Sunday, 1 May 2011
54 Hanx - Stiff Little Fingers
Purchased : late December 1985
Tracks : Nobody's Hero / Gotta Getaway / Wait And See / Barbed Wire Love / Fly the Flag / Alternative Ulster / Johnny Was / At The Edge / Wasted Life / Tin Soldiers / Suspect Device
This was a careless purchase made on my annual post-Christmas spending visit to Manchester (probably from HMV). I was frustrated at not finding anything I really wanted at a discounted price and settled on this because it included "At The Edge" a favourite single from early 1980 that I'd never heard since. It wasn't until I got home that I realised I'd bought a live album.
Largely influenced by how rough The Jam sounded on stage I was never attracted to live albums especially from punk acts and would never have bought this if I'd realised it was a live recording. Of course Stiff Little Fingers were never really punk ; they were a young hard rock outfit that played with enough energy and passion to be assimilated into the post-77 scene. This LP was released in the autumn of 1980 falling between their second and third studio albums. It was originally intended for the U.S. market but released in the UK (always at mid-price so I wasn't even getting a bargain) for fear fans would otherwise pay high prices for imported copies. It captures them on the tour for their second LP "Nobody's Heroes" in July 1980 mostly at Friar's in Aylesbury but with one track recorded at The Rainbow in London. It reached number 9 in the charts.
I have the feeling this is going to be one of my shorter reviews since it's an LP that does what it says on the tin, captures four guys at their commercial peak bashing out their best-known songs for an appreciative audience. Without having the previous studio albums I can't compare the songs to the recorded versions so I have to take them as I find them here.
It begins with the applause for the band arriving on stage and they launch into "Nobody's Hero" the title track of the album they were touring at the time. It's a simple three chord rock track played ferociously. Jake Burns's vocals are surprisingly clear in the mix, sounding halfway between Joe Strummer and Kelly Jones . The song expresses Burns's discomfort with his role as a rock star/ youth spokesman (not that he'd hold it for long) - "Don't let heroes get your kicks for you / It's up to you and no one else " - which makes it an ironic choice for a big rock gig.
From the same album comes "Gotta Getaway" a straightforward angsty song about wanting to leave the parental home. It's played as a thrash and I can't think of anything else to say about it.
"Wait And See" is the song about the circumstances of their signing that most punk acts seemingly felt obliged to write (cf The Sex Pistols's EMI or The Clash's Complete Control ) though it turns into a lament for original drummer Brian Falloon who decided to quit when the band relocated to London in 1978 - "But you gave yourself the sack / Now there's no going back". Though still played with full-on aggression it's more melodic than the preceding tracks and unexpectedly has a Clash-style punk skank section towards the end.
"Barbed Wire Love" stands out for the sudden switch to a doo wop style for the second chorus and its excrutiatingly bad lyrics with Jake Burns mining the Troubles for increasingly painful sexual metaphors . "You set my arm alight" is bad enough but "The device in your pants was out of sight" is just unspeakable.
"Fly The Flag" is a presumably ironic expression of Thatcherite values -" A race of winners not cramped by the state / And only the helpless get left by the gate." It's suitably angry but not very tuneful.
Side One ends with their most famous song "Alternstive Ulster" an impassioned but unspecific plea for change and sticking it to The Man, here played at 100 mph after a crowd-teasing extended intro. It follows a similar pattern to a lot of their songs with melodic verses leading up to a fist-in-the-air chanted chorus though in this case not one that's easy to sing along to with six syllables squeezed in where only four should go. It's unsubtle but the excitement is palpable.
"Johnny Was" is the joker in the pack, the one recorded elsewhere and an eye-opening ten minutes long ( weren't punks supposed to shun that sort of thing ?) . As Jake Burns says in the intro it's a Bob Marley song about a man getting shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. By the time I bought the LP it had acquired an extra resonance as drummer Jim Reilly's brother had met exactly that fate the year before (an event that inspired Bananarama's Rough Justice ) . I also recalled it from John Peel's final all time Festive 50 in 1981 where it came in quite high to the DJ's chagrin. Though an early champion of the band Peel loathed the track and berated his listeners for voting for it. The first couple of minutes are largely taken up with Reilly's Cozy Powell routine to which the crowd clap along in true-ELP fashion and it's not hard to understand Peel's reservations although the jagged guitar riff that follows is pretty good. Halfway through there's a switch to a reggae bassline , Burns starts ad-libbing and the whole thing gets a bit tedious.
Then comes "At The Edge" . The original was their only Top 20 hit but you never hear it ; even 30 years on it's still too ferocious for radio. Here the Fingers play it even faster, Burns snarling out the lyric of teen frustration while the band gallop to the finish. Burns's spitfire delivery of "They're criticising something they just can't understand" in the bucking chorus remains impressive.
"Wasted Life" begins (or the previous track ends ) with a snatch of the opening chords of Won't Get Fooled Again. After that though it's musically very similar to "Edge" which is a shame since the powerful and brave lyric attacking the paramilitaries on both sides - "They're nothing but blind fascists" - deserves a better setting.
"Tin Soldiers" goes the other way. The music is a tightly-wound spring of palpable fury but when you study the lyric it's a relatively minor gripe about dishonesty in army recruitment advertising. The injustice of kids having to stay in the army until they're 21 doesn't cause me too many sleepless nights and makes the song's vehemence almost comical.
The album wraps itself up with "Suspect Device" another attack on the terrorists blaming them for the misery caused to the youth of Ulster. It's a standard thrash notable only for Burns losing his voice and skipping lines in the second verse. Then it's "Hanx! " and they're gone.
It's an interesting document of a band that have largely been written out of history highlighting both their strenghts and weaknesses. Their commercial decline afterwards was swift. Their 1981 LP "Go For It" failed to produce a Top 40 single and their "Listen " EP only scraped into the charts because it was marketed as a VFM package. When 1982's "Now Then" failed to reverse their fortunes they decided to split up the following year. They reformed in 1987 and have plugged away ever since presumably still finding an audience despite their new material having zero commercial impact. They're mostly remembered now for having kept former Jam bassist Bruce Foxton gainfully employed for over a decade. At the time of writing I have no other SLF records but never say never.