The Undertones Biography

Formed in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, in November 1975, this much-loved punk pop quintet comprised Feargal Sharkey (Sean Feargal Sharkey, 13 August 1958, Londonderry, Northern Ireland; vocals), John O’Neill (b. John Joseph O’Neill, 26 August 1957, Londonderry, Northern Ireland; guitar), Damian O’Neill (b. Stephen Damian O’Neill, 15 January 1961, Belfast, Northern Ireland; guitar), Michael Bradley (b. 13 August 1959, Londonderry, Northern Ireland; bass) and Billy Doherty (b. William Doherty, 10 July 1958, Larne, Northern Ireland; drums).

Playing on the local pub scene, the Undertones were inspired by the punk movement to begin writing and playing their own songs. An early demo was rejected by Stiff Records, Chiswick Records and Radar Records, as the quintet continued to build a following with a series of local gigs. By 1978 the band were offered a one-off contract with the independent Belfast label Good Vibrations. Their debut EP, Teenage Kicks, was heavily promoted by the influential BBC disc jockey John Peel, who later nominated the lead track as his all-time favourite recording, saying that he cried when he first heard it. The band was still without a manager, so Sharkey took on responsibility for arranging a five-year contract with Sire Records (an early indication of the business acumen that would lead to A&R positions in the music industry). The label then reissued Teenage Kicks, which eventually climbed to number 31 in the charts on the back of their first UK tour.

By the spring of 1979, the band had entered the UK Top 20 with the infectious ‘Jimmy Jimmy’ and gained considerable acclaim for their debut album, which was one of the most refreshing pop records of its time. The band’s genuinely felt songs of teenage angst and romance struck a chord with young listeners and ingratiated them to an older public weaned on the great tradition of early/mid-60s pop. Hypnotised was a more accomplished work, and featured strongly melodic hit singles in ‘My Perfect Cousin’ (UK number 9) and ‘Wednesday Week’ (UK number 11). The former was particularly notable for its acerbic humour, including the sardonic lines: ‘His mother bought him a synthesizer/Got the Human League in to advise her’.

Despite a major tour of the USA, the band were unable to make an impact outside the UK and were released from their Sire contract, setting up their own label, Ardeck Records, licensed through EMI Records. The band then went to Holland to record Positive Touch in 1981. Of the singles taken from the album the insistent ‘It’s Going To Happen!’ was a deserved success, but the romantic ‘Julie Ocean’ was not rewarded in chart terms. The Undertones’ new-found maturity did not always work in their favour, with some critics longing for the innocence and naïvety of their initial recordings. With The Sin Of Pride and attendant ‘The Love Parade’, the band displayed a willingness to extend their appeal, both musically with the introduction of brass, and thematically with less obvious lyrics. A growing need to explore new areas outside the restrictive Undertones banner meant the band ended their association in June 1983. The compilation All Wrapped Up, complete with controversial sleeve, served as a fitting tribute to their passionate blend of punk and melodic pop.

Sharkey went on to team up with Vince Clarke in the short-lived Assembly, before finding considerable success as a soloist and latterly an A&R man. The O’Neill brothers subsequently formed the critically acclaimed That Petrol Emotion. The Undertones re-formed on a temporary basis in the late 90s minus Sharkey, who was replaced by new singer Paul McLoone (b. Northern Ireland). This line-up continued to play the occasional live show and recorded a credible new studio album in 2003.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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