Life

Undertone Mickey still kicking with new autobiography

Undertones bassist and BBC Radio Foyle man Mickey Bradley has just written his autobiography. He spoke to Jane Hardy about recalling his 'life as an Undertone'

Michael Bradley of The Undertones pictured in Derry city Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Jane Hardy

ALTHOUGH Mickey Bradley states that his memory is fallible in his vivid new memoir Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone, you really don't sense that while talking to him.

The stories of how the band began, who they met in the early days – Vanessa Redgrave, for example, at a school event ("She was lovely" he enthuses) – are ace and place you right back in the 1970s. In a good way.

The anecdotes unwind with the rhythm and recall of a session in a good bar.

"I do have a good memory and didn't keep diaries back in the day. Also, we've talked about it all so much it's not difficult to recall."

There was a lot to talk about, right from the off.

Although as with all the best narratives, Bradley's 'Undertone' story comes with a certain bravura, maybe even amplification.

But let's start with names. The rumour has always been that Mickey is his stage name, while Michael, which he uses for the book and his current job at BBC Radio Foyle (where he produces the Sean Coyle show and his own programmes) is his real name.

"Oh, that's a joke," he says with those wry, well, undertones, familiar from the radio.

Growing up in Derry in a family of 11, Bradley didn't originally think of music as a career – although his creativity and performing nous must be in the genes, as he says some of his siblings are creative too.

"One of my sisters runs a literary blog, for example," he tells me.

He is married to Elaine and has four children – Alice (20), Frank (19), May (18) and nine-year-old Jim. Jim shares his dad's musical gene, playing the drums.

The early days come alive in his book named – yes, it had to be – Teenage Kicks.

The first item on the agenda once Bradley had hooked up with schoolmates John and Damian O'Neill, drummer Billy Doherty and the already cool looking Feargal Sharkey, was to find a rehearsal space. Of this, an outhouse belonging to the parents of Bradley's sister in law he notes: "I find it difficult to describe The Shed without making it sound as if the Simms family were landed gentry.

"They lived in a small terraced street but running along the back of the street was a parallel line of two-storey outhouses. At one stage I presume they would have been stables.

"The word 'mews' too could be used but that too sounds very grand."

And grand was one thing The Shed was not. Feargal Sharkey, who we learn worked delivering TVs, managed to acquire some of the unwanted cardboard boxes to use as basic soundproofing.

The Shed was where the embryonic punk band – "We were always punk, yes," confirms Bradley – started producing great music.

Although, as Bradley honestly reveals in his likeable book, it wasn't all that starry in the early days: their audience sometimes consisted of just Sparky Simms, their hosts' excitable dog.

Indeed, The Undertones' first gig didn't turn out quite as planned. The bassist describes the fledgling band's enthusiasm for doing a gig at the Waterside Youth Club as suggested by a mate, Aidan Barrett – then adds the real reason for their keenness, in a passage that reveals Teenage Kicks to be a perceptive rite-of-passage memoir.

 

"...the real reason for Billy's and my interest was Aidan's sister Fionnula," he writes.

"Purely from a distance, of course. We were too self-conscious and in my case, too acned, to do anything as adventurous as have a conversation with her."

 

Bradley's writing style is like his speaking style: vivid, humorous, observant. He says now that the writing wasn't difficult and that he enjoyed recalling the early Teenage Kicks days.

The book contains plenty of material for pub quizzers. For example, the first band name suggested by Aidan was 'Monkey F***'.

Then, Feargal Sharkey suggested Little Feat, in homage to the '70s US band. As Bradley drolly observes: "Feargal still hadn't grasped the subtleties of the Plagiarism (Band Names) Act of 1973."

Bradley has this to say about The Undertones' biggest champion, the late BBC DJ John Peel: "He was protective of us in a way. He was just how he came across on radio."

Peel launched The Undertones' career with that gutsy, trippy song that oh-so-cleverly marries the punk musical recipe with a pretty, witty, sexy lyric – the sort of trick Robert Smith would later make his own with The Cure.

The lyrics of Teenage Kicks are famously quoted on John Peel's gravestone. That's quite a legacy – but funnily enough, it was never a hit in commercial terms.

"No," says Bradley, "it wasn't. It reached no 38 in the charts."

But, thanks to Peely's enthusiasm and airtime, it became an iconic single – one of the most downloaded of all time.

So, did the band know they had a history-making track on their hands?

"No, we really didn't have any idea what it would do. I didn't write it, of course, John O'Neill did."

 

Another kind of elephant in the room is Mr Sharkey's departure from the Undertones in the early 1980s. Asking Bradley now why this was, he sounds slightly miffed: "I really don't know," he offers. There is speculation that Sharkey wanted to move The Undertones towards more mainstream success.

 

There must be something in the Derry air and we discuss Derry's other musical heroes. Phil Coulter, Dana and Nadine Coyle, to name but three. Bradley is friendly with Coulter, a towering figure in Irish music. He says: "I've done radio programmes with him and he is brilliant. We went to Denmark a couple of years ago together for Radio Ulster which was fun."

Bradley contracted bowel cancer in 2005 and has lived to tell the tale. "There's no point in feeling sorry for yourself – I was very lucky that I didn't get depressed I suppose, but this is what you've got, just get through it," he has said.

These days he works full time at Radio Foyle – he says he loves the BBC. As well as producing the Sean Coyle show, he has his own vinyl-orientated programme which places heavy emphasis on – surprise, surprise – punk.

:: Mickey Bradley will be signing copies and reading from Teenage Kicks: My Life as an Undertone (Omnibus Press, £16.99) at Waterstone's in Belfast at 2pm today.

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