Go green with Stiff Little Fingers

(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.

"The Irish Clash."

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.

This collection is the best place to for neophytes to jump into the SLF catalog.

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.

Keep reading:

Dischord finds harmony in D.C. hardcore scene

Review: Carbon/Silicon at the Record Bar

Ever Fallen For The Buzzcocks?

Happy Clash-mas Eve

(Above: The video for “Love Kills,” one of two songs Joe Strummer wrote for 1985 film “Sid and Nancy.” These songs represented his first post-Clash solo work. )

By Joel Francis

Every Christmas Eve, a significant block of time is set aside to honor the late Joe Strummer, who died on Dec. 22, 2002. This year, The Daily Record examines four songs from the last days of The Clash and Strummer’s reluctant transition to solo artist.

“This Is England” by The Clash, from “Cut the Crap”

The final single in the Clash’s illustrious career, “This Is England” has been unfairly overlooked. After firing manager Bernie Rhodes in 1978, Strummer convinced the rest of the group to bring Rhodes back in 1981. That decision hastened the end of the band. Rhodes played Mick Jones off of Strummer, and after the difficult “Combat Rock” sessions convinced Strummer the band would be better with him in charge and without Jones.

Strummer fired Jones, but regretted the decision for the rest of his life. Realizing he had been duped, Strummer and Paul Simonon, the only remaining members in the band at the end, abandoned the material recorded for the post-Jones album “Out of Control.” Rhodes finished the album alone, changed its title to “Cut the Crap” released the album without the band’s permission.

As sad and unfortunate as this tale may be, it shouldn’t detract from the greatness of “This is England.” The synths and drum machine may not line up with the Clash’s established sound, but the diatribe against the Motherland, soaring chorus and knife blade guitars are pure Strummer.

“Sightsee MC” by Big Audio Dynamite, from “No. 10 Upping Street”

When Mick Jones found artistic success with his post-Clash ensemble Big Audio Dynamite, Joe Strummer was both elated and devastated. He was happy for his old friend, but fell into a depression, because he knew the Clash were over. Strummer found a way to work with Jones again, though, when he appeared in the studio and offered to produce the group’s second album.

Despite being penned by its two best-know members, “Sightsee MC” sounds nothing like The Clash. Full of samples, synth beds and big drums, the production hasn’t aged well, but the song was very its time when it was released in 1986. Jones’ rap delivery recalls the Clash song “The Magnificent Seven,” and the Jamaican patios fits in with the band’s love for reggae.  Spidery guitar line and references to “send out a mayday to London” delineate Clash connection.

Strummer frequently performed “Sightsee MC” in concert during his 1988 “Rock Against the Rich” tour with his new band, the Latino Rockabilly War.

“Filibustero” by Joe Strummer, from the “Walker” soundtrack

After writing songs for “Sid and Nancy” and “Straight to Hell,” Strummer became British director Alex Cox’ go-to guy for soundtracks. “Walker,” Cox’ 1987 “acid Western” starring Ed Harris and Peter Boyle has been mostly forgotten, but its soundtrack stands proudly as Strummer’s first post-Clash, solo LP.

Strummer was surprisingly tentative in his leadership of the project, though. Every day he showed up at the Russian Hill recording studio in San Francisco with a boom box and cassettes of sketches and ideas he had heard and recorded the night before. Instructing his musicians to “work something up” he’d disappear for several hours, then return to hear what developed. Under those circumstances, it’s amazing the music not only turned out well, but pleased Strummer.

The lead-off track, “Filibustero” sounds like something out of the Buena Vista Social Club or Afro-Cuban All-Stars. The former punk rock warlord uses Latin American rhythms, arrangements and melodies to capture the film’s Nicaraguan setting. For some reason, “Filibustero” was released as a single, which included several remixes. It did not chart, but it did establish Strummer on the road to world music he would explore in depth a decade later with the Mescaleros.

“Trash City” by Joe Strummer and the Latino Rockabilly War, from the “Permanent Record” soundtrack

Strummer’s work on the “Permanent Record” album marked his fourth soundtrack in as many years, but these sessions were different. After flirting with world music on “Walker,” Strummer was ready to rock out again. He recruited several L.A.-based underground musicians, including former Circle Jerks bassist Zander Schloss and former Red Hot Chili Peppers/future Pearl Jam drummer Jack Irons, and dubbed them the Latino Rockabilly War.

Of the five songs the group contributed to the “Permanent Record” soundtrack, only “Trash City” was released as a single. The track fades in like a party already in progress, as Iron’s drums and Strummer’s guitar hammer the rhythm home. Dropping his normally serious, political façade, Strummer sings about visiting “a girl from Kalamazoo” and tosses in non-sequiturs about coffee shops in Seoul, bowling and vandalism for good measure. The yelps and scream on the outro show how much fun Strummer is having.

Keep reading:

Happy Clash-mas Eve (2008)

Review: Carbon/Silicon at the Record Bar (Mick Jones/Terry James project)

Happy Clash-mas Eve


Above: Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl and Little Steven Van Zant do “London Calling” at the Grammys for Joe Strummer.

By Joel Francis

I remember getting the call from my brother-in-law like it happened yesterday. I was sitting in my apartment, it was the night before Christmas Eve, 2002 His words slowly trickled out: “Joe Strummer is dead.” The next day I loaded my CD changer with nothing but Clash and Mescelaros music and played it on shuffle for the entire day. Every Christmas Eve since then has been Clash-mas Eve, with at least a couple hours devoted to celebrating the art of Joe Strummer. To borrow a line from The Hold Steady’s “Constructive Summer,” let’s “raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer” and revisit five of his greatest moments.

“Letsagetabitarockin'” by the 101ers, from “Elgin Avenue Breakdown Revisited”
The 101ers drew more on the bluesy rock of the Rolling Stones and classic American rock and roll than they did on the jagged precursors of punk rock. Formed in 1974, Joe Strummer knew his band was done in 1976 after hearing just five seconds of the Sex Pistols. When the 101ers lone single, “Keys to Your Heart” came out later that year, the group was already over. Having seen the light, Strummer jumped ship to join the Clash, but the 101ers remained a curious footnote of Strummer’s pre-punk powers. In 1981, the group’s few studio and live recordings were cobbled together for release.
“Letsagetabitarockin'” kicks off that album with a shot high-octane rockabilly recorded in 1975 that would become the Stray Cats stock in trade several years later. Stylistically, it’s not much of a leap from this to the music Strummer was making in the Clash. The change in attitude and approach, however, is huge.

“1977” by the Clash, from “Super Black Market Clash”
Strummer eviscerates his former life as a pub rocker and skewers rock’s sacred cows with his cry of “no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones” on the chorus of “1977.” An early calling card for the band, it appeared on the b-side of their first single and helped establish them as the new guard of rock and roll.
Written by Strummer and Clash guitarist Mick Jones, the two packed a lot into their 99 seconds. In addition to denouncing the previous generation’s music, they draw on the Rastafarian prediction of July 7, 1977 bringing chaos and tip a hat to George Orwell’s novel “1984” by counting up to that year before ending abruptly.

“Brand New Cadillac” by the Clash, from “London Calling”
“Letsagetabitarockin'” and “Brand New Cadillac” are both rockabilly songs, but the similarity pretty much ends there. Strummer not only changed his surrounding musicians, his voice has transformed. His singing has the edge of a switchblade knife and you can hear his sneer as he angrily spits likes like “Jesus Christ, where’d you get that Cadillac?”
That line wasn’t in the 1958 version of “Brand New Cadillac” written and recorded by Vince Taylor and his Playboys. Taylor’s version was menacing in its own right back then, but he sounds less inclined to track his woman down. Strummer, on the other hand, is ready to do more than slash her tires.

“Magnificent Seven” by the Clash, from “Sandinista!”
Rap music wasn’t much older than punk when the Clash cut this track in 1981. Strummer throws stream-of-conscious lyrics over a bass loop composed not by Clash bass player Paul Simonon, but Norman Watt-Roy from the Blockheads. The arrangement over the loop is strongly influenced by reggae and dub, two of the cornerstones of the Clash’s sound.
The result, though, was unlike anything recorded up to that time. Preceding Blondie’s “Rapture” by six months, this was white rock’s first attempt to write a rap song.
Strummer delivers his story about a good working boy with his typical swagger, but throws a curveball in the third verse – the work isn’t to make ends meet, but to buy all the junk he sees advertised on TV. Emboldened by his anti-consumerist diatribe, Strummer tosses Ghandi, Karl Marx and Richard Nixon into the final verse before musing who’s better known, Plato the Greek or Rin Tin Tin.

“Straight To Hell (live)” by the Clash, from “From Here To Eternity: Live”
Recorded live at The Orpheum in Boston on the Combat Rock tour, the band stretches this reading of “Straight To Hell” more than three minutes longer than its LP run time. Given more space, the song becomes even more moody. Strummer wallows in the beat as he damns those who mistreat immigrants by closing steel mills or burning their communities.
The deliberately slow tempo shows how much the Clash have grown since their rapid-fire debut just five years earlier. The arrangement again echoes strongly of reggae and dub elements and was borrowed by M.I.A. for her hit “Paper Planes.”
The defining moment comes at the end when Strummer yells at the crowd to “sing in tune, you bastards.” For a man who always wore his emotions on his sleeve, it doesn’t get more heartfelt than this.