Stiff Little Fingers Live In 1979: Like Going Ten Rounds With Giant Haystacks

Watching Belfast's finest in Bradford in 1979 had a huge impact on me aged 14. The anthems, the anger, the power, Stiff Little Fingers had it all...
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Watching Belfast's finest in Bradford in 1979 had a huge impact on me aged 14. The anthems, the anger, the power, Stiff Little Fingers had it all...

Bradford St Georges Hall, is a beautifully restored Victorian music hall that aside from hosting some of the world’s greatest bands was also a regular Saturday afternoon wrestling venue back in the late seventies. When excitable old ladies weren’t trying to batter Giant Haystacks with their handbags, the seats in the stalls were sensibly removed so that hundreds of young punks could grapple and throw themselves at each other in a violent frenzy of worship to some of the most powerful and lasting music this country has ever produced.

I didn’t realise how lucky I was to enjoy the almost weekly visits of iconic punk/new wave bands, many of whom are now held in mythical regard by successive generations starved of anything that comes even marginally close to what I took for granted in 1979. In the space of six months I saw a roster of acts that still provokes gasps of envy, from those who, through the lottery of birth, missed out on a small window of time when legends came to town for the price of a couple of pints.

The Buzzcocks, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Cure, The Jam, The Damned, The Stranglers, Elvis Costello, Sham 69, The Slits ,The Clash, The Undertones, Joy Division, The Specials and more, all played their seminal albums in an acoustically perfect 1500 capacity venue that had been designed more for operas and orchestras than Gibsons and Fenders. I saw them all, but one band who brought their rabble rousing racket to my home town on a regular basis were Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers. The first time I saw them I felt like I’d been picked up, shaken and thrown in to the middle of next week.

I was fourteen and despite having a ticket at the back of upper circle I managed to sneak in to the stalls. This wasn’t the sort of gig where you wanted to be sitting down and tapping your feet. Before they came on I spotted Feargal Sharkey from the Undertones and managed to get his autograph. Despite the crowds, he wasn’t difficult to spot – not many people wore a parka and denim flares at punk gigs in those days. There had been rumours of arguments between the two bands, but it looked as if Feargal was there for the same reason as the rest of us - to see one of the best live bands in the world.

As the houselights went down, spotlights swept across the audience and the  theme tune from the Dam Buster’s was greeted with a massive roar from the audience.  Jake, Ali, Henry and Jim bounded on stage and with a quick “Hanx. We’re Stiff little Fingers!”, they launched in to the blistering intro of “Gotta Getaway”.

There was little time to breathe between the other maximum tempo tracks – even Jake Burns struggled to spit the words out - as the sweating hordes smashed in to each other

It wouldn’t be totally unfair to call SLF an Irish version of the Clash. After all, they were inspired to form the band after seeing them play in Belfast. Burns and Strummer were more or less writing lyrics from the same rebel song sheet.  The visual dynamics were alike too with SLF copying the Clash’s three pronged mic attack and bassist Ali McMordie bounced on his toes with the same low slung bass and drunken swagger as Simonon. Both bands also mixed a little reggae and ska in to ease the tempo of their breathless, uber charged sets. The Clash had “Police and Thieves”, whilst SLF had the magnificent “Johnny Was”, a stirring epic that kicked off with a slow military snare drum beat before growing in to a beast of  thickly layered guitar rhythms.

That was about as restrained as it got. There was little time to breathe between the other maximum tempo tracks – even Jake Burns struggled to spit the words out - as the sweating hordes smashed in to each other from the front to the back, but despite the energy of the audience I don’t recall ever seeing any real aggro at SLF gigs. This wasn’t like a lot of the “Oi” bands of the time where you could almost smell “bovver” brewing as soon as you got in the door. There was a more celebratory feeling. SLF’s material was quite anthemic and despite a fairly political theme they were mostly questioning the everyday trials of youth with songs such as “At the Edge”, “Breakout” and “Nobody’s Hero”.

“They’re criticising something they just don’t understand!”, barked Burns as we joyously screamed along, locked in to every emotion flooding from the stage. This wasn’t a band just playing music to entertain – it felt like this was a band with a key your soul and one song in particular still sends shivers down my spine.

The single opening chord of “Wasted Life” exploded and rang out,  it’s “Baba O’ Riley” style sustain teased along by the audience clapping in sync with Jake’s guitar as he tapped out it’s Morse code vibrato,  and then  the opening salvo was delivered in that unmistakeable growl.

“I could be a soldier – go out and there and fight to save this land..”

This is where SLF differed from many other flag waving bands of the time in that they came across as genuine and unpretentious

As the song grew and picked up pace, the cymbal crashes at the end of each line encouraged a melee of grappling, flying elbows and dinner plate sized grins as we hurled ourselves against each other and in to the massive scrum of pogoing punks.

The played most of the excellent “Inflammable Material” and the biggest cheer of the night was reserved for the opening riff of the encore, “Alternative Ulster”, the band’s career defining song that as well as referencing the oppression of life during the troubles also bemoaned the lack of decent clubs. This is where SLF differed from many other flag waving bands of the time in that they came across as genuine and unpretentious, but aside from the intelligent lyrics they also had an arsenal of great tunes that still sound brilliant thirty odd years later.

After the gig I stumbled, battered and exhausted towards the bus station over the road.  I felt like I’d gone ten rounds with Giant Haystacks…and won.

To get some idea of just how good Stiff Little Fingers were at the time, have a listen to the live album Hanx. As one reviewer on Amazon states..

“This is the album I use for the final 40 minutes of a marathon, hitting the wall and beyond. Emotive beyond words.”

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