Narrow Interview: Stiff Little Fingers

Stiff Little Fingers Coming to FEST

The Narrow Interview

by Danny Lore

In 1988 I was sitting in my homeroom class thumbing through the latest issue of Thrasher Magazine. Lance Mountain was my hero. He wasn’t the guy winning every contest but his approach to skateboarding is what drew people to him. He was having fun. That’s why we started pushing that piece of wood around in the first place... Because it was fun. I was surprised to see that in this issue, Lance wasn’t being featured. Instead he had written an interview with his favorite band, Stiff Little Fingers. I’d never heard of SLF before but if Lance loved them that was good enough for me. After reading the article I hunted down a copy of "Inflammable Material” at my local record shop. The first 10 seconds of this album literally took my breath away. "Inflammable material, planted in my head, It's a suspect device that's left two thousand dead!” I sat on the edge of my bed and played that album over and over for hours while reading the lyric sheet and memorizing every line. It’s hard to believe this year marks the 40th anniversary of this groundbreaking record. The music and lyrics are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago.

Stiff Little Fingers are a punk band from Belfast, Northern Ireland. The band formed at the height of the UK's punk movement in 1977. At that time, Belfast was the center of intense religious and political turmoil. Their lyrics reflected what it was like to come of age in that era.

Punk was still new and there was no blueprint for the sound. SLF spoke the honest truth and played with the aggression that mirrored the emotions of the young people of Ireland. With their first album they put into words what this new generation was feeling. They were fed up with a system that held them down and this band was both an outlet and a voice for their discontent.

The band’s second album, “Nobody’s Heroes,” marked the beginning of a new direction in songwriting. The band began to write songs about subjects other than life in their hometown of Belfast. The recording was better and years of playing together on the road had made them seasoned musicians. The band was tight yet still managed to retain that explosive sound they were known for.

SLF would go on to release 10 albums and continue to tour. There have been a few line-up changes and a breakup but the band remains active and is currently getting ready for a tour of the US, and will be headlining a show at this year’s FEST in Gainesville, FL.

I had the pleasure of speaking with the singer/guitarist, Jake Burns, of Stiff Little Fingers and got to ask him a few questions about the history and future of his band.

Narrow: This year marks the 40th anniversary of your first album, “Inflammable Material.” I love the way this album is recorded. It’s raw and you can really feel the energy of a young band creating a new sound and playing with emotion. Your lyrics were honest and told the story of what it was like to grow up in a time of great political and religious turmoil. What was the reaction of the Belfast scene when this album was released?

JB: It was obviously a very polarizing situation. There were a lot of people that really identified with it and there were others that were like “just can’t we please talk about something else and move on?” I think that because it was such a success on the charts in Britain, which to be honest none of us really expected, there was an amount of civic pride involved. But typical of the attitude of the people they weren’t going to let us get too big for our boots. It was like “well done, but you’re not that great.” Some people were intensely proud of it. Then there were bands like the Undertones that adopted the attitude that the last thing people wanted to be reminded of was "the troubles" and their daily existence. But we always adopted a more Bob Dylan approach to songwriting which was like hang on a minute, I’m a bit pissed off about this, I’m going to have a complain about it.

Narrow: Your first single, “Suspect Device,” was truly a DIY effort. Starting your own record label (Rigid Digits), recording the song and ultimately selling 30,000 copies in the 1970’s is pretty amazing. Owning and operating a record label while booking shows, rehearsing and writing new music must have been a lot of work. How did you accomplish this? How did you get the product to the people?

JB: We had no idea of how to go about it. The problem was that living in Belfast made it difficult to get record executives to leave London. It was hard enough to get them to go to Manchester and hear the Buzzcocks. They weren’t about to fly across the Irish Sea into what was basically a war zone. Forget it. That just wasn’t going to happen. We were trying to get some sort of attention and our manager said “why don’t we just make the record ourselves?” We just looked at him blindly and said “can we do that?’” he replied, "I don’t know but let’s find out.” We didn’t even know if there were recording studios in Belfast. We had no idea what we were doing so we phoned the local radio station thinking they had a recording studio and booked the space they used to record jingles for their station. We recorded the music in one session but I had a really bad cold so I came back a couple days later and finished the singing. Now we had the tape but we had to figure out how to press these up. So we just decided to go to the people that actually do this, a local record label, and said “how do you make a record?” They basically talked us through it. Initially we had just 500 pressed that turned up in blank paper sleeves. The whole thing about punk rock singles is that they came in picture sleeves, which was a novelty at the time. Luckily we had a friend with access to a printing machine so that was super helpful. We set up a bit of a conveyer belt system where everyone pitched in. One person would cut, one would fold, one would glue and one would put the record inside the sleeve. That was how we did it, it was hugely time consuming.

N: John Peel was an important figure in the UK. He had a big influence on the punk scene and helped expose the world to underground music. How did John Peel find your music and how did it feel to hear it on the radio?

JB: Gordon, our manager, sent the record to John Peel on the BBC who not only played it but continued to play it every night which led to more demand for the record. I remember one night, we were totally exhausted, we had been assembling those picture sleeves every night for weeks. Peel was playing in the background and we heard him announce our song. We all turned as one person and yelled at the radio, “stop playing the fucking thing we’re done with making these fucking sleeves!"

N: Did you do this for all 30,000 copies?

JB: No, no, no that was the thing. I always remember this great story about Elvis Presley. When he got his first royalty check he went out and bought a Cadillac. First thing we did when we got our first royalty check was yell "can we get someone to print these fuckin’ sleeves?” It’s a bit of a step down from a Cadillac but you get the idea.

N: “Inflammable Material” is now considered a classic punk album. Some music doesn’t stand the test of time but the songs on that album are as valid today as they were 40 years ago. It’s still connecting with kids today. How does that make you feel?

JB: I’m proud of the fact that people still relate to the songs and in equal measure I’m kinda sad about that because, particularly those Northern Ireland songs were written about a situation that I hoped by now people would consider to be old folk songs about the bad old days. And there are other songs, like “White Noise,” obviously an anti-racist rant, that is almost harder to face now than when we wrote it cause we are 40 years further on & the lyrics are just as relevant as when we first wrote them. That’s kind of a sad indictment of the record’s relevance.

N: Are you currently writing any new material?JB: The one thing we get badgered about when we go on tour is when are you gonna put a new album out? Its like that old Homer Simpson line, “Don’t teach me something new it knocks something old out of my head." If we put new material in the set something old has to go. We've got 5 or 6 new songs that are worth their salt at the moment. We are hoping to have enough new material by the end of this year to get into the studio early next year.

N: What new music are you listening to now?

JB: My favorite band at the moment is an English band called the Wildhearts. The new album, “Renaissance Men,” is absolutely stunning.

N: Tell me something about yourself that has never been revealed in an interview before.

JB: I enjoy a dreadful, horrible video game called Football Manager. It’s taken over my life.

dave kosciolek