The punk legends talk music, politics and longevity with Tom Ingham
“I realised even at 12 I was never going to be George Best, you’d know if you’ve ever seen me kick a football.” Stiff Little Fingers front man Jake Burns recalls the day he decided to form a band. “The main reason I wanted to pick up the guitar was seeing Rory Gallagher on the TV, I was just walking out the room after the football results, but when he came on next it completely stopped me in my tracks.”
Starting out as a school band called Highway Star (after the Deep Purple song); the band had a pretty sudden change in direction, ditching the classic rock vibe for the aggressive allure of punk. “Henry, our guitarist, was the first big convert in the band, I was listening to Dr. Feelgood at the time and it’s not that big of a leap from Dr. Feelgood to the Sex Pistols. I think punk was exactly the kick in the backside the music business needed, but I didn’t know where it was going to go after that initial bang. When I heard people like Elvis Costello and The Clash, I thought these guys are writing about real things and aren’t just going for the shock factor, it came as a hug pointer as to what you could write about as a band.”
The Belfast Punks are perhaps most famous for their political stances, commenting on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. “At the time all we were ever trying to do was reflect what was going on, and we were very careful to not try and take sides. It was no fun to live in, even though people assume the riots might have been kind of dangerous but still exciting – but it wasn’t, if anything it was just incredibly boring, no bands would come and play and your movement was restricted with a load of stupid curfews. That’s what ‘Alternative Ulster’ was written about – “Nothin’ for us in Belfast”
However the change in style was not a smooth transition: “Our bass player Gordon quit, we were lucky that a mutual friend who put is in touch with Ali McMordie, who had been listening to Iggy and the Stooges, MC5 and all that, which we were frankly catching up on – and he had a proper amplifier.”
Heading out into Belfast as a punk band was not a well trodden route, in actual fact it was a route the band didn’t even know existed. “If you take into account the situation, you didn’t go out every night and check out new bands. We were convinced we were the only band that were doing that sought of thing – and the other bands thought exactly the same. We kind of became the others’ audience, going to see each other and slagging each other off – but we all became really good friends in the end. When The Clash came over to play the insurance companies pulled the gig, they’d have Lindisfarne play but not The Clash. We were just surprised that there was so many people milling about outside who had even heard of The Clash.”
The band split in 1983 after releasing Now Then, which had received critical acclaim but didn’t go down well with SLF faithful. “We’d done a lot in that time we’d been together, you do a lot between 18 and 23, unfortunately we had grown apart, and instead of talking we would argue and fight. Looking back on it if someone had said don’t see each other for six months and re-assess we might have weathered the storm. There was no interest in our loud pop songs once the New Romantics came in – that was the final nail really”.
As one of the original iconic Punk bands of the 70s, Jake feels the genre has lost its way nowadays. “Once the entertainment industry realised out there was to be money made out of punk then the whole thing became subsumed; a few of us fought to be independent even within major labels and were successful for a while. It’s really sad that what started out as a really broad church, with the likes of The Ramones, Blondie and Elvis Costello all considered punk in one way or another, and you could do it however you wanted, now if you don’t have the regulation studded leather jacket and all your songs aren’t about fighting, drinking and screwing then you’re not allowed to be in a punk band – it’s limiting and it’s pointless”.
Jake is the only original member from the mk.1 line up, but SLF are very much still alive. “We hope to have the album out in the autumn, it’s the second run at the thing, I pretty much had it written when I was 50, but then after my birthday bender I listened to the nine songs I had again and thought they were just terrible. It sounded like the sought of thing I couldn’t have written when I was 22, which might sounds good, but it was too obvious and clichéd for me, almost SLF by numbers. Now it’s taken another fice years to pool these songs, and I’m a lot happier with them, we’ve played a lot of them live and it’s given us a great perspective of them in terms of seeing which parts work and which parts don’t. We’re aiming to follow off from the last album, Guitar and Drums because we weren’t going to use anything that we didn’t play or couldn’t do live – horns sound great in the studio but live you think how the hell are we going to do that.”
Stiff Little Fingers play The Ritz on March 14th