Aural Sculptors - The Stranglers Live 1976 to the Present


Welcome to Aural Sculptors, a blog aimed at bringing the music of The Stranglers to as wide an audience as possible. Whilst all of the various members of the band that have passed through the ranks since 1974 are accomplished studio musicians, it is on stage where the band have for me had their biggest impact.

As a collector of their live recordings for many years I want to share some of the better quality material with other fans. By selecting the higher quality recordings I hope to present The Stranglers in the best possible light for the benefit of those less familiar with their material than the hardcore fan.

Needless to say, this site will steer well clear of any officially released material. As well as live gigs, I will post demos, radio interviews and anything else that I feel may be of interest.

In addition, occasionally I will post material by other bands, related or otherwise, that mean a lot to me.

Your comments and/or contributions are most welcome. Please email me at adrianandrews1@sky.com.


Saturday, 16 January 2021

Stiff Little Fingers Interview New Musical Express 22nd September 1979

 

A final piece from SLF's tumultuous year in the spot light as punks great new hope! Here they Jake and Ali discuss Northern Irish politics (of course) but also of record company shenanigans and disputes as well as the future direction of SLF post 'Inflammable Material'.

New Musical Express 22nd September 1979

Don't play until you see the whites of their eyes.

“There’s this friend of mine who thinks that UFO is the best group in the world," says Jake Burns, singer with the Belfast band Stiff Little Fingers. "I don't think UFO is the best group in the world, but he does.

"Anyway, so when we'd signed with Chrysalis, I phone him up, and I says to him: 'Hey, we've signed with this big capitalist record company, Chrysalis.' And he says to me: 'Great. Fantastic. Can you get me some UFO albums?' I says: 'Of course.' And I do. And that's nice."

Jake Burns laughs good humouredly, and so does the Fingers' bass player Ali McMordie.

Ali says: "None of our friends need ever go short of UFO albums again.

They laugh once more.

Chrysalis Records is housed in an expensive office block slap in the middle of London's West End. In the foyer the walls are full of platinum, gold, and silver discs commemorating vast sales by the likes of Jethro Tull, Ten Years After, Steeleye Span, and Mary O'Hara.

On the third floor there's a room set aside for interviews, and Jake and Ali are sitting there, working their way through cans of German lager.

"The one question we never ever answer is who are the Protestants and who are the Catholics in the band," says Jake.

"We say there's a Muslim and an atheist and .. . "

"A Protestant atheist and a Catholic atheist," Ali interrupts.

Jake: "That was something that was once said to a friend of our manager, Gordon (Ogilvie). This guy was stopped at one of the barricades in Belfast, and they said to him : 'Are youse a Prodestant or a Catholic?'

"So he says: 'I'm an atheist'.

"And they say: 'Are youse a Prodestant atheist or a Catholic atheist'?


It's no surprise that a big capitalist label like Chrysalis should want to sign Stiff Little Fingers. Their debut album 'Inflammable Material' on Rough Trade sold between 70,000 and 80,000 copies and they would have got a silver disc if Rough Trade had belonged to the appropriate record industry organisation.

In my view, Stiff Little Fingers are easily the most impressive young band to have emerged in the past four years. For sheer sustained aggression they effortlessly top the likes of the Pistols, The Clash or Sham 69. What's more, the honest insights of their songs, many of them about their own experience of the Northern Ireland Troubles, make most punk political anthems seem like empty posturing.

Not only are they fiercely hostile towards the security forces with songs like 'Law And Order' and 'Alternative Ulster', but with ‘Waste My Life' they also angrily dismiss the other side.

It takes courage to sing many of their songs in Belfast, but are the Troubles really as inescapable as the songs suggest?

Ali says: 'We can't remember what it was like before the Troubles. I mean we knew there was difference, us and them, before 1969 when it came to a head this time."

Did anyone ever attempt to recruit you into para-military groups?

"Oh yes," says Jake, "All the time. I mean, they don't come round with application forms, you know. But there's always a subtle pressure on you all the while. You've got mates at school who are involved."

How early don it start?

"At secondary school. You're not any use to them before that."

So how do you cope with that? How do you avoid it?

"You don't. I can't remember how I coped with it. I know I never joined it.

" It's basically that in your school class there are a couple who are in it who are fairly sensible blokes. The thing to do is to keep in with them. At least, that's what I did. If you keep in with them and you're known as a friend of theirs, when anything really nasty happens, and someone says: 'Well, he's not in
such and such: usually the sensible big bloke will say: 'Oh, he's okay, I can vouch for him.' So you can get out of it that way."

You didn't actually say stuff your fuckin' army to anyone face to face?

" No, that's a bit too dangerous. A bit too chancey."

Ali says: 'I was lucky. That was something that never happened to me because I was brought up in a mixed area. It was fairly heavy at times, but I suppose I was able to ignore it."

Jake comments that Jim Reilly, the band's new drummer, won't even talk about Northern Ireland.

"We went to Capital Radio yesterday, and the guy mentioned it and Jim jumped on him straight away. He said : 'Look, it doesn't matter what we've said about Northern Ireland, just drop it, Okay?' Because where Jim lives it's far, far too dangerous to talk about it."

I say that what's impressive about their music is that they seem to be singing about real experiences compared with other bands who aren't so closely involved.

"I'm glad that comes through," says Jake, "I don't know what kind of English teacher you had at school, but mine always told me: 'Write what you know', and that's what I did at school and since, when I've written songs."

Not all the band's songs are that serious. 'Barbed Wire Love' is full of jokey puns about romance among the plastic bullets.

"That was us taking the piss out of ourselves," says Jake. "It could get too serious. It just shows you've got a sense of humour. If you haven't got a sense of humour, you're dead."


Stiff Little Fingers needed all the good humour they could muster the other Sunday, when they got the Sham 69 treatment at Brixton's Anti-Racist carnival. The stage was invaded, the organisers turned the power off and the gig came to an abrupt, premature end.

Ali says : " The thing about that was that it could have been nothing, if there'd been a proper barrier and proper security."

Jake: "The organisers said that if you don't get the kids off the stage, we're gonna turn the power off. We couldn't get the kids off the stage, so they turned the power off. Then there was obviously nothing we could do and it just escalated. The problem was the people who turned the power off.

"In fact, it was a great afternoon really. It was going very well, until we ruined it," he laughs.

Both Ali and Jake strongly deny the idea that they've been chosen by the mob to have their gigs wrecked in the Sham 69 tradition.

"It's true that we've had only two gigs disrupted in the past few weeks, but they've also disrupted an Ian Dury gig .. disrupted Sham gigs, and disrupted Siouxsie and The Banshees.

"I was at a Ruts gig at the Nashville, and there was a fight. There's always fights at gigs. There always will be."

There's something a bit ironic about the idea that Stiff little Fingers might be the new Sham. Jake, who's 21, and Ali, who's 20, are both fairly fragile looking.

Ali, who's got spikey blonde hair, sports a single conspicuous earring, while Jake wears specs and looks the spitting image of Tony de Meur of The Fabulous Poodles. Ali and Jake met while on the same H.N.D. Business Studies course at a Belfast Poly.

Hardly The Angelic Upstarts.

"No," says Ali. "Nor do we want to be."

The thing that may fool people is Jake Burn's voice. So loud and raucous, it makes Jimmy Pursey sound like Sylvester. Jake says he'd never sung that way before he joined Stiff Little Fingers.

"The people I admire all sing gruff. People like Lee Brilleaux or Graham Parker. I used to come home and put on the first two Graham Parker albums, jack up the thing as loud as possible, and sing along with them.

"I used to really shout and try and make my voice sound like his. I never quite managed that, but I did manage to make my voice really rough. It actually suited what we were trying to do."

It's a very extrovert voice, but Jake Burns doesn't seem extrovert.

'Well, I'm not really."

Did you surprise yourself a bit, then?

"I think we all surprised ourselves as soon as we got on stage for the first time. Everybody started doing crazy things.

"The first couple of gigs were small bars in Belfast. We played so loud that people couldn't order drinks, but you had to play that loud or people wouldn't listen to you. We played deafeningly loud, and we were not only jumping in the air on the stage, but jumping off stage and on to people’s tables while they were drinking.

'We'd sit in the dressing room afterwards and think: 'Bloody hell, what have we done. We were scared to go back out into the audience to get home."

Stiff Little Fingers were formed two and a half years ago, and Jake says basically they got together to try to play music like the Pistols and The Ramones.

“We were never that good for months. The basic reason was that it was just a pastime, a hobby. We used to get together on a Saturday afternoon and get drunk. It started really when we thought: why don't we play somewhere?

"So we arranged to play in a pub and we were all scared because we'd never done it before. Two weeks before, we were panicking. So we decided to do some intensive rehearsals, which meant that instead of
Saturday afternoons, we did Wednesday evenings as well.

"Suddenly, during one of the rehearsals, it clicked. We actually started sounding like a band. We were playing the old Dr Feelgood number 'Lights Out', and at the end of it we all looked at each other and we thought: 'Oh, that's good. Let's try something else.' So we did."


Stiff little Fingers arrived in Britain on September 7 last year. Ali remembers it well. "We had not a
ha'penny in our pockets."

Jake adds: "We had enough money to buy a P.A. or a van. I wanted the van. They wanted the P.A. We argued about it for so long, we ended up just drinking the money."

The band wound up on the Rough Trade label because the company had already handled their 'Suspect Device' single on the Northern Ireland label Scotia. Before that, though, they were nearly signed to Island.

"Island brought us over and stuck us in Cunard Hotel in Hammersmith," says Jake.

'We will make you stars, kids. You know the kind of thing. We thought: 'Fuck! This is what it's like to be a pop star? Let me have it’

"They put us in the studio and let Ed Hollis produce us, just for demos. We'd been playing Hot Rods covers for the past year, and we thought- oh! ho! - their producer producing our demos. We were totally overawed by the whole thing.

"Then they just ditched us. They'd  hammered out a contract, made us an offer, and told us all to quit our jobs. They said Chris BlackwelI, the owner, had just come back from Jamaica or America or somewhere and decided he didn't want us.

'We were all very disappointed. Then we all got very angry Then we got really fucking angry. We felt that we'd been kicked in the teeth. Bu then we wised up, and we decided that the best thing we could do was to show them we were the best band they'd ever said 'no' to.

"Anyway, we did three weeks intensive rehearsal and we had four dates in Belfast, and then we got word that Tom Robinson wanted us to support him on his tour. He'd bought the single, all thanks to John Peel. And that was that."

Jake Burns clearly enjoys being a bit of a star. He recalls going back to his old school just after the album went into the charts.

"My old headmaster had turfed a couple of kids out for wearing 'God Save The Queen' badges. He said he would never have any punk at his school.

"Anyway, with our LP in-the Top 20 we were like big celebrities at home. Pages in the local paper. Local boys make good sort of thing. So I went back up the School, and said 'Hello'."

He laughs at the memory. "Great. Of course, the headmaster was pleased to see me. I was absolutely covered in Sex Pistols badges."

Ali says at his old school the kids have Stiff Little Fingers written on their books and their
school bags. He likes the idea of that.

For Stiff Little Fingers, a contract with an established label was obviously a logical move, though you can tell they expect some criticism because of their jokey remarks about "capitalist record companies".

When I raise the subject of Chrysalis, Jake shouts: "Sell outl Sell out!" But he goes on to explain why they did it.

"Chrysalis were the only label who would give us exactly what we wanted. Virgin, who are useless, offered us £15,000 and a million albums or something. I mean, Island had offered us £35,000 a year ago. Wake up! Anyway, Virgin then revised their offer a couple of weeks later. £65,000”.

Ali : "We said no thanks."

Jake: " Pye offered us £100,000 and our own record company and we said no. In fact, think of every label other than CBS, and we turned them down. CBS said they'd enough trouble with The Clash, so they didn't want us as well. They're a poxy label anyway."

Jake doesn't say what Chrysalis paid them, and I don't ask him. What he does say is that the money isn't important. The band have complete control.

"We make the records ourselves. We give them the finished tapes and say put that out and they have to. We also say what colour the vinyl is, what size the record will be, right down to the size of the hole in the centre."

Really?

"Really. We don't want kids to have to pay the earth for a 12-inch single in purple vinyl with green spots. Ordinary singles cost enough anyway."

The first Stiff Little Fingers single on Chrysalis is called 'Straw Dogs'. It's about mercenaries, people that Jake thinks don't have minds of their own. Men of straw. Hence the title, recalling the ultra-violet Sam Peckinpah movie of some years back. 

Jake and Ali think that a proper label will give them more chance of a hit. Their last one for Rough Trade, 'Gotta Get Away', sold 20 to 30 thousand in the first week of release, and that should have been enough to tet it into the Top 40. It disappeared, though, without a trace.

They say however that 'Straw Dogs' hasn't got a great melody. They didn't want to hand Chrysalis an instant hit the first time out. After their experience with Island, the band are wary of major companies. (In fact, they confirm that the vitriolic song 'Rough Trade' on the album was about Island and not Rough Trade itself).

Jake contends, however, that while they did well out of Rough Trade. Rough Trade did well
out of them, too.

"They were going to close down this August, but now they're carrying on. Not that I'm complaining, but apart from us they had nobody they could sell to anyone else.

"When we had to decide whether to be on the same label as Swell Maps or Generation X, it was easy. Generation X of course. At least they can play, and at least they stand a chance of doing something that'll please people.

"I'm not mentioning any names, but  sometimes I think some people on the music papers make a point of liking bands that are horrible just because they know no one else will.


Stiff Little Fingers are due to make a short tour of the UK in October, followed by a real blockbuster ("Ninety-six dates in two days", says Jake) in February. By then, they should know how things are shaping with their new label. Among other things, Chrysalis want them to go to the States.

"We'll probably end up insulting everybody over there," says Jake. "That's what's just happened in Holland and Belgium."

With the record company?

"No, with ordinary people. We played the Bilsen festival."

What was that like?

"God, it was bleedin' terrible," says Jake.

"Put it this way," says Ali. "The headlining bands were Whitesnake and Uriah Heep." .

Jake: "And then us."

Ali : "There were about a hundred punky type people and they liked us."

Jake: "We were awful, though. We were terrible. Couldn't play to save our lives."

Ali : "There were two stages. We were on the right hand one. Whitesnake were going to be on the left hand side and. their roadies were setting up while we were playing. There were three or four hundred people standing in front of their stage watching them and they wouldn't budge."

Jake: "Anyway, we came to our last number, which was 'Alternative Ulster and I said I'd like to dedicate this song to one of our favourite bands, and I started playing the riff from 'Smoke On The Water'.

"Suddenly, all these fuckin ' hairy idiots came rushing over to our stage. And we're standing there having hysterics, beating away at it. Then I went over to the microphone and said : 'One of our favourite bands - us!' They hadn't a clue. It was great."

After a year living in London, life has inevitably become easier for Stiff Little Fingers.

Jake says when they first arrived they used to make idiots of themselves when they walked into shops. They used to throw out their arms automatically, ready to be searched.

"People must have thought: Jeez, what are those idiots doing? Are they about to burst into song?"

'Inflammable Material' was a very angry album, but with twelve months to calm down, the band admit (as they've done before) that their music will inevitably be less angry in future. They insist, nonetheless, that their commitment to the music will continue.

"Right since the start," Jake maintains, "I’ve had very fixed ideas. I didn't want to play straight thrash. I wanted to keep the excitement that was first there, but instill it with a bit of intelligence. At the same time I didn't want to go over the top and get all arty-farty winding up sounding like XTC or something like that. I wanted to put just enough intelligence into it so that it was melodic enough for the kids to sing along with."

One of the great strengths of Stiff Little Fingers is their melodies. Songs like ‘Wasted Life', 'Suspect Device' and 'Here We Are Nowhere' are a very long way from "straight thrash".

It occurs to me that a lot of Irish rock acts have this quality in common: Van Morrison, Thin Lizzy, Boomtown Rats. Without wishing to get into racial stereotypes, you understand.

"I think you just have to face up to facts," says Jake Burns. "People on that small island -Ireland - just happen to write the best songs and have the best bands in the world."


 

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