1977. Four lads (Jake Burns, Henry Cluney, Gordon Blair and Brian Faloon) formed a cover band and called themselves Highway Star. They played, according to accounts, note perfect versions of the big rock bands of the time. They Enjoyed limited local success and few hiccups, with the exception of replacing Gordon Blair with Ali McMordie on bass. The band attended a concert by The Clash and inspired by their energy and talent Highway Star reinvented themselves, took the name Stiff Little Fingers from an obscure lyric in a The Vibrators b-side track and turned to punk rock, alas, still playing only cover versions.
Making cash playing punk rock in 1977 must have been a struggle. Those were the days when every kid with a guitar to twang and a drum to thump were “the next big thing in punk”. Still Little Fingers were, however, proven musicians and although strictly a cover band, they found work aplenty on the pub/club scene. In November of the same year a young journalist named Gordon Ogilivie saw the band live, was impressed, and urged them to write their own songs. Unsure of a subject on which to write, the journalist advised them to write on what they knew best, life in their hometown.
Their hometown happened to be Belfast in Northern Ireland.
Belfast in 1977, to use a gross understatement, was not a nice place to be. Loyalist fought Unionist, sectarian violence was rife, paramilitaries fought for control and everyone fought the British soldier who patrolled the streets.
These four young men had a lot to say about their lives, and luckily they had the nerve to do it. (if that seems a flippant statement, let me assure you it isn’t. I learned first hand how things work there when I lived in a small village just outside of Belfast for a couple of months in 1999. A man was killed in the village, men broke into his home and shot him in the head. Apparently the victim had been at the local pub and “made his mouth go about the wrong people”. I’ve also know a lot of lads who’ve served there with the army……I’d gladly recant their horror stories of Belfast, but this isn’t the place……and you’d prolly think I was making it up anyway). Belfast was a hellhole when I knew the place. 23 yrs earlier it was much, much worse.
Twelve days after Ogilivie’s “encouragement” the band played two of their own compositions for him, Suspect Device and Wasted Life. For the next couple of years these songs would define SLF’s style. Full, heavy with anger and angst, lyrically combining a feeling of both personal and political frustration, musically mixing the chaos of pure punk rock with infectious riffs from both guitar and bass.
Quickly forming their own record label, Rigid Digits, after begging, borrowing and maybe even stealing enough resources they managed to press 350 copies of these first two songs. Ogilivie sent a copy to BBC Radio One DJ John Peel (who was, the God of championing indie/punk/rock music in the UK). Peel fell in love with the record and played it on a nightly basis. This generated enough interest in the track to secure distribution with the company Rough Trade in the UK.
A local fanzine, Alternative Ulster, asked the band to make a recording for them, to be given away free with the fanzine as a flexi-disk. The flexi-disk never happened but the recording (titled Alternative Ulster in respect for the fanzine) was released as a single by Rough Trade. It became, and remains, a punk rock anthem.
Late autumn of ’78 saw SLF supporting The Tom Robinson Band on their successful UK tour. This, alongside the airplay by Peel, resulted in their first album, the now legendary Inflammable Material, entering the UK charts at #14. The album screams the bands frustrations at the political situation in Northern Ireland. But, it isn’t all doom and gloom, interspersed in all their anger are songs that call on the young to drag themselves out of their situations and make their own reality for themselves.
1979 proved to be an eventful year for Stiff Little Fingers. The band, minus Brian Faloon on drums, who was replace by Jim Rielly, made the relocation from Belfast to London. Rielly made his professional debut on the single Gotta Gettaway.
A big portion of early UK punk fanbase consisted of the followers of the Skinhead (re: fuckwit) subculture of 70-80’s Britain. SLF despised the racist attitude of the Skinheads and sent them a big “Fuck Off” signal as the band elected to play on the Rock Against Racism tour early in ’79. By the summer they had parted company with Rough Trade and signed a deal with Chrysalis Records. The deal, surprisingly, allowed the band a lot of artistic freedom, compared similar, standard, contracts at that time. The remainder of the year was spent in the studio. Resulting in the 1980 release of the album Nobody’s Heroes. It followed the “get out and do it for yourself” spirit of Inflammable Material but many of the songs which dealt with Northern Ireland and been replaced with compositions which dealt with the more universal themes of alienation, anti-millitarism and anti-racism.
By this time their live shows had gained the band a fantastic reputation.
Then in 1981 it all changed. The band released the album Go For It. The album showed a real change in musical direction. The songwriting and music was more polished and it became obvious that Stiff Little Fingers were shifting from punk rock to power pop. (imo, this is still a cracking album, their style may have shifted but the album is still well done and contains a lot of the bands old passion). The Go For It tour was still a success the band mixed old favourites with new material to great success. All was not well within’ the band however. Drummer Jim Rielly quit, we can assume because of the change of music, and was replaced by an old touring friend, Dolphin Taylor (that’s his real name, I’m not makin’ this shit up), former drummer with The Tom Robinson Band.
In 1982 came the crunch. The album Now Then finally fully completed SLF’s transition from punk to pop. Of course, fans of punk rock are music’s biggest snobs and thusly alienated they turned their backs on the band. Now Then did earn itself some splendid critical reviews and SLF claimed it was their finest work.
The album bombed. SLF grew frustrated (to the point of fist fights amongst themselves) and the group split in early 1983.
During the next five years the various members of the band concentrated on individual projects to varying degrees of success.
Winter of 1987 saw the band members getting together for a few drinks, than a few more and they made plans to do a few reunion gigs. Partly for the laugh and “partly as an inexpensive way of returning to Belfast to see their parents at Christmastime”.
Public opinion is a fickle and unpredictable creature. In 1982 the public had, more or less, written them off but by 1988 their opinion had shifted, as is it’s want. SLF started their reunion gigs at the famous Brixton Academy. Both shows quickly sold out, the band playing to over 10,000 people, far more than they ever played in front of in their original incarnation. The concerts drew in an international audience with fans travelling from as far as the US and Japan for a chance to see them. Recordings from these shows were released as the live See You Up There album and video (now DVD). They are considered by many to be the finest live performance by SLF. The band were delighted, not to mention more than a little surprised, by the international attention to these shows.
Thoughts were soon in motion to permanently reform and record new material. Unfortunately new commitments (family and business) laid too many obstacles for Ali McMordie (bass) to continue and he was replaced by Bruce Foxton (formerly of The Jam). Bruce joined the band for a whirlwind tour of Japan and has been a member ever since.
The Flags and Emblems album was released in 1991. The first single taken from the album Beirut Moon was immediately banned in the UK (it criticised the UK government for their refusal to act to free the then hostage John McCarthy, held in Lebanon). Considered weak compared to earlier albums, it was enough to feed old and new fans who were starved for new SLF material. The live shows, however, had grown in both power and stature.
Henry Cluney left the band in 1993 and the remaining trio ran on for four years, joined on stage by guitarist Dave Shap and pIan McCallum] when needed. In ’94 they released the Get A Life album (released in the US in ’95).
At the end of ’96 Dolphin Taylor left the band, that old donkey of family and business commitments calling him away. He was replaced by Jake Burns. Ian McCallum finally took the plunge and joined permanently. A studio album Tinderbox and the subsequent tour appeared in ’97.
Now comes my little claim to fame! I may be immortalised on an SLF record (or rather me gob might be) and I didn’t even know it till I started this review. In 1999 SLF released their latest studio album Hope Street in two different formats. The UK release on EMI is packaged with a digitally remastered Best of All CD containing classic tracks. The North American release on King Biscuit/Oxygen includes a second live CD from the Newcastle Riverside from September ’98. I know SLF live (seen ‘em four, mebbe five times live) in Newcastle at around that time but I have no idea if that recording is the same gig The Oz attended.
And that, as far as I’m aware……..is the lot!
Disclaimer ……. I can’t claim any accuracy of me memory or the sources I’ve ripped apart for the above info…
”if it wasn’t for your stiff little fingers
nobody would know you were dead”
- The Vibrators