The Undertones: 'Teenage Kicks'

Classic Tracks

Published in SOS April 2011
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Technique : Classic Tracks

'Teenage Kicks' was the punk‑pop gem that, with a little help from John Peel, kick‑started the Undertones' career.

Richard Buskin

The Undertones in 1978. From left to right: Damian O'Neill, John O'Neill, Billy Doherty (front), Feargal Sharkey and Michael Bradley.The Undertones in 1978. From left to right: Damian O'Neill, John O'Neill, Billy Doherty (front), Feargal Sharkey and Michael Bradley.Photo: Fin Costello/Redferns

Teenage dreams, so hard to beat...” These were the words that, in a 2001 article for the Guardian newspaper, BBC Radio 1 disc jockey John Peel said he would want on his gravestone. His wish was granted only three years later, when a headstone with this engraving was placed on his grave in Great Finborough, Suffolk. The line was from 'Teenage Kicks', the Undertones song that Peel championed and which, at the end of his funeral service in 2004, was played while his coffin was carried towards its final destination. This was no small measure of acclaim from a man of wildly eclectic musical tastes who had little time for nostalgia. But, as he himself once admitted when discussing the 1978 punk-era standard, "I can't listen to it now without getting all dewy-eyed. And if I play it on the radio, I have to segue it into the front of another record, because I can't speak after I've heard it.”

Clocking in at just two minutes and 25 seconds, 'Teenage Kicks' was the debut single by the Northern Irish quintet of guitarist/composer John O'Neill, his lead-guitarist brother Damian, bassist Michael Bradley, drummer Billy Doherty and singer Feargal Sharkey. And although it only peaked at number 31 in the UK and didn't even chart in the US, this infectiously catchy blend of no‑nonsense punk energy with early-'60s pop melody has stood the test of time to become a bona fide teen‑angst classic.

"I need excitement, oh I need it bad,” sings the protagonist, with an urgency that underscores his lust for a local girl who might just help him "get teenage kicks right through the night”.

"We used to do a cover of 'Gloria' by Them,” recalls John O'Neill, "and I'd think it would be great to write a song like that, which any garage band can play even when it's just starting up. 'Teenage Kicks' seems to have become one of those songs, and in that sense I can't believe my luck.”

Doing It For Themselves

Davy Shannon at Wizard Recording, 1978.Davy Shannon at Wizard Recording, 1978.

Initially fans of '50s rock & roll and '60s R&B, including Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones and girl groups like the Shangri‑Las, the Crystals and the Ronettes, the Undertones formed in 1975, at the height of Northern Ireland's troubles. Derry, rife with religious discrimination, was at the centre of the IRA's military campaign, and unemployment was a way of life. Feargal Sharkey was, in fact, the only group member to have a job — delivering TVs for Radio Rentals — but their fortunes were about to change, along with their musical direction, once punk began to have an impact on the British Isles in late 1976.

At that point, influenced by the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, the New York Dolls, the Stooges and, primarily, the Ramones, the band rehearsed at the home of the O'Neill brothers, working not only on other artists' material but also their own guitar‑driven songs. These included John's very first composition, 'I Told You So', as well as 'I Don't Want To See You Again' and 'Get Over You', and by February 1977 they were performing some of these at Derry's Casbah Club. A few months later, the set list was augmented by 'Teenage Kicks', which John wrote in June of that year.

"We'd alternate between the Casbah and another club down the road that was owned by the same people,” he explains. "We started off doing a lot of cover versions of early R&B stuff, but then the plan became to either write a new song or do a new cover version every time we played, just to keep things fresh. Well, 'Teenage Kicks' was among the batch of new songs. The Ramones were a big influence on us, as was the uptown R&B of the early '60s by the girl groups and Phil Spector. His productions were incredible, but the chord progressions on a lot of the songs were fairly standard, and so I suppose I was trying to copy that clichéd pattern with the three‑chord riff to 'Teenage Kicks'.

"Another classic record at around this time was Television's album Marquee Moon [released in February 1977], on which the song 'Prove It' also had that standard three‑chord progression. Sometimes, you can spend weeks on a song and then at other times you'll write it in five minutes. In the spirit of classic rock & roll , I quite literally wrote 'Teenage Kicks' in five minutes — the words, the music, everything. Still, while it may have been John Peel's favourite record, it's certainly nowhere near being one of the best records ever made. It's not exactly ground‑breaking in any way, but the Teenage Kicks EP does capture an enthusiasm that many people can relate to. It still sounds fresh and exciting, and it's so natural and spontaneous that it brings you back to when you were 15 or 16.”

Stiffed

The Soundcraft Series Two mixer used to record 'Teenage Kicks'. The Soundcraft Series Two mixer used to record 'Teenage Kicks'.

Trying to secure a record deal, the Undertones recorded a demo of their songs inside a studio at Derry's Magee University in March 1978 and then sent copies of the tape to various record companies, as well as — in what would turn out to be an astute move — John Peel, requesting that he give them some air time on his Radio 1 show. Unfortunately, the record companies weren't nearly as enthusiastic as Peel — some of them never replied, and those that did could be... well, let's just say a little facetious.

"Dear Hopeful,” commenced Stiff Records' standard rejection letter, which band archivist Damian O'Neill has held on to. "It must be pretty obvious by now we haven't even got the decency to write a personal letter to you, but at least you've sent one. If we've had it too long, we apologise... and if there is no tape with this letter then we've either lost it or are considering taking it further and putting it out as a hit under another name. Thanks for sending it anyway and don't give up even though the best record company has, in fact, turned you down.”

"The demos sounded exactly the same as the tracks that ended up on the finished record,” recalls John O'Neill. "They were just a bit weedier. We couldn't turn up the amps as loud as we wanted to, so they sounded a little weak. The studio at Magee University was really better suited to a person with a keyboard or a rough soundtrack for a short film. It wasn't exactly set up for a band, and although the guy who helped us with it did the best he could, it wasn't an ideal environment. Then again, while we didn't think the demo was all that good, we hoped that if we sent it to people they might see the potential in the songs.”

"They were definitely rougher-sounding than on the EP,” adds Damian. "The quality of the tape was pretty naff, but I also think that anyone who listened to it might have been able to hear the potential. Back then, however, the record labels were probably getting hundreds of demos every day, so I'm not that shocked they rejected it.”

Wizard Recording's Studer A80 and B62.Wizard Recording's Studer A80 and B62.

Eventually, Terri Hooley agreed to issue an EP on his independent Good Vibrations label. And so it was that, on Thursday, 15th June, 1978, the day after playing their first gig in Northern Ireland's capital city — a 'Battle of the Bands' promoted by Good Vibrations at Queen's University's McMordie Hall and featuring seven local punk outfits — the Undertones entered Wizard Recording. There, within a matter of hours, they laid down four songs on a budget of just £200.

"We wanted to make an EP, because it was a throwback to the early '60s, when the Kinks, the Animals and the Beatles all did that,” John O'Neill explains. "And then, for us, there were also two important EPs of the early punk period: Live At The Marquee by Eddie & The Hotrods and Spiral Scratch by the Buzzcocks. Those were both seminal records for us, so we wanted to try to make our own Irish version of them.

"Whereas we hadn't been allowed to turn up our guitar amps at Magee University, at Wizard it was totally different. Davy Shannon was very amenable and allowed us to do what we wanted. That's why we had a great time making that record. Then again, while we were pretty tight as a band, the four songs we picked were the easiest to play and we'd been performing them live for quite some time. We knew this might be our one and only chance to do it, so we decided to stack all the odds in our favour, and, coming off that gig the night before, we were really buzzing.”

Hats Off To Wizard

The track sheet for 'Teenage Kicks'.The track sheet for 'Teenage Kicks'.

Wizard Recording was owned by one Dave Smyth, yet contrary to popular belief he didn't produce the Teenage Kicks EP, which eventually climbed to number 31 in the UK.

"He wasn't there during the sessions,” says Davy Shannon, a Belfast native and self‑taught guitarist who played bass in local bands as a teen, while developing a parallel interest in reel‑to‑reel recording techniques. One of the groups' lead vocalists was Smyth, a businessman who subsequently set up his own home studio during the early '70s. With Shannon as the resident techie, this evolved into a commercial facility on Lower Donegal Street, a few minutes' walk from the city centre.

Featuring a 25 x 30 x 10-foot live room where deep, pre‑existing shelving served as a bass trap, Wizard housed a new 24‑channel, eight‑output semi‑modular Soundcraft Series Two console that was equipped with Penny & Giles faders, sweepable EQs, 16 PPM meters and an integral 252‑position patchbay.

"It wasn't a Neve, but it was everything we needed it to be,” Shannon states. "We added a pair of used Tannoy dual‑concentric speakers as the main monitors along with a set of nearfields, a previously‑cared‑for Studer A80 16‑track two‑inch tape machine, a Studer B62 two‑track quarter‑inch machine, a Master Room spring reverb unit, a couple of Klark Teknik DN27 graphic multiband EQs, some comp/limiters and a whole stack of Beyer Dynamic DT100 headphones. After a lot of cabling and some equalisation we were really in business, and as the in‑house recording engineer, producer and maintenance/repair technician I wore a lot of hats.”

When the Undertones were in the studio, Davy Shannon had them standing six or seven feet apart from one another with no baffles between their gear so that, as he describes it, "I could see and hear them as a band to get an idea of what they were about. That's what they were more comfortable with, so we kept the sound levels within reason to control the overall amount of spill.”

Looking out through the control-room glass, Shannon saw the two guitarists standing towards the left side of the live area. John O'Neill was playing his black Zenta Telecaster copy, Damian his CSL Les Paul copy, and each was running his instrument through a 50‑watt H&H Combo amp, miked with a Shure SM57.

"Those were the same kind of amps the Buzzcocks used,” John explains. "We loved the first Buzzcocks LP and we learned that turning up the gain really high on the H&H gives a lot of sustain. Particularly for me, sustain can cover up a variety of mistakes really well.”

On the right side of the main room, Billy Doherty sat behind his Premier red‑sparkle drum kit, without screens to keep the sound raw, and miked with AKG 451s for the hi‑hat and overheads, an AKG D12 on the kick, and SM57s on the snare and toms.

Davy Shannon with Undertones Michael Bradley and John and Damian O'Neill, 2005.Davy Shannon with Undertones Michael Bradley and John and Damian O'Neill, 2005.

Near the centre of the room, Michael Bradley played his DI'd Eko semi‑acoustic bass through yet another H&H Combo, miked with an SM57, while in front of him, near the window, Feargal Sharkey sang into a Neumann U87.

"I panned the drum overheads and toms to two tracks in stereo, and the direct outputs were sent to the tape for the snare, kick and hi‑hat mics, so they were all separate,” Shannon explains. "The guitars, bass and vocal were all separate tracks, and we still had spare tracks for an additional rhythm guitar, as well as backing vocals and handclaps. Given the time restriction, it was like we were recording a demo, but we still wanted to make it sound as good as we could, and while all four songs were tracked the same day, they actually went on the EP in the same order as they were recorded.”

This meant 'Teenage Kicks' was followed by 'True Confessions', 'Smarter Than U' and 'Emergency Cases'.

"I wanted to capture the band's sound and energy, but I also wanted to keep the diction clear and I didn't want to create too much of a 'wall of sound' that could overpower that type of music,” Davy Shannon continues. "Billy was actually a pretty good, steady drummer and he took his part seriously, so we had a good start there. After a few tune‑ups and dry runs during which I set up the levels, we were then ready to capture the moment. If everyone had blasted away we would have had to isolate the instruments, but by not recording it loud we prevented that from happening. Having some distortion on the guitars made it sound a lot louder than it was.

"We only did a few retakes. John and Damian played quite a tight rhythm, but on 'Teenage Kicks', Damian did punch in the lead guitar part later in the day, because his original performance fell away a bit. Basically, it was almost like a one‑shot deal — he had been playing this for so long, there wasn't that much to it. And while Feargal sang along with the band, he got some overspill from the guitars and the kit, so we overdubbed his finished vocal. The original could have worked, but it cleaned up better this way.

"When I first heard Feargal's natural vibrato — or what somebody described as his 'tremulous voice quality' — I actually thought it was a plus; it stood out against the music and put a unique edge on it. What's more, his diction was clear, and to keep it that way I made sure it remained in the foreground, with the kick drum underneath it a little bit to retain the fullness. I didn't want his vocal to be competing too much with the guitars.

"Once Feargal's vocal had been captured, we added the backing vocals. For those, Feargal, Damian and Michael sang into a U87. Then, finally, we put in the handclaps to sustain the upbeat feel and also add some percussion when the vocal dropped out, with everyone including the band's driver clapping away into a U87 and an AKG D202. The overdubs weren't meant to detract from the initial recording — they had to perform the material live on stage, so we didn't want to insert anything that wasn't really them. I wanted it to be a true reflection of their performance, and I don't think that would have worked today with a Pro Tools system. The sound would have been a little too clinical. What you hear on the record is a better representation.”

Imperfectionism

The Undertones: 'Teenage Kicks'

The Teenage Kicks EP was mixed a couple of days after it had been recorded, again in a single session.

"Riding the faders was not a complex ordeal for any of those songs,” Shannon remarks. "There was a touch of reverb, but again, everything had to be up front and, other than a little bit of panning, we wanted to keep it like a punk band... Listening to it now, it's more like pop‑punk; an escape from the doom, gloom and dim reality of the times.”

Not that everyone initially felt uplifted by the final results.

"When we first heard the finished record, we didn't like it,” asserts Damian O'Neill, while John adds, "We thought it sounded a bit too polished. We were very naïve, very inexperienced and didn't have a lot of confidence, and even though we were really happy with the recording session we felt we let ourselves down when it came to the mix. That's why, when we recorded our first album, produced by Roger Bechirian, we were determined to keep some rough edges wherever possible. In that sense, I do think The Undertones LP was more successful than the Teenage Kicks EP.”

On the other hand, Damian O'Neill doesn't necessarily agree. "We came close to recapturing the spirit of the EP with songs like 'Male Model' — which I think is great; I still love that — and 'Family Entertainment',” he says, "but I don't think we ever matched it.”

"At that time, when punk was at its height with the Ramones, the Buzzcocks and the Sex Pistols, we tried to get as live a sound as possible,” John continues. "In our minds, that was the punk sound, so it's ironic that it wasn't until we saw the Sex Pistols documentary that we learned all about the overdubs on Never Mind The Bollocks. That's why it sounds fantastic, but we were going for more of a live feel.”

Making A Splash

Good Vibrations released 'Teenage Kicks' on 31st August, 1978, and although it initially didn't make much of an impact, Terri Hooley's belief in its potential and his efforts on behalf of the band didn't go unnoticed.

"Terri went to London to see if any record companies or distributors would pick up the single,” says Damian O'Neill, "and although he got rejected by the likes of Rough Trade, CBS and EMI, he was, more importantly, the man who passed on the single to John Peel. If John Peel hadn't played it, we probably would have broken up. We were always breaking up. If my memory serves me correctly, I think we broke up a couple of weeks before we recorded 'Teenage Kicks' and again a week or two after. There was always somebody leaving the band — except for me, of course. I never left the band; the others always did. So, that song was a testament to our existence, and if John Peel didn't like it I wouldn't be speaking to you now.”

According to John O'Neill, it was drummer Billy Doherty who initially made contact with John Peel.

"In those days, you could actually ring the BBC and ask to talk to John Peel. If he happened to be in the office, you'd get through to him. So, Billy would ring and say, 'We're playing such‑and‑such tonight. Could you dedicate a Fall record to some of our friends?' This happened on three or four occasions, which is why John Peel had already heard of the Undertones — and was aware we were putting out a record on Good Vibrations — by the time we asked him to play 'Teenage Kicks'. Maybe it just took him by surprise how much he liked it.”

Indeed, Peel played the entire Teenage Kicks EP on his 12th September show and, in an unprecedented move, spun the title track twice in a row.

"When John Peel started playing 'Teenage Kicks' regularly, all these record companies began calling my mum and dad's house,” Damian O'Neill recalls. "That place was the hub of all our activity, and we also were the only ones to have a phone, and suddenly we were receiving calls from these people with English accents at companies like Polydor and EMI. We didn't know what to say to them, because we were completely on our own, without a manager.”

Having heard John Peel's broadcast of Teenage Kicks, Sire Records' president, Seymour Stein, dispatched Paul McNally to Derry, where the London‑based A&R exec saw the Undertones perform at the Casbah Club on 29th September. He then opened negotiations with the band members at Feargal Sharkey's house the very next day.

"About 12 of us were there, and Paul didn't know who the hell was or wasn't in the band,” Damian O'Neill recalls. "He also didn't know what the hell we were saying, because he couldn't understand our accents, and since we didn't have a manager we didn't have a clue what he was saying either!”

Despite these problems, the Undertones signed a six-album deal with Sire, and Damian now acknowledges the importance of Terri Hooley's contribution to their success.

"Not only did he give us our big break by letting us make a record on his label, but he also let Sire have the master for a pittance,” he says. "If that means he wasn't a great businessman, I respect him all the more for it.

"The main reason why we went with Sire was because they had the great Ramones, our heroes. Seymour Stein was a smart man and he got Feargal and Mickey [Bradley] to go over to London, where he wined and dined them. That, I think, also helped. The rest of us were in Derry, waiting by the phone, and when we heard Seymour was offering us an £8000 advance, we were like, 'Oh, that's not very much. The Rich Kids just got signed for £36,000. Tell him we want £36,000 or the deal is off.' We were feeling pretty brave, but Mickey and Feargal didn't want to tell Seymour what we'd said because he might blow his top... which, of course, is what he did, cursing us and screaming, 'You're out of your minds!'

"It was all very well for us to be making our demands from so far away, but in the end there was a compromise. The problem was, we didn't know what the word 'recouperable' meant — we didn't know we had to pay it back. We thought it was ours to keep forever. So, we didn't even negotiate the royalty rate and the royalty rate we were given was pathetic. It was a very bad deal, but then, when Andy Ferguson became our manager, he renegotiated and got us a better deal.”

Coming Right

Boasting a new sleeve, 'Teenage Kicks' was re‑released by Sire on 13th October, 1978. Three days later the Undertones recorded a Radio 1 Peel Session with their DJ mentor, and on the 25th they performed the single on Top Of The Pops. Things were moving at a rapid pace.

"It was really, really exciting,” Damian O'Neill recalls, "and I still don't get bored playing that song. It's become this kind of iconic classic, and I think it's those parts where it goes from major to minor chords that make it so poppy. I can truthfully say we never equalled it or the sound that we got. There's a chemistry going on, and the bass and drum beat were classic as well, along with Feargal's absolutely brilliant vocal delivery. Everything on it just gels.

"People used to say we were pure pop, and for some reason we used to hate that term, but now I totally agree with it. It really is pure pop, and that's a beautiful thing. Of course, only being known for the one song down the years can be a bit annoying because we did other equally good tracks and had hits with things like 'Here Comes The Summer', 'Jimmy Jimmy' and 'My Perfect Cousin', but I also have to say I don't think any of them sound as good as 'Teenage Kicks'... I'm just proud that I'm a part of it.”

"The reaction we get whenever we play that song is just overwhelming, so I have no problem performing it,” adds John who, alongside his brother, Michael Bradley, Billy Doherty and frontman Paul McLoone (who joined the reunited, Sharkey‑less band in 1999) is currently in the middle of the Undertones' 35th anniversary tour of the UK — a tour that coincides with the release of True Confessions, a 32‑track compilation album of all their 'A' and 'B' sides. "You know, it's our song and we recorded it, so why can't we play it? I think it's timeless: a song that is loved by people of all generations, and which gets the same reaction every time it is played.”    .


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