STIFF LITTLE FINGERS
So, the war being waged in Nicaragua between the Sandanistas and the Contras was very much a politically straightforward one. If only the same could have been said of the war in Northern Ireland, if indeed what was going on there in that emerald isle could even be called a war?
According to the IRA, the answer to that question was a definite and unequivocal 'Yes'. It was their conviction that they were soldiers - paramilitaries - fighting for independence against the British occupation of Northern Ireland. They were the Irish Republican Army - it was all in the name - and they were at war with the British State.
According to the Thatcher government, however, the answer was 'No', there was no war going on in Northern Ireland in the slightest. Rather, the IRA were simply criminals committing outrageous acts of violence, intimidation and murder. Nothing more and nothing less. To some, the IRA were freedom fighters but to others they were terrorists.
In England, there were many sympathetic to the Irish republican cause but when it came to seeing innocent people being blown apart by IRA bombs planted in British pubs it somewhat clouded the issue, to put it lightly. And even if a significant proportion of British people were against the British military presence in Northern Ireland, it didn't exempt them from being potential IRA targets themselves. Confusing matters further, to the consternation of the Conservative government in particular, the IRA were being part-funded by donations from supporters in America - Britain's allied partner in the battle against all things communist and all things terrorist.
So, the Irish problem was a problem. Unlike Nicaragua, nothing was clear cut and very little was politically straightforward about it. Indeed, since Bloody Sunday in 1972 when unarmed civilians were gunned down in cold blood by soldiers of the British Parachute Regiment, the idea of 'normal' politics in Northern Ireland had completely ended. The H-Block hunger strikes of 1981 and the mass rioting in Belfast following the death of Bobby Sands and his comrades had caused the ante to be upped even further with the British State launching an unofficial 'shoot-to-kill' policy.
'The Troubles' were getting worse and the situation ever more desperate, all taking place in Britain's very own backyard. One of the consequences of all this - significant to some, irrelevant to others - being that one of the best Punk bands ever had been born from it all.
When The Clash first went over to Belfast in October of '77 to play a concert there, due to supposed insurance problems the gig was cancelled at the last minute leaving both band and fans bitterly disappointed. Being Belfast, almost by default a mini-riot ensued whereby the fans vented their frustration by smashing windows and throwing stones at the RUC. This time, however, there was a difference. Where as normally it would be Protestant and Catholic kids attacking each other, the two factions were now united under the banner of Punk and attacking a common enemy - the police.
The Clash, meanwhile, took a stroll down the Falls Road and posed for photographs alongside army blockades, barricades, checkpoints and British soldiers toting guns. Though accused of self-serving opportunism for posing against such a backdrop after failing to even play there, the resulting pictures of The Clash in their street Punk gear standing in the middle of what was essentially a war zone lent them and subsequently Punk a politicised, urban credibility that was somewhat lacking in any other musical genre.
The Clash at that time were prime motivators for the embryonic Punk movement, inspiring many a fledgling Punk Rocker up and down the land to start thinking about the world around them and to start expressing themselves accordingly. From a young Thomas Mensworth in Newcastle, for example, to a William Bragg in London, to a certain Steven Williams in Bristol. The Clash were inspiring them all to form bands, becoming respectively Mensi of the Angelic Upstarts, a Big-Nosed Bastard From Barking, and Steve Ignorant of Crass.
In Ireland too, having managed by the end of 1977 to play successful gigs in both Dublin and Belfast, The Clash were inspiring not only future members of U2, The Undertones, and the Virgin Prunes but also members of an inconsequential covers band called Highway Star, soon - after a quick name change - to be better known as Stiff Little Fingers.
If the economic, social and political situation of England during the late 1970s could spawn a band such as The Clash, it was almost inevitable that the far more intense situation in Northern Ireland during that same period might spawn a much more intense band. It made sense. If the social realism of London could be reflected by The Clash, then the urban realism of Belfast could also be reflected. Taking on that task was Stiff Little Fingers but just as it took manager Bernie Rhodes to urge The Clash to sing about what was 'important', so it took journalist Ian Ogilvie to urge Stiff Little Fingers to sing about their immediate surroundings.
By way of example, Ogilvie offered the band two sets of lyrics that after being put to music became the songs Suspect Device and Wasted Life. Not that Ogilvie was some kind of svengali moulding a band to his own vision in the way Bernie Rhodes and Malcolm McLaren had tried to do. Alone, Ogilvie's words were but scribbles - albeit interesting scribbles - on a page but when charged with harsh, metallic, twin guitar Punk Rock and delivered by raw, sore throat vocals the result was simply stunning.
Suspect Device became Stiff Little Fingers début single, bringing them instantly to the attention of a mass of Punk Rockers looking for something slightly more dangerous than the by that time increasingly America-fixated Clash. The sound they produced was a retreat into hard Punk, imbued with a spiky aggression born from lives in crisis.
Apart from the obvious meaning of 'potential bomb' - a relevant subject in a city like Belfast where such packages were the cause of constant chaos and disruption - the term "suspect device" could also be taken as a description of angry youth who at any moment might explode with frustration. A neat echo of Johnny Rotten's "potential H-bomb" of God Save The Queen.
Advocating a bomb as being more of a question than an answer, Stiff Little Fingers declaration of "We're gonna blow up in their face" left the very clear impression that something powerful and special was occurring in Belfast. Confirmation of this came with the release of their second single, Alternative Ulster, which with the assistance of John Peel and almost nightly airplay on his show, elevated the band into a position of major importance within the Punk world, underlining the fact that Punk at its best was political by nature.
After gaining further credibility points by signing to the independent Rough Trade record label, Stiff Little Fingers released their début album to widespread acclaim, receiving high praise from critics holding normally opposing musical tastes such as Paul Morley at the NME and Garry Bushell at Sounds. Entitled Inflammable Material - the name having been taken from the opening line of Suspect Device - it was immediately recognised as being on a par with the début albums of The Clash, the Sex Pistols, and the Ramones.
Whilst the music was pure and sublime caustic Punk Rock, it was the vocals of Jake Burns that elevated it to an entirely new level. Bespectacled, long(ish) of hair and dressed in plain jeans and leather jacket, to look at him it could never be imagined that his voice would be so torn, so jagged and so spectacular. His was the voice of coruscating Punk passion.
Practically every song on the album concerned itself with life as experienced in Northern Ireland, with even their version of Bob Marley's Johnny Was being turned into a Belfast tale. Like The Clash, it was obvious that Stiff Little Fingers were aligned with the Left although they were cleverly managing to avoid being pigeon-holed as either Republican or Loyalist. Instead, they were sitting somewhere in the middle - shot by both sides - crying out that they had simply had enough of the whole sorry situation.
"The solution to Northern Ireland's problems is 10,000 Punk bands," said Jake Burns, by this meaning not Punk bands as forces of political power but as individual and collective acts of creativity. Through their own creative endeavours, Stiff Little Fingers were breaking free from the restriction and repression of everyday life in Ulster. The beauty of Punk, of course, was in its advocacy of the idea that 'anyone can do it' so that even those who felt unable to articulate themselves might actually be able to do so through the expression of sheer rage.
"Anything you do creative is worthwhile," Crass would later say, recognising the importance of free expression in a world geared toward the eroding of individuality and the moulding of people into compliant consumers.
Stiff Little Fingers saw their opportunity and went for it, upping sticks and heading over to England just as soon as they could so as to follow their rock'n'roll dreams. In the process signing to major label Chrysalis and to cries of 'sell-out!' becoming a better than average Punk band but no longer the politically-charged force they once were.
To give them their due, they remained true to their word in only singing about their immediate surroundings but as their surroundings changed, subsequently so did the subject matter of their songs and soon they were no longer the conduit for the frustration born of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The significance of Stiff Little Fingers as a stepping stone towards the social awareness of a generation of Punk Rockers, however, cannot be overstated.