Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers began as four exciting (if narrow-minded) sloganeers, led by raw-voiced singer/guitarist Jake Burns. SLF’s debut (the Rough Trade label’s first LP release) includes such classic protest punk as “Suspect Device,” “Alternative Ulster” and “Wasted Life.” The LP is generally regarded as a classic punk LP; its UK chart success was the spark that set off a second wave of new bands like the Ruts and Undertones.
By Nobody’s Heroes, they had changed labels, acquired a new drummer (Jim Reilly) and developed a bit more subtlety in the music and lyrics. (Contravening punk’s push for DIY autonomy, most of SLF’s lyrics were written by Gordon Ogilvie, a journalist who later became their manager.) The title track and “Gotta Getaway” are the highlights, but “Wait and See” audaciously thumbs a collective nose at the band’s detractors; a roughed-up version of the Specials’ “Doesn’t Make It Alright” showed SLF to be developing interests outside punk’s limits. Although slicker, more sedate and half as fiery as Inflammable Material, it’s a solid LP. A live set, Hanx!, served as a premature greatest hits collection, containing powerful renditions of their best material in a well-recorded concert environment, before an enthusiastic audience.
Go for It broke Stiff Little Fingers’ mold, and they emerged a much different sounding band. Burns’ voice is smoother and less anguished; the music, while no less energetic or committed, is more diverse and sophisticated. The title track, a memorable martial guitar instrumental, shows how far they’d come, bearing scant resemblance to their early rabble-rousing roughness. Other numbers draw on reggae stylings for variety; “Silver Lining” even utilizes prominent brass.
Now Then, their least popular but most lasting LP, continues the exploration of more accessible musical turf and is full of solid rock songs that pair energy and melody with clever guitar play. With new drummer Dolph Taylor (ex-Tom Robinson Band) in the lineup, SLF sounds better than ever. Their political consciousness remains undiminished, but subtler and stronger lyrics effectively replace inchoate rage with on-target criticism.
Following the group’s dissolution, the two-LP singles compilation All the Best appeared, containing 30 tracks that chronologically review their progress from raw rage to sharp power-pop. Burns later released several solo singles.
Five years later, SLF unexpectedly reformed for two UK tours (December ’87 and March ’88). The crowd’s excited roar is the real star of Live and Loud!!, a double LP from a December London gig. After a house-on-fire version of “Alternative Ulster,” SLF proves sloppier and slower than when they left off, and the choice of material clearly aims to please, with not one selection from Now Then. Nevertheless, the LP documents a triumphant, if brief, comeback of a once-great band ironically at the height of its popularity. (Link licensed Live and Loud!! to Kaz, which issued it on CD and cassette as No Sleep ‘Til Belfast, also the title of a four-song live EP on a Link subsidiary; Link then brought out a competing CD of its own, identical except for the deletion of “The Only One.”)
The band was unhappy with the live LP and released a far better one (See You Up There!), recorded on St. Patrick’s Day ’88 at London’s Brixton Academy. Since the track listings are — with some notable differences — very similar, it’s obviously meant to replace Live and Loud!! and, on sound quality, there’s no contest. Not to be outdone, Link turned around and issued a live 12-inch (The Last Time) of three more songs from the earlier gig, including the intentionally awful Stones cover of the record’s title. This appears to have been the last shot in the war of live records — for now.
The Peel Sessions album replaces the ’86 Peel EP, as it combines all four songs from it with sessions from ’78, ’79 and ’80. The versions are, in general, rawer than the familiar recordings of the same songs. In particular, second-album songs recorded first-album style are truly ear-opening, most notably an embittered, enraged “Fly the Flag” that is clearly superior to the Nobody’s Heroes version. What’s more, the early “Nobody’s Hero” has slightly different lyrics.