Picture sleeve for The Undertones' "Teenage Kicks" EP
The Undertones formed in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1975. The initial lineup consisted of Feargal Sharkey (lead vocals), John O’Neill (guitar), Damian O’Neill (guitar, keyboards, and vocals), Michael Bradley (bass, vocals), and Billy Doherty (drums). They were friends from Creggan and the Bogside who drew inspiration from such bands as The Beatles, the Small Faces, and Lindisfarne. The band original rehearsed cover versions in the home of brothers John and Damian O’Neill, and in the shed of a neighbor. By the following year, the band was playing gigs at minor local venues such as schools, parish halls and scout huts. When the band played a gig at Saint Joseph’s secondary school in Derry, Sharkey was asked the name of the band, and he replied, “The Hot Rods”. Later that year, drummer Doherty suggested an alternate name for the band, “The Undertones”, which he discovered in a history book, and the other members agreed. With the arrival of punk rock in 1976, the artistic focus of the band shifted, and artists such as the Adverts, the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, and the Ramones became major influences on The Undertones.
By 1977, the band was playing their own three-chord pop punk material, performed alongside cover versions at venues such as The Casbah, which was where they played their first paid gigs in February (£40/week). This inspired the band to write and rehearse further material as a means of remaining a popular act at this venue. By the summer of 1977, they added “Teenage Kicks” to their setlist. In June 1977, they played outside of Derry for the first time, opening for the Dublin punk rock band The Radiators From Space. In March 1978, The Undertones recorded a demo at Magee University in Derry, and sent copies to record companies, hoping to secure a recording contract. All they received, however, were official letters of rejection. They also sent a copy to BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, who was so impressed with the band that he offered to pay for a recording session. On June 16, 1978, they recorded their “Teenage Kicks” EP on a budget of only £200. The Undertones were signed to Sire Records in September 1978 on a five-year contract, and “Teenage Kicks” was released as a single in October with “True Confessions” on the B-side. This is today’s featured single.
“Teenage Kicks” is built around a relatively simple (the main riff is based on three chords – D, A, and E) hook-laden melody and angst-ridden lyrics. The production is relatively crude but is decent for a punk record. As mentioned, John Peel paid for the recording session, and he loved “Teenage Kicks” so much that until his death in 2004 he maintained that it was his favorite pop record. “I can’t listen to it now without getting all dewy eyed,” he once said. Although I noticeably failed to have the same reaction upon hearing this song – even after listening to it repeatedly – I must admit that it has many of the elements of good pop composition – the melody is catchy, the lyrics are pure rock and roll (especially the infectious chorus of “I wanna hold you wanna hold you tight/Get teenage kicks right through the night”), Sharkey’s quavering vocals convey the teen angst of the song’s protagonist perfectly. Moreover, the song was perfect for the punk era, clocking in at a mere 2 minutes and 25 seconds. The Sire Records release of this song reached #31 on the U.K. charts. It was also featured on their eponymous debut album, released in May 1979, which reached #13 in the U.K., but tanked in the U.S. Nevertheless, on both sides of the Atlantic, “Teenage Kicks” has come to be regarded as a punk pop classic.
The B-side of the single, “True Confessions”, features somewhat cleaner production, but similar distorted guitars and Sharkey’s trademark tremolo vocals. It is sung from the perspective of someone who’s been cuckolded by his significant other, and is confronting her: “Don’t look so surprised/You’ve been telling me lies/True – true – true – confessions”. He has evidence to back up his accusations (“I got a picture from your sister/There was writing on the back”, but in spite of it all, he wants to “sit down and sort this out”. It uses the same chords as “Teenage Kicks”, which makes one wonder just how broad the band’s musical palette was, but it stands out as a catchy, if somewhat less memorable, song.
The single (catalog #: C008-62177) was released on Sire Records in October 1978. It was issued with a picture sleeve displaying the name of the band and the name of the song. The original September 1978 release of the single on the independent Good Vibrations label featured a somewhat cruder – but far more interesting – picture sleeve: the full track listing was included (there were four tracks: “Teenage Kicks”, “Smarter Than U”, “True Confessions”, and “Emergency Cases”), along with pictures of all five band members, and a picture of a door defaced with graffiti boldly proclaiming that “THE UNDER TONES ARE SHIT PISH COUNTY WANKERS”. The success of “Teenage Kicks” led to the band’s first U.K. tour (supporting the Rezillos). The Undertones would release several successful singles and their debut album, “The Undertones”, in 1979, and would also tour the U.S. in support of The Clash. The second album, “Hypnotised”, was released in April 1980, and reached #6 in the U.K., remaining in the Top 10 for one month. They also performed on five major tours between February 1980 and December 1980, including their second tour of the U.S., this time as headliners. In April 1980, The Undertones released “My Perfect Cousin”, their highest-charting single in the U.K. (#9). Unhappy with the level of promotion they were getting from Sire, they split with the label in December 1980, signing with EMI in January 1981. Their third album, “Positive Touch”, was released in May 1981, and received favorable reviews; it was the first album whose lyrical content touched upon political issues, including troubles in Northern Ireland. The Undertones toured Europe from May to October 1981. 1982 saw a lull in activity for the band, who only performed a tour of continental Europe in August. They released two singles that year that failed to make much of an impact on the U.K. charts. The band returned with their fourth album, “The Sin of Pride”, in May 1983, but the album only reached #43 on the U.K. charts. Increasing tensions between Sharkey and John O’Neill helped precipitate the demise of the band, and The Undertones disbanded after a European tour in July 1983. The band would remain dormant for over sixteen years, until four-fifths of the band would reunite, recruiting Paul McLoone as the new lead vocalist (Feargal Sharkey declined to participate).