Sunday, March 26, 2006

Number 32: The Undertones

You've Got My Number (Why Don't You Use It!) (Sire SIR 4024)
Chart debut: 20 October 1979
Writer: John O'Neill

They had more than one song you know. Brilliant as 'Teenage Kicks' is, it's slightly unfortunate that in the last few years it seems to have obscured entirely the fact that the Undertones ever made any other records (except maybe 'My Perfect Cousin') Yet in a brief career they packed in a handful of pop gems, several others of which got them into the charts and onto Top Of The Pops and all. Right, that's that off my chest, now let's get on with the article.
My brother was kind enough to give me the remastered and expanded CD of their debut album a couple of birthdays ago and an impressive little thing it is too; but this non-album single is a hint of where they were heading. Simplistically put, the original career of the Undertones is a swift (four albums in five years) progression from low-budget punk-pop energy ('T*****e K***s') towards a sort of blue-eyed soul, which arguably laid the template for Feargal Sharkey's briefly popular solo career. We're still close to the start of that curve here, but bass player Mickey Bradley was right to describe it as a progression, and to suggest that they'd "left the Ramones thing behind". And, as he notes approvingly, "there was a slow middle bit." The lyrics are not exactly sophisticated: "I'll pick you up in my car/Take you home, it's not far" but they work ideally in context, capturing the sense of romatic desparation with enough vulnerability to seem more charming than threatening (unless it's just sparking off too many memories of my own youth of course). And at the risk of over-using the word "energy" in this post, the strength of the ensemble performance here gives it a pace (even in that slow section) that makes the pleading less annoying than it might otherwise have been. It doesn't seem as melodramatic as it would on the page because it's so convincingly done, and it sounds as if it really is that important to the protagonist, instead of being played up. At the same time they have enough spring in their step to make it sound cheery - perhaps the lesson we should draw is that only having girls to worry about is a fairly lucky state.
What makes this track really special (over and above the quality of the song) is the way it's topped and tailed. Three seconds of tuning-up seems just to increase the drama when a thump of Billy Doherty's kick-drum ushers in the guitar riff that is effectively the refrain here (the song title appears in something more akin to a verse). At the other end of the song, we come out of that middle section, a one-note piano vamp fades in from nowhere at about 2:24, the guitars start to punch harder until Sharkey finally yells "why don't you USE IT?" and the band stops a second or two later - it's easy to imagine them all falling on the floor afterwards as if they've put all they have into less than three minutes and couldn't play more if they wanted to. Of course that's very unlikely to be the case, but it doesn't really matter as long as they capture the feel. And that's possibly the real sign of progression here, the fact that they (with the help of producer Roger Bechirian) were learning how to make records as well as play songs, which was a direction they certainly followed on the second album Hypnotised.
It's interesting to note that the sleeve design seems to have picked up on the ending of the track too, with the phrase "use it!" underlined, as well as the neat joke of printing the catalogue number on the front. Whether the die-cut rear cover was as necessary is another question. This may not be the best Undertones single, and it certainly isn't the most famous, but in a way it's their quintessential work.

Official website: will even play you the intro to this track, though a redesign is promised.

Where to get it: As I mentioned earlier, this was never included on an album at the time, but of course things are different in the CD era, and having been included on some re-issues of Hypnotised it now finds a home on the value-for-money 26(!)-track edition of their debut album. For a single-disc retrospective, the current The Best Of The Undertones - Teenage Kicks looks hard to beat, though it's not to be confused with an earlier album of the same name. The double-set True Confessions - (Singles=A's+B's) was a good idea somewhat spoilt by the fact that not all the tracks are the actual single versions, though of course this song is unaffected.

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