Chase Ruttenberg, Feb 12 2017.
The Undertones’ 1978 punk classic Teenage Kicks begins like an abrupt explosion, similar to an IRA bomb in Belfast during The Troubles, with the whole band starting simultaneously into the opening riff that carries the song for the entirety of its 2 minutes and 26 seconds. The descending guitar riff is very simple, and slightly distorted with a trace of reverb that contributes to the song’s rough and raw timbre. Lead singer Feargal Sharkey then chimes in with the iconic opening line, “Teenage dreams, so hard to beat…” that legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel used as his epitaph. Sharkey’s snarky, punk delivery of his lyrics, as well as his regional Northern Irish accent, immediately highlight the singer’s style as truly unique. The song follows a rudimentary verse-chorus form that emanates the band’s punk pioneer influences, such as The Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks. As the first verse transitions into the chorus, Sharkey sings “I wanna hold her / Wanna hold her tight…” signifying a sense of romance and nostalgia that one wouldn’t expect from punk music of the time. After the song cycles through another verse and chorus, Sharkey then delivers, in his thick Belfast accent, a line that would resonate much more with the typical 70s punk: “I need excitement, Oh I need it bad!” The idea of a release from the boredom of everyday life was central in the set of punk ideals, and such a sentiment was way more common than the sensuality conveyed in the overall theme of the song. As Pitchfork writer Judy Berman writes in her blurb on Teenage Kicks in Pitchfork’s “200 Best Songs of the 1970s”: “The (Northern) Irish band’s enthusiastic slobber of a debut single surrendered wholeheartedly to the basic human urges most British punks either attacked or ignored.” (Berman 3) The bridge into the final chorus consists of a short and fast guitar solo that contrasts low power chords with more high-pitched notes and frequencies. Then, Feargal Sharkey interjects one last time: “I wanna hold her / Wanna hold her tight / Get teenage kicks right through the night!” The distinctive romantic nuances in the lyrics of Teenage Kicks, combined with the slight distortive effects, and angst more commonly associated with punk music, makes it a seminal track for the evolution of the entire British punk scene, as well as “an unparalleled encapsulation of youth.” (Berman 3)
Void of context, Teenage Kicks would be remembered as just a catchy, pop-punk song about adolescent desire. But it is the ominous context of The Troubles that make the song so important in the history of punk music. “The Troubles” is the name given to the decades long conflict between the Irish Catholics and the Northern Irish Protestants that climaxed with violence in the 1970s. Belfast experienced more violence than any other area during this time: “Over the course of The Troubles, Belfast proved, unsurprisingly, to be the epicenter of all violence. Of the 3528 to die in The Troubles, 1540 died in Belfast.” (Sanders and Wood 42) Moreover, Belfast was the epicenter of the Northern Irish punk scene in the late 1970s, coinciding with, but separate from, the outbreak of violence. During times of political and social instability, punk music tends to thrive, and although the punks rarely commented directly on the affairs of The Troubles, their music provided an outlet of expression for the adolescents who were faced with violence on a daily basis. Celebrated Godfather of Northern Irish punk Terri Hooley was one of the few to see the inanity of the conflicts that pitted friends and neighbors against each other. His record shop Good Vibrations was located on what was known as the most bombed street in Europe, but it was his passion and love for music that stoked the fire that became the booming Belfast punk scene. Hooley signed bands such as Rudi, The Undertones and The Outcasts to his label, and travelled with them to perform gigs all across both Northern Ireland and the Republic. These bands often had some members who identified as Catholics and some Protestants, but they did not care about politics, they only cared about the music. The widespread acceptance preached by Hooley to the younger musicians helped cultivate the scene, and through their music, youths across Ireland were able to feel an unprecedented collectivity of acceptance, freedom and rebellion in a time of tragedy. (Hooley 169) As Martin McCloone articulates in his article “Punk Music in Northern Ireland: The Political Power of ‘What Might’ve Been,’” the punk uprising in Northern Ireland “symbolized the attempt to forge an alternative politics by the province’s severely bored, annoyed and disaffected youth.” (McCloone 34)
Boredom, annoyance and disaffection were central themes in the kinds of people that were drawn to the first wave of punk music, which gave those adolescents something to bond over, as well as a platform to rebel against the establishment. The Northern Irish punk movement, however, had the additional ability to affect its listeners through not just the typical punk elements, but through a kind of release from the fear and uncertainty of their lives during The Troubles. The Undertones and Teenage Kicks, in particular, allowed for listeners to achieve this release in a few different, and very effective ways. First, the song, and The Undertones’ entire sound, adheres to the stylistic sonic properties of punk music, so it appeals to the typical punk demographic who seek loud and energetic, songs to help express their emotional angst and anxiety about societies traditional customs. Second, the lyrical content of Teenage Kicks appeal exceptionally to the adolescents of Northern Ireland, who may feel as though everyday normalcy has been robbed from their life by the ongoing danger and violence in the streets. What better way to achieve a release from this fear, stress and anxiety than by listening to Feargal Sharkey lustfully longing for a local girl, thus romanticizing the relationships and emotions of everyday teenaged/young adult Northern Irish people who may feel as though their individual lives and problems are overshadowed by The Troubles. And finally, the ultimate means of expressive release is the live show. Seeing a live performance by The Undertones, The Outcasts, Rudi or any number of similar bands would allow a punk to truly experience the outlet they seek in music with other who share the same sentiments. The feeling of camaraderie and affective overdrive achieved from attending a raw and energetic punk concert is unparalleled and allows to one forget about their troubles… even if their troubles are The Troubles.
In Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Iggy Pop explains the true impact and importance of punk music, as he states: “I heard other people who could make good music without being any good at music. It gave me hope.” (McNeil 18) This quote highlights the fact that the real significance lies not within the musical qualities themselves, but within the hope that the music represented. Punk music ignored the traditional qualities that made music “good” and flipped them upside down. Thus proving that a song like The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks can be just as emotionally affective, if not more so, than even classically beautiful works like Schubert’s Serenade, or Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.
Berman, Judy “The 200 Best Songs of the 1970s.”Pitchfork. Pitchfork, 22 Aug. 2016. Web. 12 Feb. 2017.
Hooley, Terri, and Richard Sullivan. Hooleygan: Music, Mayhem and Good Vibrations. Belfast: Blackstaff, 2010. Print.
McLoone, Martin. “Punk Music in Northern Ireland: The Political Power of ‘what might have been’.” Irish Studies Review 12.1 (2004): 29-38. Web. 8 Feb. 2017. library.utoronto.ca
McNeil, Legs. Please Kill Me The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. New York: Grove Press, 1996. Print.
Sanders, Andrew, and Ian S. Wood. Times of troubles: Britain’s war in Northern Ireland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh U Press, 2012. Print.