Tales From The Drop Box Episode 100 brings you the latest and greatest installment of an occasional series featuring bands in my life that were significant influences – musically, culturally, and intellectually. This episode was also very challenging to write as I discovered that it is almost impossible to describe my favorite band of all time and select only 15 songs that were, and continue to be, favorites. Stiff Little Fingers is my favorite band of all time. I have finally committed to a single choice and, frankly, it was not a difficult decision. If you are a follower of this podcast, you know some of my favorites include Buzzcocks, The Jam and Husker Du. However, I never really telegraphed my love for Stiff Little Fingers, having played only one track in 100 episodes that being a live version of “Johnny Was.” Below you’ll discover why SLF is my all-time favorite band.
I know these show notes are a little lengthy, but for many listeners of this podcast, this may be the first time listening to these tracks and I want to make it clear – SLF is my favorite band of all time and worthy of the time and attention to fully explore the band and their music. SLF for a several reasons (I’ll briefly touch upon these below) is often mentioned amongst the legends of punk rock i.e. that first wave of bands whose patches you still see on kids t-shirts, but for some reason is not mentioned in that first breathe. Hopefully this humble effort raises SLF’s profile somewhat because they truly belong with the bands that you should immediately associate with the term punk rock.
Since I was a teen, Stiff Little Fingers has played a critical role in shaping the musical soundtrack to my life. SLF’s music is intertwined with my own life experiences beginning as a teen in Whitehorse YT, through my college years in Vancouver B.C. and later as I have aged along with the band. SLF’s music was an important influence at a critical time – exposing me to political discourse creatively expressed with music and lyrics as the vehicle for the communication of serious ideas and subjects. SLF was the very first band that compelled my attention to the meaning found in the verse – not only the chorus. The rawness of Jake Burn’s vocals imbued the lyrics with emotion and the melodic and distinctive guitar sound provided sonic emphasis punctuating those aggressive lyrics. The music was catchy, energetic, and meaningful. Discovering SLF was life altering for a teen living in a beautiful, unforgiving, and isolated region of northern Canada.
To be clear, SLF was alien music at first passing. I was not, in any manner, impacted by the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. And to be fair, SLF only wrote a couple of songs about the conflict. Rather, Stiff Little Finger’s impact on my thinking concerning both social and political issues of that time extends beyond the Irish conflict. SLF captured the best elements of the initial U.K. punk explosion (Sex Pistols, The Jam, The Clash, Stranglers, Buzzcocks, Damned, Subway Sect, Prefects, etc.) and repackaged those ideas and energy into a collective whole that grasped the importance of music conveying messages with emotion. Although initially dismissed early as Clash wannabees, time has borne out that SLF is, and was, the real deal. SLF were certainly not the first band that wrote about their experiences or about political and social issues – they were just the first band that I actually paid real attention to the lyrics and the music fit the message. I didn’t then and I still don’t necessarily agree with everything Jake has to say, but if SLF’s mission was to make me think about where I stood on various political and social issues, then that mission was accomplished.
I’m going to digress a bit here….
In case anyone still has not a clear grasp of the punk rock experience one of the central ideas (and there were several themes that emerged during this period) about the “punk rock” label was that the original spirit was about “inclusion” of misfits and this included incorporating the music of the streets which, for many in the U.K was apparently reggae. SLF and the Clash grasped this immediately. However, in Canada at that time, reggae was absolutely a foreign sound. It was street music in England but in Whitehorse, Vancouver, and the rest of Canada – it was freaking alien. When D.O.A. the leaders of the nascent Vancouver Punk rock scene (even in their earlier incarnation as the Skulls), released War on 45, the impact and import of Stiff Little Fingers was evident in the mix of reggae influenced pop punk on that record and spread like wildfire throughout Canada.
Although political punk evolved into its own subgenre, SLF’s initial foray into the punk rock scene on its first singles, “Suspect Device” b/w “Wasted Life” (released March 1, 1978) and “Alternative Ulster” b/w “78 RPM” (released October 17, 1978) immediately captured my interest and attention. Why? I guess the reasons have much to do with the influence of my father, an Irish Catholic, whose own parents had emigrated to Canada from Ireland. I recall numerous discussions with my father while growing up of the conflict in Northern Ireland, its history, and its divisions. Here was a band directly confronting their environment and sharing their experience aggressive and unpolished.
SLF’s first singles were stunning! Here was a band that was the metaphorical blueprint for N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton”. Try “Alternative Ulster”:
There’s nothin’ for us in Belfast
The Pound’s old, and that’s a pity
OK, so there’s the Trident in Bangor
And then you walk back to the city
We ain’t got nothin’ but they don’t really care
They don’t even know you know
They just want money, we can take it or leave it
What we need
It’s 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
Note: The Trident mentioned in “Alternative Ulster”, is now called Wolsey’s Bar and is located in the seaside town of Bangor, east of Belfast. Stiff Little Fingers’ first live gig was at Lambe’s Lounge on August 16, 1977. They played the Trident on December 14, 1977. Ulster is one of the four traditional provinces of Ireland, the others being Leinster, Munster and Connacht. Ulster consisted of nine counties. When Ireland was partitioned in 1922, the counties of Ulster were allowed to vote on whether to join the Irish Free State or remain in the United Kingdom. Three — Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan — voted for the Irish Free State. The others — Fermanagh, Armagh, Tyrone, Londonderry, Antrim and Down — voted for the UK. The six now form Northern Ireland. Unionists tend to refer to their six counties as “Ulster” rather than “Northern Ireland” in order to emphasize their separateness from the rest of Ireland and their political philosophy that opposed “home rule” i.e. that Ireland should govern itself, and thus favored a continuation of British rule over Ireland. As most of the unionists were Protestant and most of the Republicans/ nationalists were Catholic, the conflict was widely perceived as religious. I truly believe “punk rock” altered the course of the conflict as kids attended shows to hear bands from both sides of the philosophical divide.
For those reading this from afar, please forgive my humble simplification of a complex sociological and political issue that evolved over several hundred years.
We return to our program…
So what about SLF? Although SLF had formed prior to the Clash playing Queen’s University in Belfast on December 20, 1977 (notably, The Clash played “London’s Burning” as “Belfast’s Burning”), they didn’t become the SLF that ignited my passion until after this show. “Alternative Ulster” is about context. While the “troubles” were a series of nationalistic flare-ups over thirty-some years, the mid 70’s were particularly violent. In 1976 internees at the Maze prison started a blanket protest after losing their status as political prisoners; the Shankill Butchers stalked Belfast in search of Catholic victims; a mother establish the “Peace People” organization after witnessing the deaths of three children run over by a fugitive IRA member. In 1976 alone 297 people lost their lives because of the conflict. While 1976 was the peak of the violence the violence did not stop. The end of the 70’s saw the death of Lord Mountbatten and three others while on vacation in Mullaghmore, County Sligo. On the same day, eighteen British soldiers, mostly members of the Parachute Regiment, were killed by two remote-controlled bombs in the Warrenpoint ambush at Warrenpoint, County Down. I cannot fathom the extent of the violence in Ireland at the time and nor am I qualified to comment on the conflict. My only knowledge of the “troubles” is from newspapers of the time and my dad’s take on the politics of Ireland. For a time, he was on an watch list in the United States because of his sympathies for a free Ireland and his financial support of Greenpeace.
What made songs like “Suspect Device,” “Wasted Life” and “Alternative Ulster” different from the typical punk rock, and therefore absolutely compelling, is that these songs are not a complaint about a particular policy or injustice. Rather songs such as “Alternative Ulster” are a clear call to action and an expression of frustration over the state of the conflict. SLF were writing through the lens of their own experience and feelings. Not about freaking fairy kings and elves.
For me, taking thoughtful independent action was punk. That was the genius of all of the bands that formed in the wake of an overnight change in musical direction – from pop, progressive rock, heavy metal, and pub rock to punk rock. Punk rock was an explosion and the Sex Pistols were just the match in the gasoline. The sounds that would be incorporated into what became punk rock were already present in the atmosphere. Punk rock was spontaneous combustion of these elements and the result was catastrophic to conventional rock. Punk rock almost killed heavy metal overnight. That is the legacy of the Ramones to the idea of punk rock – they did it. As fucked up as the Ramones were as a band, much like the Sex Pistols, who were a manufactured boy band with some good cover songs and attitude fronted by a clown, the moment they believed that they could just do it i.e. pick up guitars and PLAY MUSIC WITHOUT BEING MUSICIANS sparked a musical revolution. It was bands such as SLF, that followed the death of the fashion movement called “punk” that truly captured the essence of the “punk rock” label because they all picked up instruments, experimented, and created musical expression they believed in because they had and were actually living it. Punk rock was not history – it was present musical experience.
The inherent flaw of my looking back now at music meant for present experience is that my recollections are colored by my age and the time that has passed between the initial exposure and this essay, and hence take what follows with that huge gap of time in mind. With age and experience I have come to understand that my original connection to the punk rock scene was my individual experience shared with others – like parallel play in children. How do I know this? Because all those individuals who attended that same gatherings as I did have different perspectives on what actually happened and what it all meant. The punk rock scene was collective individualism and therefore anyone could belong – and did. What truly killed the idea of punk rock was when people tried to make it exclusive and then hung rules on it trying to define what it is. Garbage. Punk rock was the musical equivalent of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: we cannot measure the position (x) and the momentum (p) of a particle with absolute precision. The more accurately we know one of these values, the less accurately we know the other. Such is true of what was called “punk rock.”
On the surface, the punk rock scene in 1978 in Vancouver appeared anarchic as the only images people could recall of the time were the mosh pits. Vancouver had a bit of “gobbing” but thankfully that died out pretty quickly. Most of the punks I knew then and still know were and remain social activists influenced by the social politics espoused by various bands. Music was just one tool in the social activism toolkit. Like any social movement there were outliers. Sure, for some punk rock was about the music, the social nature of punk rock as a perceived “gang of misfits”, for others it was the inclusive nature of punk rock and persons in that scene, and for others it was about the fashion and the shock value.
For more than 40 years I have read various descriptions of what it means to be a “punk” but for me being a “punk” was not the label, rather it was this “fuzzy ideal” about defying expectations, i.e. not conforming but truly thinking about the values you hold, the social issues that are important to you, the path you take through life, and the choices you make. As noted above, it was about becoming an individual made whole by connecting with others, creating synergies, the balance between the “I” and the “we.” It was less a situationist movement in Canada and more grounded in do-it-yourself ethic i.e. taking action to achieve the goals you set for yourself. It was more about self-determination that self-destruction. I think Paul Burgess, the drummer and songwriter with Ruefrex and now a lecturer at University College Cork captures the idea of punk and what it was: “Punk was the last great, spontaneous, socio-political, popular-cultural movement for young people, and as such deserves this recognition “As a catalyst for self-expression and for articulating a voice for kids in bedrooms, up and down the country, it’s never been matched.” In Stiff Little Fingers, I was able to connect to the movement and through SLF’s lyrics and music I was able to explore ideas and values and then accept or reject as I determined.
In albums like Inflammable Material and Nobody’s Heroes, I was exposed to frankly foreign political views, racism, wealth disparity, Tory rule, as well as the impact of prolonged paramilitary styled war on the youth of a community. Stiff Little Fingers is important for what they said, for the efforts they made to try to raise awareness of difficult socio-political issues, and their direct efforts to call attention to injustice. Some of the songs were personal to SLF, for example “Rough Trade” about being sold down the river by the record label, or the challenge of a song like “White Noise” which uses a number of racial slurs as the only way to destabilize society’s racist oppressive ideology i.e. a system which makes normal the use of racial slurs such that we become desensitized to the “white noise.”
SLF’s music was thoughtful, challenging, and Jake’s social activism is evident throughout the history of the band with the lyrics at the forefront and the music supporting the message. SLF’s music remains vital and important and in my opinion SLF’s body of work easily surpasses the work of many of those first wave U.K punk bands a number of which I have identified above. Not every effort worked, some were clearly better than others, and some efforts were in my opinion failures. For example, “Harp” is unlistenable to me. I get the message, but the music is disconnected and thus I skip the track every time it comes up in the playlist. I haven’t deleted the track yet so there is hope. However, SLF is my favorite band of all-time for the simple reason that they continue to challenge, are still relevant, and are so interconnected with my musical life and development that it is doubtful and band could have that type of influence and impact now. They weren’t perfect by a large measure but that wasn’t the idea of punk – it was always about the doing.
I know this is a long intro to this podcast, but hopefully it will give you some context as to what follows, which are my top 15 Stiff Little Fingers/Jake Burns tracks. The chore was two-fold. It is truly difficult to pick only 15 songs, and then organize them into an order from No. 15 to No. 1. However, the benefit of the exercise was that I listened to hours upon hours of Stiff Little Fingers tracks, reexamined my own perceptions and recollections, reflected on my experiences, and recalled fondly the times I had witnessed the band perform. I have seen them play on only two occasions – the first time at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver on July 1, 1981 (with D.O.A.) and then again at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles on August 12, 2001. Both times…magic.
The initial incarnation of SLF (1977-1983) released only 4 studio albums: Inflammable Material (Rough Trade RT 001, released February 2, 1979); Nobody’s Heroes (Chrysalis CHR-1270, released March 7, 1980); Go For It (Chrysalis CHR-1339, released April 17, 1981); and Now Then (Chrysalis CHR1400 released September 24, 1982). Like a number of bands, SLF reformed and with a number of lineups, the only constant being Jake Burns. If you are going to start your own love affair with SLF, start with these. I know that it would be easy to pick up one of the several greatest hits packages, but the journey through these 4 records is important and you will miss the nuances that give context to the songs found on these packages containing songs from a band that had very few charting hits.
Yet another note: SLF’s catalog is a terrible mess. There are a fairly large number of shitty live recordings, such as Hanx! (Chrysalis CHR-1300, released September 12, 1980), some terrible reissues including some poor remastering which wiped the grit from Jake’s voice and buried the lead guitar, and numerous collections, so be careful. However, the first four studio LPs are all excellent representations of the band (although Now Then has some obvious flaws and has not aged very well) and each record shows growth and development by the band. Time has revealed how exceptional these first 3 SLF records truly are as they have aged remarkably well. That said, the catalog of the reformed band (the Bruce “I’m not with the Jam any longer” Foxton Years and the After Bruce Left years) has some excellent tracks, and the last record No Going Back (originally released in 2014 and reissued again this year) is easily the best of the reformation years. As for live albums, recently SLF figured out how to record these things so they don’t sound like shit. Therefore, if you are going to check out a live show try Wasted Life – Live (Shakedown Records 123 released on CD in 2004 from a show recorded in 1993) and Best Served Loud (Live at Glasgow Barrowlands, Stiff Little Fingers – self released 2016).
I have included some goodies in my selections including some of the better live performances of some fairly famous tracks to spice things up a bit. More importantly, unlike the Buzzcocks, SLF who also broke up the first time (last show Glasgow Apollo February 6, 1983) after a run of just over five years, reformed and then truly put out some worthy additions to the SLF catalog. Consequently, I have included tracks from the length of SLF’s career which after more than 40 years is still going strong. I also am aware that there are some purists out there who believe that the band was not the same without Jim Reilly (who left before the original breakup and was replaced by Dolphin Taylor) and certainly not the same after Henry Cluney was ejected after the reformation in 1993, but for all of the bands and Jake’s human flaws, they as a collective, for a very long time, have put out terrific music that is the more than the sum of their individual parts. It is not all good, but the best of their output is so good I can easily forgive the odd misstep. My biggest regret with this episode is that I limited myself to only 15 tracks. Consequently, the list is very heavy on early tunes. This list could easily have been 40 tracks long. After all, they are my favorite band of all time…
Here is what you’ll find in Episode #100: (N.B. I put these in order from my favorite to my most favorite!) :
15 “Straw Dogs” (Live)” – The studio version was a single “Straw Dogs” bw “You Can’t Say Crap on the Radio” released on September 21, 1979 (Chrysalis – CHS 2368). Perhaps surprisingly, I was not much of a fan of the single, as it didn’t come out so well on the 7” but as a live track I think this song truly rocks. I love the line “It takes a man to make a killing action men must sterling be fight for freedom but not for free.” Lyrically, a little cumbersome with the full on pun attack. Obviously an anti-mercenary attack, the single which never appeared on an album is a blistering assault on guns for hire:
All things are relative with cousins everywhere
Hard-nosed blue-eyed boys, intelligent and fair
You gotta pitch in for your kith and kin
Holding the line to save our skin
Pound for pound we’ll take the shilling
It takes a man to make a killing
Action men must sterling be
Fight for freedom but not for free
This version is from the Complete John Peel Sessions (Released August 26, 2002) with this track recorded on 03/09/79. The original single reached No. 44 on UK Charts.
14 “Baby Blue (What Have They Been Telling You)” – This track appears on Get A Life (released October 18, 1994), SLF’s 6th full length. On Get A Life the band was comprised of Burns, Foxton, and Taylor. I recall that I had mixed feelings about this album when it was released. It was rather a hodgepodge of tracks and some of the tracks felt forced. In hindsight it was such a huge change for both SLF and myself. I was in my thirties, had what I thought was a lifetime of experience, and the anger I had as a teen had somewhat dissipated. The social issues were not the same priority, and I recall that I couldn’t connect with this record. However, time has revealed that most of the songs on this album hold up well with the best of SLF’s earlier work. Tracks like “Can’t Believe in You” (which was the single), “Get A Life” and “Forensic Evidence” could easily have been chosen in place of this track in this list, but on balance, this catchy number won the day. The straightforward analysis of a whole generation of people knowing only the Conservatives, was pretty bleak even for SLF, but again, that was the magic of SLF – the music carries the lyrics imbuing them with meaning. It may be the intro to the song, but the massive sing-a-long-hook in this song is undeniable.
According to Jake:
It was basically when I realized that somebody that was born effectively when the Tories were just about to take power or maybe they were about two or three years old then, is now of an age to vote and they have known nothing but a Conservative Government in this country. Again in common with the track ‘Get A Life.,” as well the number of kids of that age that I’ve spoken to either when we are out playing, or just that you meet when you are walking about, they seem to feel that life has got nothing for them, you know what it’s like. They are just eighteen years old men they have got no dreams, they’ve got no ambitions, there’s nothing, they don’t even see anything for themselves. Yet thinking back to when I was eighteen you felt like you could rule the bloody world, you know. Nobody seems to have any get-up-and-go anymore and that’s what basically sparked the song and apart from the obvious Bob Dylan references, the fact that all of these kids grew up under the Tories, hence the title ‘Baby Blue’.”
Hence, the lyric “Every day you toe the same tired line/ slave to your past you just serve your time/ stand and watch as it falls apart” is an indictment of Tory rule.
13 “Barbed Wire Love” – from Inflammable Material. Apart from “Alternative Ulster” which was recorded at Island Studios, London in May 1978, the rest of the tracks on SLF’s debut were recorded between November 1, 1978 – November 13, 1978 at Spaceward Studios, Cambridge. Released on February 2, 1979, Inflammable Material climbed the U.K. Charts becoming the first independent record to reach the Top 20 peaking at No. 14 after entering the chart on Jake’s 21st birthday. Inflammable Material ranks in my Top 5 albums of all time. It could be my favorite, but I am unable at this point in my life to make a pure distinction between the records in this “elite” category. So I’ve got a short list of five. This is one of them. “Barbed Wire Love” is dropped almost in the middle of the record (Side 1, track 6) and is, in hindsight, a harbinger of the sound SLF would eventually adopt as the band’s sound – delicately balancing the pop side of their early pop-punk sound, the singular sound of the guitar, and the witty and cutting lyrics. The change of pace this track represents on Inflammable Material is remarkable because it along with “Johnny Was” is an exemplar of SLF’s diversity, musicianship, and ability to adapt, in this case an obvious homage to the Ramones bashed out in SLF’s own style. (See the Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away” for comparison – I think the Ramones copied SLF!). Genius.
12 “Strummerville” – From Guitar & Drum (released August 12, 2003), SLF’s 9th studio album and SLF were a trio again comprised of Burns, Foxton and Grantley with the assistance of Ian McCallum, who had toured with the band in the nineties, making his first appearance on a record. SLF was never afraid of the Clash comparisons and Jake openly acknowledged that the Clash were huge influences. This song, a tribute to Joe Strummer who passed away far too young at the age of 50 on December 22, 2002 affirms Jake’s heartfelt and genuine acknowledgement of the Clash’s influence on early SLF and Jake.
11 “I Don’t Like You” – From Nobody’s Heroes the 2nd album featuring the classic lineup of Burns, Cluney, McMordie and Jim Reilly on drums is where SLF lift off the shroud of the Clash and explore the pop punk dynamic that characterizes SLF records going forward. Jake admits that this album was a little uneven as it was recorded in two different sessions, but as I revisited the record, playing it through from beginning to end – I can’t tell. Nobody’s Heroes is filled with hits, and even though “I Don’t Like You” was never released as a single, it should have.
10 “Doesn’t Make It Alright”(Live) – This track also appeared on Nobody’s Heroes. This cover of “Doesn’t Make It All Right” from The Specials’ debut album Specials is an example of SLF taking a great song and making it better. I loved the Specials and saw them live on a couple of occasions and this track summarizes some central messages of the original punk movement:
Just because you’re nobody
It doesn’t mean that you’re no good
Just because there’s a reason
It doesn’t mean it’s understood
Just because you’re a black boy
Just because you’re a white
It doesn’t mean you’ve got to hate him
Doesn’t mean you’ve got to fight
SLF’s take on this track, and Burn’s passionate vocal, expose the rawness and emotion of the track and alters the perspective of the song. “Doesn’t Make It Alright,” like SLF’s version of Johnny Was,” demonstrates how musical arrangement can alter the emotion and meaning of a song. Exceptional.
This version is from Wasted Life – Live (released on Shakedown Records in 2004 and subsequently on CD on September 19, 2005 and contains a previously unreleased special fan-night concert recorded in London and adds 7 extra unplugged studio tracks & unreleased demos).
9 “She Grew Up” – by Jake Burns & The Big Wheel from a 7” single “She Grew Up” b/w “Race You to the Grave” (1984). This was likely written immediately before the first breakup and released shortly after as Jake struggled to move on from the band. This version is from Rockers (released October 19, 2016) which features tracks recorded on the 1998/99 Hope Street tour and from the Hope Street premiere party. The band line up for this version was Burns, Grantley, McCallum and Foxton. “She Grew Up” was rarely played live, but here is another terrific live version also from the Hope Street Tour.
8 Fly the Flag (Live) – Originally from Nobody’s Heroes, this version is from Pure Fingers Live – St. Patrick’s 1993. This is as straightforward as Jake gets on this track:
Gimme a country that’s red white and blue
Gimme the British way honest and true
Gimme the chance to be one of the few
Gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme
Gimme a nation where people are free
Free to do and free to be
Free to screw you before you screw me
Gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme
On “Fly the Flag” SLF decries jingoism i.e. nationalism in the form of aggressive foreign policy, such as a country’s advocacy for the use of threats or actual force, as opposed to peaceful relations, in efforts to safeguard what it perceives as its national interests and when combined with the rough guitar approximation of “Rule Britannia” similar to Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner”) the song is both deft and clever. I suspect given the political climate in many countries as nationalism rears its ugly head in America and a number of other countries including Britain, “Fly The Flag” is a simple and poignant reminder of the dangers of the narrow-minded philosophy that nationalism represents.
7 Liar’s Club (demo) – This track originally appeared on No Going Back released March 15, 2014, with this demo version contained on the 2017 reissue released April 21,2017. SLF was on this record Burns, Grantley, McCallum, and McMordie who returned to play bass – for the first time since 1982. “Liar’s Club” was inspired as Jake drove past a bar while Tony Blair and George Bush were being discussed on the radio. Obviously this song is now pointedly relevant in a Trump America:
And what if we told you
that we expected so much more of you
But it’s the same thing,
you play along with everything they do
But have you noticed it’s not good enough
People are dying all the time
Or maybe it’s just that you’re not man enough
To stand up and say it’s all a crime
And have you noticed that things just seem to go from bad to worse And you still stand there repeating all your lies chapter and verse And public opinion washes over you You stand there grinning like a clown While we stand watching so ashamed of you
6 “Johnny Was” – As I mentioned at the beginning of these note, I have played a live version of “Johnny Was” previously in Tales From the Podcast, but for this episode, this is the original version appearing on Inflammable Material released February 2, 1979 (recorded between November 1, 1978 – November 13, 1978 at Spaceward Studios, Cambridge). This cover version of a classic Bob Marley song is distinctly SLF as the guitar work and Jake’s vocals give the song a new power and meaning. This track is also likely the cause of The Clash wannabe criticism leveled against SLF as SLF incorporated reggae music into its punk rock from the beginning. This was an unfair comparison in hindsight. The inclusion of “Johnny Was” on the band’s debut was truly inspired as it thematically fits with the other tracks on the album and is a killer lead-in to “Alternative Ulster.” Side 2, track 3 it is lengthy at 8:06 but juxtaposed against “Alternative Ulster”, the track takes on new meaning as Jake’s voice colors the already stark lyrics with new meaning.
5 “Gate 49” – from Go For It released April 17, 1981. The Canadian and U.S Versions differ form the U.K. version in both track listing and track order. The Canadian/U.S. versions add “Back to Front” and this track, “Gate 49” is on side 2, Track 3 in the U.K. and on Side 1, track 4 in North America. Go For It changed the themes, musically and lyrically, from Inflammable Material and Nobody’s Heroes. On Go For It, SLF breaks away from straight forward punk rock and “Gate 49” is a prime example of a band experimenting with its sound and philosophy. Jake’s vocals are more restrained with more singing actually occurring. On this track, Henry Cluney is the lead vocal. Of note, Gordon Ogilvie (explained below) still has a hand in the song-writing, but the lyrics on Go For It have evolved becoming less specific although still deeply personal. Gate 49 is the departure gate from Heathrow to Ireland.
4 Tin Soldiers – “Nobody’s Hero”/”Tin Soldiers” (Double A-side), released May 16, 1980, (UK No. 36). The last track on Nobody’s Heroes, this is could have also easily appeared on Inflammable Material. This is also the last track that SLF released that deals directly with the Troubles. With the third LP, Go For It, direct mentions of the Northern Ireland conflict are left behind as Jake apparently has found his own footing as both a writer and musician. Although “Piccadilly Circus” recounts the tale of a friend who travels to London to escape the Troubles and is stabbed, “Tin Soldiers” is the last song expressly about the conflict.
3 “Alternative Ulster” (B-side: “78 RPM”), released October 17, 1978 (recorded Island Studios, London May 1978) was the fourth record on the Rough Trade catalogue. The song was written at the request of a local fanzine called ‘Alternative Ulster’, who were thinking about a cover-mounted flexi-disc for the magazine. When the flexi got shelved because of the expense, the song was recorded for a John Peel session and later was recorded as a demo for Island. Island, who actually passed on signing the band. SLF were eventually picked up by Rough Trade and the song remixed again. It is also this song that may be responsible for the initial criticism of SLF i.e. that they were not “real.” Following the release of Nobody’s Heroes, Gavin Martin, the editor of the then former Alternative Ulster magazine issued a stinging review of a SLF show at the Harp Bar in the largest of the UK music magazines New Musical Express challenging SLF’s authenticity (NME, July 29, 1979) describing them as “group/management constructed songs” and later challenging the authenticity of the band’s experience with the Troubles.
2 Wasted Life (Live) – This was originally the B Side to “Suspect Device” and released originally on February 4, 1978 and then re-released on March 17, 1979. The original track also appears on ‘78 Revolution (“Gotta Gettaway”/”Alternative Ulster”/”Bloody Sunday”//”Suspect Device”/”Wasted Life”), released in 1980 (French, Celluloid CEL 6591). “Wasted Life” is written about a friend who had been killed after being pressured by locals to join a paramilitary organization. “Wasted Life”, with “Alternative Ulster” and “Suspect Device” form a trilogy of songs that should have put SLF at the forefront of the early punk movement. For some reason, SLF never garnered the critical attention of the British first wave punk bands such as the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, The Jam and The Stranglers, who were all press darlings. Perhaps it was the impact of locals, and specifically Brian Young of Rudi, who accused SLF of “fronting” their northern Irish experiences or SLF’s apparent reliance on Gordon Ogilvie, a writer for the Daily Express who encouraged Jake to write about his own experiences and had a hand in a writing a number of these early singles. Maybe it was the rock star ambition of Jake, but whatever the reason, SLF was perceived as unworthy in the Northern Ireland punk community and thus without street cred were never the “hip” punk rock act. This was not true in Canada where the band still plays to sold out shows across the country. “Wasted Life” is a true classic.
This version is from Broken Fingers in Aberdeen, which was released unofficially as a picture disc of 501 copies on Cosmic Communications (LV 128) in 1996 and then reissued as Live in Aberdeen 1979 released on CD on EMI Gold records in 2002. This recording is from a show just prior to the release of Nobody’s Heroes.
1 “Suspect Device – (B-side: “Wasted Life”), as noted above originally released on February 4, 1978 and released again on March 17, 1978, “Suspect Device” was SLF’s first single. The original pressing manufactured by Cardel, is on the Rigid Digits label and is catalogue SRD-1. As the band had little money, the original run was 350 copies and the band folded and glued the sleeves. Original pressings are identified fairly easily: the word “Records” appears in the center underneath the Rigid Digits and the catalog number SRD-1 is on the right hands side. Later pressings switch the catalog number to the left and omit “Records.” Original pressings have photocopied cover sleeves with the title “Suspect Device” hand-stamped on the top right hand corner. Later issues have it printed on the left. There you have it. This detail bothered me for a number of years being from Canada and all of the copies were thusly imports. I had no clue about variants at that time. The best estimate is that the band released 5 label/sleeve variants during this period. Though looking back at the various copies I had collected, it should have been obvious. As for the track, it is immediately recognizable, and the unmistakable “My Generation” like quality of the chorus – “suh…suh.. suh…suspect device …” is so freakin’ catchy is impossible for me to deny it’s genius. This is my favorite SLF track of all time. Thirty-nine years from its release “Suspect Device” still resonates with me and I never get tired of hearing it. As the opening track to Inflammable Material this is also the all-time, quintessential, Side 1 Track 1. “Suspect Device” left an indelible and positive impression on me…. an impression that has lasted for a lifetime.
Inflammable material is 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 and make sure we get fuck all . . .