Friday, August 8, 2014

Saved By Punk

My great and good friend J-Co, knowing that I am a huge Stiff Little Fingers fan, sent me an article about the Belfast punk band's lasting impact. I first heard the band's music on college radio when I was in junior high school and was instantly hooked. To get an inkling of my devotion to the band and its music, one merely has to see the number of my posts that have mentioned them- yeah, still no post tags...

When I first heard the band's music, I was too young to really understand The Troubles, though the band's music inspired me to learn more about that particular history. Reading Stuart Bailie's article in the Irish Post is enough to give me goosebumps:

There were power cuts and no-go areas and murder gangs at large after midnight. Getting home from school was like a daily re-run of Warriors. On the local news, politicians carried themselves like street fighters, launching accusations across the studio, bawling and berating.

And so we endured the ring of steel and cement around Belfast, the body searches and the terrible sense of vacancy every evening. But then punk rock arrived, with a whole other vision.

It was a sound that related to the teenage rage, and there was no more appropriate place to make this heard. We were living in a hyper-real Clash song, the cheap holiday full of misery that nobody in England ever wanted to consider.

When I hear Suspect Device by Stiff Little Fingers, the mood is intensely revived. I grieve for the lyric at the start when Jake Burns sings about the 2,000 dead, because a further 1,000 would die before the situation improved.

I feel excited when I hear the rasping voice and the fierce guitar because it was the sound of a novel attitude — the idea that you might rewire the mentality of the Belfast youth and direct it against the warlords.

As Mr Bailie notes, the song, named after suspected improvised explosive devices, begins with an enumeration of the victims of the violence, commonly portrayed as sectarian, but also rooted in economic rivalries and an occupation by a foreign army (this is a timely subject, even though the names and places have changed since the 1990s). Singer Jake Burns then compares the hatred sown by the "powers that be" to the bomb of the title:

Inflammable material's planted in my head
It's a suspect device that's left 2000 dead

Their solutions are our problems
They put up the wall
On each side time and prime us
Make sure we get fuck all.

As the song progresses, Mr Burns implores his youthful audience to eschew the violence and conduct what could be termed the, please forgive me, Irish Spring:

Just take a look around you
At the bitterness and spite
Why can't we take over
And try to put it right?

The final verse is a defiant growl- a determination to subvert the rhetoric, to undermine the occupation:

We're a suspect device if we do what we are told
But a suspect device can score an own goal
I'm a suspect device the Army can't defuse
You're a suspect device they know they can't refuse

We're gonna blow up in their face.

It's a glorious example of sustained rage, a klaxon call for the youth on both sides of the sectarian divide (the band has had both Protestant and Catholic members) to forge an identity independent of the flawed adult authorities:

Another song mentioned in the article, Wasted Life, defies the sectarian organizations of both sides, as Mr Bailie put it:

It was a thrill to hear this song on the John Peel show and to reflect on the flip side, Wasted Life which mocked the act of joining a paramilitary gang.

I could be a soldier
Go out there and fight to save this land
Be a people's soldier
Paramilitary gun in hand
I won't be a soldier
I won't take no orders from no-one
Stuff their fucking armies
Killing isn't my idea of fun

They wanna waste my life
They wanna waste my time
They wanna waste my life
And they've stolen it away

I could be a hero
Live and die for their 'important' cause
A united nation
Or an independent state with laws
And rules and regulations
That merely cause disturbances and wars
That is what I've got now
All thanks to the freedom-seeking hordes

I'm not gonna be taken in
They said if I don't join I just can't win
I've heard that story many times before
And every time I threw it out the door

The last verse of the song is explicitly anti-fascist, sparing none of the violent factions:

Still they come up to me
With a different name but same old face
I can see the connection
With another time and a different place
They ain't blonde-haired or blue-eyed
But they think that they're the master race
They're nothing but blind fascists
Brought up to hate and given lives to waste

Mr Bailie also mentions Alternative Ulster, a song which could serve as the band's mission statement. As Mr Bailie put it:

And of course there was Alternative Ulster, a rather melodramatic charter for a new society that still provokes damage to a Belfast dance floor. The song told us that the answer was out there and that we could grab it and take it. In essence, we could be empowered.

The song's title is a play on words, a can admonition to alter the native land to an alternative land:

An Alternative Ulster
Grab it and change it it's yours
Get an Alternative Ulster
Ignore the bores and their laws
Get an Alternative Ulster
Be an anti-security force
Alter your native Ulster
Alter your native land

Jake Burns' growl is a plea here, as well as a challenge:

Just listening to all of those tracks gives me goosebumps, no matter how many times I've listened to them. The band will be releasing a new album next week. They'll also be playing in NYC in September, but, sadly, I probably won't be able to take a day off to see them.

I think I'll end this post with the first SLF song that I heard, the song which made me a lifelong fan of the band. Jake Burns notably said, “You’ve probably worked out by now, I don’t do “comedy” songs !!” I'd respectfully beg to differ, though, because Barbed Wire Love is a magnificent bit of black, black humor:

HANX! to J-Co and, of course, the great and good personnel of Stiff Little Fingers.


Another Kiwi said...

As informative as always, old chum.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Good to hear from you, dear lad!