Posted by: Richard Frost | 9 Apr 2020

Stiff Little Fingers gig review

Logo of award-winning student magazine Durham21Original publication date: May 2005
Outlet: Durham21

Richard Frost gets on old-school punk education courtesy of Stiff Little Fingers at Newcastle University

Never Mind the Bus*ed
Despite what you may read in music magazines, punk music didn’t just skip from The Sex Pistols and The Clash through to Blink-182 and Sum 41. Liking the little bits of old-school punk that I’d heard on CD, I decided to check out one of the less critically fashionable bands to see if they could still cut it live.

They duly confirmed what I’d always suspected – old-school punk bands have been writing and performing good songs ever since 1979. But more than that, Stiff Little Fingers (SLF) gave me a true punk education, and prove Good Charlotte and Busted will NEVER EVER be punk!

Oldies but Goodies
As the band emerges onstage, I find myself locked in a heated argument with my rock-loving gig buddy as to whether they’re actually Irish or English.

However, perhaps the very fact that we can even argue about this just goes to show how much SLF have been written out of music history, despite enduring for over 25 years. Our argument is finally settled when singer/songwriter Jake Burns dedicates the opening song “to all our friends back home who got caught up in the conflict, joined the IRA and are now either dead or in prison”. SLF, it appears, are as Irish as they come.

Formed after watching an incendiary live performance of The Clash, the band’s roots shine through on the night, as they mould The Clash’s tunes and catchy choruses with political themes that are unmistakably Irish.

Standout early song ‘Is That What You Fought the War For?’ from way back in 1982 immediately sends a shiver down the spine, as Burns cries out “Britain’s flag is a badge of hate”. They clearly still recognise their strengths too, and don’t insist on only playing their last two albums à la Radiohead, constantly revisiting the songs of their early 1980’s heyday and even encoring with 1979 debut ‘Johnny Was’.

Nothing to Write Home About
Perhaps though, this also highlights the difficulty SLF are now finding in remaining relevant.

Their albums from the 1990s, up to their current 11th studio album ‘Guitar and Drum’, have met with a far more indifferent response, as they seemingly struggle to find a new direction. Some tracks from this era hark back to the Irish conflict, but the decreasing threat of violence back home leaves them lacking conviction somewhat. On the other hand, songs such as ‘Honeyed Words’ and ‘All the Rest’ are glaringly short on edginess, instead exploring vague, non-political worries.

Stiff Little Fingers band photo

It’s a difficulty that’s unlikely to go away soon – and suggests they’ll never recapture the brilliance of their old songs in newer material.

However, this is surely why their set focuses on the classics, and it’s rapturously received by their dedicated fanbase.

Incidentally, I was curious about the make-up of the crowd beforehand – would it be youths in Green Day t-shirts curious about punk history, or the type that first watched them back in 1979? On the night, the latter definitely dominated, as the 40-somethings swamped a sold-out Newcastle University Students’ Union.

A bit of a surprise then to find that the seasoned veterans showed more liveliness than you’ll find in most student audiences, with the hardcore pogo-ers (is that even a word?) bouncing non-stop throughout the lengthy set.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment
SLF also refreshingly overturned the common belief (since Busted anyway) that punk music has to feature musicians who play instruments badly and have poor songmanship.

Yes, I realise I’m picking on these pop-punk bands quite a lot today, but they actually ARE terrible, and scientists have proven they can provoke acute physical nausea. US interrogators may famously have used Metallica songs to break the resistance of Iraqi prisoners, but their record of 15 hours could surely be smashed by a couple of plays of ‘What I Go to School For’.

Anyway, back to SLF, as they hone the time-honoured punk format of raw verse/catchy chorus in memorable performances of ‘Tin Soldiers’ and ‘Fly the Flag’. Such is their accessibility that, by the end, even I can work out the lyrics and sing along with the dedicated fans down at the front.

All in all then, a pretty good night with SLF, as they mix the brilliance of their early material with an assured performance onstage that doubtless comes from spending a quarter of a century on tour. Who knows, in 25 years’ time, perhaps even Busted will have stumbled upon a few good songs; and if they can mix it with a genuine stage presence, perhaps they’ll finally banish the memory of their awful performance for Durham students last year, and deserve the well-earnt respect given to SLF here.

Nope, I don’t think so either, but it’s the closest I can come to saying something nice about pop-punk. Maybe I’ll just stick to SLF…


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