Punks still in pursuit of an Alternative Ulster

Stiff Little Fingers are (L-R) Ian McCallum, frontman Jake Burns, Steve Grantley and bassist Ali McMordie
Stiff Little Fingers are (L-R) Ian McCallum, frontman Jake Burns, Steve Grantley and bassist Ali McMordie

Punk produced a defiant, leather-clad generation of bands who sang with anarchic abandon against authority and the mainstream. As a genre it was hard, fast, jarring, full of gung-ho energy and punchy, politically-engaged lyrics as acts like The Clash and The Sex Pistols railed against the establishment and revelled in the subversive and the underground.

In Northern Ireland, Stiff Little Fingers were at the vanguard of the nascent punk movement.

The band formed in 1977, at the height of the conflict, with Jake Burns as frontman, Henry Cluney on guitar, Brian Faloon on drums and Ali McMordie on bass.

As Ali recalls: “I was a pupil at BRA and there was a guy in the year above me who introduced me to Jake, Brian and Henry, who used to be in a cover band called Highway Star. And we became Stiff Little Fingers. We were all from north Belfast and pretty much liked the same music. I was into a lot of the early American punk bands like the Stooges, as well as Patti Smith and Lou Reed. We started rehearsing in a parish hall off the Antrim Road.”

McMordie continues: “Part of the reason we started the band was because we had so little to do in Belfast in the 70s. Whenever the so-called ring of steel was set up around the city to stop bomb attacks there was just nothing happening at night.”

Stiff Little Finers quickly decided to sing material that spoke to their experience of the Troubles, with their first single Suspect Device speaking directly of the civil unrest that surrounded them: “I tell ya, question everything you’re told/ Just take a look around you/ At the bitterness and spite/ Why can’t we take over and try to put it right?”

A copy of their debut, from the album Inflammable Material, was sent to John Peel at Radio One. He played it repeatedly leading to a distribution deal through Rough Trade. The single was released on the band’s own Rigid Digits label and sold over 30,000 copies.

Soon they were singing about an ‘Alternative Ulster’ in lines that clearly resonated with the youthful counter-culture across the Province, struggling to find fun and escapism in a society living under the constant threat of violence.

“Grab it and change it, it’s yours,” they sang, urging the underground and the youth to take the power back: “Get an Alternative Ulster/ Ignore the bores and their laws/ Get an Alternative Ulster/ Be an anti-security force/ Alter your native Ulster/ Alter your native land.”

As Ali recalls, the band were motivated by a sense of anger and frustration with the status quo: “I think from the start it was never about money or fame for us but more about rebellion and I think that’s really what punk is about. None of us wanted proper jobs and we wanted to sing stuff that put two fingers up to the establishment.”

Lyrics that meld the personal and political, and music that combines the energy of punk with infectious hooks, in 1979 they became the first band ever to hit the UK top 20 album charts on an independent label.

They split up after six years and four albums, although they reformed five years later, in 1987.

Lead singer Jake Burns is the only member to have been with the band during all its incarnations, but in March 2006, McMordie rejoined them following the departure of Bruce Foxton.

Stiff Little Fingers are still rocking out 40 years since their inception, and are set to entertain local audiences with a gig at Belfast’s Custom House Square on Saturday August 25 where they will be supported by The Damned, Buzzcocks, The Defects and punk DJ Terri Hooley.

“I feel very fortunate and humbled that we’ve received so much support from fans that we are still playing concerts today,” says Ali. “People just go nuts every time. And the buzz and feedback we get is phenomenal.

“These days we don’t make so many mistakes when we’re performing - everything is in the right key. But we’re not mellow, we’re still angry and pissed off. My God, there seems to be even more to rail about today in this crazy world. Bigotry, oppression, racism, hypocrisy - we’ve addressed a lot of issues in our music.”

As McMordie recalls, it was actually the News Letter that gave Stiff Little Fingers their first taste of publicity:

“The editor at the time, Colin McClelland, mentioned us in the entertainments column after much pestering from Jake. It was difficult to get gigs in the 70s. Punks were seen as the foul-mouthed reprobates in society. Whereas now we’ve all sort of become the elder statesmen of rock.”

Alternative Ulster remains Ali’s favourite song to play live: “It has to be the punk rock national anthem. If we have to have a national song it should be that.”

Stiff Little Fingers play Custom House Square, Belfast on Saturday August 25. Visit www.ticketmaster.ie.