Arts

Stiff Little Fingers man Jake Burns on their annual Belfast 'homecoming'

Stiff Little Fingers are on their way back to 'put the 'fast' in Belfast' for a third year in a row. David Roy spoke to SLF leader Jake Burns about celebrating the Belfast punks' legacy with their annual city centre show and 40 years of Inflammable Material

Stiff Little Fingers return to Custom House Square in Belfast next week

BELFAST-bred punk stalwarts Stiff Little Fingers will be 'putting the fast in Belfast' again for the third year in a row next weekend at Custom House Square with another live and loud multi-band bill.

Having kicked off in 2017 as a special hometown fixture on the Jake Burns-led group's 40th anniversary tour, which attracted SLF fans from all over Ireland and the world beyond for a bill also featuring The Stranglers, The Ruts and Belfast punk trailblazers The Outcasts, it was such a success that the 2018 event was pretty much booked before any of the bands had even set foot on the stage.

Last year saw the Stiffs joined by another top drawer selection of supports including The Buzzcocks (for what would sadly prove to be one of Pete Shelley's last ever gigs before his untimely death), The Damned and The Defects, while for 2019 they'll be preceded by Irish alt-rock pioneers Therapy?, progressive post-punk rockers New Model Army and Kazoo-packin' Mackem pop punks The Toy Dolls.

With this year marking the 40th anniversary of SLF's classic debut LP Inflammable Material, the band – Jake Burns (vocals/guitar), Ali McMordie (bass/vocals), Ian McCallum (guitar) and Steve Grantley (drums) – are poised to deliver a career-spanning set of favourites – and possibly the odd new tune too.

Indeed, SLF have recently been road-testing the song 16 Shots, inspired by the murder of Chicago teen Laquan McDonald.

"It's gotten a great reaction and I'm very pleased with it even though it's inspired by a tragic subject, which seems to be our stock-in-trade," comments the Chicago-based Burns.

"I've always seen what this band does as being part of the long line of protest songs. People always try to tie it back to punk rock, like Joe Strummer was the first guy to write a protest song – it goes back a lot further than ourselves and Joe, almost to the days of the court jester.

"OK, you were there to entertain the king in the court – but a big part of your job was also to point out what was going wrong in the kingdom, albeit without losing your head.

"I was very conscious that a lot of songwriters who have come from Ireland or the UK to live in America suddenly start writing about bowling down Californian highways or whatever. So I was always very nervous about referencing America in a song.

"But sadly this is so much of a universal theme these days in that it was a young man who was, OK, he was breaking the law by trying to break into a car – but instead of being arrested he was surrounded by nine police officers and shot to death.

"At the very least it was a huge over-reaction by the Chicago Police Department and it was just such a shocking incident that I couldn't shy away from the facts. The line '16 shots in a Chicago night' harks right back to the line 'a single shot rings out in the Belfast night' that we used on our cover of Johnny Was on the first record."

On the subject of their feted 1979 debut, once they're through with their current run of UK and Irish dates, the last of which will be their Custom House Square show in Belfast, SLF will be taking a month off before hitting the road in America to play Inflammable Material in full for the first time in 10 years.

"We did it in the UK and Ireland on the 30th anniversary," recalls Jake,

"When our manager and agent pointed out that we still hadn't done it in the US yet, we all sort of looked at each other like 'haven't we?'"

"It's hugely flattering that people still consider that record important enough that they want to hear the whole thing but it does bring its own problems as well. I probably haven't even listened to it since we did the 30th anniversary tour and I know I'm going to have the same problems now as I did then, which involved me having to call our guitar player – who wasn't even on the record – and say 'what are the chords to the middle-eight in Rough Trade?'

"Ian was falling about laughing!"

Despite having recorded nine more SLF albums since the Inflammable Material days, including 2014's acclaimed No Going Back, even today Burns can appreciate the strength of those early songs, which of course include stone cold Stiffs classics like Alternative Ulster, Suspect Device, Wasted Life, Law and Order and State of Emergency.

"Obviously, it was a record of its time," he offers. "It's a loud record, it's an angry record and it's actually quite a brutal record even in terms of the production – but the thing that amazed me about it was there are actually some really good tunes in there. They're kind of buried under that wall of guitars and noise.

"When we were relearning them [for the 30th] I would find myself walking down the street humming something to myself and kind of go 'oh, that's pretty good, what is it?' – then I'd realise it was from our first record!

"There's a lot of melody in there and I remember at the time defending that – but I kind of gave up after a while, because all people focused on was the anger that was in the thing.

"It still stands up as a piece of work – which is gratifying after all this time, because pretty much every record label turned us down. So to find yourself 40 years later still playing those songs and even finding yourself thinking 'that's actually not a bad song' is kind of vindication."

Of the upcoming Custom House Square show, Jake tells me that the band are really looking forward to celebrating their longevity in the city where it all began for Stiff Little Fingers.

"The Custom House show is almost starting to take on a life of its own now," says Burns of the now annual Belfast fixture.

"It's a homecoming. Even though I haven't lived in Belfast for such a long time, it's still the 'hometown' gig. People in Belfast really know what this band is all about and what we do."

:: SLF, Therapy?, New Model Army, Toy Dolls, Saturday August 24, Custom House Square, Belfast. Tickets via Ticketmaster.ie

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