Damian and John O’Neill left the ashes of the Undertones behind with few prospects for their musical future. While Feargal Sharkey began his transformation into a boring California pop chanteur, they lay low, quietly scorning the business that had shattered their teenage dreams. After several false starts, they launched That Petrol Emotion, an excellent Gaelic-conscious quintet that built on past accomplishments without revisiting them. Damian took up bass; big brother John (now known as Seán) and Derry homeboy Reámann O’Gormáin play guitar; drummer Ciaran McLaughlin and New York (by way of Seattle) singer Steve Mack completed the band, which was politically aware, occasionally abrasive and devoutly independent.
Manic Pop Thrill is an apt title for an album of angry, articulate rock melodies that span the continuum from sweet balladry to PiL/Fall-like noise. Mack is a fine, controlled shouter in the Keith Relf/Steve Marriott tradition; the band’s combination of slide guitars, Bo Diddley beats, wild harmonica wailing and raveup energy recalls the early Stones, Yardbirds and Velvet Underground. The utter lack of nostalgia or revivalism here suggests that, even with all the crap that masquerades as music nowadays, some things about rock ‘n’ roll will never die. (The CD adds four tracks.)
Produced by ex-Swan Roli Mosimann, Babble puts the issues — mostly concerning religion and Irish nationalism — right up front: “Creeping to the Cross,” “Big Decision,” “Swamp,” “Chester Burnette” and others unleash the group’s vehemence and informed radical commentary. Since the lyrics aren’t very specific and the singleminded music is ruggedly invigorating, agreement isn’t a prerequisite to appreciation. The Petrols could benefit from a little more stylistic consistency (everybody writes, often in different directions), but the melding of real-life anger with germane musical passion gives Babble a visceral quality that is impossible to ignore.
The June 1985 performances on the Peel EP predate the band’s first album; songs include “V2,” “Can’t Stop,” “Lettuce” and “Blind Spot.” The full-length Peel album pairs that session with a second one from later the same year. Recorded in Los Angeles, the nifty but questionable 1988 Live mini-album (seemingly a boot, but openly distributed through legitimate channels) has covers of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” and Pere Ubu’s “Non Alignment Pact” alongside five of the band’s own tunes, from the pre-Pop Thrill “V2” to the then-new “Here It Is…Take It!”
While some of the more restrained material on the stylistically scattered End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues (again produced by Mosimann) is underwhelming, tracks like “Sooner or Later,” “Tension,” “Here It Is…Take It!” and “Groove Check” — on which the band’s Celtic funk-rock, complete with horns, is in full effect — are gripping. As the music shifts gears to suit their tone, the lyrics run alternately bleak, resigned and angry (a few of them, in keeping with the militant liner notes, are specifically topical, the rest more generally directed). When it all clicks, the Petrols’ charging sound and fiery ideas combine to make a powerful artistic statement.
Shortly after the album’s release, Seán O’Neill chose family life over the rock ‘n’ roll jungle, and left the band. Damian switched back to guitar, McLaughlin emerged as the leading songwriter and the Petrols drafted a new bassist, John Marchini, who made his debut on the Scott Litt-produced Chemicrazy. Given all the changes, it’s surprising that the album sounds anything at all like its predecessors. What mainly remains in the absence of Seán’s disconsolate moodiness and Mosimann’s loud impudence is crisply presentable but emotionally defused, lyrically inadequate and blandly commercialized. While the cool “Scum Surfin'” proves that there is life after the end of the millennium, Chemicrazy is a dose of the wrong medicine.
Built around an album track and the non-LP “Chemicrazy,” the Sensitize EP is a multi-format extravaganza, available (besides two two-track single configurations and a three-song 12-inch) as a CD and, with different tracks, a 10-inch vinyl platter in a box with a poster.
Seemingly on the ropes after losing their record deal, the Petrols — with yet another bass player, Brendan Kelly — rebounded with the self-released Fireproof (shades of the Undertones’ “Tearproof”?). Proclaiming themselves the “Last of the True Believers,” the Petrols reclaim the edgy roughness and intensity of Babble, minus the topical conflagrations — a good idea on the surface, as the band’s ability to wrap thorny guitars around an inviting musical stream remains impressive. But the droney, melody-deprived rockers can’t get by strictly on drive, and the album’s parallel attempt to advance the quintet’s Beatlesque pop aspirations is also stymied: only “Speed of Light” hits the hum-along target squarely. Without a striking songwriter to focus all this vigor, That Petrol Emotion is a lit fuse looking for something to set off. (In addition to extensive liner notes by a “noted fan,” the 2000 reissue adds alternate versions of “Speed of Light,” “Shangri-La” and “Last of the True Believers” as well as two non-album tracks, “Everlasting Breath” and “Detonate My Dreams.”)
The posthumously issued live album was recorded at the band’s two final shows, in London and Dublin, in May 1994.