abba controls the number one slot at the music counter with a song called Take A Chance on Me. The sound of disco is ubiquitous, even here in this dark provincial town that straddles a divided country. The girl behind the record counter wears bell bottoms, a tartan scarf that tips her allegiance to the Bay City Rollers and make-up which paints a contrived happy-face in these dark, bloody days of the IRA and the UDA.

As you scan the bins you note to yourself that the music today, like the girl behind the counter, is as plastic as the crappy eight track cases their music comes in. These manufactured bands now make their debut on "Top of the Pops", not in back alley pubs serving pints to frustrated teenagers. Then you see it. A record by a local group of kids. Heck, you may even kinda know that slightly built bass player. Didn't he used to chum around with some lads you used to know. The Undertones?You look closer. "Is that Feargal Sharkey second from the right? Nah, can't be. That fay little eunuch from the church choir back in elementary school?"

You hold the 7" EP between your fingers as you look it over. You give a quick look at the plasticine girl behind the counter dressed up like a clown. You quickly re-fix your gaze back at the record. These boys look like Derry boys. They dress like you. They have your haircut. You even have those same Doc Martens boots. You take the record over to the listening booth and slip on the headphones, put the needle at the far right of the 45 and listen to the crackle of the vinyl. Boo-dum boo-dum. The drums snap the band to attention and the guitars lay down a cool -- not too rushed -- melody. It's not a melody. That's a groove. Yeah. "Holy crap. That voice. That is that Feargal freak singing! Still sounds like a eunuch, he does."

You get it. And you get it immediately. This isn't some rubbish about some bloke named "Fernando." This isn't about dreams weavers or cakes being left out in the rain...whatever that stupid song is about anyway. This is about Derry. This is about you. This is the universal truth: "Are teenage dreams so hard to beat? Everytime she walks down the street. Another girl in the neighborhood. Wish she was mine, she looks so good. I wanna hold her, wanna hold her tight. Get teenage kicks right through the night." Yes! Yes! Yes!

Just 2:26 seconds later you turn and walk out of the listening booth and cut for the counter like a man with a plan. You don't quite look at that girl and you plonk a few schillings on the counter. "The Undertones! I know these blokes. They're real cool. My brother is friends with the drummer." She self consciously giggles and lets out a snort as she does. She turns red and looks down with embarrassment. You suddenly look up and look right at her. The words are running in your head. "I need excitement and I need it bad. And it's the best I ever had." You find yourself saying something not quite true. "Yeah, me and the boys are real good friends. We go way back, we do. Played football wit 'em." The lyrics return to your head: "I'm gonna call her on the telephone. Have her over 'cause I'm all alone." A wave of blustery courage comes over you. She's not that bad, she ain't. In fact, she's kinda cute if you think about it. "I'm going to see 'em this weekend down at Spinners. You wanna, maybe, go wit me?" "Um, uh, yeah", she says in a diminishing tone. "Yeah, might be fun for some kicks."

You wanna hold her. Wanna hold her tight. Them Teenage Kicks are going to get you through the night. Oh Yeah!


  1. I'm totally with you on this one, Morgan. I loved the song back in the day and it still provides Teenage Kicks, even to a geezer like me. This is one that made the early cut for me when I started digitizing my vinyl. I'll loan you my LP if you want a clean copy.


  2. Hi Morgan,

    Do you want to exchange links with a fellow FDPer?

  3. That is one straight-up rocker. I vaguely remember listening to them in the '80s. I particularly like the minimal chorus that runs right back into the verse - no frills. The quivering vocals are great too. What is the album like? Roger?

  4. Not that you asked me, but the album is solid all the way through. A more than very nice freshman effort. They got thrown in with the Punk movement for obvious reasons, but the album shows a real nod to some 60's Rickenbacker pop and folk rock. They even have one song that is a rip-off of Last Train to Clarksville. Plus, how punk can you get with Sharkey's warbly voice?

  5. Well, I'll have to get it.

    Several comments. First, Sharkey's tremelodic voice seems perfectly suited for punk. In fact, I'd guess many a punk upstart would die for that tremelo effect that Jello Biafra and John Lydon (and others?) could only put to occasional use. Just check out the must see utube clip of the Dead Kennedys from the Flip-Side song of the week from November 19, 2008. Jello hits that punk tremelo at around 1:33. Sharkey had it going non-stop.

    I do also hear a pop sensibility in Teenage Kicks. The title itself and the very rudimentary guy-wants-girl lyrics, as well as the claps, are textbook pop. David Bowie comes to mind.

    When I first listened to this song of the week I was reminded of Stiff Little Fingers, whose music I was introduced to by a friend on a road trip from Davis, California to Fort Collins, Colorado in the late '80s. I couldn't get enough of whatever it was exactly I listened to and I never listened to them since. I was surprised to find out SLF were also from the north (Belfast), also started out in the late '70s and also were involved with John Peel. Any of you listened to SLF's first recordings?

  6. the last time I heard SLF was in about '86 or '87.

  7. I love this tune, which perfectly captures what it is to be a teenager in lust.


  8. That really is a damn fine song. I used to own an Undertones anthology and I (regrettably) sold it years ago. Now I really wish I hadn't. At the time, I couldn't get enthused about anything but a few songs. (Oddly, the only other song that I really liked was "Julie Ocean", which is incredibly different from "Teenage Kicks"). But I'm guessing I'd have a different opinion now.

    BTW, I really liked the literary style of this post. Nice work Morgan.

  9. comment by JBC-15

    This this the unforgettable first song from the first EP of a marvelous and underappreciated band from the heyday of punk and new wave.

    Between 1978 and 1983 the Undertones career trajectory took them from Ramones-obsessed Irish teens to a gradually more refined approach to pop, rock and an odd kind of blue eyed soul.

    The first album is a classic of its kind--a pure rush of punk/pop adrenaline. Fergal Sharkey's singular voice made them stand out from the crowd. It was also the kind of voice that was never going to be convincing doing angry, snarling punk songs. Unlike fellow Northern Ireland band Stiff Little Fingers, they were not a political band and were more interested in things a bit more simple and universal, like "Here Comes The Summer". The Undertones specialized in songs about girls ("Teenage Kicks", "Get Over You") or observations about family and friends ("Jimmy Jimmy", "My Perfect Cousin").

    Later efforts showed them incorporating touches of psychedelia ("The Love Parade") ,folk rock ("Wednesday Week"), delicate ballads ("Julie Ocean"-an outstanding track by the way), northern soul (nice cover of the Isley Brothers "Got To Have You Back)and the kind of pop songs which were a fusion of styles that were uniquely their own ("It's Going To Happnen").

    "Julie Ocean" would prove to be their last chart single in the UK and their popularity took a steep drop after about mid 81'. Their last album
    ,the sketchy 'Sin of Pride', completely flopped and The Undertones broke up.

    The O'Neil brothers went on to form That Petrol Emotion and have some success stateside and in the UK. Fergal Sharkey made one techno pop gem of a single with Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode, Yaz, Erasure) called "Never Never", billed as The Assembly. He then went solo and made a couple of very slick and bland 80's pop records, topping the UK chart with the single "A Good Heart", before retiring from performing and becoming a record company A&R man. Recently The Undertones reformed and even put out a new album, however there was a replacement singer for Fergal who opted out of taking part.

    The legendary British DJ ,John Peel, was an early champion of the group and really helped launch them by playing their "Teenage Kicks" track incessantly on his show. So enamoured was Peel of this song, he rated it as his all-time favorite song and the one he wanted played at his funeral. When Peel sadly passed in 2004 his wish was granted as "Teenage Kicks" could be heard blaring out as his coffin was being carried out of the church where his funeral ceremony had been performed.

    I recommend that everybody own at least an Undertones compilation. 1996's "Teenage Kicks: The Best of The Undertones" or 2000's "True Confessions (Singles A's + B's) would do the trick.

  10. Stiff Little Fingers are brilliant in their own right. A very Clash-like raging punk band who made one of the best punk albums ever ('Inflammable Material') and whose first half dozen singles were all clasics. They later tried to slow things down and became a more conventional (and weaker) rock and pop band,but the first couple of years were dynamic. They still tour and record, too. I saw them in Sacramento 10 years ago with Bruce Foxton of The Jam on bass.

    I recommend 'Inflammable Material', second album 'Nobody's Heroes' and a singles compilation, which used to be 'All The Best' but has now been supplanted by 2002's 'Anthology'.