Stiff Little Fingers are important. Formed in 1977 at the peak of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, SLF reflected the feelings of youth from ‘The North’, and cities throughout the rest of the UK.
Speaking about the growing disenchantment , singer and guitarist Jake Burns told The Guardian in 2003: “Because that was the overriding reality of life in Belfast for a teenager in the mid-70s. Not the fear of riots or bombs or whatever. It was the sheer tedium of having nowhere to go and nothing to do.”
One of their greatest songs, Alternative Ulster, is mostly about being bored. Numerous other punk classics had that very sentiment at their core. Burns was joined by guitarist Henry Cluney, Ali McMordie on bass and drummer Brian Faloon.
Stiff Little Fingers had developed from a covers band called Highway Star, named after the Deep Purple track, with the new name purloined from a song by the London-based punks The Vibrators. Their big break came in 1978, courtesy of BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, whose repeated playing of the first single, Suspect Device, would lead to the first album, Inflammable Material, released through Rough Trade.
The album hit number 14 in the UK album charts, prompting a relocation to London. However, this led to drummer Faloon leaving the band. Although their home gave some source material for songs, SLF remained famously non-aligned.
Burns told The Vice, “We were either adopted equally by both sides or just ignored equally by both sides. The band was made up of both Catholics and Protestants, and we were always very open about that. We never made a point of taking sides. It’s a style of writing that I’ve adopted, where I will point out problems.”
The direct, fierce, unafraid songs from albums like Nobody’s Heroes and Now Then, about conflict and social injustice, continued until the band split in 1983. At the time, Burns stated that Now Then would be the best album the band would ever make. It’s alleged that fisticuffs became the decision-making process in the band, forcing the split.
But SLF is still going. Burns often recalls bumping into Thin Lizzy frontman Phil Lynott in London when both parties bands looked like they were going down the tubes. Having adjourned to the pub, they decided that they just had to keep going, as being in bands and performing was all they knew.
Since reforming in 1987, enduring numerous personnel changes, including, for a time, Bruce Foxton of The Jam on bass, Stiff Little Fingers are still out there, and they’re still angry. The subject matter has widened to include domestic violence and depression, Jake Burns having personal experience of the latter. There’s not a lot of songs about fluffy kittens. These are songs to sit up and take notice of.
The current line-up is Burns, drummer Steve Grantley, guitarist Ian McCallum and since 2006, original bassist Ali McMordie back on bass. Despite making classic albums, which will be around forever, SLF’s real home is on stage, on tour. Live, they’re an immersive experience and everyone in the venue, for a couple of hours, is in the band.
Their latest release: Live at Rockpalast 1980 and 1989, is a triple-disc affair, two audio CDs, with a DVD of the 1980 performance. This is the earliest official video release of a full concert.
Jake Burns remembers, “The place was packed, and the audience was with us from the first note. They were wonderful, singing and bouncing along. It really felt like a ‘home game’ to use a football analogy.”
The production on this album is outstanding, and the DVD, in particular, is really well put together. Rockpalast was a staple of German TV at the time.
“We were all well aware of what a great show Rockpalast was, having seen quite a few while touring in Europe,” Jake says, “so we were delighted to be asked to appear. We got there a day early and went to the venue as our friends, UFO, were playing. It was a great insight into the audience’s perspective. And a little bit daunting as we hadn’t realised how big the auditorium was.
“I thought we played really well too, apart from a slight timing mistake during Back To Front, a new song we were still learning. See if you can spot my giving Jim the ‘look of death’ at that point. We rounded the night off in our hotel bar with another bunch of friends, The Jam, who were also on the bill. It’s a show and audience I remember with great affection. Thanks for giving us the opportunity to be a part of the Rockpalast story.”
A young fifteen-year-old went to one of these early gigs back in Belfast. Arriving frightened, having travelled through the city, a risk back then, this young lad’s eyes were opened up to possibilities of someone like him making it. He did. That young lad was The Almighty/Thin Lizzy/Black Star Riders frontman Ricky Warwick.
A few years later, his legendary work ethic would see him promoting a solo album by supporting Stiff Little Fingers on a tour in 2016. He even wrote one of the songs on his album with Jake Burns. Crazy days.
Stiff Little Fingers are important. They always have been.
Live at Rockpalast 1980/1989 can be ordered from mig-music.lnk.to/stifflittlefingers