Pick Your Rock and Metal

Monday, March 14, 2011

You can’t fake greatness

THE thriller writer Christopher Brookmyre* has the protagonist of one his fine novels utter the lines: “Irresistible allure of nostalgia for the aging male who’s pining for lost youth. How the hell else could SLF and The Buzzcocks sell out venues in the late 80s?”

Back then the jaded, backcombed fashionistas would never have forseen the enduring appeal of SLF. The Buzzcocks may still be knocking around, but I neither know nor care – Belfast’s finest seem to be enduring.

Equally Brookmyre’s lines tell the lie that there the audience for SLF will be eternally on the wane as audiences’ age and styles move on.

If you were among the fortunate to be in the sell-out crowd on Saturday night (12th March) you will know that the age of the fans means that Stiff Little Fingers can have no doubt that a new generation of fans is developing and maturing in its taste for Rigid Digit fury.

For them each old tune was greeted as much like a new track, with the same verve as if it had been a hotly tipped track of some young outfit caught on a sampler CD.

For those of us of – ahem – a certain age the old and not-so-old tracks are greeted like old friends, friends to share a drink, a laugh and gale of not so restrained chants.

Even more unexpected was the excellent set from The Defects.

For those who missed out on the late 70s and early 80s Belfast punk scene, The Defects were amongst the motley crew of oiks like Rufrex, Rudi and the Outcasts who were born amid conflict, from the wombs of the Harp Bar, The Pound, The Labour Club and other even less salubrious venues.

For them – like SLF – the authority of the police and the pseudo-authority of bastard paramilitaries was to snubbed, ignored and generally taken the piss out of.

For each three-minute blast of fury on Saturday it was like punk never left – and it never really did. Tunes like Dance (Til You Drop) and Brutality have an elegance that those who slagged off the surface idiocy never understood, nor took the time to see them in context. But by scabs of history were well and truly ripped off to see the bleeding, pulsing sore that created Belfast punk newly exposed to the slightly stale air of the Ulster Hall.

Even more heartwarming was to hear kids chanting along to the words of Brutality who were still in primary school when the RUC became the PSNI, and an abbreviation that produced a less musical chant than the time-honoured “SS RUC”. That did earn the frowns of at least one bouncer who would have been graduating into the big school at around the same time.

If The Defects produced a set to warm up the Ulster Hall Stiff Little Fingers set the temperature dial to inferno: the teasing strains of Go For It coaxed every single soul to readiness before a storming, frantic ‘Roots, Radicals, Rocker’ blistered into action.

It was apparent that the pace was being upped, as each and every song seemed to have a tempo designed to either sweat the crowd into submission, or pack as many tunes as possible into the time span.

‘Just Fade Away’, ‘Tin Soldiers,’, ‘Wasted Life’, ‘Fly the Flag’ were among the tracks given a heart-stopping treatment. But the sheer speed of delivery didn’t diminish the playing, or the crowd’s response.

As alluded to, it was a crowd that spanned generations – from kids barely into their teens (and at least one on the balcony not yet to reach that milestone) to those about to end their fraternising with the 40s as the 50s looms – and it is a testimony to SLF that they can engage such a wide age bracket.

And there was also a sense that the political agenda of Jake Burns lyrical stance has come full circle. A majority of tracks aired where written when Thatcher’s Tories were waging war on the working class. Now the ConDem Coalition Government’s mantra of cuts is slashing working men and women’s wages and prospects, SLF aired a new song about how the bankers are basking in bonuses while public services are slashed and burned out of existence.

SLF will never, by themselves, make a change in the political landscape, but part of the enduring power is that Jake reminds us that there can be a sense of fairness that we can aspire to, there can be an alternative view outside the mainstream zombie inducing media, and there can be independent thinking.

But, as yer man also pointed out, just because ther're "miserable gits", doesn’t mean they can’t have a laugh at themselves – hence a rousing Barbed Wire Love.

And in each track from ‘Suspect Device’ through to lesser known sings such as ‘Harp’ [and by my bleeding wee fingers I love that song!] the mikes on stage were picking up the crowd’s singing. At a vantage point close to the stage right PA system the crowd’s response was a counterpoint, an enhancement, to every chorus, and every chant – all produced without a prompt, or poser’s preening for crowd response. SLF had an audible backing group of 1,000+ and the onstage directional mikes weren't pointed at the audience...

Encores produced one surprise, one not-so-surprise and a lot of sweaty burling about and pogoing.

Jake has always spoken and sang about how Joe Strummer’s influence on him – I paraphrase here, but Rory Gallagher gave Mr Burns a reason to pick up a guitar, and Joe gave him the passion to keep on playing.

Thus, when ‘I Fought The Law’ burst out it was an almost state of ecstasy that swept the crowd. Welcoming Ricky Warwick on to stage we were invited to “Please be upstanding for the National Anthem” and ‘Alternative Ulster’ seemed for some to round off the evening.

But checking out your standard SLF resumé there was the small matter of ‘Johnny Was’ that was an inevitable second encore – and the Ulster Hall was working harmonies along to the pathos of the Bob Marley song.

SLF will never be great in terms of the shallow measures of Pop Idol or X-Factor (Take ‘Guitar and Drum’ and shove it up Cowell’s superannuated arse if you ever meet him!). Nor will mere accountants’ figures of sales or cashflow measure or account for the longevity of SLF; or why street kids, metalheads, hard rockers, ska types, old skinheads, thrashers, and, of course, aging punks turn out to see the ‘Fingers.  For all the banter, all the self-deprecation, SLF are a band that will never be accorded accolades, but will always, always have a measure of greatness that few can aspire to.

And that greatness was bursting through in the Ulster Hall in what in this humble reviewer’s gigs was one of the most electric gigs I have seen SLF play since the tension filled fury of the Go For It tour gig in the same venue. In fact it was much better.

Stiff Little Fingers – the punk band that could play; the rock band with punk sensibilities; the pop punk progenitors; but most of all, Belfast’s finest bar none.


PS – I am fuckin’ biased but I don’t care, because there are a lot of us biased towards SLF too!
* - Country of the Blind: Christopher Brrokmyre P121 Abacus 2002 paperback


Anonymous said...

brilliant piece of reading, and one of the best nites ever ive had in the ulster hall.
shaz xxxx

Jonny said...

Glad you enjoyd the read - impossible not to hav enjoyed what was a truly outstanding night!