The Undertones
Teenage Kicks ep, The Undertones, Hypnotised, Positive Touch, and The Sin of Pride
Union Square

There are few rock & roll songs more quintessential than the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks.” It relates a classic tale—boy wants girl, boy wants to get it on with girl—set to a big riff and jackknife beats. Feargall Sharkey’s throaty warble is weighted with adolescent lust and frustration—the kind of hormone-driven stuff of which the best rock songs are made.

It was with that two and a half minutes of desirous punk-pop that Ireland’s Undertones debuted in 1978. Released on an EP of the same name, ”Teenage Kicks” marked a shift of punk concerns from the societal to the personal, just as the Undertones’ undying devotion to melody also showed that the Ramones weren’t the only ones looking to the pop tunes of their younger years for inspiration. “Girls Don’t Like It,” from the band’s eponymous first full-length of a year later, with its chorus quandary of “What else can you do if the girls don’t like it?” was built on the same sort of ephedrine-fed licks and the evergreen themes of adolescence. Indeed, guitarists (and brothers) John and Damian O’Neill managed to mesh a clear understanding of rock’s founding tenets with the snotty cadence of the punk movement in which they found themselves embedded. Elsewhere on the debut, tracks like “Family Entertainment” and “Jimmy Jimmy” similarly meld the Undertones’ knack for infectious hooks with ballsy playing.

As witnessed by the breadth of difference between its two singles “My Perfect Cousin” and “Wednesday Week,” with their 1980 sophomore effort, Hypnotised, the Undertones had begun to expand on their three-chorded snap, crackle and pop. The former was very much in keeping with the band’s honed attack, while the latter’s languid tones were pastoral and rooted in ’60s balladry. The band’s jumpy, but tepid, cover of “Under the Boardwalk” is further evidence that this was a band in trasistion. Whether they considered these forays more accessible or were simply indulging some idiosyncratic ticks, who knows, but Hypnotised shows a band going somewhere, just not anywhere immediately determinable.

By Positive Touch, Sharkey had begun to explore his voice’s eccentricities. He had started to favor a high-registered croon not dissimilar to that of Bryan Ferry. Musically the O’Neills had begun to temper their six-stringed spitfire, instead wrangling it into more stylized arrangements. Positive Touch is an album not without charm, but its unfailing appeal is hard to pin down. The Undertones had begun to seemingly operate on pure whimsy and, on many of the tracks, the disparate elements they introduce never really gel. That said, that the horn-punctuated, jaunty pop found on “It’s Going to Happen” is undeniably appealing is a testament to the band’s innate abilities.

The Sin of Pride might have been the culmination of all the ideas with which the Undertones had been playing around on their previous records. Released in 1983, it is steeped in the kind of blue-eyed soul that was being favored in the UK at the time. (For further proof, see albums by Madness and the Style Council from this period.) Like their contemporaries, the Undertones had seemingly moved towards some undefined middle ground. By this point they had obviously “matured,“ seemingly a world apart from the group that once needed teenage kicks.

The band called it quits after The Sin of Pride, though they regrouped in 1999 without Sharkey. Union Square has digitally reissued the entire catalog of the original Undertones, including a previously released singles collection, The Best of the Undertones, which didn’t seem necessary to get into here. Like many bands, they probably did their best work when they were at their hungriest, but even the admittedly milquetoast Sin of Pride occasionally shows some of that first spark that sent them on their way.
Stephen Slaybaugh