Whatever happened to Teenage Kicks?
As a BBC4 doc revealed, the Undertones had more freedom growing up in 1970s militarised Derry than teens do now.
BBC4 has developed a reputation, not as a highbrow or challenging TV channel, but as specialists in pop nostalgia for fortysomethings. Barely a weekend goes by without some in-depth documentary on Seventies punk or new wave, Factory Records, Chicago House, Eighties Indie, Eighties hip hop.
And so it was again last week with Here Comes The Summer: The Story of the Undertones, the Derry punk-pop band famous for writing the late DJ John Peel’s all-time favourite song, ‘Teenage Kicks’. Although the band don’t have the iconic status of, say, Joy Division, the Sex Pistols or The Smiths, they can still arouse much warm affection in ageing punk fans.
The documentary revealed why. Old Top of the Pops clips of singles such as ‘Jimmy, Jimmy’, ‘My Perfect Cousin’ and ‘Here Comes the Summer’ revealed a band in possession of indelible melody, energy and dry wit. They were in the mould of The Beatles and the Monkees, rather than the Rolling Stones and the Doors, and as a result had unpretentious charm in spades. Unusual for a punk band, they had in their ranks an ex-choirboy singer, Feargal Sharkey, who overturned the punk applecart by hitting those difficult high notes. Now in their fifties, age hasn’t turned them bitter or regretful (well, except against the ostracised Sharkey). They still came across like a gang of smirking mates who couldn’t believe they’d had Top 20 hit singles or toured America with The Clash.
Although they sang songs for teenagers, encapsulated in the droll ‘More Songs About Chocolate and Girls’, they were hardly unmoved by the war on their doorstep in Northern Ireland. Early photos of the band were proudly shot next to Irish republican murals. And when Bobby Sands died during the hunger strike in March 1981, Damian O’Neill wore a black armband as mark of respect on Top of the Pops. The song they performed, the sublime ‘It’s Going to Happen’, was itself about the hunger strikers. In sharp contrast to 30 years ago, in the new documentary, the band’s working-class Catholic background was portrayed as a source of their level-headed character and warmth. It is striking that despite the daily conflict on their local streets, they still wanted – and obtained – universal teen appeal.
The story of the Undertones’ likeable ordinariness and the extraordinary conflict they were living through also revealed some ugly truths about today. The province of Northern Ireland in the Seventies and Eighties was effectively a militarised police state, where the entire Catholic community was under surveillance and constant harassment. It was effectively an open prison for the nationalist community. But hearing the Undertones discuss their formative years, and looking at cheerful photos from the club they rehearsed at, it was clear that even the young people there had more freedoms then than they do today. Even along the watchtowers of Northern Ireland, Catholic youngsters could still experience a degree of autonomy and adventure that would be unthinkable in recent times.
The band rehearsed at, played and attended Derry’s only vaguely hip watering hole, the Casbah. It was the type of battered dive found in provincial backwaters (mine was JBs in Dudley) and enabled young people to develop ‘scenes’ and themselves. Like any provincial hangout with aspirations to be metropolitan, it had a massive impact on the lives of local teens. Listening to the Undertones’ goggle-eyed tales of booze-ups, live bands and furtive snogs, it’s clear how refreshingly vital having that free space was then and how sorely it is missing today for youngsters. If modern health-and-safety crusaders were around in the 1970s, the Casbah would barely have lasted until lunchtime.
Unthinkable as it is now, here was a place where bar staff would turn the odd blind eye to an underage drinker or two. Youngsters could inhale as many B&H cigarettes into their lungs as they wanted without having to traipse outside. There were no CCTV cameras, and no party-spoiling bouncers manning the door. Shockingly, the club nights would often be organised by older adults who hadn’t been vetted or checked by the police to see if they were sexual predators or perverts.
It was precisely in this environment that the Undertones met older adults who would eventually manage them, put out their first single and send them on their way. Being around adults who had been around the music industry, the band realised that opportunities don’t simply come knocking while you’re at home with mum and dad. It was heartening to hear how, despite the harassment and discrimination in the Six Counties, they also believed they could face any obstacle. ‘It was always Derry Catholics against the world as far as we were concerned’, said bassist Michael Bradley. That’s a far cry from today’s mood of déclassé defeatism and self-pity.
Of course, nobody in Derry today would want to go back to the grim 1970s. Nobody would miss the bomb threats and death squads in Northern Ireland. But when even a militarised city such as Derry still allowed youthful freedoms, it’s a damning reminder of how far the colonisation of public space has gone in modern Britain. As the late John Peel might have put it: ‘Whatever happened to teenage kicks?’
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London. He blogs at the Midnight Bell.
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