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| 28 March 2016 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar

Stiff Little Fingers 01

Punk rock heroes from Northern Island, Stiff Little Fingers embark on their tour of Australia next week with a show at Perth’s Capitol on Tuesday, 29th March. SHANE PINNEGAR spoke with Jake Burns, frontman, founder & only constant in the band since they formed in 1977.

Tuesday 29th March – PERTH Capitol
Wednesday 30th March – ADELAIDE The Gov
Thursday 31st March – MELBOURNE 170 Russell
Friday 1st April – SYDNEY Metro Theatre
Saturday 2nd April – BRISBANE The Triffid

Nearly forty years later Stiff Little Fingers are still producing politically volatile music, and playing around the world.

“It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?” Burns laughs. “People have asked me many times recently, ‘so, you’ve been doing this for nearly forty years, did you think that was going to be the case when you started out?’ Of course the answer is no! I’m pleasantly baffled, I guess. I’m pleased that people are still interested in the band, I’m delighted we can still do it. I think that we’re all unemployable for anything else, so I’m glad people are still coming to see us, you know?”

Stiff Little Fingers press shot 2012 November 12, 2012 © Ashley Maile

Stiff Little Fingers press shot 2012
November 12, 2012
© Ashley Maile

Starting out with school friends as a covers band named after Deep Purple song Highway Star was, Burns says, overly ambitious for them from the start.

“We actually never got round to playing any Deep Purple covers – they were too tricky! We named ourselves after one of their songs, but no, those were too tricky. We stuck to fairly basic stuff, you know, we could do you a half decent ZZ Top or possibly Rory Gallagher at a push but that was about it you know.”

Fast forward several decades to their most recent album, 2014’s No Going Back, and the band scored their first number one album, on the BBC Rock Albums Chart.

“Yeah, that was… it’s a strange thing,” he reflects, “like I said earlier, it’s faintly ridiculous really. I guess when you start doing this at 14, 15 or whatever – when you first start playing, well when I first started playing – obviously your head is full of sugar plums and lolly pops and you think, ‘yes I’m going to be great, I’ll have number one records, we’ll tour the world.’

“Well, we toured the world and we still do, but I’d given up any idea or thought of having a number one record, and then when we got it, it was all kind of bizarre really. We didn’t really believe it: I’ll give you an idea of what the reality of being in this band’s like. We were actually on tour in Canada at the time, it was during an American tour – I live in America now, I have done for some years – and we were going up into Canada for two shows.

“We were playing Toronto and Montreal so we were only going to be in the country for three days at the most and my mobile phone plan was such that it was going to cost me a dollar a minute to answer the phone in Canada. I said to my wife, ‘look, we’re going off to Canada for a few days, it’s only a couple of days and in this instance just text me if there’s any real problems and I’ll call you when we get back into the United States. We should only be a couple of days, so everything should be fine,’ and I sent that through as a text message from the tour bus outside the club in Toronto.

“No sooner had I sent it than the phone rang,” he recounts, obviously revelling in his story, “and obviously I could see from the phone that it was my wife calling and I thought, ‘for God’s sake did I not just say don’t call me for three days because it costs me a dollar a minute to answer this?!?’ So I picked up the phone and said exactly that, I said, ‘didn’t you get the message I told you not to phone for three days!’ She just stopped me right there and said, ‘you’re number one!’ I said, ‘we’re what sorry, we’re what?’ She said, ‘you’re number one in the UK!’ I went, ‘get out of here, really?’ She said, ‘yes you are!’ I said, ‘that’s brilliant – now get off the phone, this is costing me a dollar a minute!’”

Number one certainly doesn’t mean what it used to, thirty or forty years ago, that’s for sure.

“Sadly it doesn’t,” Burns concurs, “but it’s a nice thing to have on your resume, I would think.”

Stiff Little Fingers - Jake Burns 02

No doubt finally scoring a number one album after being a band for, at that stage, something like 38 years, is testament to the good will Burns and Stiff Little Fingers built up over that thirty or forty years.

“I think that’s actually a very good word for it,” he says. “When we split up briefly in the early 80’s – I say briefly, but we didn’t even talk to each other for four years or so – when we actually reformed the band, I think that was the thing that overwhelmed me more than even the numbers of people that came out to see us. The numbers on that tour astonished us, we didn’t think that anybody would even remember us and we ended up playing in two thousand seat theatres every night that were sold out weeks in advance. The thing that did amuse me the most was the amount of affection people had for the band. It really was almost like meeting old friends you hadn’t seen for a while and that’s the feeling we got from the audience, which is very flattering, in so much as realistically you buy a record and it’s a possession, it’s a thing sits in a rack in your home but these people genuinely felt like that. The warmth and affection really blew me away.”

That ‘warmth and affection’ was on show when their PledgeMusic campaign to fund the album went ballistic and reached their target in just twelve hours.

“It was crazy, yeah, and we’ve just done a second one that did exactly the same thing!” Burns says with no little awe in his voice. “We’re going to film the Glasgow show on this upcoming tour simply because it’s the 25th St Patrick’s Night in a row [we’ve done at] the same venue – and the same thing happened, it was funded within twelve hours or so. I mean, that’s just humbling, you know, particularly for the record I think. Not so much for the live show because the audience have seen that and they know roughly what they’re getting.

“But for an album, at its most basic you’re just asking people to pre-order a record, that’s what you’re doing. But they were pre-ordering a record that they hadn’t heard anything from. Most people when they go on Amazon or whatever to pre-order an album, they’ve heard the single on the radio or on the internet or whatever, so they know roughly what they’re getting. This was a complete shot in the dark for these folk and they believed in us to deliver.

“It was quite a punk rock do-it-yourself approach to take,” he continues, “and it was actually our management’s idea and it came about because we went back to the folks at EMI who we’d worked with for many years and they basically said to us, ‘oh yeah, we’ll put the record out for you but really, why do you need a record label?’ And we said, ‘what do you mean? This is the way the music business works, isn’t it? We come to you, say we’d like to make a record and hopefully you say yes.’ They said, ‘well, basically a record label is a means to get your album in the stores and there just aren’t any stores really any more, of any great consequence to speak of. There are specialists stores obviously but most of the sales are through the internet and you could do that yourselves.’

“When we thought about that, we ummed and ahhed about it, and I think there was [a bit of] trepidation about doing it on our own, which was actually succinctly put into words by one of our managers who said, ‘well look, if you want we can go get offers from other people: if EMI aren’t interested we can go to Warner’s, we can go to Sony, we can go to all the majors and then start working through independents, if that’s what you want, until someone eventually says yes, or you could do it this way.’

“Of course I said, ‘well that means we’re going straight to our audience.’ He went, ‘Absolutely!’ I said, ‘well what if they say no? Then we’re screwed!’ It’s one thing EMI saying no because we can go to somebody else and keep going until somebody says yes, but if you go to the very people that you’re supposed to appeal to and their reaction is ‘yeah, not sure,’ then you’re kind of screwed from day one.

“Luckily we were, you know, lucky that didn’t happen. I’m not necessarily a proud person, in fact if anything I tend to down play any sort of achievement that I’m involved in much to the annoyance of everyone else. But it’s… it’s certainly something, I think that I am proud of, and I’m proud of the band. Like I said earlier, there’s still that much affection in people that they were running to take that chance. I mean that in itself is astonishing particularly this far into your career, you know.”

From the very earliest Stiff Little Fingers singles – Suspect Device and Alternative Ulster, both released in 1978 – Burns has written and sung about very political issues and very important social issues. Did that attract a share of negative attention as well as positive?

“Oh yeah,” he admits nonchalantly. “I mean right from the start almost – in fact a well publicised story, or feud if you like, in the early days between ourselves and The Undertones is based on exactly that. Not that we ever tried to enter into the ‘feud’ but the point that The Undertones made was they wrote songs like Teenage Kicks and My Perfect Cousin which were fantastic, great pop songs because basically the way they viewed the situation in Northern Ireland was, ‘look everybody has to deal with this day in, day out, so when they go out for the evening the last thing in the world they want to deal with is the shit they have to deal with in their everyday lives,’ and I think one of the reasons we tried not to get involved in the ‘feud’ with them, is because I could see that point of view absolutely and I agreed with them.

“The trouble is I’m not actually built like that: if somethings bugging me, I’m going to complain about it. So my platform to vent my frustration was the guitar and eventually Stiff Little Fingers, so that’s what we did. I still think, looking back on it, I think both points of view are absolutely relevant, both have their plus and minus points, so yeah, we did get an amount of criticism from the South. We also had people saying you’re just cashing in on the problems. Well, it’s our lives, how can we cash in on our own lives? What are we supposed to sing about, you know?

“I always saw punk as an empowering thing, and saw it as a chance to stand up and, not necessarily vent, but the chance to be yourself, the chance to be an individual. I think that’s why I was saddened by the way its developed over the years – it very quickly became [not] about being an individual. Very quickly there was a set of rules around it. You had to have the right haircut, you had to have the right number of studs on your leather jacket and the right band names on the back.

“That was never to me what it was about in the first place. If you look back to the late ’70s, the bands which came out of that that were all described as punk, were as varied as The Ramones, through Blondie, through Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Talking Heads, to Television, you know. Bands that musically have nothing at all in common apart from the fact that they wrote short sharp intelligent songs. That, to me, was worth more than just everybody sounding the same, which is unfortunately what it became.”

Stiff Little Fingers 03

Which brings us to my own disillusionment with the punk scene: the obscuring of any political or social message in the music by those who insist on dumbing punk down and stereotyping it into a safety pin, Mohawk, gobbing, lowest common denominator type of thing.

“I do find that, like I said, I find it depressing really,” admits Burns. “More so with younger bands because I think that the idea that you could actually stand up and be smart was fantastic – and that has been lost somewhat. Think [about] the sublimation of the music as a corporate entity: when it became fashionable [for the] major department stores [to] all sell Ramones t shirts with no idea of who The Ramones are. It could say anything on the front of it! And I think what happened was a lot of the bands modelled themselves basically on party bands.

“I’m not going to say it was because they couldn’t play properly, because God knows we couldn’t play well when we started! That’s got nothing to do with it. It did come down to a lowest common denominator and that lowest common denominator seemed to be songs about drinking, songs about fighting and songs about screwing, you know. I have no doubt for an 18-year-old, drinking, fighting and screwing are a part of your life but if that’s really all you want to sing about then, you know, that’s a pretty shallow life really. It’s fine when you’re that age but to be still writing and playing that sort of song when you’ve had a five to ten year career, doesn’t really say a lot as far as I’m concerned.”

Jake has gone on record in other interviews stating that he can’t write ‘I love you, you love me’ songs, he can only write songs about things that make him angry. I put it to him that he must have a lot to write about with the world in the state that it’s in at the moment?

“Yes. Well yeah, that’s kind of the sad thing: looking for inspiration from my point of view, you don’t have to look very far.” He says with a wry chuckle. “I was just talking to somebody earlier about this: I’ve lived in America now for eleven years and I’ve really started to consider myself qualified to talk about the place in those terms. I just think it’s incredibly sad and, I would like to say unexpected, but to come to the end of what has been – okay he was handcuffed to a certain degree by the opposition party – but to come to the end by anybody’s terms, of a successful presidency for President Obama, and find that the main person leading the charge for the White House at the moment is Donald Trump, who basically seems to stand up and shout as much xenophobic nonsense as he possibly can… that sort of thing terrifies me.

“Not so much because he’s standing up and doing it because he’s got the money, he’s got the platforms – of course he can do what he wants. That’s part of the build of this country. But it’s the fact that so many people actually agree with him that amazes me. It’s like, where has all this poisonous opinion been for so long? And suddenly it’s… I don’t for the life of me think he’s ever going to get elected, but of course those are words to come and bite me on the arse later this year.

“Realistically,” Burns continues, “if I thought George W Bush was one step up from a chimp – and believe me I did – God alone knows what this guy is going to be like!”

Stiff Little Fingers Australian tour 2016

In addition to the political turmoil in The States, there is terrorism around the world. It seems that songs like Suspect Device or Alternative Ulster are as relevant or more so today as they were almost forty years ago.

“Yeah, and that’s a sad reflection as well,” he says, “because I was kind of hoping that if I was in any universe where I projected myself forward, if I thought I would still be playing those songs at this stage in my life, I really hoped they’d be sounding almost like old folk songs, you know? Like, ‘here’s a song we wrote about the bad old days, luckily things have moved on.’ But you’re right, sadly they haven’t.”

Category: Interviews

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