Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone by Michael Bradley, Omnibus Press, 2016
The Undertones’ most famous song, though not their biggest hit, is Teenage Kicks. It belongs to an elite group of timeless rock and roll tracks that perfectly capture adolescent consciousness. I remember hearing it on the radio when I was all of 22 and being gripped by a distinctly regretful tristesse. I would never again experience the pure existential joy of those years. Is it about sex? Sure, but it’s also about the best party you ever went to, and the best band you ever saw, and the greatest night of your life that seemed to just keep going and going until the sun came up and you stood waiting at a cold bus stop, smoke in mouth, still a little stoned, thinking that this life thing was going to be pretty good if the last 12 or so hours were any indication. By 22, I could already feel a sense of disappointment creeping in.
It’s all there in Teenage Kicks, a song that John Peel liked so much that he spun it twice in a row the night it debuted on his BBC show in 1978. He later insisted that it be played at his funeral. And it was, putting everyone in tears at the close of the ceremony in 2004.
So who were the authors of this masterpiece? They were five Irish lads from Creggan Estate in Derry, the city where the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’ began in the late 60s. The Undertones formed in the mid seventies, only a few years after the Battle of the Bogside, Operation Motorman, and the Bloody Sunday murders. Creggan, incidentally, is adjacent to the Bogside so none of the members were in any way sheltered from the events of the period.
Which raises an intriguing point about The Undertones. As bass player Mickey Bradley reiterates regularly in this fine memoir, Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone, they were not a political band.
Unless they were.
The absence of politics in their lyrics in the context of late 70s Derry is a statement in itself. They had all grown up in this ferociously tense atmosphere. Bradley mentions in passing being asked to leave a classroom because a British helicopter was trying to land on his school’s soccer field while being fired on by the IRA. Nobody brushes that off entirely. Thus, the music of this band is political because it rejects sectarianism of any kind for a world of girls, cars, perfect cousins, mates called Jimmy, and good weather. It’s always raining in Derry, or at least it always is when I go, but one of their songs is sunnily titled, Here Comes The Summer. Derry was, like many cities gripped by strife, a socially conservative place. The generation The Undertones represented didn’t ask to be born there. When they rebelled, it wasn’t with anger but against anger, as Eammon McCann notes in the 2002 documentary about the band. The Undertones’ first album is a protest record that counters hate and war with the promise of fun.
Their stance, or anti stance, wasn’t entirely uncontroversial. While they had a loyal following in their hometown, they were also seen as tall poppies or as they say in Derry, ‘complete wee-ankers.’ The band were regularly heckled and egged onstage there after their initial success. The lead singer, Feargal Sharkey, was a particular target. He had, as a child, been a much decorated choir singer and Feis Ceoil champion. As a member of The Undertones, he had to get around town in a green parka because so many people were spitting at him.
Michael Bradley begins with their early years, playing Stones and Lindisfarne (!) songs to bored boy scouts and fellow students at school. I liked the rendering of the blues idiom in Derry patois. Feargal sings that old favourite, “Shaker Money Mikker”. When they began their legendary residency at the Casbah (Kias-bah, that is), where Derry’s small punk scene coalesced, the original songs began to make an appearance. They caught the attention of Terri Hooley, the legendary Belfast record store owner and label boss, who released the first version of Teenage Kicks. John Peel played it twice in one night and the rest is history.
Except that the history of The Undertones is by no means a standard rock and roll story. Teenage Kicks did not make the top ten but a later single did. Nobody got into drugs, nobody got ripped off too badly, and nobody seems to hold any grudges. If you are expecting the inevitable scene where Feargal Sharkey’s massive ego is too much to bear for the rest of the band, you will be disappointed. He comes across as hard working, slightly eccentric, and amazingly modest in Bradley’s account. They released four albums, toured a lot, ran out of puff, and called it a day. The Replacements, they aint.
One of the many unexpected pleasures of this band is their second album, Hypnotised. The first self-titled record is classic early punk rock, beautiful in its own way but still in the thrall of the Ramones, Dolls, and so on. Second albums aren’t easy for any band but perhaps even less so for this generation of punk pioneers. The moment was passing quickly and it was often hard for these groups to find a way forward. Not so The Undertones. Without abandoning any of the energy of the first release, the songs were better written and better played. My Perfect Cousin (their only top ten single), Here Comes Norman and See That Girl are just some of the highlights of this gem.
Michael Bradley tells their story with humor and warmth. There is no score settling, no ridiculous claims of utter originality, and no pretense about the band’s place in rock and roll history. If anything, one is left wondering if he realizes just how good The Undertones were. The early scenes in Derry are hilarious. It’s essentially The Commitments in a war zone but even Roddy Doyle couldn’t have come up with the scene where they first encounter Feargal singing – in blackface!
The account ends at the precise moment in 1983 when they are late for their final gig in Kildare. Feargal went on to have several hits before becoming an important figure in the world of public policy around UK music and the arts. The guitarist brothers, John and Damien O’Neill, formed That Petrol Emotion and had several hits in the late 1980s. The author, Michael Bradley, became a bike courier. The band reformed without Sharkey in 1999 and continues to this day with another Derry native, Paul McLoone, on vocals.
I saw them in Derry a few years ago. The hall was filled with ageing punks, mods, and skinheads. In a nearby pub after the show, I sat at a table with a group of original fans all now in their 50s. The talk was of old friends, legendary parties, classic gigs, and that night when, you remember…
Teenage dreams are hard to beat, indeed.
Teaser: A series of scenes when the inscrutable Derry world view combined with the impenetrable Derry accent proves challenging for the people they meet in the outside world. Look at the cover of Hypnotised for a preview of what happens when these punk rock hobbits leave the shire.
Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of LA Punk, John Doe with Tom DeSavia and Friends, De Capo 2016
John Doe, like most Californians, is from somewhere else. So is Exene Cervenka, his bandmate and former spouse. John is from Baltimore, Exene from Florida. Both, oddly, were born in Illinois. Yes, the ultimate LA punk band, X, was formed by two Southerners from the Midwest.
But California has always been more about the idea of California than the state itself. Outsiders, from the original settlers to Jim Morrison, brought their imaginative sense of the west coast with them. The pure products, like Brian Wilson, go crazy. But then, so does everyone else. As James Ellroy says about the city, you ‘come on vacation and go home on probation’.
Under The Big Black Sun is a strange book in many ways. It’s not about X, despite the title it shares with their 1982 album. It’s also not about John Doe, despite his name on the cover and various contributions. He and Exene certainly haunt its pages but are by no means the main characters. It’s not an oral history in the style of Legs McNeill’s Please Kill Me though it contains many voices. There is already an oral history of LA punk from 2001 called We’ve Got The Neutron Bomb. This collection covers some of the same ground but the use of the essay form makes for a very different book. For one thing, Under The Big Black Sun is not exclusively about music. To some extent, it is a snapshot of Los Angeles at the end of a long period of decline. The seventies (and indeed, the sixties) are ending but the former governor Reagan is waiting in the wings for his turn as president. LA will rise in the 1980s and become a kind of staging ground for the cultural shift to neo liberalism and hyper consumerism.
So this is an unfamiliar LA, a city of derelict apartment blocks filled with misfits who are making films, writing poetry, and forming bands like The Go Gos. It’s a night place where a bunch of disaffected kids come together and try something different. All of them had grown up in the Watergate 1970s and the slow death of the 60s dream. Like their counterparts in New York, London, Sydney, and Toronto, they weren’t interested in the bloated rock music on the radio so they made it new. Henry Rollins says that history is filled with moments where someone stands up and says ‘Fuck this. No seriously, fuck this.’ This is what happened in LA in 1977.
Not much stuck. Aside from The Go Go’s, whose moment was brief, none of the bands in this story went very far. X made four stellar albums, followed by a few less stellar ones. The Blasters set a high standard for roots music and promptly broke up. Black Flag are well known but are hardly anyone’s idea of a mainstream act. There is no Blondie, no Talking Heads, no Ramones and no Patti Smith in this story. Instead this is a beautiful moment in rock and roll history that remains preserved by its own obscurity.
X is probably the least known great American band. The combination of poetic lyrics, Exene’s persona and voice, Billy Zoom’s hot rockabilly licks and John Doe’s Cosmic Country soul makes for a remarkably eclectic sound. Some critics have called them the punk rock Doors. But those are lazy critics. Ray Manzarek produced their first four albums and there are occasional references but X is a far more interesting unit. The Band maybe, if you are looking for a 60s equivalent, not so much in sound but rather in vision and depth.
Like all truly great bands, they have their own sound and comparisons don’t really add much. Nor do narrow boxes. I don’t think the punk label served X well but it is possible to see, perhaps, a road not taken for that genre. In another universe, punk might have continued to grow in more interesting ways. I often wonder why so few bands took up The Gun Club’s thrilling use of delta blues and deep south imagery. The vision of punk in Under The Big Black Sun is a long way from the subsequent ‘hardcore’ scene of mid 1980s. In fact, many of the contributors in this book bemoan the end of the initial punk period in LA as it descended into violence, monolithic rhythms, and male posturing.
Punk began in LA as the music of the outsider. There is a fine essay by Teresa Covarraubias of the band The Brat, about the scene in East LA and the contribution of Latino bands like The Plugz – who once backed Bob Dylan on Letterman. Yes, Los Lobos makes an appearance here. They once opened for PIL. What happened? Guess. It involves saliva. Her essay ends, however, on a sad note about the night that a local hall, The Vex, was destroyed by the violent suburban punks who began to dominate the scene in the early 80s. They were, for the most part, white and male. The diversity of the early scene didn’t last long. When the bullyboy skins from Orange Country turned up, women too drifted away from what had been a remarkably progressive moment in rock and roll.
Jack Grisham of the band TSOL gets right of reply here and, in an articulate and fiery essay, outlines the experience of the suburban punks who took the ‘destroy everything’ slogan very literally indeed. In some ways, the book is a series of elegies for a lost time. Chris D. of the Flesh Eaters describes a moment of truth when he walked in on John Belushi and Derf Scratch of the band Fear snorting coke. He resented the intrusion of celebrity culture and the tired inevitability of it all. That’s the moment it ended for him. Others point to the closing of clubs, the death of the Germs singer, Darby Crash, the ‘success’ of X, and the rise of bands like Black Flag.
Other essays, like Mike Watt’s stream of consciousness style story of the band The Minutemen are surprisingly touching and sad. He describes his first meeting with bandmate D. Boon, who died young in a traffic accident:
I met d. boon some three or so years after coming to san pedro, ca, from Norfolk va, when he jumped out of a tree and landed on me in peck park, thinking I was a friend of his, nicknamed eskimo – I told him I wasn’t eskimo…
The sheer oddity of this meeting is a veritable mission statement for the zeitgeist that produced LA punk.
There is much to be discussed in this book and many old albums to dig out while you are reading it. Everybody has periods in history they would like to visit – Paris in the 20s, Greenwich Village in the early 60s, and so on. I’ve added LA in the late 70s. I want to go over to East LA with my new friends John and Exene and catch The Plugz at the The Vex. Afterwards, I want to go to a party at the Canterbury and finish up at the Tropicalia where Tom Waits will stumble out and advise me to stay in school. You had to be there. You wish you had been but Under The Big Black Sun will do nicely as a substitute.
Teaser: Dave Alvin describes what it was like for a rockabilly band to open for Black Flag and describes the various items thrown at the stage that remain embedded in his 1964 Telecaster.
X in the studio with Ray Manzarek in attendance.
Before the Orange Country invasion…
Girl in a Band Kim Gordon, Dey Street, 2015
This is a sad book. Unlike so many rock and roll memoirs, it is not a litany of drug related deaths or missed opportunities. Sonic Youth’s key members, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelly, and the author of Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon, are alive and well. Their now defunct band has an enviable legacy. They never sold out, never released a seriously bad record, and can rightly claim to be one of the most important acts of the last few decades.
So why is it such a sad book? If you have ever been through a divorce, you will recognize a lot of familiar stuff here. If you haven’t been, well, this is what it’s like.
Throughout the band’s existence, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were one of the great couples in rock and roll. They were also the coolest. Kim was intelligent, beautiful, and she played bass, for god’s sake! Thurston was tall, friendly in a shy sort of way, and played guitar like a man possessed by punk rock demons. They shared a loft in New York and were as well connected in the art world as in the music one.
But ultimately the marriage didn’t last. After nearly 30 years, he met someone else and it all ended in an uncool, tawdry fashion. Kim Gordon is not angry. It’s not that kind of book. She’s just sad. Okay, maybe she’s a little angry.
Fortunately, the entire book is not about this sad event. It’s a memoir and a really good one. I read it in two sittings. I had to go to work!
Kim Gordon was born in 1953 which puts her in that interesting demographic of people who were teenagers at the end of the sixties. They were there but not like someone like Neil Young who was born in 1945 was there. On the other hand, they are still boomers with all of that generation’s manic energy and fearlessness.
In 1969, Kim Gordon was going to high school in LA. The Manson Murders would have been discussed over egg salad sandwiches in the school cafeteria. She knew someone who was friends with Bruce Berry, later Neil Young’s roadie and the subject of Tonight’s the Night. What comes through in her story is that Sonic Youth’s groove owes something to their shared understanding of that period. She and Thurston are old enough to have caught the whole ‘break on through’ vibe but young enough to recognize how quickly it could turn into ‘take it easy’. For them the sixties isn’t a nostalgic past but the beginning of something. She mentions Thurston’s love for The Stooges and acknowledges, like everyone else, the importance of the Velvet Underground. As Victoria Williams once put it, they ‘were too young to be hippies, missed out on the love’. Their sixties was not mop tops and flower power but rather Manson girls, riots, and bands like the MC5. She notes that the song, ‘Death Valley ’69’, a collaboration with Lydia Lunch from their early days, is about her own experience of the time.
The No Wave movement in New York also made a significant impression on her. Sonic Youth, in her estimation, are closer to this genre than punk or grunge, which, of course, they, in part, inspired. The deconstructive ethic of the mid seventies New York art scene remained an influence on Sonic Youth to the end.
The story of her teenage years in LA, her move to New York, and her relationship with Thurston, make Girl in a Band a natural companion to Patti Smith’s Just Kids. I hope now she writes another one in the M Train mode. Finishing the book makes you feel like calling her up for a chat. As with Patti, her voice gets in your head and you miss it when you are finished.
I am not a hardcore Sonic Youth fan. I saw them once, opening for Neil Young, and I have two or three of their albums. The wonderful thing about this book is that it doesn’t matter. She has so many interesting things to say about art, about her friendships with people like Kurt Cobain, her experiences as a woman in the blokey world of alternative rock, motherhood, and her brief time as a fashion designer. I suspect that even readers who had never heard of Sonic Youth would be charmed by her story. That said, fans will relish the detail with which she outlines how certain songs came to be written. She is clearly inspired by the books she reads and she mentions many of them. Keep a pen handy.
Girl in a Band, like Patti’s books, is a breath of fresh air for readers of rock and roll memoirs. In a genre too often dominated by score settling, windy claims of glory, and adolescent self justification, Kim Gordon’s book is, yes, a little sad, but it is also intelligent, readable, and much more than simply a recount of a band’s progress.
Teasers: Her take on Courtney Love. The tour with Neil Young. Kim on The Carpenters.