Soon after the Ramones stripped rock & roll down to unassuming two-minute, three-chord anthems in New York City, Irish punk pioneers the Undertones did the same in beer-soaked, smoke-filled pubs across the Atlantic. Fueled by singer Feargal Sharkey's quavering vocals, the Derry quintet unleashed a barrage of infectious odes to the adolescent experience. Five albums, a breakup and a makeup later, the Undertones will launch their first U.S. tour in twenty years with new vocalist Paul McLoone on Friday in Hoboken, New Jersey.
"It's all very organic and kind of ad hoc," guitarist John O'Neill says. "I think people will see we're not going through the motions just to cash in on something. We genuinely feel that we've got something relevant to do and play -- to keep that idea of rock & roll back to basics alive."
Formed in 1976, the Undertones -- Sharkey, O'Neill, guitarist (and John's brother) Damian O'Neill, bassist Mickey Bradley and drummer Billy Doherty -- released their debut EP Teenage Kicks two years later on Belfast record store owner Terry Hooley's Good Vibrations label. The band's frenzied fashion captured the ear of the late British DJ John Peel, who called the album's title track his favorite record of all time.
"We didn't think that song was particularly special," O'Neill says. "It's pretty simplistic, but the fact that John Peel picked up on the energy and spontaneity was lovely. Now it's sort of become bigger than what the Undertones are."
Following a tour with the Clash in 1979, the band released three more albums, each one reflecting the maturation of the members. Their rollicking tunes morphed into experimentations of classic soul and horn-infused psychedelia, much to the chagrin of fans who pumped their fists to early spry ditties like "Here Comes the Summer" and "My Perfect Cousin." In 1983, with Sharkey's interests in a solo career increasing, the band called it quits.
"By the fourth record, we were consecutively selling less and less records," O'Neill says. "And I think we overstretched ourselves and grew apart. After touring, Feargal said, 'I'm sick of this. I'm leaving the band.' If anything, everybody was relieved. Nobody had the courage, except Feargal, to do that."
O'Neill says he took the time off to "get turned on and inspired again." In 1999, the band reunited for a one-off gig sans Sharkey with fellow Derry native McLoone subbing in on vocals. "Initially people were suspicious about what it would be like without Feargal," O'Neill says. "But the more we played -- people virtually go, 'Feargal who?'"
The new lineup proved a fruitful atmosphere for the band. O'Neill and Bradley began writing new songs, and the Undertones released Get What You Need, their first album in twenty years, in 2003. The rousing "Thrill Me" and "I Need Your Love the Way It Used to Be" highlighted the band's return to riff-heavy pop-punk gems.
O'Neill is using the same formula on the band's next album, for which he's already written seven songs. "I'm looking to write another seven or so," he says, "and hope to start recording at the start of next year."
In the meantime, the Undertones will wax nostalgic, as they plan to mix material from their first two albums with newer fare on their U.S. tour. And as for the return from the lengthy American hiatus, O'Neill only has one expectation. "Hopefully we'll get loads of cheap records," he says. "The cost of CDs in Ireland is double what it is in the States."
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