While many of the punks with whom they shared a stage opted for a brand of anger that was – at best – cosmetic, Ulster’s Stiff Little Fingers were the genuine voice of youthful outrage.
And they had plenty to be angry about – bitter sectarianism, police and army intimidation – grievances which often exploded in their music.
With sandpaper-throated frontman Jake Burns – who was once quoted as saying “the solution to Northern Ireland’s problems is 10,000 punk bands” – leading the way, SLF formed from the remains of a band called Highway Star and released an auspicious debut album, Inflammable Material (1979) on Rough Trade, that featured the band’s two best songs, Alternative Ulster and Suspect Device.
Both were passionate, ferocious songs dealing with the harsh, deadly realities of growing up in the middle of two decades of Northern Ireland’s violence.
These songs – championed by DJ John Peel – thrust SLF into the limelight and got them loads of enthusiastic press, which led to a contract with the decidedly anti-punk Chrysalis label in 1980.
SLF released a handful of decent records – including second LP Nobody’s Heroes (1980) and a terrific live album, Hanx! (also 1980) – but their unregenerate fast and loud punk style started to sound stale.
In 1982, the band released their most non-punk record (Now Then…), which was greeted by general apathy.
In a musical rut, dogged by comparisons with The Clash, and with punk rock running out of steam, Burns pulled the plug on SLF, forming Jake Burns and The Big Wheel.
After a string of unsuccessful solo singles and a stint as a BBC Radio producer, Burns re-formed SLF in 1987 and was eventually joined by ex-Jam bassist Bruce Foxton. In 1990 the band reunited on a permanent basis.
Brian ‘Dolphin’ Taylor