When I was 13, my mates and I would go to my house at school lunchtime and listen to punk records that one of the lads had "borrowed" from his older brother. The most exciting of all the punk records was Inflammable Material by Stiff Little Fingers.
By 1979, the Clash were wising me up to leftish politics but their music was pretty cerebral; the Sex Pistols had turned into post-Rotten vaudeville – but SLF were the real deal – 4 guys from Belfast singing anti-IRA songs were almost certainly risking danger and singing about what they really believe. I was hooked and bought all their albums, but never saw them live – until last night.
The venue was just as a punk gig should be; no seating, walls painted black, the whole place smelling of sweat, beer and cigarettes. It was reassuringly full of 40 year olds (I was worried there might be teenie punks with Green Day T-shirts and skateboards) and the band looked greyish haired and chunky-stomached, much like me.
But fucking hell, could they play! Suspect Device and Alternative Ulster had all the energy that I remembered (even though the band must’ve played them every night for two and a half decades). They sang the songs that helped form my social views: Fly The Flag and Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae on social justice, Doesn’t Make It All Right on racism, Bits of Kids on social deprivation, and one of my favourites Is That What You Fought The War For? that my band covered (to loud booing) on the eve of the first gulf war. There was a spine-tingling version of a song about how Americans helped bankroll terrorism in Ireland (before they realised that terrorism was, you know, a bit unpleasant after it happened to them):
EACH DOLLAR A BULLET
Oh it must seem so romantic
When the fighting’s over there
And they’re passing round the shamrock
And you’re all filled up with tears
"For the love of dear old Ireland"
That you’ve never even seen
You throw in twenty dollars
And sing "Wearing of the Green"
Each dollar a bullet
Each victim someone’s son
And Americans kill Irishmen
As surely as if they fired the gun
I wished they’d played Hits and Misses, but they didn’t. To make up for it, the encore, to my great delight, was a cover of Bob Marley’s Johnny Was. I drank Guinness, smoked roll-ups, jumped up and down, sang along and wondered why I’d waited 23 years to see this excellent band play. They were energetic, entertaining and their lyrics should be compulsory reading in schools.
OK, so they don’t have a thought-out political agenda – these people are musicians, not philosophers, but the great rage against injustice in the lyrics speaks just as much to me now as it did in 1979. If you’re a Green Day/ Blink 182 fan, ask your mum to buy you a ticket for an SLF gig near you to see the real spirit of protest and punk rock, from men old enough to be your grandfather and still angry. As the Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote, why should not old men be mad?
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