How’s your week been going, Mickey?
My week’s been great, every week is great in my life. I have to admit it’s is a terrible thing to say. Maybe it’s because everything is happening and I don’t know what’s happening. I’m blissfully unaware of any bad things as an average Undertone.
So 40 years on and The Undertones are preparing for yet another tour this November and this time you’re travelling down the mainland before finishing up in Ireland. How does it feel playing shows these days?
It’s been good as they are few and far between. Whenever you’re there and you’re playing the songs, you do get the impression that everyone is really happy to see you again. It’s not like you’re playing at one of these venues where half of the people are at the bar and the other half are trying to talk and you’re in around them playing music, this is proper shows. It’s great and the older I get, the more I realise that this is something worth celebrating.
In comparison to your early shows, I’m sure you’ve really seen the change in audiences given the advances of technology over the years – what’s your opinion of live shows these days?
Well, from our point of view, the guitars stay in tune for much longer and we now have tuning pedals as well – oh, and the amplifiers are less likely to break down so technology is good that way. The other thing though, and you adjust to it quickly and don’t really mind, but the lights on the phone are something we wouldn’t have had many years ago.
There was a teenager called Vinnie Cunningham and there was a phone box on his street and it was one of those phone boxes that were at fault that meant you could phone anywhere for free. So what he used to do was phone the venues and ask them to hold the phone up so he could hear what they sounded like; so that was our idea of video-ing the show back then. There was just Vinnie in his phone box in Creggan.
Looking back through your history, how did it feel to be one of the country’s shining lights during the Troubles?
We certainly didn’t see ourselves as shining lights – lying shites, possibly! [laughs] When you look back at it, you can appreciate when people – fans – say it was one of the good things during the times and that’s a really kind thing for people to say.
But at the time, you were just interested in playing in a band. As youngsters, you’re fairly skeptical when people build any band into something they really aren’t. We would never really take it that seriously and say, “Hey, we’re changing lives!” We were just trying to be as good as the Ramones and failing every time.
What were the shows like back then? Were people worried about attending shows?
Well, Derry was different. Before we made Teenage Kicks, we were playing in a place called The Casbah, which basically was a portacabin but it was plastered over so it looked like a bar, right in the centre of Derry. There was an army checkpoint just across the street but there was never any sense of danger. Not for us, anyway. Things happened in Derry, it wasn’t as if we were in this nice tranquil place away from the Troubles, it happened in Derry all the time. We quickly got used to it. You try and play as if you were anywhere. It’s weird looking back on it as at the time it wasn’t something that intruded on what we were trying to do as a band.
Teenage Kicks obviously went on to become the anthem for Northern Ireland – can you explain in your own words its origins and how it came about and perhaps more importantly, how you feel about it now?
I love it now. If you’re playing in a band and you play one of your songs that almost everyone recognises, that’s a fantastic feeling to have. How it originated – John O’Neill. John wrote the song, he had been the main songwriter in the band. He was always trying to write songs. He says, and I don’t fully believe him, he found it too difficult to learn other peoples songs so he thought he would try and write his own so that they would be easier to play.
It was a combination of The Ramones and the Phil Spector girl group sounds – that was the kind of things John was listening to at the time. It has got the same chord sequence as a lot of the 60s New York rock and roll songs – and of course The Ramones, who were a huge influence on us. At the time, we didn’t think this is a great song. When we got the opportunity to make a record, we kind of, without any great debate, thought “Yeah, let’s do Teenage Kicks.”
Can you remember the moment when you became aware that John Peel played it on his show?
Yeah, I was in O’Neill’s kitchen – we used to hang around there all the time. We listened to John Peel all the time but we listened more intently when we sent him the record. Whenever he played it and said good things about it, it was a strange sensation someone in London, that worked in a radio station, was saying good things about your band. Over the next couple of weeks it was even better as you got record companies getting in touch – Top of The Pops, which was a huge thing for us, and if you ask anyone in the band, it was a big thing as it’s the first time we’ve ever done it. We were still based in Derry, it’s not as if we went over to London to ‘make it’ or even Dublin or Belfast. We were playing in The Casbah, practicing in Damien O’Neill’s bedroom and suddenly we were on a plane to London pretending to sing Teenage Kicks in a studio.
And of course it snowballed from there and you went on to release three more records. I guess on tour you enjoy playing the old songs as much as the new ones as it wasn’t all just Teenage Kicks back then?
In terms of what fans of the bands would say, the first two LPs were the best. Second two were good as well and they were very different. They were bit of an experiment for us. To be in a band where you have two LPs and people think they’re great is actually not bad. There was thousands of bands that would love to have even one great record. The first LP is seen as a great record by a lot of people so to have that is just brilliant and I would never undervalue it. You make jokes about how rubbish but actually The Undertones were really good.
In 1983, the Undertones called it a day with Fergal leaving to pursue a solo career – did you think it was the correct time to pack things in?
We were probably six months too late. I don’t think it was musical differences. It was personal differences. In our career trajectory, we had stopped selling records. We were still making records but they were not selling. It was a very short space in time that happened – maybe a year and a half – and Fergal was the one who said he wanted to go and make his own records. And we all thought, yeah that’s a good idea.
In those days, bands broke up. I don’t think bands break up now. In those days you had a couple of years and unless you were the Rolling Stones or a really successful band, or a single-minded band, you stopped. And that’s kinda what we did. I didn’t come out of it particularly down-hearted. I thought, “That was okay, that was good” and I could try something else and that didn’t work out so I got a job.
Then fast forward to 1999 and The Undertones reformed with Paul replacing Fergal. Initially what was it like with Paul at the front – was there any stark differences to what you were all used to or was it a seamless integration?
We liked him [laughs] That’s a terrible joke! Our thing was, would he be able to sing? Fergal had quite a high range. We tried him out without getting a plan B. I remember that. What if this isn’t any good?
We did the Nerve Centre show, it was only supposed to be for two nights. We will do this and see how this goes. We had a great feeling about it. We got on really well, he was good craic. It’s very dangerous thing to do to get a band back together and don’t ask the original singer back. It hasn’t been an unqualified success. We didn’t go on to tour stadiums. It’s been bubbling under for a nice little level for the past 18 years.
You went on to release Get What You Need in 2003 and Dig Yourself In in 2007 – what was it to be back writing new music for the Undertones?
It was good. It’s like creating anything. You do because you want to do it. I wrote some songs, Damien wrote some songs, John wrote some songs of course and we recorded them and enjoyed the process. When the record comes back, you listen to it and enjoy it. Then a couple of years later you listen and think, “I could have done this differently”. It’s just what bands do. If you’re in a band, you write songs and you play. You don’t do it thinking you’re gonna change the world or this is gonna sell hundreds of thousands of copies – you just do it and get on with it.
Do you still write music, regardless of your intentions to release it or not?
Me, personally, no. There was a couple of ideas I had but I haven’t touched them in ages, then they just stopped. John still would. He would be working on all kinds of things. Damien still does as well. I’ve no great urge to do it as I’ve other things to do.
And due to the great history of The Undertones, you’re subject to quite a few documentaries and of course Good Vibrations – what are your opinions of the film Good Vibrations?
I watched the film and I bought the DVD from Terri Hooley himself. That’s a good way to watch it. It’s good to see Terri get recognised like that. It was really well done, there are a few great scenes in it. I wish it would have ended with Terri being a multi-millionaire but they had to stick to the truth [laughs].
And you yourself now present your own show on BBC Radio Ulster on Tuesdays between 8pm-10pm – what’s it like being behind that desk now?
I’ve been doing this on and off for 30 years. I’ve done more radio shows than I’ve done Undertones shows. I still enjoy it. I love records that I know. I love records that I don’t know. So that will never leave me. Doing the radio is great. It’s one of those things where it’s for your own benefit, and that sounds like a selfish thing to say, but you have to be true in playing stuff that you like yourself.
The Undertones will play at the Limelight Belfast on Friday 1st December 2017. It’s completely sold out with no tickets available for purchase.