The year was 1979 and a tiny Irish punk band were about to send out a shockwave that would not only change the genre but forever impact on the wider music scene. Surprisingly the band responsible – Belfast’s very own Stiff Little Fingers – had no idea what they about to do.
How could they? Things were not exactly going the greatest for them. The band had started out in 1977 as a rock cover band called Highway Star but then after a few line-up changes they were introduced to the sound that was punk. That lead to a brief flirtation with the name The Fast before finally settling on Stiff Little Fingers.
The uprising and violence that Ireland was experiencing at the time ended up heavy influencing the early music of Stiff Little Fingers and after recording some of their tracks in a studio normally reserved for the creation of radio jingles the band signed with Island Records, a deal which fell through.
Not to be put off the band released some cassette singles, the ‘cassette bomb’ that was ‘Suspect Device’ did cause some problems at publications it arrived at, and eventually signed with Rough Trade Records, a deal which ultimately saw part of the rise of Chrysalis Records.
That led to the release of their debut album Inflammable Material and the rest as they say is musical history. Audiences took to the album that explored deep topics such as police oppression, sectarian violence and teenage boredom and the result was the first independent album to ever chart in the UK.
“We didn’t think anything about it,” said vocalist Jake Burns who I recently had the pleasure of sitting down and talking to about the anniversary of this stunning album. “I don’t think anybody ever does, but there seemed to be a lot of time to talk about this album. People have said to me ‘did you realise that it was going to be a classic?’ or ‘did you know you know you were recording something special?’ The answer to both of those questions is no!”
“As far as we were concerned we had already been turned by literally every record label in the country. It was only through the good graces of Rough Trade saying ‘you’ve never made an album, we’ve never made an album, so let’s see what happens.’ It was a shot in the dark for them, it was a huge leap of faith for them to take us. But as far as we were concerned we had been shot down by all of these labels so this was our last shot, I think from my point of view I thought that at least if we recorded them then in forty years time when I was sitting down with my grandchildren I could be like ‘here take a listen to what I did when I was young and stupid.’ Of course flash forward forty-two years and I haven’t got any kids, let alone grandkids and I’m talking to you about it instead.”
What Inflammable Material did when it comes to musical history though is not lost on Burns. “The thing did go on to become successful on so many levels. If I knew that was going to become the case though we would have tried to bottle it, it just happened to be the right time and the right place.”
One of the ironies that followed the success of the album was that nearly all of the record labels that originally knocked back the band then came knocking. “Everyone one of them except CBS came back,” says Burns with a laugh. “We heard that CBS didn’t come back because in their words they said ‘we have enough trouble with The Clash’ which I thought was a wonderful thing for them to say about us.”
But yeah everybody else came back and it was a wonderful experience for our point of view because we were as green as grass,” he continues. “We had no experience in the music business at all. Had we been signed straight off the bat we probably would have signed the world’s worst record deal and we would have gone down that path of ‘well we did all this work and we got nothing out of it.’ I was working as an Accounts Clerk before the band took off and I could have been back doing that again, it could been like that. But the deal we did with Rough Trade, who was just as green as us, was done on a handshake that covered the costs and then we split fifty-fifty and by the end of the year the thing had sold 100,000 copies. So when these labels came back to us they were like ‘well we will give you ridiculously large advances’ but the joy of working with Rough Trade was that we didn’t have to wait for the traditional eighteen months to get paid because they were selling them themselves so we were paid straight away… so the one thing we didn’t need from the labels was money but what we did want was control over the albums so we could control what they sounded like.”
“As it turned out Chrysalis were the only label that would give us that, the others were all like ‘we’ll give you seventy five thousand pounds’ and we were like ‘we don’t want seventy five thousand pounds you’re not listening.’ But Chrysalis were like ‘okay’ and we had a really good working relationship with them. We have been pretty lucky though people have normally ‘got’ the band straightaway or have gotten on board pretty quickly so we’ve been pretty lucky.”
Despite that early success it was the deal with Chrysalis that saw Stiff Little Fingers become members of a very different league. “Rough Trade were one of the most major independent labels but all the other bands they had would make a single or do two singles and then go off it never seemed like a long term thing,” Burns explains. “No disrespect to the other bands but there were no rock ‘n’ roll legends there you weren’t going to meet The Beatles when you walked in and then over night we signed with Chrysalis and then I found myself being introduced to Rory Gallagher my hero and we were on the same level as Blondie and the same level as Jethro Tull and I was suddenly like ‘wait a second these are the guys that were in the music magazines I read when I was growing up and they are talking to me like I am there equal.’ That was when I said to myself, damn I guess this is my job now.”
They were obviously the bands that Burns himself were in awe of but over recent years bands such as Bad Religion and Rancid have mentioned that Stiff Little Fingers were a major influence on their early work and that is something you can tell that Burns is incredibly proud of. “That is very flattering,” he says with humility present in his voice. “It is always very flattering when you hear a musician say that because I know how I felt when I first met Rory Gallagher, he was just charm and friendliness personified and if I mentioned what a fan I was he would look embarrassed and say ‘oh, don’t be like that’ so we’re kind of the same. I mean I met Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin, for pete’s sake they don’t get much bigger, and we were doing a television show together… this silly little quiz thing. On the form you filled out before you went on it said ‘what was the first album you ever bought?’ and I wrote Led Zeppelin II which was true and I didn’t know then that Robert Plant was going to be on the show and then he walked into the green room and all eyes turned to him because everyone is saying ‘it’s fucking Robert Plant’ and he stood in the doorway and said ‘who is the idiot who bought my record?’ and I was like ‘me.’”
“I guess because those guys were so cool about it when it first started happening to us we were like ‘okay let’s go get a beer let’s not talk about that’, he says. “Internally though you are impressed, I mean those bands you mentioned we’ve toured with both Rancid and Bad Religion and they are both great bands, so yeah it is very flattening.”
Today Stiff Little Fingers are still together with founding members Jake Burns and Ali McMordie still at the helm. The band will be touring Australia this year and to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Inflammable Material will be playing the album in full. Yes everybody, this is a return to the good old days of punk.