Who’s Punk?! What’s the Score?!…Song #7/25: Teenage Kicks by The Undertones

Derry is a city of over 200,000 people that sits in the northwest corner of Northern Ireland, approximately an hour and a bit to the west of Belfast. On a clear day, a citizen of Derry could take a short drive to the coast and see Scotland in the distance. Derry has been in existence since the 6th century, making it one of the oldest inhabited places in all of Ireland. In the 1600s, the city was enclosed by walls, creating a fortress-like setting that exists even to this day. While the city has grown beyond the original walls as its population has increased in size, those walls remain completely intact. The walls were originally built to protect the inner city from invasion by Scots from the north and/or from the English from the south. As a result, generations of people from Derry have grown up, lived and died within the walls of the city with a besieged mentality interwoven into their cultural DNA. Even the very name of this city is a case in point. For most of its existence, the city has been known as Londonderry. It is still referred to as Londonderry on Google Maps, should anyone reading this post care to have a look for yourself. As many of you will be aware, Ireland’s history is filled with conflict. Sometimes that conflict is internal to the country and concerns itself with religion. At other times, that conflict goes beyond borders. Much of the time, it is a combination of the two. The most recent time of conflict in Ireland is a time known colloquially as The Troubles. During The Troubles, certain political and militaristic groups within Northern Ireland sought to create a homeland free from English rule. Many lives were lost during a campaign of bombings and shootings initiated by the Irish Republican Army in hopes of driving the occupying British Army out of Northern Ireland. A peace accord was eventually signed in the mid 1980s. At that time, Derry city council formally passed a bylaw that would see the name of their city change from Londonderry to simply Derry. Unfortunately, such a legal name change still required permission from London. This process of having to head to London and ask for permission on bended knee to simply govern their own affairs rankled the people of Derry. The dispute remains ongoing even as you read this post. To say the name Londonderry within the walled city is to be constantly reminded of decades of having to endure subjugation and humiliation. Removing the “London” prefix from the name of their city was an act of emancipation that many citizens and civic leaders believed was necessary in order for the process of healing to begin after the peace accords were signed. But even this seemingly simple request has become bogged down in acrimony.  It just goes to illustrate the strength of character that it must take for the citizens of Derry to go about their daily business in a positive frame of mind. That sense of resiliency and determination to defy one’s circumstances is, perhaps, best seen in how the entire city ( as well as that of all of Northern Ireland) has taken to today’s song, which is “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones. Sometimes a song is more than just a song. This is one of those times.   

A photo of the fortified walls that surround the old portion of Derry, Ireland.
The walls of Derry, Ireland.

The story of “Teenage Kicks” begins with the very ethos of the Punk music world and that is making music as an act of defiance. For much of Punk’s history in the UK and around the world, that tradition of defiance has manifested itself in music and lyrics that are violent and angry. Lashing out at systemic social constructs that are deemed to be oppressive can be seen in songs such as “Anarchy in the UK” by The Sex Pistols, for example. There are certainly many injustices in the world and people have the right to feel angry at living in a society that seems to be rigged to work against them at every turn. However, anger is easy to feel. While it may feel cathartic to scream obscenities at authorities, be it your teachers at school, the police officers who are walking a beat, your parents, your employers or your political leaders, the much harder thing is to convince yourself that love and hope and happiness remain within reach during those darkest of times. Sometimes maintaining a veneer of normality is the greatest act of defiance of them all. 

The citizens of Derry have had to do this their whole lives. While people in the rest of the world sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the people in Northern Ireland are all I.R.A. members, the truth is that the vast majority of people who live there do so in the hopes of living ordinary lives despite the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. They are regular folks who have families where children go to school each day while their parents go to work. The people who live in Derry watch television, read books, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries just like anybody else. However, in the 1970s, they tried to go about their business in an atmosphere that was constantly fraught with tension that came from the possibility of violence happening at any moment. The I.R.A. and the British Army were engaged in a deadly guerilla war in those days. There were military checkpoints at key intersections within Derry, as well as the roads in and out of town. Roads and bridges were constantly closed because of bomb threats. Any unattended package or box was eyed with the utmost of suspicion. This went on all of the time, every day. Meanwhile, the citizens of Derry still tried to get on with their lives. It wasn’t an easy thing to do.

The situation was much worse an hour to the east in Belfast. This city was the epi-centre of the I.R.A. bombing campaign against the British Army, with Great Victoria Road being the most heavily bombed section of town. Not surprisingly, shopkeepers along Great Victoria Road found it difficult to stay in business. No one wanted to shop in an area that was so unsafe. As a result, many businesses had to close down, which, in turn, meant that there were many vacant storefronts available for purchase. Terri Hooley was a man who came of age a decade earlier during the Summer of Love phenomenon that swept much of the western world. He was a self-described hippie. Hooley believed in the power of positivity and of love as an antidote to the violence that was consuming Belfast and other areas of Northern Ireland. One of the things that gave him hope for a better future was hearing some of the local bands that played in and around Belfast. In particular, he was impressed by the energy and passion that many of the punk bands in Northern Ireland seemed to possess. Hooley truly believed that one of the ways forward as a community was through music and, specifically, through punk music. So Hooley took a gamble. He was no businessman, but he gathered as much money as he could scrape together and went down to the bombed out business district on Great Victoria Road and bought himself a store. His vision was to open a record shop. He called this shop Good Vibrations after The Beach Boys song, of course, but also cheekily as a way of turning the rumbling of the bombs into something that sounded more benign and positive.   

Like much that has anything to do with punk music, Hooley ran his record shop on a shoestring budget. This lack of resources was actually a beneficial thing in the beginning, because it forced Hooley to go out into the clubs and bars of Belfast in search of bands who might be willing to advertise in his shop and place their products on his shelves. In return, he would help promote their music. In time, Hooley created a basic recording studio in his shop. This studio would act as an inexpensive way for new bands to create a record that could be sold in his shop as well as sent to record labels in the hope of securing a deal. One of the bands that Hooley saw playing live was a group from Derry known as The Undertones. 

A photo of all five members of the Irish punk band The Undertones. From left to right: Michale Bradley, Damian O'Neill, Feargal Sharkey, Billy Doherty and John O' Neill.
Michael Bradley, Damian O’Neill, Feargal Sharkey, Billy Doherty and John O’Neill

The Undertones were a five-piece punk band. They were led by lead singer Feargal Sharkey, guitarists and brothers John and Damian O’Neill, bassist Michael Bradley and drummer Billy Doherty. Initially, The Undertones were a cover band. They played a lot in Derry and honed their skills as players and as performers. Eventually, they caught wind of the punk music scene that was exploding in London and began to alter their style of play, making everything faster and edgier. It was also at this time that the guys in the band decided that if they were to have any sort of future as musicians, then they needed to start writing their own original tunes. “Teenage Kicks” was written by John O’Neill. Unlike The Sex Pistols, “Teenage Kicks” is not a song that called for riots and anarchy in the streets. Instead, it is about that most normal of things, teenage boys singing about wanting to spend time with teenage girls. The band was able to have a few of their songs recorded on tape while playing live. They sent this “demo tape” to local record companies but were rejected by them all. In a last ditch desperate attempt, The Undertones sent a copy of their tape to famous London DJ John Peel. Peel was known for playing new songs and breaking new acts. He was impressed by what he heard and offered to pay for the proper recording of an EP in Belfast. That EP ended up being recorded at Terri Hooley’s simple studio at his Good Vibrations record shop. Once the record was published, Hooley took it back to John Peel. Not only did Peel play “Teenage Kicks” on his show, he did something he rarely ever did, he played the song twice in a row. According to Peel, “Teenage Kicks” was his favourite song of all time. He liked it so much that when he died, the opening lines of the song were engraved on his tombstone!

The tombstone of DJ John Peel. At the bottom, the opening line of the song "Teenage Kicks" is engraved. It reads, "Teenage dreams so hard to beat". "Teenage Kicks" was John Peel's favourite song.

As expected, with the promotion given the song by John Peel, demands for copies of the record went through the roof. Sire Records, one of the very same record companies who had previously rejected the band when they were sent the demo tape, came circling back around and offered the band a professional record contract. The Undertones agreed. They re-recorded “Teenage Kicks”, and off to the races they went, enjoying a successful career that contained several other hit songs, although none of which captured the attention of audiences quite like “Teenage Kicks”. Feargal Sharkey eventually left the band due to internal disputes and launched his own mildly successful solo career. On the other hand, Terri Hooley, being a poor businessman, had never asked any of the bands that he let record in his studio to sign publishing contracts with him. As a result, even though he played a key role in helping to get “Teenage Kicks” on the airwaves, he saw nary a cent from its success. Sire Records wisely locked up the publishing rights. As time went on, Terri Hooley went bankrupt on several occasions. Several times he tried to re-establish his record store as a viable business, but each time he ended up failing because he just didn’t know how to manage his books, as they say. There has been a movie made about his life that I will link to in the comments below. Even though he never became rich, Terri Hooley remains a beloved figure in the Irish punk music scene and is, himself, quite pleased to have played the part in its success that he did. Not all rewards have to do with money.

Meanwhile, as “Teenage Kicks” was airing on John Peel’s radio show, the citizens of Derry were over the moon with pride. In lives filled with knocks and daily humiliations, the happiness they felt fell like raindrops from the sky when The Undertones from Derry became famous. The song, which is nothing more than a two-and-a-half minute long celebration of teenage hoochie-coo, offered such a reprieve from the constant pressure of living under occupation that it entered into the cultural DNA of the community, much as conflict and hatred had for years previously. But this time there was something different to talk about. This time the feeling was one of joy and pride and happiness. It must have been such a relief to have had something good happen to Derry for a change. Proof of the cultural significance of this song and the emotions that it espoused can be seen in how it was used in an episode of the amazing television series Derry Girls. *(I have written about Derry Girls before in a post that you can read here).  The show takes place in Derry and integrates the impact of The Troubles into the comedic storylines that take place in each episode much in the same way that M*A*S*H* did with the Korean War. In the episode in question (Season , Ep. ), the mothers of the teenage Derry Girl stars are preparing to attend their high school reunion. Needless to say, much time is spent dredging up memories of the past all the while focussing on some naughty thing that the moms were all involved with at the end of the dance twenty years earlier. I won’t say what this naughty thing was one way or the other, but the entire episode really showed how important it was for all of these characters to have the chance to be normal and happy and have fun once in a while. The key moment of the show was when the reunion dance was about to begin. The DJ announced that it was time for the national anthem. Everyone groaned, expecting it to be “God Save the Queen”, which, if played, would have been just another in an endless series of reminders that they are ruled by foreigners. Instead, the opening notes of “Teenage Kicks” play, and everyone falls about the place. Angst is instantly replaced by joy. All is well. The reunion unfolds with laughter and drinking and singing and fun. The playing of “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones reminded everyone there that there is a reason to keep on fighting back against oppression, even if that fight is standing your ground and believing in your own right to happiness and good times. Sometimes anthems are born on the battlefield. Sometimes they are born on the dance floor. Whatever the case, “Teenage Kicks” is a balm that has soothed a nation’s soul. It may be the most punk song ever recorded.

I will end this post by telling you that I had no difficulty at all finding rousing sing-along versions of “Teenage Kicks” on video being sung in and around Derry. The song truly means a lot to the citizens of Derry. In the links below, I will post The Undertones singing “Teenage Kicks”, of course, but I will also show school children singing it, fans at football games singing it and on and on it goes. As I said off of the top, sometimes a song is more than just a song. This has been one of those times. 

The link to the video for the song “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Teenage Kicks” as sung by 700 school children near the walls of Derry can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Teenage Kicks” as sung by football fans can be found here.

The link to the video for the movie Good Vibrations, about the life and times of Terri Hooley, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Undertones can be found here.

The link to the official website for Derry, Ireland, can be found here

The title of this series comes from a line in the song “Boxcar” by the awesome band Jawbreaker. Please show these folks some love by visiting them at their website. Jawbreaker merch is really cool. I am hoping that I might find some under the Christmas tree…hint, hint. The link to Jawbreaker’s website can be found here.

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