In 1975, five Londonderry friends began playing in local pubs as The Undertones. Remarkably, the line-up of Feargal Sharkey, Mickey Bradley, Billy Doherty and the O’Neill’s – John and Damian – would not change throughout the group’s subsequent eight-year career.
Feargal Sharkey had been a scoutmaster and a regular winner of a traditional Irish singing competition called the Feis when he joined The Undertones. He also worked at Radio Rentals, which came in handy for nicking bubble wrap to use to soundproof Mrs Simms’ shed so they could rehearse there.
Originally a pop covers band, The Undertones switched on to punk, adapted their sound accordingly and some of the most joyous music of the whole era followed.
For most of 1978, they played one night a week at a Derry club called the Casbah before cutting a four-track demo at a local university which in turn convinced Terry Hooley to release a rough but rousing four-track EP of Teenage Kicks, Smarter Than U, Emergency Case and True Confessions on his small Good Vibrations label.
Teenage Kicks got them both airplay from John Peel and a record contract. And while their self-titled debut album (1979) might have been rushed, its sharp melodies and teen angst (not to mention Feargal’s uniquely nasal vocal style) proved an instant hit on Here Comes The Summer, Jimmy Jimmy (the band’s first Top 20 UK single) and Runaround (She’s A).
Recorded in the Netherlands after their first US tour, Hynotised (1980) exceeded its predecessor in terms of quality and excitement and the intangible oblique essence d’Undertones.
Sadly, The Undertones’ story ended far too quickly. Growing up meant too much change too fast, and by the time they released their mediocre fourth album, restlessness and “musical differences” were splitting them apart.
Their last concert was in Dublin (supporting Dire Straits) on July 17, 1983.
Feargal Sharkey went on to brief solo stardom while guitarist brothers Damian and John O’Neill formed the critically acclaimed That Petrol Emotion.
The band re-formed in 1999 for a reunion show, with a new vocalist, Paul McLoone (also from Derry).
In 2003, The Undertones – minus Feargal – modestly released a new album (Get What You Need) aiming for the “short, sweet, grungey” feel of their early work while incorporating samples and wider influences.
A vinyl single, Thrill Me, did thrill their old champion John Peel – but perhaps not Feargal. They released another album (Dig Yourself Deep) in 2007.