The best band ever to come from Northern Ireland, the Undertones took youthful adoration for glam-rock and gave it the stripped-down simplicity and energy of punk to create truly wonderful albums of pop/rock (and, toward the end, soul) with a difference. The band’s body of work reveals rapid creative growth; each album clearly shows a different stage in its development. The quintet’s 1983 demise, as unavoidable as it was disappointing, resulted from a lack of sustained commercial success and the inability to shake the public’s first impression of them as an Irish Ramones. Amazingly, their 21st-century return (with a different singer) has so far been worth the effort.
Very young Derrymen when they began in 1976, the Undertones — guitar-playing brothers Damian and John O’Neill, bassist Mickey Bradley (whose 2016 book, Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone, brings the early days to vivid, often ridiculously funny, life), drummer Billy Doherty and singer Feargal Sharkey — started out writing simple, fetching melodies with lyrics about teenagehood and playing them fast and raw on basic guitars, bass and drums. With Sharkey’s piercing, quivering Irish tenor out front, songs on the first album (“Jimmy Jimmy,” “Here Comes the Summer,” “Girls Don’t Like It”) are spare and efficient pop gems that are as infectious as measles, suggesting a bridge between teenybop and punk. (The original US edition, wrapped in completely different color Xerox artwork, adds the crucial “Teenage Kicks” and “Get Over You” from the band’s first two 7-inches; a limited-edition English 10-inch released at the same time combined those two tracks plus a pair from the LP. The 1994 reissue adds seven bonus cuts — mostly contemporaneous B-sides — to the original album. The 2003 edition musters six of those and four more non-LP singles sides, including the classic “You’ve Got My Number (Why Don’t You Use It?).”
The Undertones broadened their scope for Hypnotised, making the sound clearer and more instrumentally distinct while telling offbeat stories and describing colorful contemporary characters with impressive skill. (Not for nothing was the album originally going to be called 15 Rockin’ Humdingers.) Outstanding tracks include the bitterly funny “My Perfect Cousin,” the delicate “Wednesday Week” and the gently self-mocking “More Songs About Chocolate and Girls.” Of the four original albums, Hypnotised has the best balance of sophistication and innocence. The ’94 CD appends “You’ve Got My Number” and a handful of B-sides. The 2003 replacement contains only three of those five cuts.
Positive Touch introduces well-placed horns and piano (by Paul Carrack) to the sound and explores much more ambitious ground, a reflection of the band’s personal and musical maturation. While the songs are not all immediately catchy, they are ultimately rewarding, displaying numerous new sides and levels to the Undertones. Considering that they had been pounding out rudimentary four-chord riffpunk two years earlier, it’s an enormous artistic achievement. The Rykodisc reissue is augmented by the eerie “Beautiful Friend” and three other tracks from singles. The Sanctuary edition goes one better, complementing that quartet with the re-recorded single version of the album’s delicate “Julie Ocean.”
The Love Parade EP — actually a 12-inch single with four songs on the B-side — includes three otherwise unavailable live recordings tied together with weird noises and unfathomable dialogue. Most importantly at the time, it showed the band to be newly focused on ’60s soul psychedelia.
Perhaps overly stung by their commercial disappointments, the Undertones’ final album was made with more ambition than concentration. The Sin of Pride has its brilliant moments — a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Got to Have You Back,” “Bye Bye Baby Blue,” “The Love Parade,” “Chain of Love” — but the fear of being thought of as an immature pop band drives them into low-key excursions that drift away tunelessly, and overactive horn charts bury the band’s instrumental personality. Also, the sound quality is disturbingly distant. (In retrospect, it would seem that the impulses that would drive Sharkey’s solo career were already affecting the mothership.) The ’94 CD adds three songs left over from the album sessions and some B-sides. The re-reissue augments those six tracks with four more, including the 12-inch mix of “The Love Parade” and a live version of Positive Touch‘s “You’re Welcome.”
The UK edition of All Wrapped Up, a posthumous singles collection, fills two discs with all 13 of the band’s A-sides plus 17 flips — 30 magnificent cuts in all. From the entire four-song Teenage Kicks EP right up through “Chain of Love,” it’s a stirring reminder of what a truly marvelous band they were. The American version has the same cover photo (a female model cellophaned into a meat dress) but eliminates one disc and 16 of the B-sides. Cher o’ Bowlies, subtitled The Pick of the Undertones, is another compilation with some overlap, but rather than concentrating on 45s, the selection of album tracks portrays the group differently. The Very Best of the Undertones packs 25 songs — including nearly all the A-sides and a generous helping of album tracks — onto a single fun-filled disc.
The Peel BBC radio EP, produced by Bob Sargeant in January 1979, offers sloppy but wonderful live versions of “Here Comes the Summer,” “Family Entertainment” and two others. Combining that quartet of tracks with repeat visits in January ’80 and November ’82, The Peel Sessions Album amounts to a definitive live retrospective, following the Undertones from what the liner notes refer to as their “callow, endearingly goofy period” through their more proficient prime (“What’s With Terry,” Gary Glitter’s “Rock n’ Roll” with a nifty T. Rex coda) to a resourceful horn-free preview of the final album (“The Sin of Pride,” “Untouchable,” “Luxury”).
After the Undertones ended, Sharkey made one great 1983 single (“Never Never”) with (post-Depeche Mode but pre-Yazoo) Vince Clarke’s otherwise stillborn Assembly and then a not-so-great solo 45 (“Listen to Your Father”) for Madness’ Zarjazz label the following year. After a third one-off single produced by Queen drummer Roger Taylor (!?), he linked up with Eurythmic Dave Stewart and got his briefly successful solo career underway with “A Good Heart.” The singer’s first solo album is an uneasy pairing of distinctive vocals and tame, mainstreamed arrangements of material from diverse sources. “A Good Heart” (written, but unrecorded, by Maria McKee) is a sturdy piece of slightly soulful pop; “You Little Thief” (by Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s band) is similarly memorable. “Love and Hate” resembles late-period Undertones, while the Sharkey version of Bobby Womack’s venerable “It’s All Over Now” is simply a mistake.
Sharkey took another giant step away from his past with Wish. The high-gloss West Coast album — production, guitar and keyboards by Danny Kortchmar; songs mostly co-written with him, Waddy Wachtel and Mark Goldenberg — has characterless backing tracks that could serve any number of lame singers. The stark contrast of Sharkey’s strange voice with such bland commercialism results in a listenable soul-pop-rock record with only one strong character trait. A guest turn by Keith Richards on Tench’s “More Love” is wasted; except for the rousing “Out of My System,” the routinely romantic songs, while competent, are entirely forgettable.
As Sharkey underwent his transformation into a boring California pop chanteur (these days he’s a vocal and effective advocate for protecting the waterways of Great Britain), the O’Neill brothers took a powder, quietly scorning the business that had shattered their teenage dreams. After several false starts, they returned with That Petrol Emotion, an excellent new quintet that built on past accomplishments without revisiting them.
The Undertones — without Sharkey — reformed in the ’90s for the occasional show but got more serious in 2003, when the four original players recorded a fine new old-fashioned album, Get What You Need, with Paul McLoone as their singer. He sounds a lot like Feargal on record (less so in person, where his rock star confidence mildly undercuts the boyish insecurity of the old songs), but that contributes to the familiarity of the sound, which is a good thing. A few of the tracks lack spark, but “Thrill Me,” “Everything but You,” “Enough,” “You Can’t Say That” and “Joyland” are all fresh realizations of what made the ’Tones so great in the first place.