Stiff Little Fingers
O2 Academy – Oxford, UK
“Punk’s dead but we’re still dying.”
~ Jake Burns
Prior to becoming Stiff Little Fingers, Jake Burns, Vocals and Guitar, Henry Cluney, Guitar, Gordon Blair, Bass, and Brian Faloon, Drums, were playing in a cover band, Highway Star. Upon the departure of Gordon Blair (who went on to play with another Belfast group, Rudi), Ali McMordie took over the duties on Bass. Henry had by this time discovered punk, and introduced the rest of the band to it. They decided that Highway Star wasn’t a punky enough name, and after a brief flirtation with the name The Fast, decided to call themselves Stiff Little Fingers, Jake taking the name from the Vibrators track.
In November of ’77, Gordon Ogilvie, a local journalist, caught their live show and was impressed. He encouraged them to write their own songs about what they knew best–life in Belfast. Jake came back twelve days later with “Suspect Device” and “Wasted Life”. These were the first of what became SLF’s signature style: lyrics that meld the personal and political, music that combines the energy of punk with infectious hooks, and delivery that rings of honesty and commitment.
With Ogilvie’s help, they released those two songs on their own Rigid Digits label, with an initial pressing of only 350. Ogilvie sent a copy to BBC Radio One DJ John Peel, who started playing it every night. The interest generated resulted in a distribution deal through Rough Trade in England.
A local fanzine named Alternative Ulster asked the band to write a song specially for a giveaway flexi-disc. Although the plans for the flexi fell through, “Alternative Ulster” became the first single released by Rough Trade in October of ’78. Jake once introduced it as “a song about having nothing to do.” It became a punk rock classic.
In the fall of ’78, SLF toured the UK supporting the Tom Robinson band and gathered a solid following. That plus airplay by John Peel resulted in their first album, the now legendary Inflammable Material LP, debuting in the UK charts at ..14. The album chronicles the band’s anger and frustration at “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland, and calls on youth to create their own reality.
In ’79 the band moved to London and Brian Faloon decided not to go, which inspired the lyrics to “Wait and See”. He was replaced by Jim Reilly who made his debut on the “Gotta Gettaway” single. In the spring they played on the Rock Against Racism tour. By the summer of 1979, SLF signed a deal with Chrysalis Records which included unusually broad artistic control by the band. They released the LP Nobody’s Heroes in 1980. It combined the DIY ethic of the first album with more universal themes of alienation, anti-militarism, and anti-racism.
Their live shows continued to be special events of energy and power. The Go For It LP in ’81 revealed more sophisticated songwriting and musicianship, and another step in the shift from punk to power pop. Soon after the Go For It tour, Jim Reilly left the band and was replaced by Dolphin Taylor, formerly drummer for the Tom Robinson band.
The Now Then album of ’82 alienated many of SLF’s punk followers with its pop sound, and despite some glowing critical reviews, never got the recognition it deserved.
The band split in early ’83. At the time, Jake said, “Our last LP ’Now Then’ was to my mind the best album we have made. But it is also unfortunately the best I think we will ever make. So I have decided to call it a day.” He later revealed, “The first split was a bit acrimonious. Instead of talking through our difficulties we wound up having fist fights.”
During the five years they spent apart, each member pursued seperate musical projects, (Big Wheel, Friction Groove, Dark Lady). But none were as satisfying, or as successful, as SLF. Said Ali, “It wasn’t until we got back together again did we realize this was the only thing we were ever completely happy with.”
In ’87, Jake “…got a phone call from Ali, asking if I fancied going to see a reunion gig by the Tom Robinson band. At this period everybody seemed to be getting back together again.” Jake couldn’t go to the gig, but they soon got together for drinks, which led to more nights of drinking, which eventually led to the idea that they play a few reunion shows, partly as an inexpensive way of returning to Belfast to see their parents at Christmastime.
The audience response to the reunion shows was overwhelming, with sell-out crowds larger than any that SLF had played in their original incarnation. The two shows at the Brixton Academy in ’88 pulled in over 11,000 people over two nights. Fans from the U.S., Japan, Switzerland and elsewhere flew in to see them. Recordings from those shows were released as the See You Up There album and video, considered by many to be the best SLF live recordings ever. The response to the shows across the world surprised and delighted the band, and their following continued to grow, with younger “new” fans alongside the old diehards.
By ’90 their thoughts had turned to reforming the band permanently and recording new material. But Ali decided his commitments would keep him from recording an album or touring. He officially left about a week before they were scheduled to tour Japan. Jake phoned Bruce Foxton (formerly of The Jam), who jumped in at the last minute. And stayed for the next 15 years or so !
The Flags and Emblems LP released in ’91, featured the single “Beirut Moon,” which was immediately banned in Britain. The song criticized the British government for not acting to free hostage John McCarthy in Lebanon. Although overall the LP’s material was not as strong as earlier albums, it still served to satisfy fans starved for new SLF songs, and the subsequent tour continued the tradition of powerful shows where the crowd reacts “to most of SLF’s numbers in much the same way as kernels react to a plugged-in popcorn maker,” as noted in the Los Angeles Times in ’92.
In 1993 Jake made what he describes in the book Stiff Little Fingers-Song by Song as being one of the hardest decisions of his life, and asked Henry Cluney to leave the band, and the trio of Jake Burns, Bruce Foxton and Dolphin Taylor continued, for the next four years, joined on tour by guitarists Dave Sharp or Ian McCallum. In ’94 they released the Get a Life LP in the UK, later released in the US in ’95. The album helped renew interest in SLF just as newer bands that sited them as a major influence, such as Bad Religion, Sugar, Rancid, and Therapy, were coming to prominence.
At the end of ’96 Dolphin Taylor left the band, due to family and business obligations. The new drummer was Steve Grantley, who some will remember as the drummer for Jake Burns and the Big Wheel. Ian McCallum joined permanently on guitar, balancing SLF tours with solo recordings and performances. SLF released the studio album, Tinderbox,in ’97 and toured extensively throughout that year to promote it.
Stiff Little Fingers released the studio album Hope Street,in two different formats in 1999. The UK release on EMI is packaged with a special The Best Of AllCD, containing remastered classic cuts from the band’s entire back catalogue. The North American release on King Biscuit/Oxygen includes a second live CD, from the Newcastle Riverside concert from September ’98. Said Jake Burns, “’Last Train From The Wasteland’ (on Hope Street) is the first optimistic song I have ever written about Belfast, while Hope Street the album is generally more optimistic than people have given us credit for in the past.”
In 1999 also SLF released a live CD of all new live material, titled Handheld and Rigidly Digital, available exclusively on this Web site and at SLF gigs. Much of the material was recorded at a special Hope Street Premier Party held in London, at which the band played over two hours of new songs, rarities, plus all the favorites.
In August 2003, Stiff Little Fingers released their ninth studio album, Guitar and Drum, which includes a moving tribute to Joe Strummer, entitled “Strummerville”.
In 2006, Bruce Foxton left Stiff Little Fingers amicably, and original bassist Ali McMordie returned after 15 years. Response from the fans to initial gigs has been tremendous.
Though focused on their new material, they always play the old favorites at gigs. Jake said, “You have to strike a balance. The difficulty with a band like ourselves is to try not make it sound like a cabaret band. Obviously, it’d be very easy to go, ’Hey, here’s another old one you may remember.’ A lot of the old songs the audience greet like old friends….I suppose it’s the same as any band that’s been around for any length of time….And yes, there are nights that we don’t particularly want to play “Alternative Ulster” or “Suspect Device” because we’ve heard them ’til they’re coming out our ears. But there’s always the possibility that somebody out there has never seen the band before, never heard them.”
2009 marks S.L.F.’s 32th year and plans include extensive touringextensive touring (including probably a last chance to hear the majority of the band’s debut album played live !), a new album & a movie on the band directed by Don Letts including live footage & many interviews with the band, friends & fans.