INTERVIEW | Paul McLoone of The Undertones on Derry to Buncrana, that Feargal bloke & bad hair.

THE UNDERTONES Billy Doherty, Paul McLoone, John & Damian O’Neill, Mickey Bradley Courtesy: SonicPR

PAUL McLOONE replaced Feargal Sharkey as frontman of The Undertones. Lifelong fan, AIDAN HALLETT caught up with him on the eve of a UK tour which lands at Stylus in Leeds later in November.

Teenage Kicks by The Undertones. A slice of pop nirvana, originally released on Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations label, championed by DJ John Peel and adored by millions. Nearly forty years later it can still make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, transporting grown men and women back to a time when they used to pogo in their bedrooms, (but only when their mum and dads had gone out).

Original members, brothers John and Damian O’Neill (guitars, vocals), Mickey Bradley (bass) and Billy Doherty (drums), reconvened the band in 1999 bringing in long-time friend Paul McLoone to replace Feargal Sharkey as singer. He lives in Dublin and presents a show on Ireland’s national independent station which he describes as ‘the sort of stuff that BBC 6Music do in the UK.’

AIDAN HALLETT | Reading interviews with the band over the years, it seems as if you’re doing The Undertones stuff on your own terms, rather than dancing to the beat of a record company, which is demanding an album by this date or whatever?

PAUL McLOONE | Yeah, that’s it. We had a single out for Record Store Day a year or two back, but we haven’t had a record really on the cards for a while … It’s nice that that pressure isn’t there at the moment.

It’s more about the live thing now. People still want to come and see us, promoters still want to book us and festivals still want to put us on. As long as people want us to do that, we’ll keep doing it  – as long as the knees, elbows, and all the bits and pieces are still in working order!

It’s great because we just enjoy it – God, I sound like a clichéd middle aged rocker here – but we do! We just enjoy it. We enjoy each other’s company – and then it’s good to go away and come back and catch up again. It’s very much on our terms, and at a tempo and a temperature that is acceptable to men of our age!

AIDAN HALLETT | When I read Mickey’s book [Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone] he referred to the Derry to Buncrana distance calculator; that is, how many times the distance from Derry to Buncrana places were. Is that something you were ever familiar with?

PAUL McLOONE | It’s true. In Derry you’d go ‘How far away is Belfast?’ ‘Well, it would take you x times as long as from Derry to Buncrana.’ For a lot of people Buncrana wasn’t exactly as far as they got, but it would be exceptional to go further than Buncrana from Derry in the 70s or 80s. It would be a major journey to travel a distance greater than that from Derry to Buncrana, so it became a kind of yardstick, I guess.

AIDAN HALLETT | I was just looking at your tour schedule in November and, unlike some tour schedules I’ve seen it seems to follow a kind of logic in that you start in the West, go South and then go up North. Sometimes tours go back and forth, criss-crossing the country which always seemed bonkers to me.

PAUL McLOONE | Yeah. Normally it’s arranged to cause maximum inconvenience for all concerned. I dunno who slipped up this time, Aidan, but it seems, as you say, to follow a logically unfolding pattern. Obviously somebody messed up there, so we’ll have to have a general inquiry into where this outbreak of common sense, where this logistic expedience has come from. It’s very unlike us. We’ll try harder next time!

AIDAN HALLETT | I was just thinking about you Paul. I was living in County Armagh from 1986 to 1997…

PAUL McLOONE | Oh, interesting times to be living there!

AIDAN HALLETT | Indeed, yeah, and people always found it intriguing that my name was Aidan, but they couldn’t place me because I didn’t have a history, and I was living in Portadown. I was always very conscious of being a blow-in. I was wondering, for you, coming in after the guy who had the hits – you know, you’ve actually been in the band a lot longer than Feargal was ever in the band – did you have a sense of being a blow-in for a while or, because you are from Derry, were you a part of the gang straight off?

PAUL McLOONE | Well, for several reasons, pretty much no. I know Mickey very well [from Radio Foyle]. I knew Billy  because we were in The Carrelines together back in the 80s, so we were very good friends. John was always very friendly, always wore the Undertones thing very lightly. He was very approachable for younger musicians. He was a kind of guiding light, so I knew him. The only person I didn’t know was Damian really. I’d met (him) very briefly once, but (he) and I got on pretty well right away, so I was very much accepted on a personal level.

On a musical performance level, it was very intimidating taking over from Feargal. (He) is a tremendously gifted singer with a very distinctive, very unique kind of vocal approach and style, very much a signature of the band. So, yeah, that was intimidating, that was a little kind of, ‘Is this going to work?’ But we all knew from the first rehearsal. We all looked at each other and went, ‘This actually sounds alright!’ If it hadn’t worked, we all would have known.

I think we’re equally… not cynical, but equally realistic. The guys would probably think it was a much too pompous thing to say, but in their heart of hearts they had a sense of the legacy of the thing. Not that they’re precious about it, but they didn’t want to befoul it either. We did toy with the idea of not being called The Undertones, but then we thought nobody would come and see us! It had to bear out the name and the legacy.

They’re fantastic records and they were a fantastic band in their first incarnation. I would have been loathe to do anything that would have led people to say, ‘Oh you’ve besmirched the name’. Some people might still do that – and they’re very entitled to have their point of view – but I would have had a strong sense of that myself and wouldn’t have gone ahead with it.

To make a comparison: had it been a case of The Smiths deciding to get back together, but Morrissey wouldn’t do it, so they get some other guy in, that wouldn’t work because Morrissey was creatively integral to the whole thing. Whereas Feargal, although he was integral to the band in terms of how it sounded, in terms of the song writing it wasn’t really anything to do with him.

I always had the attitude of Feargal used to sing the songs and now I sing the songs, and that’s really all I do. I don’t try to interfere when we’re in a writing phase. I’ve pitched in a few ideas here and there, but in a very minor way and I pretty much do what I’m told!

AIDAN HALLETT | Pretty much?

PAUL McLOONE | Yeah, well obviously you bring your own ideas to it, but I’m just the guy singing the songs, principally written by John and Mickey, and that’s the formula. That was my attitude from the very beginning of my involvement because otherwise it would have somehow changed the dynamic and it wouldn’t have worked. In a weird kind of way we were clever about it, in that we didn’t overthink it.

AIDAN HALLETT | As you say, unlike The Smiths without Morrissey, I guess the sound, or the distinctiveness of The Undertones, is driven by the song writing – and the song writers are still writing the songs.

PAUL McLOONE | Absolutely, or at least enough of it is that.

Again, I have to say Feargal is very unique, very readily identifiable, very much a stylist vocally, and the last thing that you want to do is go in there and start warbling. I could do a pretty good Feargal Sharkey, but people would just laugh, you know.

Having said that, people do say, ‘Oh he sounds just like Feargal,’ but that’s because there’s literally just a few hundred metres between where each of us grew up. We’re both from Derry. We grew up close by each other, both had similar upbringings, both went to St Columb’s College, both sang in the choir. Vocally there are points of reference, but as for the distinctive Feargal warble… Well that was Feargal, you know, and that has gone.

As you say, the guitarist sounds very distinctive, the song writing style. John, particularly. His song writing approach is very unorthodox. He doesn’t get a lot of credit for how original a lot of those songs actually are. They’re quite unusual, some of them. When you actually sit down and pick them apart, they’re quite unique. The guitar lines are quite odd. There’s something strange about them, in a great way. I just fit into that as best I can.

AIDAN HALLETT | Teenage Kicks wasn’t the biggest selling single when it was released, but clearly a lot of people’s introduction to The Undertones has come through it and John Peel. Has that ever been a hindrance?

PAUL McLOONE | I think really there’s two aspects to that. I think when the band were young men, they were creatively moving very, very fast, wanting to bring in brass and explore Motown and all those phases that they were going through. Something like Teenage Kicks, in that context, can be a hindrance. You want to move away from it. It’s in your recent past and you want to move on. The fans get disappointed because they want you to play Teenage Kicks, but you don’t because you’ve got lots of new songs that you want to play.

That kind of dynamic doesn’t really exist any more. Everything is up for grabs. You’re looking at the whole catalogue, looking at the things you think are the best, the bits that really work, and the things that don’t so much. It’s a much more retrospective perspective you have on things.

You’re then in a position where it would actually be churlish to turn round and say, ‘Well we’re not playing Teenage Kicks.’ People want to hear it. It’s the foundation. It’s the cornerstone of the band’s history. The band wouldn’t have existed for any further records had not Teenage Kicks been picked up by John Peel, etc. etc. So, it would be doing a disservice to people who’re paying good money to come and see us. They want to hear the songs from throughout the band’s time.

We try not to overdo the more recent songs, but we do play a few of them. You’re in a position to cherry pick the best bits of a much more full and complete story than you are when you’re younger, and you’re still in the business of creating that story. And apart from anything else: we’d have bottles thrown at us if we didn’t play Teenage Kicks!

AIDAN HALLETT | I was reading (in Mickey’s book) about the incident in the Bull Park in Derry. The band got eggs thrown at them, which seemed to me to be a bit of a ‘Don’t get up yourselves boys. Remember where you come from. You may be on Top of the Pops, but…?’

PAUL McLOONE |Not to put Derry down in any way at all. I’m a very, very proud Derry man. It’s home to me still, and I’ve a tremendous love for Derry and the people.

But you’ve got to bear in mind as well – you know, because you lived in Portadown – times were not conducive to peace, love and understanding. It was a hard time and things were tough. It wasn’t funny and there was a lot of really bad stuff going on, and that informs people’s attitudes. People get a little hard-bitten and stuff becomes a bit more grim and I think that feeds into it.

A great thing about Derry is that any airs and graces, or any notions of grandeur, are swiftly kicked into touch, and rightly so, by your friends and your peers.

But it would be disingenuous not to raise the idea as well that there was a wee bit of jealousy going on there too. I think Billy Connolly said ‘You don’t change, but the way people treat you changes when you start to be perceived as having a bit of success.’ That happened in Derry, just like anywhere else. But the aggression of it was informed greatly by the social circumstances of the time. It wasn’t a normal environment to grow up in so things got a little bent out of shape.

AIDAN HALLETT | I was watching Good Vibrations [about Terri Hooley, founder of the titular record label] for the second time recently. I’ve hugely enjoyed it both times I’ve seen it. It’s obviously Terri’s very particular take. I know it was mainly focused on Belfast, but do you think it captured something of how the music scene was back then?

PAUL McLOONE | Well, they’re not dissimilar places, although in another way they’re very different places. There’s huge rivalry between Derry and Belfast, and Derry has that second city thing going on. Some people in Belfast were patronising towards people in Derry and because of that Derry got a bit of a chip on its shoulder about Belfast. That is just a thing that happens between cities, you know.

I thought it was pretty accurate. I think cinema and TV have struggled to convincingly portray certain periods, and I think the 70s was one of them. The 70s is really, really tricky. I think they get it wrong more than they get it right, a few dodgy wigs notwithstanding…

AIDAN HALLETT | Adrian Dunbar’s. Shocker.

PAUL McLOONE | Yeah, what’s going on with that? There were bald people in the 70s, there were people with short hair, but it’s like, everybody has to get a wig. I don’t know what was going on there with Adrian. Maybe he was playing an infamous cross-dressing Loyalist… I mean Community Figure, that I know nothing about, but anyway…

It got the spirit of it I think. It’s essentially a light-hearted, warm kind of movie and they weren’t light-hearted, warm times. It does, to be fair, touch on the grim realities of day to day life. I thought it was very spirited. I thought Richard Dormer playing Terri Hooley was just great. In fact, during the voice-over at the start it took me three or four of his little monologues before I realised it wasn’t actually Terri. He just had him down. Obviously, it’s stylised and it’s fictionalised to an extent, but that’s the movies.

I wasn’t sure about the boy playing Feargal, but anyway… and Billy’s far better looking than that boy!

AIDAN HALLETT | I was a bit puzzled too by Jodie Whittaker. Was there nobody in Northern Ireland who could have played Terri’s wife? It wasn’t a big budget film which needed a big star. It was never pretending to be that.

PAUL McLOONE | I don’t know how those things happen. It’s a bit like America at the moment where there’s all these Brits playing Americans. If they’re not English, they’re Australian. Are there no American actors getting any work on HBO? She’s good in it though, and good luck to her with the whole Dr Who thing.

AIDAN HALLETT | From videos on YouTube, it’s clear it’s not just old fellas like me going to hear you. What do you think is bringing in the new people? Are kids being introduced to The Undertones by their parents because you’re not bringing out loads of new music?

PAUL McLOONE | I think there’s a lot of that. New people literally come with their parents, and they bring their mates. There’s the kids who are more engaged, young people who are going into it a bit deeper, who are genuinely interested in it.

When I was their age, 35 years ago, there was much less to dig down into. It was like, ‘Well punk happened, and now that’s over we’ve got Echo and The Bunnymen.’ It’s not like that now. The luxury of Spotify, and all these streaming services, is that pretty much anything important is accessible for the more serious kids.

Back in the day you had mail order records or you had to pester your record store guy. It just wasn’t available at all. If it had been deleted that was it, unless you got it second hand and there wasn’t much in terms of second hand record shops in Derry. It was much more limiting.

People decry the digital age, but in a way it’s great because it’s instantaneous. If you’re serious about finding out say there’s Cabbage and you want to know who they’ve been listening to, it’s right there and you can go chase it up.

I think there’s a wee bit of archaeology going on. For better or worse, (we’re) seen as a band of note. It’s great to be part of the story in that context. I think it’s brilliant. I find lists kind of boring, but you look at them and there’s The Undertones.

AIDAN HALLETT | Is there anybody in particular now, thinking perhaps Irish or Northern Irish, anybody that you’d say, ‘You need to look them up’?

PAUL McLOONE | Well, there’s a very obvious one, because they’re doing young, bolshy, bollocky, angry music and that’s a band called Touts. It’s not because they’re from Derry and it’s not because they play loud guitars that sound a bit like The Clash, but they’re very, very good. They’re fresh and they really, really fucking mean it. They’re boisterous and obstreperous and snotty, and the kind of things you really should be. It’s not a case of ‘Let’s wheel out the old punk cliches!’ That’s just how they are. I really enjoy them.

In Ireland at the minute there’s just so much great music right across the spectrum from electronic stuff to guitar music. It’s really happening. I just worry – and this is the other side of the whole change that the music business has had to deal with (and maybe they had it coming) – but the downside is ‘How far can bands really get now when people aren’t buying stuff anymore?’

For younger bands it’s a struggle. You’ve really got to love it to be doing it. I worry that sometimes what they call ‘the next level’ is really difficult for young musicians to achieve. It’s much harder than it used to be. The infrastructure that is there is geared towards looking for the next X Factor pop singer. It’s become so dominant now in a shrinking industry that it’s squeezing the young creative bands and creative talents out of the picture a bit. I don’t know where that’s going to land in terms of the future for young musicians, but it’s definitely a challenge.

AIDAN HALLETT | Final question Paul. What’s your favourite Undertones song, and why?

PAUL McLOONE | Julie Ocean. I always loved it. It was so different for them when it came out. The single version particularly was just unlike anything they’d done.

Not that I knew it at the time, but John had been clearly influenced by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground and they became my favourite, favourite thing in my later teenage years, once I realised that was where that was coming from too.

Even the name, Julie Ocean. I just thought ‘Wow!’ He’s a clever man is John O’Neill. I just love it. It’s a beautiful song and a mysterious kind of song and it has a kind of a magic to it. I love singing it, although it’s a hard one to sing and hard one to put in the right place in the set. It just happens to be my favourite. I love all the faster, louder ones too, but Julie Ocean is the personal one, the Desert Island disc for me.

The Undertones are on tour. Details here. The band will perform at Stylus, Leeds University Union on Friday 24th November 2017. Buy tickets.