When Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers broke up in early 1983, fans lamented the demise of yet another incredible band from the U.K.’s original punk explosion, 1976-1979. Alongside fellow 1979 debuts by the Ruts (“The Crack”), Undertones (“The Undertones”), U.K. Subs (“Another Kind of Blues”) and an album by the reformed/reconstituted Damned (“Machine Gun Etiquette”), SLF’s astonishing, fiery “Inflammable Material” provided a potent renewal of energy in that last glorious moment before hardcore crashed the punk party.
Cover art for Stiff Little Fingers’ “Inflammable Material” album. | Rhino / Parlophone | Source: Amazon | 1979
It remains an enduring, influential touchtone, one that climbed the English charts to No. 14 in its day despite being on an independent label. (It was the first LP released by then-obscure Rough Trade Records, yet the album was certified Silver in the U.K., selling more than 100,000 copies.) Thereafter, much like its contemporaries and prime influence the Clash, the quartet signed to a major label, relocated to London and steadily evolved from its fierce inception into a wide-ranging post-punk/power-pop outfit — albeit one still informed by punk’s dictates of primal immediacy — over three more U.K. Top 25 albums.
Each presented a cutting counterpoint to the emerging, banal British synthpop scene (remember Kajagoogoo?), before giving into frustration, the band called it a day. (Again, scores of other punk originals broke up around that time despite stylistic overhauls, most notably: the Jam, Buzzcocks and Ruts/Ruts D.C. as well as SLF’s Ulster peers the Undertones, Protex and Rudi.)
The innate power of its 1978-82 material, plus the best selections from six subsequent LPs, have made the band a biennial must-see.
Fortunately, like most of those artists referenced above, SLF’s split-up proved temporary; the group returned just four years later, and has remained a popular cult act who tours regularly. I’ve seen the band three-dozen times since its first two New York dates in October 1980 at Trax and the Ritz. The innate power of its 1978-82 material, plus the best selections from six subsequent LPs, have made the band a biennial must-see.
Along with 10 studio albums and a double-singles collection, SLF has released 11 live albums, plus two others that are renamed versions of the same concert. It’s hard to pinpoint which is best, though “Hanx!” (1980) from London’s Rainbow Theater and Aylesbury’s Friars, and especially the “BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert” from the Beeb’s Paris Theater in London in 1981, really capture the original incarnation’s incendiary might. Both, however, lack video footage.
As an eye-opening look at SLF’s mid-period, with a more mature band showing its continuing relevance and fervid audiences, it’s hard to beat “Handheld & Rigidly Digital” (1999). The film documents SLF’s on-stage vitality, while allowing a cinéma verité glimpse into the band members’ personal lives while negotiating the off-stage “hurry up and wait” drudgery that befalls most tours.
SLF was touring an unusually upbeat eighth album, the accurately titled “Hope Street,” in March 1999. And even though “Handheld” depicts SLF during the decade that singer-guitarist Jake Burns was the sole remaining old member (guitarist Henry Cluney left in 1993; drummer Dolphin Taylor in 1996; and bassist Ali McMordie in 1991, though he did return in 2006), it’s clearly a gang of friends. Moreover, McMordie’s replacement for 15 years, Bruce Foxton, was himself an original ’70s punk star in the Jam, and had briefly started a band with Burns circa 1983.
Relaxed camaraderie and buoyant new songs propel the foursome through cohesive and compelling versions of old and then-new tunes, mostly from a December 1998 appearance at London’s 700-seat Hippodrome and SLF’s annual St. Patrick’s Day gig at Glasgow’s 1900-capacity Barrowlands Ballroom three months later. Foxton’s fluid, zinging Jam-like bass lines are unmistakable, especially livening on two evergreen SLF reggae/ska covers: Bunny Wailer’s 1978 single “Roots, Radics, Rockers and Reggae” and the Specials’ 1979 anti-racist classic “Doesn’t Make It Alright.”
Guitarist Ian McCallum and drummer Steve Grantley punctuate parts with gusto and grit. Burns’ barking passion and harsh guitar shards remain riveting on “Inflammable Material”-era classics: the protest song “Alternative Ulster,” the wry, pent-up rage of “Barbed Wire Love” and “Suspect Device,” and two vicious anti-war stunners that open the concert footage, the 1979 single “Straw Dogs” and “Wasted Life.”
Of the newer offerings, “Handheld” includes two rarities: Burns’ solo U.K. hit from his 1984 Jake Burns & the Big Wheel days, “She Grew Up” (dedicated to his future wife, Shirley Sexton) and an Irish folk ode to alcoholic reverie, “Drinkin’ Again.” The fans surge, pogo and churn. It adds up to a singular look at a group that fiercely persists with a sound and fervent feeling thought forever finished 17 years before. It lives on.
Stiff Little Fingers singer-guitarist Jake Burns remains a fiery presence.