Stiff Little Fingers never get their dues it seems to me. If they’re remembered at all, it’s as politically angry young punks from Belfast, which they were but I really think they were so much more than that, they really were the real deal. Like most true punks their debut LP is the one that says it best, 1979’s Inflammable Material.
UK Punk was at an interesting point by 1979, a lot of the big players like the Sex Pistols had come and gone, others were trying to work out a place for themselves now they’d got around to learning a fourth, or fifth chord. As in any movement there had been a legion of blank-eyed zombie bandwagoneers singing songs about being alienated and rebellious, trying to get all worked up and angry about anything they could find and starting to sound more and more like petulant teenagers told to tidy their bedrooms with each passing day. Okay so I’m simplifying things hugely, but it’s what I do, dig? the question was whether it was all played out as an exciting viable means of expression, or not; and from Northern Ireland came two resoundingly compelling arguments that it was anything but.
Derry’s Undertones and Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers both put out their scintillating debut LPs in 1979, but whilst The Undertones dealt with the Northern Irish troubles primarily through punk pop escapism and turning to the personal, Inflammable Material confronted it straight on. In a nutshell the band saw two diametrically opposed ideologies cynically manipulating the peoples in Northern Ireland, perpetuating a semi-lawless status quo* which benefitted nobody but themselves. It made them angry. Now all you punks in England who were being beaten up and hassled for the way you looked, feel persecuted? now transplant all that hassle onto much more violent streets which were policed variously by the army and/or the various paramilitary groups – now you know what persecution really is. This made them angry too.
The result? just simply one of the very, very best punk LPs ever made. Check out the opening track ‘Suspect Device’ (lyrics dutifully copied out in full below, because you need them in your life**) which is just grade A perfection. That incessant riff, the sledgehammer drumming and, most of all, Jake Burns’ voice – he genuinely sounds like he’s been gargling broken glass and vinegar, its thrilling stuff. Now you add some genius lyrics onto that and the song just takes off! My personal favourite line, and possibly even favourite line in any protest song ever is,
Just take a look around you
At the bitterness and spite
Why can’t we take over and try to put it right
I get fed up when people wallow, politically speaking at all the manifold injustices and trouble in the world, I LOVE it when people just rail at the same problems! Fuck it all – if you can’t do better than you are doing, give us a shot at it. ‘Suspect Device’ just trips all my adrenalin circuits in one go, it thrills me. You can really hear stirrings of what would later become the hardcore sound in this track. In all seriousness this is another one destined for the 1537 funeral mix – although as regular readers will note, we’re probably up to a set of Springsteen-like proportions by now.
There’s a few tunes here on a similar theme, ‘State of Emergency’, ‘No More of That’ and ‘Wasted Life’ and that’s just on the first side! I really don’t mean it to sound like this is a repetitive one-trick pony because it really is not. Each of those tracks addresses slightly different aspects of the political problems in Northern Ireland, the latter track being particularly excellent, railing at the way each side treated young lives as being expendable. They only hit a bum note on the anti-racist ‘White Noise’ which comes over a little clumsy and gauche and is a little too much like being lectured. The recasting of Bob Marley’s ‘Johnny Was’, from the streets of Kingston to the streets of Belfast is a fairly astonishing one too, it works too.
Now if that was all there was here then fair enough Stiff Little Fingers would have made their point, pretty forcibly too, but they’d end up as a bit of a chore to listen to. An iron fist inside, an iron glove, probably one with big scary spikes on too. My view is that there are more than enough melodic smarts here to do lift Inflammable Material far beyond the just ‘angry angry angry’ category – bare in mind they were named after a Vibrators song and a couple of the band used to be in a rock/metal band called Highway Star. So to lighten the load we get ‘Barbed Wire Love’, a fractured doo-wop screened through the prism of the troubles, with some truly awful puns, ‘Blasted by your booby traps’ or ‘You set my arm alight’ anyone? I love it of course. We get the young man’s yearning to break out and be free of, umm ‘Breakout’. Also on the lighter side of the ledger is ‘Closed Groove’ which an unscientific poll of both hardcore SLF fans I know, think is shit, I demur of course. To my mind it’s four minutes of excellent clenched, jerky, almost Devo-esque, new wave pop, with some truly awful lyrics, that I’d have rejected at age 16 as being too smart-assed for my own arrogant good,
My one single fault is modesty
I’m changing my views consistently
Amnesia’s a thing I try to forget
Who can’t kick gambling? Want to bet?
But the real pay off is the sweeping, guitar melody of ‘Alternative Ulster’, named after a local fanzine. Which just ties everything I love about this band, this LP and punk in general into one big bundle of greatness. It’s a fabulous clarion call for action and for forging a non-sectarian future for the youth of Ulster, with yet more fabulous lyrics and initially just meant to be given away as a flexi-disc with Alternative Ulster. Punk doesn’t get much better than this one and it is such a great tune too.
Take a look where you’re livin’
You got the Army on the street
And the RUC dog of repression
Is barking at your feet
Is this the kind of place you wanna live?
Look I’ve missed bits out here for the sake of brevity, go check Inflammable Material out yourselves and if you have a punk molecule in your make-up you’ll end up liking it as much as I do and lamenting the fact that whilst your Sex Pistols and your Clash get feted to the high heavens, Stiff Little Fingers tend to be written out of the story; I’d argue they were a rawer, more impassioned, less affected better band by far. But hey, question everything you’re told – if you don’t agree, why don’t you take over and try to put it right!
*note lack of capital letters, we ain’t talking Rossi, Parfitt and co on a spree here.
** yes, you F—— do !! The lyrics: