Interview first published at www.13thfloor.co.nz
“Live fast, die young,” and “Not fade away,” surely apply to the first punk generation that exploded in a blitzkrieg of bile and fury in the 1970’s. The mantra was like some anarchic politico-SAS mission. Yet a few of the old guard endure – The Sex Pistols reformations or the return of the Buzzcocks… and it was no surprise to discover that Irish Punk heroes Stiff Little Fingers just celebrated 40 years of stickin’ it to the man. The 13th Floor’s Tim Gruar got right to the point in his interview with lead singer Jake Burns.
TG: Weren’t you supposed to create the chaos and get out?. Yet here you are 40 years on.
JB: “People still are angry and there’s still a lot of rage we can tap into.” He laughs, in his treacle-thick accent, “Trump is a gold mine. We just celebrated 40 years of challenging the system and the establishment. How many bands will he spawn in protest, I wonder?”
TG: What was Belfast like in the 1980’s? Paint a scene of the early days of the band.
JB: “I was about 11 years old when the Troubles began – about 1969, 1970. The civil unrest that was going on at that time was everyday life to me. The riots, invariably bomb scares, not always with bombs involved but even just the mere whisper of trouble meant your bus home was diverted, delayed or cancelled altogether. You couldn’t walk down certain roads because of the threat that a building blowing up. On the plus side, for an 11-year-old, somebody might get wind of a bomb in the school and you’d get the afternoon of which was great (laughs). That’s the only upside I can remember of it.”
TG: So when you started as a band, I understand that you were into Deep Purple and Led Zep, etc. You were even called and tear Purple’s 197- classic Highway Star.
JB: “Yeah, well why wouldn’t you? We couldn’t play it but why wouldn’t you choose a name like that? That goes back to the days when I was about 12 and all the guys I hung out with were all that little bit older than me. They were 15, 16 years and they were the ones buying the LED Zep and Purple records. I got into that stuff at an early age. I completely missed out on Glam Rock, completely passed me by.
“Every other kid my age was listening to Marc Bolan and mucking about having fun. I was seriously sitting around, listening and discussing the latest Jethro Tull album with a bunch of older kids in great coats, y’know? (Laughs) But you know I think it actually helped me when the punk rock thing came around. I’d been listening to all these hard rock bands on record and in pubs and stuff. I was completely fed up with the guitar solo, and the drum solo and stuff so when punk rock came around I thought “Thank God something that’s finally here that’s exciting and vibrant and quick and done in three minutes.” Y’know? I was a very easy convert (to punk).”
TG: How did punk rock come around for you?
JB: “It was John Peel. His radio show. He was always at the forefront of what was cool. He was from way back but always moving. Hugely influential. He was the champion of Pink Floyd in the 1960’s but then the next band and the next. So when Punk Rock happened that was the only way we could hear it – on his BBC radio show. And it was a sort of ‘side bar’ to all the social unrest in Ireland that was goin’ on around us at the time. And no band was stupid enough to come across to Northern Ireland to play. So the only way to access them was on the radio. The only sources were the music papers and when Johnny (Rotten) famously went on television and swore then they (The Sex Pistols) were on the front pages of the tabloids everywhere. Suddenly Punk Rockers were ‘Public Enemy #1.”
TG: You wanted to be ‘Public Enemy #1’ as well?
JB: “Not really. That was just a side effect. I remember it transformed me though. I went from being a long aired hippy to gettin’ my hair cut. My dad was initially delighted that I’d cut my hair but then he saw the punk rock get up and he kinda wished I’d grown my hair back again (laughs).”
TG: I found some early footage of Stiff Little Fingers from the early 1970s on YouTube and all your fans and audience are already decked out in Punk attire. With Mohawks and ripped clothes and safety pins. There’s even a guy with a swastika around his neck. So there must have been a scene established in Belfast pretty quickly after the whole thing took off.
JB: “Yeah, well it did, really. Was once asked to critique Culture Club (for a TV show) and people would say “Why are you doing that – Punk’s meant to be ‘real’ and ‘gritty’ and that.” And I thought, well, “did you ever see us? We were more dressed up than they were!. And bizarrely I ran into Boy George later that week and I asked if he remembered that and he fell about laughing. “Yeah, I remember that”, he said. So there you go. We were louder and more obnoxious peacocks.
“There were more similarities than people care to remember. It was all just part of being rebellious. The whole swastika thing was very misguided and certainly nothing I took part in but all part of it. Anything to provoke a reaction, I suppose. I’ll think stupid”
TG: Can you remember your first gig as a Punk band?
JB: “The very first show was in a bar in Belfast called Lamb’s Lounge – Paddy Lamb was the owner. I’m not sure Paddy really knew what he was gettin’ . We basically 30 or 40 songs – it was a very long set. It was a strange old evening. We veered from Damned songs to Eddy and the Hotrods to Dr Feelgood. I think we even played Van Morrison’s Gloria. I seemed to remember jumping on tables and jumping around, generally. It was very unruly because it was what we thought Punk rock should be, you know? And there were a couple of people in other bands who’d come to check us out. And we tried to do the same thing. So apart from those guys, who kinda knew what to expect. The rest of the audience didn’t have a clue. Just a couple of bemused guys who’d come out for a quiet beer. They didn’t know what the hell was going on on the stage (laughs hardheartedly).”
TG: Was Belfast crazy back then, with Punk coming in, the largely working-class population that were attending pubs and gigs and then being surrounded by the IRA and the troubles every day?
JB: “Half the place wanted to escape it all, half wanted to fight back and whoever left just wanted to blow it up. That’s pretty close to what it was like. We kinda kept out of each other’s way. If you wanted to see a particular band then you went to a particular bar. There were certain ones that we played, but others you didn’t even try to get near. There were bands doing covers of the Eagles and Steely Dan, or whatever. They had certain pubs. So you didn’t even try to get into those. And their audiences had no interest in seeing us and we had no interest in trying to play for them. There was a rivalry but more like oil and water, certain people just didn’t mix and that was that. You stayed way from certain place because that’s where the bombers met, or the unionists or the bosses, etc.”
TG: What’s the craziest gig you’ve done?
JB: “There were so many. Going back to the earliest days I remember the first time we played outside the UK, a show in Finland, an open-air festival. Tens of thousands of people turned up. When I take my glasses off on stage the audience just becomes a blur. Maybe the first two rows. To my poor eyes it was like playing to a cornfield with all these millions of blond heads disappearing off into the distance. We did it with a band called the Members and the backstage was a double-decker bus, the hired equipment was terrible. Everything broke down or sounded awful. We were so frustrated. We got so pissed off we ended up trashing all the equipment out of rage. Then we left and only then did we notice The Members standing on the side of the stage ready to go on. They were going to use the same gear. And we were, like “Oh. Oops, sorry. We forgot you had to use that gear.” Sheepishly retiring and skulking off. And then having to sit on the double-decker bus with them while the roadies had to repair it all so they could go on. I’m amazed we’re all still friends to this day. They weren’t particularly pleased at the time.”
TG: Back in the day, the tabloids beat up the Stiffs for exploiting the Troubles in their lyrics and praised the Undertones for avoiding them. Was there any truth behind this?
JB: “Well, that was their attitude, the papers. That we were cashing in on it all. How you can cash in on your own life and what was happening around us at the time, I really don’t know. I felt that both attitudes were valid. I felt that bands that went to The Undertones, they wanted to go see a band and forget their day to day stresses of living in Northern Ireland. They were there to provide entertainment and that’s perfectly valid.”
TG: Your recent record Inflammable Material seems to me to be less of an ‘Irish’ record more universal. Also, is this really a chronicle of teenage frustrations. Odd choice for men in their middle age?
JB: “Everyone calls it the ‘Irish’ record because it feels like it belongs in the era of The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks. Which might be right, I suppose. The theme is close to what we’ve always talked about in our music: disaffected teenagers kicking out against the world. In some ways, I want kids today to do more of that. Be less complacent and get off their I-phones and challenge what’s happening around them. Done be a drone. Hey, I’m still disaffected, and I’m still kicking out!”
TG: Do you think the environment you grew up in give it some extra edge and maybe that’s what people outside Northern Ireland are tapping into?
JB: “That’s likely but it’s our perspective – all that we knew, really.”