The political punk record, as a concept, is now decades old, and any band wanting to make a new one really needs to pull out all the stops, or adopt a fresh approach, to rise above the studded belts and low-slung guitars of their peers.
But what makes a truly noteworthy political punk album? You might be inclined to think back to London in 1977 and the release of The Clash’s eponymous debut. And you’d be very close, but, in my humble opinion, not quite there.
Take yourself 500 kilometers northwest and two years on, and you’ll find yourself in Belfast in 1979, just as Stiff Little Fingers unleash their debut album, “Inflammable Material.” Much like “The Clash,” it’s steeped in teenage boredom and dissatisfaction. But, unlike that album, Stiff Little Fingers’ offering is steeped in something infinitely more sinister and violent — the “troubles.”
“Growing up in Northern Ireland, politics isn’t something you pursue as a hobby,” says the band’s singer, guitarist and songwriter, Jake Burns. “It’s something that affects your daily life.”
Burns is bringing the band and the album to Japan for two shows in February as part of its 40th anniversary celebrations, which began last year.
He starts by explaining what it was like writing music and performing amid the bitter conflict — between republicans and loyalists, nationalists and unionists, Catholics and Protestants — that rocked Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the ’90s.
“We made a point of never taking sides,” Burns says. “For all that we were writing about the problems in Northern Ireland, we were writing from very much almost a journalistic point of view … that was something we were determined to do, because as far as we could see there was right and wrong on both sides.”
Burns says that while only half of the songs on the album are directly about the situation in his home country, he feels it has become known as “The Northern Ireland record.” Indeed, the titles alone are enough to conjure up images of the conflict: “Alternative Ulster,” “Barbed Wire Love,” “Wasted Life” and “Suspect Device.”
Even the lyrics explicitly place the record in a certain time and location, such as with the wordplay of “you set my Armalite,” a reference to the guns favored by republican paramilitaries but likely lost on anyone not familiar with the situation.
However, in some parts, the album now sounds potentially problematic. I raise the point with Burns, and ask him how he now approaches a song such as “White Noise,” which employs a slew of racial epithets to drive home a point about how the Irish and other groups had been treated by the British.
“The lyrics of the song are incredibly ugly, but that’s because it’s written about a very ugly subject,” he says. “I think we may have credited our audience and the public in general with a little more intelligence than maybe we should have done, or maybe we just didn’t explain it well enough in the first place … it’s an anti-racist song and not a racist song.”
The song shows how attitudes have changed over time, as Burns explains that the track resulted in his band being banned from the English city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The irony of the story being that the local newspaper, when reporting it, could only come up with an image of the group playing in front of a large “Rock Against Racism” banner.
Away from the politics of the album, how easy it is to physically play songs you might not have touched for four decades?
“I couldn’t actually work out the chords for some of the songs … like ‘Rough Trade,'” says Burns. “I had to phone our guitar player and ask him to transcribe the chords for the middle section of the song for me.”
He says some songs on the album brought about new feelings for the band’s members.
“The thing that struck me about the songs that we don’t play … there’s actually a lot of melody in there,” Burns says. “A song like ‘Rough Trade,’ when we relearned it and started playing it, we were like, ‘Hell! There’s actually quite a good tune in there.'”
Like any album, “Inflammable Material” may not appeal to all tastes. Burns’ vocals aren’t going to win any tenderness awards, growled, snarled and spat as they are. The guitar is rough and scratchy and the bass rises far above the mix on some tracks. But, as with any really good punk record, the gelling of the band and the power of the lyrics is what makes it memorable.
While, for me, “Wasted Life” is the pinnacle of the album, with its neat summary of the “troubles” — “I could be a hero, live and die for their important cause. A united nation or an independent state with laws” — Burns has other ideas.
“I think it’s ‘Johnny Was,’ the Bob Marley cover, that was the real standout,” he says. “We took it and we adapted it to not just our style of playing but also, by throwing in the local references, we kind of made it our own song.”
At the band’s upcoming shows in Tokyo — two in one day — “Inflammable Material” is set to be played in full (well, apart from the closing track, “Closed Groove,” of which Burns states “we always thought sucked”) at the end of each set, right after a career-spanning rollercoaster ride through Stiff Little Fingers’ other nine studio albums.
Burns concedes that he wasn’t completely aware of the two-shows-in-one-day setup.
“That came out of the blue,” he says, with a laugh. “I didn’t spot that until somebody else mentioned it to me.”
The shows mark the band’s first trip to Japan in a number of years, a fact Burns seems to wish was different.
“It’s a very expensive undertaking, particularly more recently with record companies going to the wall and nobody willing to underwrite tours,” he says. “Amazingly, we found that people in Australia seem to like the band, so it has become slightly easier to tie a trip to Japan in if we’re going to Australia as well.”
The conversation comes around to politics once again when I ask Burns if he sees the landscape in the United States — where he now lives — as similar to that in the U.K.
“I hesitate to use the word ‘inept,’ but I can’t actually think of a better word for how inept they both are,” he says. “You don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface to find a particularly ugly undercurrent to the (U.S.).”
He also feels punk rock still has the power to engage people and rally them around political causes.
“You’re appealing to people’s basic emotional state whenever you’re playing music to them … you can use it as a force for good or you can use it as a force for evil,” Burns says. “I’m probably slightly disappointed that it hasn’t become even more political.”
Burns says, though, that he always tries to stick to a journalistic approach to writing.
“I don’t want to stand up and write a song called ‘Trump’s a Twat,’ as much as I might believe that,” he says. “You have to be slightly circumspect, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put forward an opinion.”
Stiff Little Fingers will play two shows at Duo Music Exchange in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Feb. 9. For more information, visit slf.rocks/home-base.
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