Monday, 28 January 2008

STIFF LITTLE FINGERS: STILL FLYING THE FLAG

If there were such a thing as a 'Keep On Keeping On' award for Punk Rock, the name of Stiff Little Fingers would surely be etched on the trophy. Despite many changes in personnel, the name lives on and the current incarnation are about to embark on a 16 date UK tour between 28th Feb - 17th March. SLF were formed in 1977, after starting out as a schoolboy band called Highway Star (taken from the name of a Deep Purple song). Soon, this outfit answered the clarion call of Punk and began with a set that included songs by Dr. Feelgood, Eddie And The Hotrods, The Clash, The Pistols and The Ramones (the latter inspiring them to perform a 10 minute version of BLITZKRIEG BOP). Inspired by a local journalist, the group decided to write a song based on the conflict in their native Northern Island, and their first single - SUSPECT DEVICE - was born. As was so often the case, a Radio 1 DJ named John Peel was responsible for giving the record generous airplay, and the band started gigging in earnest as they began to build a loyal following.


'Don't believe them Don't believe them Don't be bitten twice You gotta suss, suss, suss, suss, suss out Suss suspect device'


Even in those heady days of umpteen classic singles releases each and every week, SUSPECT DEVICE stood out as an angry, politically charged slice of pure adrenalin, with Jake Burns' raw vocals backed by a rabble-rousing volley of white noise that had you by the balls and refused to let go. Soon, fans were assaulted by the bands debut album, INFLAMMABLE MATERIAL; a blistering 12" slice of political commentary that's married with big dollops of inky black humour. IF caught the band in their raw infancy, with tracks such as ALTERNATIVE ULSTER, HERE WE ARE NOWHERE and the magnificent BARBED WIRE LOVE (complete with do-do-do-do Beach Boys harmonies) launching their careers as album classics and live anthems. For me, best of all is still JOHNNY WAS; an 8 minute reggae-ised story of a man who had been 'shot down in the street and died from a stray bullet'. Live, this song was transformed and many of us looked forward to its rendition in the same way as we waited with bated breath for Joe and his boys to lock down POLICE AND THIEVES. A time to put a hold on songs delivered at breakneck pace and (almost) chill out to a marriage between two musical forms that melted together like they belonged for all eternity.


So very often, punk bands would deliver grade A classic albums and fail to deliver with their follow-up. SLF? Well, in my opinion, the second album - NOBODY'S HEROES - was even better, boasting 10 tracks of which at least 7 could fairly be termed classics. Here, Burns' vocals seemed even angrier, rising to the challenge and emerging with honour. WAIT AND SEE, AT THE EDGE, TIN SOLDIERS and GOTTA GETTAWAY were played and sung with passion, emerging not as anthems for doomed youth, but a call to arms in respect of changing your own life and kicking back against those who sought to control it. Probably the pick of this kicking-and-screaming litter is FLY THE FLAG where Burns demands 'a Britain that's got back the Great, a race of winners not cramped by the state'. Blistering doesn't even begin to describe it! One year later, the band released their 3rd album - GO FOR IT - which kept their loyal fan base on track with at least three songs which soon became SLF standards. Check out NOT FADE AWAY, PICCADILLY CIRCUS (which rivals The Jam's STRANGE TOWN for it's harsh condemnation of life in London) and ROOTS, RADICALS, ROCKERS AND REGGAE which took on even greater power onstage. Add to this a wonderful live album titled HANX, and you had a band who could really kick out the traces on vinyl and in concert halls.


Sadly, their fourth studio album (NOW THEN) led to a parting of the ways for many of their fans who were unable to get along with a slightly poppy approach to their music. In 1983, one year later, the band broke up with personal and musical differences amongst the time-honoured reasons for their demise. Since then, SLF have reformed and split, seen various musicians come and go (including Bruce Foxton, who I saw many times with the immortal group The Jam) and now here they are again, gigging once more in the wake of a DVD (STILL BURNING) directed by the great Don Letts.


I was fortunate enough to see Stiff Little Fingers play live on a dozen occasions, travelling miles to see their high octane punk melt the walls and send concert halls into a seething frenzy of bodies, punching the air as they sung along to the lyrics of SUSPECT DEVICE. Probably my best memory goes back to 1977 when they played at the Ajanta Theatre in Derby. This rundown club played hosts to the likes of Crass, Joy Division, Bauhaus, The Fall and many more. SLF headlined here with (I think) support provided by Robert Rental And The Normal, and were especially suited to this small, dingy hall where their raw power seemed truly at home. Later, SLF moved onto bigger and better venues and still kicked back with venom, but that night at The Ajanta was an event in the truest sense of the term. Now, over 30 years later, the band will soon be treading the boards at a venue only 30 miles from where I currently live. Unfortunately, money doesn't permit me to make the journey, but rest assured I'll be there in spirit.

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