Words:Pat Reid - Photographer:James Cumpsty - Intermusic.com
Nearly 20 years after they came to an unfairly premature demise, The Undertones - one of the finest bands ever to come out of Ireland - have reformed to rock our hearts and souls once more. Original drummer Billy Doherty tells Rhythm why he's delighted to be back behind his kit playing youth anthems like 'Teenage Kicks' and 'My Perfect Cousin' again-
When Rhythm arrives in Northern Ireland to interview Undertones drummer Billy Doherty, it's not just a case of a 45 minute chat and then going straight back home. Oh no. Instead, Billy meets us at City Of Derry Airport, whisks us away for a fine meal at the best Italian restaurant in town and then, after a fascinating and eye-opening guided tour of the city, takes us to meet a whole bunch of local drummers. We end up hanging out with former Van Morrison stickman Liam Bradley, an old mate of Billy's, who's currently working with Irish megastar Ronan Keating. At this point the rock 'n' roll anecdotes start flying thick and fast, culminating in an hilarious discussion of what Liam terms 'singer's disease'. Time to sit back with a pint of Guinness and enjoy the crate.
The next day, Billy continues our tour of the city. Derry-also known as Londonderry-was hugely affected by 'the troubles' that devastated Northern Ireland from the late '60s onwards. Peace, relative prosperity and tentative moves towards reconciliation appear to be the order of the day now, but there are army barracks and observation posts everywhere -ominous reminders of decades of civil war.
It was against this backdrop that The Undertones first came together in the mid-'70s. One of the best Irish bands ever, they fused punks guitars (John and Damian O'Neill) and a rock-solid rhythm section (Billy and bassist Michael Bradley) with classic pop songwriting, all topped with Fearful Sharkey's unforgettably emotive warbling. Yes, The Undertones were a quality act all right. For nearly five years, the classic singles came thick and fast: from 'Teenage Kicks' (still celebrated as John Peel's all-time favourite), 'Jimmy Timmy', 'Here Comes The Summer' and 'My Perfect Cousin' to the later, more sophisticated, but still fad likes of 'Wed Week' and 'It's Going To Happen'. If you've never heard this stuff, get down the record shop and grab a copy of the fantastic double CD compilation True Confessions (Singles =As + B's).
The Undertones fell apart in 1983. Fearful Sharkey had some solo success, but in recent years appears to have left the music business. The O'Neill Brothers also made some great records with That Petrol Emotion. Billy, meanwhile, went to work in the building trade, but never completely severed his ties with music, and remains a well-known figure on the Irish scene. Entranced by drums since the time when, as an eight year-old at a Christmas party, he saw an entertainer playing a snare drum with a hanky draped over it to deaden the sound, it was inevitable that Billy would one day return to the thing he loved most. Finally, after too many years, The Undertones have reformed, with all the original members except Fearful. However, a show-stopping performance at the Fleadh in London's Finsbury Park last year proved that replacement vocalist Paul McLoone is more than capable of igniting that old 'Tones magic-
Rhythm: So, Billy, what's the story behind the Undertones reunion?
Billy Doherty: When the band broke up in 1983, I didn't want it to end that way. I thought the band had a lot more life in it. Maybe we should have taken a few years out, but I don't think we should have disbanded it totally. But personality-wise everyone was getting chewed off, so the last show we did was in lone 1983. I got to know a band called the Saw Doctors, who apparently were huge Undertones fans, and they asked the band if we wanted to come down and play with them at some of their shows, but it ended up just being myself and Michael Bradley. We'd come on at the end of the show and do "Jimmy Jimmy"or "Teenage Kicks" as an encore with the Saw Doctors. We were doing that on and off in about 1994. And then in 1999 I was at an REM concert and I met Dennis Desmond, who's a big promoter. Dennis knew that Michael and I had been playing with the Saw Doctors-
R:And he was interested in the possibility of a full reunion-
BD:I told Dennis that it wasn't just myself and Michael this time and that I'd persuaded John and Damian as well. It took me four or five years, and it surprised me that they agreed to do it. Dennis said that if we could find a singer he'd book us on a tour of America. And that's really how it happened.
R:Tell us about the new singer.
BD:Paul McLoone, who's replaced Feargal, was in a band with me before called the Carolines, so I knew him. He's been absolutely excellent. The Carolines was kind of synth-oriented We won the Hat Press Best Unsigned Band back in 1989.
R:So you didn't give up drumming completely after The Undertones?
BD:No, and I regret not doing more drumming. I should have kept at it more. I'm very envious of Liam Bradley, because he's really stuck at it, even when there were times when he maybe wasn't happy with what he was doing. He stuck at it, and you've got to admire him for that. I should have done the same
R:So what have the new line-up got in the pipeline for 2001?
BD:Because we don't have Feargal, and it seems a bit cheesy not having the original singer, we've gone back in the studio and recorded most of the hits with Paul singing. We're playing a show in Dublin in March, and we're hopefully playing the big festivals this summer. It looks like we're going to tour America as well. But we have to be a bit careful because Damian has just signed a deal with Poptones, Alan McGee's new label. Some of his stuff has been featured on a Hollywood movie, so it's certainly clicking for Damian, and we've got to be patient and let him do his thing.
R:The reformed Undertones did play a couple of very big gigs last year.
BD:We did the Witnness festival in County Meath in summer 2000. For us it was like a home match because we hadn't played since about 1983. It was a huge, huge concert with about 40-50,000 people, and it went unbelievably well for us. And we went to London to play the Fleadh in Finsbury Park as well - that was a big thrill for us. There were a lot of Corns fans there and a lot of Undertones fans, and you could see all the Corns fans looking back going, 'Who's the mob?' I think we went down very well, but we played it at blistering speed because we were very nervous and had all the adrenalin going
R:And you also played a benefit for the local football team, Derry City FC.
BD:They were in financial difficulty and trying to raise money to support the club. So we did that in a place called The Vibe and raised a lot of money for the club, which we were happy to do. The Vibe was absolutely stuffed, so much so that the metal barriers at the front were actually dented. It was a wee bit scary. It kind of won over an acceptance of the band in Derry. The branches of the football thing go across all parts of the town and the fact that we were associated with that did us a lot of good.
R:Because The Undertones were supposedly never that popular in their home town, what with being punk rockers and all that-
BD:We were never punks, but we kind of got stereotyped because of our short hair or the style of our pants or whatever. But at the time it was kind of the norm to beat up on a punk, and because we were associated with the punk movement we were prime targets for getting a good thumping. So we were never really liked. But the more we played, we gradually got more of a hardman element getting into the band, and they kind of protected us. They weren't bodyguards or anything- but we certainly had our moments in Derry. I suppose it's like any small town - if you come across as out of the ordinary, people are challenged or affronted in some way.
R:And your most famous champion, John Peel, recently visited and spent some time with the band for the forthcoming TV documentary.
BD:He came over and spent the weekend here, going through Derry, getting to know where everybody lived and the whole background to the political situation in Northern Ireland, so he had a better understanding of what was going on. For us it was a bit daunting, because we only knew John Peel from the radio and we never really hung out together, even though he was always raving about Teenage Kicks'. It was the first time since it was released in 1978 that we actually got to sit down and discuss John Peel and what he did for us and his connection to The Undertones. And a very nice guy he was too.
R:Tell us how the band started.
BD:We're all from working class areas. I lived in the Bogside, more or less in the heart of all the bother. They were very difficult times. But then, we knew that the troubles were there, but when you're a teenager and just into music and football, you don't really think about it. And we didn't know any different. We just did our thing, with all the background of the troubles going on. We're very fortunate that it didn't impact on us the way it did with some teenagers who actually got involved in the troubles.
R:What kind of music were you into back in the mid= 70s?
BD:We were getting exposed to bands like MCS, New York Dolls, Iggy And The Stooges. The band came together about '76 and the core was always Damian, John, Michael, myself and Feargal. We practised constantly, almost religiously. We learnt everything from The Rolling Stones and The Beatles to The Faces, The Troggs, The Velvet Underground We just evolved naturally.
R:And for you, personally, there was a big glam rock influence.
BD:Dave Mount, the drummer from Mud, and Mick Turner From The Sweet, and the Glitter Band with Peter Phipps and Pete Gill, Dave Neal with Suzi Quatro- all these guys were a big influence for me. Their playing was effortless. Like 'Ballroom Blitz', where all the emphasis was on the snare drum, and then with the Glitter Band most of the rhythms were done on the floor toms. I did a lot of that with The Undertones. I thought that all came out of the glam rock thing, but now I think it actually stemmed from Ringo Starr. He did a lot of stuff on the floor tom, and it's not your average choice. It's either your hi-hat or your ride cymbal, and he put it all on the floor tom.
R:Which drummer was your biggest influence, then? Who did you rip off the most?
BD:Charlie Watts. His playing was just so effective. And you could copy it and feel that you were doing a song by The Rolling Stones, one of the greatest bands ever- and you could do his drumming and it just gave you the confidence. So if I was doing Undertones stuff I would try to keep it simple-probably because technically I'm not that good -but it's good to keep things simple and hopefully effective and correct. And because Charlie Watts is such a fan of jazz playing he kind of led me into the Blue Note stuff, and from there I discovered guys like Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Joe Morrello. All great drummers.
R:You were inspired by drums from a young age and, like a lot of kids, were constantly drumming on any available surface. But when did you actually get your first kit?
BD:I really didn't know a lot about drums until the band, when I actually got my first drum kit. I didn't realise that you actually played the bass drum with the bass pedal! I thought the bass drum supported the tom-tom- I was about 16 and I had no exposure to teachers or music school or anything. There's a tradition of marching bands in Ireland, but I never got into it, which T regret now- not for political reasons, but in terms of snare drum technique. It was really trial and error for me, having to work out the mechanics of how the thing worked.
R:And yet, success came with your very first single, the deeply wonderful 'Teenage Kicks'-
BD:Yes, and every time we went to London to do Top Of The Pops all my aunties bought me new pyjamas, it was that much of a big thing. I remember later doing My Perfect Cousin', which has a reference to The Human League, and they were on the same show as us. But they were really good about it. I bought their album Dare when it came out and it was brilliant. 'Love Action' is such a great song. I really got into electro-pop at the time.
R:Which is your favourite of The Undertones albums?
BD:I like The Sin Of Pride because I felt more comfortable recording it. I seemed to get the feel, there was more control of what I was doing. But just for the sheer innocence and the classic songs, probably the first album. It's like, Wham! Bam! There you go'. ,
R:Got any handy tips for the players out there?
BD:I use the Tama Tension Watch. If you're uncertain in your drumming, definitely buy it-it's very, very good. And I use a Tama Rhythm Watch as well. The reason I use it is because whenever The Undertones start playing it's just so quick, and then because everyone's adrenalin is up, it goes quicker again, so we're constantly breaking the speed limit. So I use the metronome to keep everything consistent. Which is a bit of a drag, because there's parts where you want to push it a bit more, but it's good for keeping everything in the ballpark. You get the funniest notions in the strangest places, but I was taking a shower this morning and thinking about the Tension Watch, and how Tama really should take it a stage further and make it digital, because the technology definitely exists to do it. A guitar player can get an off-the-shelf tuner, put the strings on, tune the guitar and you're away. Drumming's not like that at all, unfortunately. Maybe I'm just lazy-
R:Do you think you've improved as a player over the years?
BD:I think I've developed. I wouldn't say my playing's got any better but I'm kind of more aware now- I'm more confident that the drums really are an instrument. I always felt it was a bit of a caveman thing-just bang a drum and that's it. I'm being really general and simplifying the whole thing, but I'm trying to emphasise the point that I thought there really wasn't a lot to it. And of course there is a lot more to it. And at this stage I'm still learning, discovering things. I'm really figuring out now the different skin thicknesses, the different textures of skins, which really do have an effect on your drums, and it's taken me all these years to figure that out. I think fm a bit of a slow learner-
"I've been playing Premier drums since 1978. My first proper kit was actually a Premier Olympic, followed by a Polychromatic Red Resonator kit in 1979.1 secured an endorsement deal with Premier in 1980 for a Red Sparkle resonator. Now I've got a Premier Red Sparkle Genista kit which I absolutely love.
It's a 20" bass drum, 14" rack tom, 14" floor and 16" floor and a 14"x5'2" Signia snare drum in Brass Yellow.
I use Sabian cymbals -14" HH Fusion hi-hats, 16" AA Explosion, a beautiful 21" Stage AA ride cymbal, a 16" AA crash and an 18" AA crash as well.
I also use Remo skins, Vic Firth 5a sticks, and I have an endorsement with Roland to use their V-Drums. And I have an endorsement with Dixon racks and Protection Racket cases. I'm absolutely delighted - it's like Christmas. I'm really happy with all my gear and the support from all the companies has been really good. I'm very fortunate and I owe these people a huge gratitude."----------