/ Here comes the summer, Sire, 1979
At a small English boarding school in 1980, a boy sits on one of the serried pine benches in the TV room watching a video on ‘Top of the pops’. He is absorbed in the music and its performers, but not so entranced that he doesn’t notice the appearance of the headmaster in the doorway, the massive bulk of his shoulders filling its frame. Instantly on edge, the boy’s eyes are torn between the screen and this fearsome presence. On the screen, a bug-eyed Feargal Sharkey is part-way between emoting and leering into the camera which has been set up to show the group performing in their natural element – a housing estate, possibly in the Undertones’ home town of Derry. To any adult observer born to a generation which reached maturity before Elvis and the Beatles, he must look crazed; but the boy knows that Feargal is crazy with the joy of singing a John O’Neill tune.
And then comes the line that sends a boy of ten red in the face, because there is considerable room for argument as to whether Feargal sings ‘She’s gone to school with her best friend’ or ‘She’s gone to screw with her best friend’. The boy braves a glance at the headmaster, known to all below the age of fourteen as Trad. On his face is a look. Not the kind of thoughtlessly dismissive one that the boy’s grandfather would habitually give pop music in its sum total, but a look so stern that it was as though in the space of a minute, a withering analysis of the implications of ‘Wednesday week’ for the future of society were taking place in the old naval commander’s grey cells. He took in which of his charges were held captive by this degeneracy, and left the room, saying nothing.
At the end of the Undertones’ short life, Feargal Sharkey had amassed barely any song-writing credits, but his importance to the Undertones cannot be underestimated. Few singers at the time were gifted with true singing voices; voices for delivering what was necessary over the top of their racket, yes, but none had the successor to the pure choirboy voice Feargal must once have had (he won a singing competition as a boy), since rendered impure by the yearning urgency of adolescence and the grit and dynamics of punk. His notes were always delivered from well within the lungs, near the heart, and to see him sing was to see the leaping effort of springing those notes true from their deep hiding place. The group and its members were in perfect balance, the happy result of school friends coming together and playing themselves into shape against a backdrop of the Troubles, seeming more distant than you’d think possible. Take Feargal away and ‘Teenage kicks’ might not be the celebrated song and fitting epitaph that it has become.
For this blog’s inaugural B side, it’s not the r’n’b romp of ‘Wednesday week’ B side ‘I told you so’ that I’ve chosen, but the gentler approach and melodic classicism that the Undertones first aired – after ‘Teenage kicks’ – on the flipside of ‘Here comes the summer’. Backwards cycling guitar launches ‘One way love’, its tempo relaxed in comparison to the A side. Feargal’s singing may never have sounded finer, so perfectly at one is John O’Neill’s melody with his register. As they do on the track sharing the same side of vinyl, ‘Top twenty’, the group’s backing vocals add an endearing pop goofiness to the song, which is in fact a mournfully beautiful account of a girl’s weariness with the attentions of her boy, given finesse by the increasingly subtle guitar playing of the O’Neill brothers.
‘One way love’ also has what may be the closest approximation in pop to an exclamation mark (at the end of the middle eight), and it inevitably holds a particularly high place in my affection, for it is the B side of the first single I ever bought, second-hand from another boy at the boarding school presided over by Trad, shortly after seeing that clip of ‘Wednesday week’. When you’re young, the walls of your brain are freshly rendered, and sound bounces off them as if it is the first electric scream ever to burst from the swamp of the world, witnessed by its only recently sentient inhabitants. I knew from the moment I heard Feargal scream that my life would revolve around music.