(Above: The Stiff Little Fingers in all their glory. This live footage of “Alternative Ulster” from 1979 features scrolling lyrics so fans can sing along. Good luck.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
The original incarnation of Stiff Little Fingers wasn’t around very long, but during their five-year tenure they were the best band to call Ireland home.
The Belfast, punk group formed in the late-‘70s as a cover act with a moniker nicked from one of their favorite songs – “Highway Star.” It wasn’t long, however, until the punk bug that had been sweeping England infiltrated Ireland. After replacing their bass player and swapping guitar solos for gnarled sneers, the quartet rechristened themselves after their new favorite song, the Vibrators’ “Stiff Little Fingers.”
After playing a show at the Glenmachan Hotel, the CBGB’s of the Irish punk scene, Stiff Little Fingers, or SLF, singer Jake Burns introduced the band to a couple of his pen pals, journalists Gordon Ogilvie and Colin McClelland.
Teaming with Ogilvie to write about their native land’s current violent political climate, the Fingers recorded their first single. “Suspect Device” was packaged to look like a bomb, but a copy managed to find its way to legendary BBC DJ and underground music champion John Peel, who played the song endlessly.
The band’s second single became their biggest hit. Released in 1978, “Alternative Ulster” was an insistent, yet catchy plea for plea for a united Ireland. (“Ulster” is British shorthand for Northern Ireland.)
After the success of “Ulster,” the Fingers recorded their first album, “Inflammable Material.” When a deal with Island Records fell through, the band was forced to release the record on their own. The album sold more than 100,000 copies and became the first independent release to chart in the United Kingdom when it landed at No. 14 on the album chart. That success paved the way for a contract with Chrysalis Records the following year.
Despite this victory, drummer Brian Faloon decided to leave the band. He was replaced by Jim Reilly, who beat the skins on the band’s third single, “Gotta Gettaway.”
In the spring of 1978, Stiff Little Fingers performed alongside the Clash, Buzzcocks, Sham 69 and several other punk acts in the Rock Against Racism concert. This appearance earned SLF the nickname “the Irish Clash.” Intended as a compliment, the handle hurt more than it helped, since the band failed to live up to comparisons. The Clash had the budget and backing of a major label, while SLF were left to their own devices.
The designation isn’t without merit, though. Both groups had a penchant for populist lyrics, disenchantment and reggae. The Fingers didn’t share the Clash’s penchant for experimentalism, but when it came to straight-ahead punk songs, Burns and guitarist Henry Cluney could definitely give Joe Strummer and Mick Jones a run for their money.
Despite their triumphs, the group had trouble capitalizing on their great singles and memorable albums. They released their second and third albums in 1980 and 1981, but the line-up had become a revolving door. When Reilly left the band after the tour for their third album, Brian Taylor became the band’s third drummer in as many years.
The other band started fighting about which direction to take the band. The arguments frequently ended in fistfights. In 1982, weeks after releasing their fourth studio album, Burns pulled the plug on Stiff Little Fingers.
Five years later, the band reunited to make some money. After a handful of short tours, Burns decided to take the group into the studio and record some new songs. Despite and impressive lineup that included former Jam bassist Bruce Foxton, the Fingers were basically Burns’ show. From 1991 to 2006, he and Foxton were the only two consistent members of the group.
The reformed Fingers have released four albums, but have been quiet since the original SLF bass player, Ali McMordie, replaced Foxton four years ago. Burns has been promising new material for several years. Until that comes, there are more than enough treasures from the band’s glory days to keep fans happy.