Jake Burns on Stiff Little Fingers' 40th birthday bash in Belfast
This August, veteran Belfast punks Stiff Little Fingers will celebrate their 40th anniversary with a special outdoor gig at Custom House Square. David Roy spoke to frontman Jake Burns about staging SLF's biggest ever hometown show
"WE THOUGHT that August bank holiday weekend was about as close as we could get to guaranteed good weather in Belfast!," laughs Stiff Little Fingers frontman Jake Burns of the veteran punk rockers' imminent 40th anniversary bash at Custom House Square in their hometown.
Burns (59), who has been based in Chicago for the past 13 years, is looking forward to this special outdoor show – his band's biggest ever in Belfast, where The Ulster Hall would be their usual port of call.
The singer/guitarist tells me that he's "equal measures excited and terrified" about the imminent 40th anniversary gig, one of the stand-out fixtures in SLF's ongoing tour to celebrate this considerable milestone – 'putting the 'fast' in Belfast for 40 years', as the gig poster puts it.
"Obviously, we wanted to do something special for Belfast," Burns elaborates on how the Custom House Square show came about.
"We floated quite a few ideas, some of which were thoroughly impractical, because we didn't just want to turn up and play The Ulster Hall. As much fun as that is, we really wanted to do something out of the ordinary.
"Basically, our managers and the promoters over there said 'just leave it with us'. When they came back with this, we were just totally blown away."
Of course, there's nothing like celebrating a big birthday in the company of old mates. Accordingly, the Belfast bill is rammed with fellow travellers from the 77 punk set: Belfast upstarts The Outcasts, Londoners Ruts DC and Guildford proto-punks The Stranglers, plus Good Vibrations man Terri Hooley on DJ duty.
"It's not just marking 40 years since the band started in Belfast," enthuses SLF founder Burns, who still plays with original bassist Ali McMordie in the group's current line-up alongside guitarist Ian McMallun and drummer Steve Grantley.
"The Outcasts and Terri were there right at the start too – in fact, I think The Outcasts were out of the traps a bit ahead of us.
"The Stranglers were the first English band that I became really friendly with when we moved across [to London], so I've known those guys almost the same length of time, and I've been doing acoustic stuff with the Ruts guys as Dead Men Walking on the side too.
"These guys are all friends and we have a long history with all of them, so it's great. We really did want to do something special and make it a celebration."
In fact, as far as Burns can remember, this will only be SLF's second ever outdoor gig in Belfast.
"We played a gig down at the Rotterdam dock years ago," he recalls.
"We were lucky that night, because the weather was great – so we're one for one on that score!"
SLF's Belfast gigs have long been reliably raucous, celebratory affairs, on a par with their annual St Patrick's Day bash at Glasgow's Barrowlands (recently documented on their Best Served Loud live CD and DVD) in terms of significance for the band.
However, given the year that's in it, this time around the Stiffs will be playing four decades worth worth of favourites – from their first two independent singles Suspect Device and Alternative Ulster to 2014's career highlight LP No Going Back (the first release on their own Rigid Digits label since 1979) – for more than just a 'hometown' crowd, as Burns reveals.
"One of the things with this gig was that we wanted it to be accessible to people wherever they were coming from in the city," he says of their August show.
"But now it turns out that they're coming from all over the world – there's people flying in from Australia and all sorts for this one."
It's all a far cry from the band's early days in Belfast, when they would struggle to get gigs from local promoters thanks to the 'stigma' of being a punk band.
"They'd ask you 'well, what do youse play?' – and saying anything that wasn't 'the Eagles' tended to mean they weren't interested," chuckles Burns.
The solution was for the punks to start promoting their own shows, which led to SLF and others playing unusual spots like the stables at the Glenmachan hotel on the outskirts of east Belfast.
"That's probably the last time we got rained on in Belfast – that place leaked!" he laughs.
For those wondering when the band's 40th birthday will officially arrive, bass man and band historian Ali McMordie has delved into his diaries to come up with the exact date Stiff Little Fingers were first unleashed upon the Belfast public.
"It was in April 1977 when we asked Ali to join and the first line-up was put together," recalls Burns of the rehearsal when McMordie replaced the departing Gordon Blair (who subsequently joined Rudi) in their ranks.
"According to Ali, the actual first Stiff Little Fingers show was August 16th 1977 [the same night Elvis died, pop trivia fans].
"So we're only going to be about a week out from our actual 40th birthday with the Belfast gig."
SLF got their first taste of major success when debut LP Inflammable Material became the first independently released album to break the 'proper' Top 20 in February 1979 – but Burns admits that he was certainly not planning an assault on the mainstream charts during the band's early days.
"We were doing it for fun," advises the frontman, who will shortly be playing his very first solo acoustic shows supporting US acts Dropkick Murphys and Rancid in Europe.
"It was a laugh – nobody saw it as a career I don't think, because that would have seemed ridiculous!
"That's not really where great rock and roll bands come from. I think the majority of them start out the same way we did – doing something we loved it and just wanting to have fun with it.
"Even as it became more serious, like when we signed our first record deal, we were still thinking 'OK, this is for a few years and then we'll see where we are'.
"So the fact that it's now been 40 years, you're sort of looking back thinking both 'it's incredible that it's lasted this long', but also – 'how the hell has it lasted this long?!'."
:: Stiff Little Fingers, The Stranglers, Ruts DC, The Outcasts, Saturday August 26, Custom House Square, Belfast. Tickets via Ticketmaster outlets