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Fingers on the pulse
Thirty years not out, Belfast punks Stiff Little Fingers are still railing against the establishment.
Craig Fitzsimons, 28 Feb 2007
With all due apologies to U2 and The Undertones, history will surely judge Stiff Little Fingers as the most powerful, exciting and significant Irish band of the age.
Though most of the ’77 punk explosion now sounds very much of its time, SLF’s combination of political sloganeering and speed-rush punk still sounds as electrifying and supercharged in 2007 as it did thirty years ago.
Almost unbelievably, this year marks the band’s pearl anniversary, a milestone they plan to commemorate by releasing an SLF movie, directed by the venerable reggae/punk oracle Don Letts. At a time when Northern Ireland was engulfed by a civil/colonial war which claimed some 200-300 lives a year, SLF addressed the conflict directly.
More importantly, their aggressive adrenaline-fuelled sound was infused with a glorious melodic sensibility. Later albums moved further and further into white-reggae territory, while their political stance began to crystallise: anti-sectarian, anti-violence, none-too-heavyweight (“Take away the fighting and the war’s all gone”).
Thirty years on, mainman Jake Burns agrees that SLF pulled off the near-impossible by writing impassioned, overtly political songs about the NI conflict without nailing ‘their colours’ to the mast, or indeed betraying the faintest hint of ‘which side’ they sprang from, or where exactly they stood vis-à-vis the place’s constitutional status. You could scrutinise the lyrics to ‘Alternative Ulster’, ‘Fly The Flag’, ‘Wasted Life’ or ‘Suspect Device’ long and hard without unearthing any dead giveaways, at a time in NI when such mundane matters as your choice of newspaper, your preferred sport or your dog’s name could be taken as an indication of one’s political leanings.
Jake recalls, “We weren’t actively giving opinions on the whole thing, we just laid out the problem in front of people. By the time we’d formed, Northern Ireland had become ‘old news’, and one murder in Belfast wouldn’t make headlines any more. It needed to be a bomb that killed eight people in London. Even as late as 1982, there was a bombing in Horse Garden Parade. Nobody was actually killed, but a horse died, and it was splashed all over the front pages.