Sunday, July 20, 2008

An Ex-Undertone Steals Another Hit (Or Two)

One of the stand out tracks of the 80s for me was the rollicking pop classic ‘You Little Thief’ by Feargal Sharkey. Hitting the Australian charts in early 1986, and soaring to #4 a few weeks later, it was one of the songs that evokes strong memories of a seminal period in my life, my final year of high school. It’s true to say that like most 17 or 18 year olds of that, or any other era, I spent a disproportionate amount of time with ears glued firmly to stereo speakers, in relation to eyes glued firmly to text books. But Feargals’ second big solo hit was one of those songs at that time which lifted the spirits even in the face of a relentless barrage of chemical formulas and quadratic equations.

For the man behind ‘You Little Thief’, Feargal Sharkey, the road that led to a brief flirtation with solo superstardom had started almost a decade earlier in one of the seminal punk rock outfits of the 70s, the Undertones. Forming in Derry, Northern Ireland in late 1975, the Undertones original line-up comprised Sharkey on vocals, brothers John (rhythm guitar) and Damian (lead guitar/keyboards) O’Neill, Mickey Bradley (bass) and Billy Doherty (drums). They were Northern Ireland’s answer to England’s Buzzcocks, taking punk’s base mix of anarchic fury and infusing it with their own teen angst view of the everyday, topped with Feargal Sharkey’s unique high pitched vocal delivery.

Their first single ‘Teenage Kicks’ was released on Belfast’s independent label Good Vibrations before being reissued across Britain on the Sire label, reaching #31 in late 1978. Their first UK top 20 hit came with ‘Jimmy Jimmy’ (#16) in mid ‘79, lifted from the Undertones eponymous debut album (UK#13). Their sophomore album ‘Hypnotised’ (UK#6) in 1980 propelled the Undertones to mainstream success, yielding the UK#9 hit ‘My Perfect Cousin’ followed by ‘Wednesday Week’ (UK#11). But by 1981 the frenetic edge had been dulled on the punk movement, as well as the Undertones sound, and their next album ‘Positive Touch’ (UK#17) fell short of the heights set by its predecessors, and realised only one significant chart hit with ‘It’s Going To Happen!’ (UK#18).

1983 saw the Undertones release their last album ‘The Sin Of Pride’ (UK#43) which left behind a lot of the rawness of their earlier work in favour of a more
sophisticated production sound. Whether it was a case of alienating their original fan base or just running out of steam, the album failed to produce any hit singles. Soon after the obligatory internal frictions brought to an end the first incarnation of the Undertones, and with it one of the more influential band’s of the era.

Following the Undertones calling it a day, Feargal Sharkey hooked up with Vince Clarke (ex-Depeche Mode and Yazoo) on the short lived project called the Assembly which scored a UK#4 hit in late 1983 with ‘Never Never’. Sharkey then switched to the Zarjazz label and released his debut solo single ‘Listen To Your Father’ (UK#23) in late 1984. Another label change saw Sharkey set up operations in Virgin waters, releasing the single ‘Loving You’ (UK#26) in mid ‘85, the song featuring Duran Duran’s Roger Taylor as drummer/co-producer.

The flood gates then opened up for Feargal Sharkey with his next single ‘A Good Heart’. Lifted from his soon to be released self-titled debut album (OZ#7,UK#12), ‘A Good Heart’ was written by Maria McKee of Lone Justice (see previous post) and produced by the Eurythmics maestro David A. Stewart, giving it all the pedigree required to be a chart topper. The song spent two weeks atop the British charts in late ‘85 and the same period at the summit of the Australia charts in early ‘86, though like so many quality British hits before and since, it failed to crossover to the U.S. market, reaching only #74.

‘You Little Thief’ proved a worthy follow up (UK#5), and the world premiere for the track was delivered on breakfast television via satellite from a jumbo jet in mid flight - well it was the 80s and there was no such
thing as too much grandeur. In a rather bizarre link ‘You Little Thief’ had been written by Benmont Tench (drummer for Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers) about Maria McKee (who, rumour has it, wrote ‘A Good Heart’ about Tench) - and as if that link isn’t weird enough producer David A. Stewart had just months before produced the Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers album ‘Southern Accents’ - nah it can’t all just be coincidence can it? ‘You Little Thief’ was also backed by one of the most extravagant and coolest promo vids of the 80s.

Feargal Sharkey then set about the unenviable task of recording a follow up album that would match the accomplishments of his first. The result was the album ‘Wish’ released in 1988, but the album yielded only one minor chart hit in ‘More Love’ (UK#44, OZ#61). I actually really liked that song and the follow up ‘Out Of My System’, both of which I
bought on vinyl 45 (later I tracked down the album on CD and I think it‘s every bit as strong as his debut).

Sharkey enjoyed a more favourable reception for his next album (at least in the U.K.) with 1991’s ‘Songs From The Mardi Gras’ (UK#27), featuring the UK#12 hit ‘I’ve Got News For You’. But the news for Feargal’s career thereafter wasn’t as productive in terms of commercial returns.

Meanwhile the O’Neill brothers, John and Damian, went on to form the hard rock outfit That Petrol Emotion following the Undertones, releasing several albums from the mid ‘80s through 90s. They then resurrected the Undertones in 1999 with new vocalist Paul McLoone at the helm, and released an album of new material in 2003 titled ‘Get What You Need’.

Feargal Sharkey had in the interim moved away from the performing side of the music biz to take up a position in A&R for Polydor Records in 1993. He spent most of the 90s in music management before becoming involved with the UK Radio Authority in 1998. Around the same time he declined an invite to participate in the Undertones reforming. In 2004 Sharkey took on the position of chairman of the UK’s Live Music Forum, a government authority set up to promote live music and licensing issues, and is currently the Chief Executive of British Music Rights - the former front man for a young brash punk outfit has come a long way (though he still adopts a punk rock style of wearing his ties).

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