8. The Undertones, Positive Touch
Trouser Press wrote: “Derry’s finest grow up without growing old. Refined yet rocking, and true to its title.”
Naturally, Trouser Press isn’t going to provide a nice, clean exercise in backwards counting. Idiosyncrasy must run in the ink. I’ve no idea how the “10 Best” list was compiled, but I wouldn’t be shocked to discover that publisher Ira Robbins wrote up his own personal tally and passed it around the office until he found someone who’d offer the ratification of saying, “Yep, that looks like a Trouser Press list, all right.” That’s not to imply that Robbins was despotic in any way, just to acknowledge that the publication, and everything that emanated from it, always struck me as a strong reflection of his taste and sensibility. And the couple of ties on the list (yes, there’s another one to come) could represent a very singular conflict between a couple of admired records.
The Irish band would probably merit special mention in the history of rock ‘n’ roll if they had stopped after their debut single, 1978’s truly marvelous “Teenage Kicks.” Thankfully, though, they were significantly more prolific than that. Positive Touch was the band’s third full-length LP in as many years, filled with exactly the same sort of crisp New Wave gems they’d been creating from the get-go. Perhaps the only significant difference was a newfound willingness to slip into the realm of the political. Their home territory in Northern Ireland was then completely immersed in bloody conflicts known as the Troubles, after all. Multiple songs addressed the ongoing issue, albeit fairly obliquely at times. For example, the single “It’s Going to Happen,” was reportedly directly about the hunger strikes taking place at time. The resulting death of Bobby Sands happened while the song was still riding the charts. Still, it takes some concentration to get that from the lyrics, a situation only exacerbated by the wacky music video produced to promote the song. Not every song that makes a point has to be as leadenly obvious as something that Sting might write, but it does sometimes seem like the Undertones are only reluctantly getting into issues more significant than girls and beer and dancing. Certainly, there was no further rabble-rousing from the band in subsequent efforts.
The softness of the big points is more of an observation than a complaint, however. The Undertones were uncommonly good at drawing on the long influence of their rock ‘n’ roll forebears and filtering it into their own distinct sound. Album opener “Fascination” borrows some of the crazy rhythms and tribal tonality of “Stranded in the Jungle” by the Cadets while still instilling originality and modernity into it. Similarly, the calls of “Here it comes” on “Life’s Too Easy” invariably call to mind Mick Jagger forecasting the approach of the “19th Nervous Breakdown.” It’s a true gift of the band that they make these moments come across as honorable claims upon their musical inheritance rather than mere derivative playfulness. Glancing at the rear view mirror doesn’t mean it’s time to stop moving forward.
The Undertones released one more album together during their original run: 1983’s The Sin of Pride. The band broke up shortly thereafter. Lead singer Feargal Sharkey (who possesses one of the greatest names in rock ‘n’ roll history) had a reasonably successful solo career for a time, and brothers John and Damian O’Neill, always the primary songwriters for the Undertones, went on to form That Petrol Emotional. The inevitable reunion of the Undertones launched around 1999, although Sharkey opted out, apparently content with the undoubtedly sizable financial rewards he was reaping as a high-powered figure on the business side of the U.K. music industry.