The Undertones formed in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1975 during a turbulent time in the country’s history. Feargal Sharkey (vocals), Damian O’Neill (lead guitar) John O’Neill (rhythm guitar), Mickey Bradley (bass) and Billy Doherty (drums) were mostly still in their teens when they became part of the music explosion that turned out to be punk. Over the course of 13 singles and four LPs they managed a series of top 20 hits and recorded a song which brought legendary DJ John Peel to tears before going their separate ways in 1983.
Replacing lead singer Feargal with Paul McLoone in 1999 the band reformed and released two further original albums ‘Get What You Need’ (2003), ‘Dig Yourself Deep’ (2007) and the recently released compilation ‘Dig What You Need’. I always felt that the band were a group of mates who just wanted to have fun and loved what they did above everything else. So, it’s a great honour that during a hectic touring schedule (for them anyway!) I get the chance to talk to bass player Mickey Bradley.
Morning, Mickey. I hope you’re well. Where abouts are you now?
I’m in Derry, home of the Undertones, home of me and the sun is shining.
I am going to try and not mention two specific words until my last question.
That’s a good tease there, two words, hmmm, Feargal Sharkey?
I’m just guessing things that are difficult to talk about now.
I think we’ll come back to that. Last night I watched the Shellshock Rock documentary (a film which captures the raw energy and excitement of the 1970s punk scene in Northern Ireland)
“God, I haven’t seen that in a long, long, long time”
There were some really positive comments about Punk from the older generations of Derry and Northern Ireland in it, but on the back cover of your first single there’s the iconic Undertones graffiti.
Yeah, yeah. Undertones are shit, pish, counts, wankers.
That was a bit negative (I laugh). What are your memories of people’s initial reaction to Punk and the band at the time in Northern Ireland?
It’s interesting that you bring up that graffiti. The graffiti was done in the gate of this kind of playground/football pitch that we used to hang around. It was done before we ever had a record out obviously, because the graffiti was on the cover of the first single. So that would have been done by a couple of boys who knew us the band, but just thought they hate Punk Rock and wrote Undertones are shit, pish, counts, wankers. Which was great (laughs). We actually have that on a t-shirt now which we’ve been selling at the shows we’ve been doing.
The reaction at that time? you know what, Punk wasn’t really known. By about ’78 it became more known. In Derry that wouldn’t have been that much talk about Punk Rock.
At home I don’t think any of our parents were anti-punk. They were just happy to see that their offspring had friends and somewhere to go. I don’t remember any negative reaction. You would have seen the negative reaction in the newspapers about the stereotypes of the guys with safety pins through their nose, but in terms of us we were very low key in Derry. It wasn’t until we were on Top of The Pops there was a wee bit more notice of us, but not that much really. In those days newspapers didn’t really cover music so the local papers in Derry wouldn’t have had feature stories about bands. That’s why the NME and the music press was so important at the time, because that was the only place you read about bands.
What access was there for you and the band to hear or find out about new music?
To know what you wanted was difficult. You listened to John Peel, we all did in the band. You read about it in the NME, you would have watched Top of The Pops and you would have watched The Old Grey Whistle Test. Although that was quite slow to start covering Punk. Actually, it’s quite funny, we were just talking about Hugh Cornwall, he’s playing support to us on our shows. We remember seeing a film of The Stranglers performing ‘Hanging Around’ on The Old Grey Whistle Test. That was a big deal. Lots of times you just took the word of a reviewer and you believed what you read in the NME. If a record got a great review, you would sometimes send away for it.
It’s very, very different times to now.
It was good as a band. We were comparing ourselves to records and not a band from down the street from us. We didn’t know at the time, but what we were aiming for was to be as good as other people’s records. As good as The Ramones records, as good as The New York Dolls records. We set the bar high for us. We couldn’t get that much music, so it meant the music you listened to you almost over analysed it sometimes. We learned what we heard because we did a lot of cover versions in the early days. It wasn’t a bad system. Now I’m still amazed about MP3’s (laughs) I’m like someone from the 19th Century. You mean it just comes into your phone? (laughs)
We digress a little and I find out Mickey loves Manchester’s Blanket Man and Beach Riot (from Brighton).
There’s a lot of great bands around and if they were around in 1978 we’d still be talking about them now. The standards have just got so high. I feel sorry for them. There’s a lot of competition. Back then if you could write one decent song you were in the NME.
Your early influences, as you’ve already mentioned, were The New York Dolls and The Ramones. The Nuggets compilation seemed to be a big thing too?
We borrowed that from a friend of ours called Donal McDermott (excuse the spelling). He was at my school, but John (O’Neill) met him. He had a couple of bob and great taste. He had The Velvet Undergound record, the second New York Dolls record and he had The Nuggets LP. This was late ’76. He had the first Ramones LP too. We borrowed them off him. In O’Neills House (the affectionate name for John and Damian’s parents’ home) where we hung out we had the Nuggets LP and it was always played. We learnt about five or six songs from it. We did “Dirty Water” (The Standells), “Let’s Talk About Girls” (The Chocolate Watchband). We even tried “Night Time” by The Strangeloves (who wrote and released the original ‘I want Candy’ covered by Bow Wow Wow). I still remember the sleeve notes too.
Because there were few records around when you did get something like that it really made a big impact. The funny thing is, I didn’t realise at the time, but Lenny Kaye put that album together only six or seven years after those records were released. They weren’t that old in 1972, but because music had changed so much it did seem like archaeology to us at the time. We’ve a song called “The Love Parade” from ’82 which was deliberately done as a kind of Nuggets song. By that stage Damian had a keyboard!
They all stand the test of time. I don’t think there’s a bad record on that. The 13th Floor Elevators “You’re Gonna Miss Me’ is one of my favourite ever records.
Oh no, absolutely fantastic. We did that too (laughs)
“My Perfect Cousin” was the first single to be written by yourself and Damian. What do you recall about writing it?
Funnily enough, Damian and me were talking about this the other day. We wrote that in the style of the songs of the first LP. What were the influences there?…. Hmmm……The Ramones…… Buzzcocks (he exclaims). They were a big influence on us. Definitely. John bought their first LP and before that we had heard the Spiral Scratch EP. One of the great things about watching Top of The Pops was that in the Summer of ’78 Buzzcocks started to be on it. Originally we did “My Perfect Cousin” a lot faster, but when we went to record it, I think it was John who decided to slow it down slightly and do these chords almost like The Kinks. That freshened it all up for us.
I owe you an apology really. I played “Positive Touch” and “The Sin of Pride” for the first time in about 30 years. I’d forgotten just how good those albums were. “It’s Going to Happen” is an astounding song.
Ah, Jesus that’s great. That’s interesting.
The Housemartins owe you a great debt.
How did that sound change come about? Was it because you were getting older?
John and Damian were listening to different records. There was always this thing too that you didn’t say “Right, now we’re going to try something different”. In 1980 we toured with Orange Juice. They supported us on a tour. Maybe John was influenced by them in a way. You just didn’t want to repeat yourself by doing the same “Jimmy, Jimmy” or “Male Model” even though they were great, and we stand by them you know. It was a natural thing for us as well as other bands to change. Damian liked brass; he was a Dexy’s fan so that kinda came into it as well. Positive Touch was interesting because we recorded it without a record deal. We had left Sire Records and we had enough money that we could just go into a recording studio and we had no one asking us “Have you got a single?”. Everything was in our control. We were always in charge of ourselves. We always did what we wanted, much to the annoyance sometimes of our manager (laughs). We were lucky. We wanted to be in a band to do what we wanted to do ourselves and that carried through the first four LP’s. We thought If it doesn’t sell well…… It would be great if it did sell, but if it doesn’t we weren’t going to panic. We weren’t going to say we must write songs like we did two years ago. That was never, never going to happen. We signed to EMI and presented them with the tapes. I’d like to know, but I imagine EMI were disappointed as they thought they were buying the first or second LP and hadn’t banked on us doing something different. Compared to the first two in terms of sales it didn’t do as well. We liked it at the time though. Many years later we all have different ideas. I think some of the bass playing is a bit weak (laughs)
The tour you’re in the middle of. It’s been a long time coming ….?
Our tours….. We don’t set up big, long tours. This sounds terrible, but we’re not full-time. We’re semi-pro (laughs)
I did notice you now do a three-day week like the ‘70s don’t you? It’s more punk than anything.
(laughs). After four days in a row, it’s kind of knackering, especially the age we’re at, but also in terms of keeping the enthusiasm going. We have a limited number of dates that we’re willing to do (laughs) There isn’t an official figure or a quota though (laughs again). We’re not away this weekend, but we’ve been away for the last 2 weekends and the gigs were great.
You mentioned your age. What’s changed from playing gigs in your late teens to now?
You know what. Personally, I think we’re playing better. There’s less pressure too. You’re not kind of thinking about the next record or we’re not thinking “what’s the single position next week?” We don’t worry about that. What I worry about is will the audience like it? We still do it with an honest approach and energy. We were always a band that did things ……… for the fun of it. What we would say is it’s good Craic. That is running through what we do still. I do the setlists, so I make sure that songs that are popular are spaced throughout the set. Because we’re got the ‘Dig What You Need’ LP out, which is a compilation of the LPs we’ve done with Paul, we decided to include some of those songs, and I thought Jesus they’re great ya know.
Do you still have that good Craic?
I think so (laughs). Paul, our singer who’s been with us since 1999, is really funny. He’s a fantastic mimic. Jesus. The craic is great (laughs). He’s just so entertaining and great company. We come off stage and still say that was great craic. People will then have a whinge about “aw, I couldn’t hear meself” (laughs) or moan about someone making a mistake. And boy do we make mistakes (laughs). Sometimes your mind just wanders. The last couple of weeks I’m like shit what key is this supposed to be in? (laughs) and I look over to John and try and work it out. Other times I look over to John and he’s playing the completely wrong key (chuckles and laughs) and he’s going “oh shit, what is this?” There’s that running through it. Punk Rock was forever that, we are not a slick movement, but Billy is a brilliant drummer, and we can lock onto things. What it is to me is it’s us enjoying ourselves on stage. We know we’ve got 30 great songs. short songs and usually fast songs that people love.
When you started did you ever think you’d still be doing it this? (I laugh)
No. Not at all. The illustration of how far I’d thought we’d go is that I remember playing in The Casbah and I was wearing this Dee Dee Ramone leather bikers’ jacket. My Mother bought it for me from Freeman’s catalogue, for like £60 which was two weeks wages. I remember thinking whenever I’m in my 30s working outside I’ll be Ok wearing this because it’s a really good tough coat (laughs). Basically, I thought when this band stops, and I have to grow up I’ll go out and get a proper job. Thankfully it didn’t happen.
What else is planned for the band or is there a break?
(laughs) Paul. Our whole life is a break (laughs) There’s some shows coming up throughout the summer, here there and everywhere. We’re back doing English clubs in September/October, we’re playing Newcastle next Thursday (Boiler Shop, 31st March), Manchester next Friday (02 Academy, 1st April), Liverpool on the Saturday (02 Academy, 2nd April) and we’re supposed to be playing a festival in France. I’m really looking forward to that.
You’ve just released the ‘Dig What You Need’ compilation LP too. It sounds like you’re going to be busy.
For us we’re busy (laughs). As I said before you really have to make sure you don’t sicken yourself with it and you can do that. People have told me about bands, I’m not going to mention their names, but the main guys were fed up doing it and they couldn’t get it to stop. That just seems like misery to me. I come back to Derry and you know, get on with the rest of my life. I used to have a day job until 18 months ago as a Radio Producer. It was hardly work (laughs), but it meant that because you have a job there was no financial pressure on the band. I didn’t have to be in the band to put food on the table. I was always lucky that it was a part-time thing, more than a hobby, but it wasn’t something you had to do for a living.
It sounds like you’re doing something right because you’re still together and the crowds love it.
I will always go out and nod and do selfies and just be there if anyone wants an autograph or maybe I’ll chase people down the street saying, “Don’t you want me autograph?” (laughs). Some people do say “were you originally in the band?” and I say “yeah, yeah” and I’ve come up with the formula that we are 80% of the first 4 LPs, 80% of us are there. Which is not bad. We’ve been very lucky.
80% of the original line-up is amazing to be honest. You reformed way back, how did that come about?
When we got back together, we knew Feargal wouldn’t want to do it and we didn’t ask him. The chemistry between John, Damian, Billy and myself was still good and that still works on stage. The chemistry with Paul is great too. He’s from Derry, about half a mile from O’Neill’s house at the heart of the Bogside. He’s very Derry like us. He’s a couple of years younger than us, but we all have the same cultural references.
Paul’s been in the band longer than Feargal was. 1999, wasn’t it?
Jesus yeah, about 20 years. When we decided to get together again and we decided not to ask Feargal it was kinda “What are we going to do?”, but three of us knew Paul separately and we thought he’d be a good fit. And it turns out it was. Of course, we didn’t have a plan B, if he hadn’t had worked there was no one else we could have got (laughs) and the whole thing would have died.
I’m finally going to mention those two words I was trying to avoid now…….I recently watched 700 school children singing……
Teenage Kicks! (laughs and shouts)
Yes!….. singing Teenage Kicks for a Walled City Passion music video. It gave me shivers watching it to be honest. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that record I just think there’s more to the band and I’m on a mission to make people more aware of that.
That’s good. May you have all the success in the World. (laughs).
I know exactly what you’re saying you know. In one-way Teenage Kicks has a life of its own. It’s our song, we play it, and we love it. It’s huuuge. People know Teenage Kicks and yet don’t know The Undertones which is fine, which is great. It’s funny, one of our shows, it might have been Northampton or somewhere. We were playing Teenage Kicks and at the front there were three or four security guards stood with their backs to the band looking at the audience. When we started it, I noticed one of the security guys start to look round and I just knew he knew the song, but he had no idea who did it (laughs). It was great, because after it he started getting into the band and I caught his eye and he nodded back. That’s a wee illustration of it.
After 44 years it’s still a relevant record.
You know John Robb? the great music writer from the Membranes once said “how lucky are The Undertones to have in their back pocket a song which is played at weddings, funerals, football matches. They play it everywhere and they can just drop it into their set”.
Every time we play it, I think this is a great song and every time we play it, I think of us being on Top of The Pops. That’s what goes through my mind whenever we’re playing that on stage. It really is. I remember John literally jumping for joy whenever we were on Top of The Pops. He’d do a version of a pogo. It was like that sense of winning the lottery whenever we found ourselves on Top of The Pops. It was absolutely brilliant you know. Four weeks before the song we wouldn’t have seen this at all and then to appear on Top of The Pops with your first record it’s hard to describe you know.
Didn’t you split up before doing Teenage Kicks?
Yeah. Feargal didn’t want to do it. We’d always be splitting up though (laughs) I remember this time, possibly after a physical fight, which occasionally happened as well (laughs. I had to phone him from O’Neill’s house. He may have been sick in his bed at the time so maybe he wasn’t thinking right, but I said to him “Och, well tell you what if you’re leaving that’s ok, but stay until we make the record you may as well”. He says ok I’ll stay until we make the record. That’s the last we heard of it you know, but everybody’s always leaving the Undertones. Apart from Damian, he says he’s the only one who’s never left ever (laughs)
I noticed John Peel has “Teenage dreams so hard to beat?” inscribed on his headstone?
We actually went down to see that ourselves and to pay our respects. It’s brilliant that those words meant so much to John Peel.
I could have continued this for hours, Mickey’s enthusiasm and humour is infectious, but I did have to unfortunately end our chat.
I’m seeing you live for the very first time at your Manchester gig next week and I’ll be down the front photographing the band. I’ll see you there and thanks for your time.
You must come and say hello.
I just may keep Mickey to that. It sounds like it’ll be a very, very good laugh.
FOLLOW THE UNDERTONES