[Today: John Peel weeps with joy…]
Inspired by the Stooges, Sex Pistols and Ramones, as well as Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilation, Northern Ireland’s Undertones spent 1976/77 honing their songs during club shows before making enough headway to get their eponymous debut recorded in time for UK punk’s second wave. In lead singer Feargal Sharkey, The Undertones had one of the most unique voices in all of punk. His lilting, nasal croon sounds almost literally imbued with electricity – at times Sharkey’s voice wavers like a man singing with his finger in a live socket. The band also enjoyed the adoration and critical patronage of legendary Radio One (and Peel Sessions) DJ John Peel.
Upon hearing the song ‘Teenage Kicks’ on the radio for the first time, Peel broke down in tears of joy and had to pull his car to the side of the road. He claimed the need to always play another song after ‘Teenage Kicks’ on his radio show so that he had time to gather himself before going back on air, and even had lyrics from the song (“Teenage Dreams, So Hard To Beat.”) inscribed on his tombstone.
“I play ‘Teenage Kicks’ to remind myself exactly how a great record should sound,” Peel wrote in 2001. “But what’s so great about it?’ people, from my own children to complete strangers in wine bars, have asked. I’ve never yet come up with an answer that pleased me much, falling back each time on: ‘There’s nothing you could add to it or subtract from it that would improve it.” The same could be said of The Undertones’ entire debut – it’s a taut, uplifting piece of punk that reveals flashes of pop and glam, all smothered in irresistible guitar hooks.
In spite of Peel’s enthusiasms, ‘Teenage Kicks’ only hit #31 on the charts, and The Undertones lived on the near-fringe of punk rock. The band released four albums, as well as 13 singles (an enormous output for a punk group) before disbanding in July of 1983. “One of the reasons I left when I did was that I wanted to preserve the Undertones for people as something special,” Sharkey told ZigZag in 1984. The joy of a legendary DJ, the pure sound of the evolution of rock, Feargal Sharkey’s quavering call of freedom – it’s all preserved on The Undertones…
Listen: Teenage Kicks
Listen: Girls Don’t Like It
Listen: I Gotta Getta
Listen: Mars Bars [bonus track on CD re-issue]