We talk Strummer, Trump and forty years of Punk with SLF legend.
Still packing them in, still delivering blistering live sets and very much still burning, Stiff Little Fingers recently celebrated forty years with a landmark gig in Belfast. The set-list was a perfect reflection of the anger that gave birth to the band alongside the socio-political and inspirational anthems that have become their trademark from debut album Inflammable Material, through to the most recent offering No Going Back.
To attend a Stiff Little Fingers live show is to witness first hand the potent reaction as band meet audience, resulting in pogo-pyrotechnics that are as vigorous now as at any time during their career. This is not a “take it or leave it” band; this is a band that has forged an undying bond with their fiercely loyal following which seems to grow ever deeper as the years go by.
As a band that drew direct inspiration from the Clash, and particularly Joe Strummer, SLF have continued to keep the flag flying for their characteristic brand of protest power-punk that has been so influential over the years. I caught up with Jake Burns as he took time out back in Chicago after the Fortieth Anniversary and before embarking on the next leg of the tour in the US.
LTW: I suppose the first question has to be your reflections on the Belfast gig?
Jake: Well it nearly didn’t happen. When we got there we found there wasn’t enough time for us to play our full set due to the other bands and the time allocated. We asked if we could pull our time forward 10 minutes so we could play the full 90 minutes which they were fine with as long as the crew could shift the gear, which they could. So we were all set to go 10 minutes early when our tour manager told us the monitor system had completely broken down which was a bit of a shock to say the least! Obviously it would mean we couldn’t hear ourselves onstage so every technician at the gig was just standing there looking baffled. The extra 10 minutes just disappeared and it was getting to the point where someone was going to have to go out and explain to the crowd that the gig couldn’t happen, which obviously no one wanted. But, possibly down to serendipity, it just came back on at our original stage time and we could go on.
The result of all that was I spent the next 75 minutes watching the monitors and dreading them breaking down again. People actually said to me that when we first came on we all looked really focused and determined. I had to tell them that it wasn’t determination, it was worry as we were all terrified of it going wrong again. It took away all the stage nerves as we were just worried about the equipment and it probably gave our playing an edge I imagine. We rattled through the whole set in 60 minutes which left perfect time for encores.
It must be a nerve wracking experience with gear that can go at any minute. Are nerves something you experience still?
Well if anything I get more nervous now. When I was 18 or 19 when we formed the band, I didn’t really know anything and thought we could take the whole world on. Now, after doing it for 40 years I know everything that can go wrong. I arrive at venues and if something went wrong last time we were there, I’m thinking “please don’t let that happen again”.
Having The Stranglers, Ruts DC and The Outcasts on the bill must have made it even more special.
That made it from our point of view as it was a 40th Anniversary and a celebration so it was great to be able to play with a group of bands who are old friends, who we’ve known for much of the 40 years.
We’ve known The Outcasts for the whole time and The Stranglers not long after. We hadn’t long moved to London and Hugh Cornwell was having a holiday at Her Majesty’s expense. The Stranglers had booked a couple of nights at The Rainbow which they decided to go ahead with and give the money to drug rehabilitation charities. They decided to get some guest singers and I was one of the people they called and we had literally not long got off the boat so I’ve known those guys a long time and of course I worked with JJ in Three Men and Black with Pauline Black of The Selecter.
The Ruts of course started slightly after us but we’ve talked about this between us amd there was ourselves, The Ruts, The Skids and The Members and we were all watching what each other did. If one of us got a 4 star review the others would have to try to get a 5 star. It was all friendly competition.
You’ve recently been out on a solo tour with Rancid and Dropkick Murphy’s, how did that go?
It was interesting. I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to do that if I hadn’t done acoustic stuff with Segs, Ruffy and Kirk Brandon recently and also the Three Men and Black stuff. I do enjoy the acoustic stuff now but I’d never done anything completely on my own but the offer came from Ken from Dropkicks and he actually caught me at a weak moment, I’d been out celebrating my birthday, and it was only when I woke up the next morning I asked my wife “did I agree to go on tour with Dropkick Murphy’s last night?”
But it turned out to be a lot of fun, if slightly nerve-wracking for the first show or two. Also it opens up a potential future opportunity as there may be a time when you look a bit stupid jumping around the stage with an electric guitar so this is a possibility.
Rancid and Dropkicks have got enormous fan bases so it was big venues and big crowds, around 9000 in Toronto, and of that number of people, you don’t know how many of them know who the Hell you are but the audiences were very good and did seem to know me. It was a positive experience and I was lucky that the guys in the other bands were such nice people which made it a lot easier.
I may have misjudged Inflammable Material over the years. Is it less the angry Irish album I’ve always lazily assumed, but more a chronicle of teenage frustration?
I would agree. Everybody refers to it as “the Irish record” but I always say to go and look at the tracks and there’s probably 4 out of 13 that refer specifically to Northern Ireland. The rest of it is exactly as you said, just disaffected teenagers kicking against the world, you think I would have got over that by now but I’m still disaffected and still kicking! But like you say, it probably would have been largely the same if we had come from Liverpool or Manchester, although maybe my environment made me a little angrier.
The environment we grew up in probably did give the album some extra edge to people outside Northern Ireland but from our perspective it didn’t as that was the only thing we knew.
How do you reflect on Inflammable Material now?
It was a big thing; it was a chart record and it basically set up our career. When we were making it, we didn’t think we’d get the chance to make another record as we’d been turned down by everyone but Rough Trade very kindly said they would do it and I really thought it was just going to be something that the four of us could keep and play to our grandchildren to show what we did when we were young.
I really didn’t expect it to be any more than that but obviously it was very successful and then we found ourselves being courted by record companies and we thought that it was going to last a little longer than we expected. Even then, I thought there was a limit to it. Unless you’re Led Zeppelin of U2, you can’t really expect much more than 4 or 5 years as a rock band so to be talking about it now, all these years later, is ridiculous really. The credit for that must go tour audience for being so loyal and sticking with us from Day One. I always say it’s more like a football team thing, we’re their team and they’re going to stick with us, God bless ‘em.
You make no secret of the influence Joe Strummer has had on you, and say as much onstage when introducing Strummerville. Can you just expand on his importance to you?
When Punk came along I was really ready for it as, like a whole bunch of other people, I was just so bored with what rock bands were playing at the time. I’m not denigrating bands like Yes as a lot of people love them but it seemed to me that rock music had really lost its way. It felt like you had to go to College to get a degree before you could play in a band and I found myself being drawn increasingly to more basic music.
My dad had always been a huge Hank Williams fan and while I wasn’t necessarily, I was buying records by people who wrote songs rather than showing off. When Punk actually happened it was probably like when Elvis Presley or Little Richard first started, it was like an electric shock. I couldn’t see it lasting more than a few months but thought at least I’d get some decent records to buy. It was exciting but the music I heard didn’t necessarily say anything to me until I heard The Clash. That’s when I made a real connection and could see a real future in all of it. Not just for The Clash but for the whole movement. If you could ally this amount of disaffection with the old farts who were running the country with the energy of Punk, then you might be on to something.
It wasn’t just The Clash themselves, it was more specifically Joe and the more I saw him interviewed and then seeing him in the flesh talking to people, the more I felt his influence. The first time I came across him The Clash were meant to be playing Belfast but they couldn’t get insurance for the hall and they were a lot of angry people in town who had come to see them. A few of us found out they were staying at The Europa Hotel and Joe and Paul took the time to come out and talk to us. At the time, The Europa was surrounded by wire and guards and they were standing at the wire explaining why the gig was cancelled and I often think to myself, “I can’t see Phil Collins doing that”. It was a genuine respect he had for the audience and the connection that he made that made a big impression on me.
Would you have written any political-type songs before you heard The Clash?
Probably not. I was a big Dylan fan who obviously wrote a lot of political songs but they were often couched in poetry whereas Joe was pretty direct and to the point. That’s probably the style I’ve adopted and any symbolism I use is generally pretty easy to see through as my brain just isn’t wired to write the sort of poetic lyrics that Dylan did.
Joe certainly was an inspiration but the other huge inspiration in my life around that time was Gordon Ogilvie. He encouraged us to write more and more about our own lives and having that sort of validation from someone who wanted to write with me made a huge difference. Gordon gave me the finished lyric of Suspect Device on the second day I met him and said “do you think you can do something with this?” I’ve said before it was like a ‘60’s Sci Fi shows where the rest of the room disappears and all I could see was that piece of paper and I knew exactly what I could do with it. It needed trimming as it was something like 16 verses long. I don’t think Gordon had grasped the idea of the 3-minute punk song at that stage. So we put Suspect Device together and I’d written Wasted Life around the same time so it was lift off for us.
The Chrysalis period produced three albums in Nobody’s Heroes, Go for it and Now Then. Am I right in thinking you prefer Go For It?
Nothing wrong with Nobody’s Heroes but I just felt it was like Inflammable Material Part 2 with better production and a bigger budget. I think by the time we reached Go For It, Gordon and I really wanted to stretch our wings in terms of song-writing and it’s something I’ve tried to do in every subsequent record. I just wanted to keep moving forward without changing the sound of the band too much. It kept me interested and also reflects the fact that as we were playing, we were also learning and playing better. I’ve come across a bunch of Punk Rock bands, without naming any names, who seem almost deliberately to stay at the one level and it strikes me as almost Status Quo level when you hear each album and think, “it’s the same bloody record lads”.
So yes Go For It is probably my favourite of the early albums. With Now Then we probably tried to jump too far, and we were all pulling in different directions then anyway. It’s the one album I look back at with most affection out of the first four, and I think it’s the strongest of the four material-wise.
How much in control of your career and direction were you at that time?
Completely, absolutely one hundred per cent. That was the joy of the success of Inflammable Material when many record companies came to us to try to sign us. They just went down the traditional route which labels go down when they want something and that was to offer shed loads of money.
The thing was, the deal we had with Rough Trade, who weren’t a traditional record company by any means, was “once we’ve recouped the money that it cost to make the record, we’ll split any profits with you 50/50.” Well it only cost £2000 to make Inflammable Material and by the end of the year it had made around a quarter of a million so money was the one thing we didn’t need.
Chrysalis came to us and almost started negotiations with the line “I guess you don’t need any money, so what do you want?” We basically said that we wanted complete control and they said “OK”. We made the records we wanted to make and then handed them to Chrysalis. At no stage did anyone from the record company come to the studio and say “you should change that or soften the edges on that”. They came down if we invited them to hear the finished thing. The other thing was we never actually signed the band to Chrysalis, we signed a tape lease deal where we owned the record and they just sold it. It’s often joked about but there was a fad for coloured vinyl at the time and we had it written into our contract that, without the express permission of the band, all records will be black, round and have a hole in the middle. So we had complete control over everything, right down to what the records looked like.
That wasn’t the case for most bands then was it?
Absolutely not. Most people at the time signed in haste and regretted at leisure. The ironic thing is that at the time, we were hugely jealous of these bands who were getting signed while we weren’t. We couldn’t understand it as we were getting good reviews and great reactions from the audience and thinking “how come they’re getting the record deal and we’re not?” I don’t necessarily believe that everything happens for a reason but we certainly found ourselves in a stronger position.
Looking back over your career, which event or period was the most challenging?
I think probably the Now Then period. The band were pulling in four different directions, Punk had run its course as far as the public were concerned and so our audience was dwindling so that made any strife within the band become major. The whole New Romantic thing had happened and even 2 Tone was passé at that stage. We were on the same label as Spandau and they were doing really well as it was all about big production and lavish videos as opposed to the nitty gritty that Punk and 2 Tone brought to the table.
We reacted to it badly; we should have recognised that it was manly outside forces that was causing all this falling out. That was the first real challenge we had faced as looking back we’d really had plain sailing up to that point. What we should have done is take a really long holiday or say “I don’t want to see any of you for six months. Go and do what you want, make a record or whatever and then we can reconvene”. I think if we’d done that we probably would have been fine but we were young and stupid, we’d had enough and basically said “stick your band up your arse, I’m out of here”.
That was definitely the low point and when we reformed four years later we were all aware that it had been a mistake and since then it hasn’t been plain sailing, there has been arguments but we’re older now and we can talk things through. I think also we’ve realised that it’s not just that Stiff Little Fingers mean a lot to us, and I don’t just mean that it’s our living though obviously it is, but we also realise how much it means to other people and you bear that in mind when you’re making decisions.
I have to put myself in the shoes of a fan and the only way I can do that is to think of Newcastle United, not that we’re in as big a mess as they are by any stretch! I sit there watching them, thinking “they won’t buy anyone in this transfer window and Rafa Benitez is going to leave”. Why? It doesn’t really make any difference to me, I’ve still got to get up in the morning and pay my mortgage at the end of the month, it shouldn’t really matter. But it does and that’s the way you have to look at things to do with the band, it really matters to people.
Suffering from Depression is something you’ve made no secret of and it’s fair to say that, as a hero and influence to many people, your openness could be a big help to people.
I always believe that talking about it helps, it helps me onstage every night to talk about it as it’s a constant reminder to me because it still happens. It is absolutely the case that you don’t know what the fuck is happening. I’ve had periods when I’ve been down before but the real depression didn’t hit me until after I got divorced some years ago. The strange thing was it didn’t hit me at the time or after the divorce, it was actually a couple of years after when you think, “why are you upset about that, that was years ago?”.
I found myself listless, not interested in anything, I just didn’t want to do anything. It wasn’t that I wished myself harm or anything like that, I just cut myself off from friends, couldn’t be bothered to go out for a drink; I’d make an excuse. But it wasn’t a constant state and that’s the really disorientating thing about it; you can go to bed feeling dreadful and wake up the next morning feeling fine but I think it effects everybody differently. It’s something that you can’t pin down an accurate cause for. With me it was the loss of divorce that was maybe the trigger but there was something deeper that was causing the problem.
The thing that drove me to write Dark Places was that I had found ways of coping with it and I wanted to keep reminding myself about that because I knew I was going to be in situations where I couldn’t use those coping mechanisms which for me had always been to just get away from everyone. I used to go for long walks, preferably in a wooded area, or where we used to live get on bicycle and just round up and down the lake shore for miles. Exercise in some way, get into an environment that’s close to nature.
But I knew that wasn’t always going to be an option as it knew it would hit me at times when I couldn’t do that, like on a tour bus in the middle of Kansas or somewhere. I wouldn’t necessarily be able to go and find a park on my own and walk about for hours so the song was basically written as a coping mechanism for me but if it can help other people then I’m only too happy about that.
You’re living in the United States at a time when the political divide is as great as it has been for many years. As someone who has always spoken out and written songs to make your political stance clear, do you find it difficult to comment on the current political scene as you are not a citizen? In a nutshell, do you have to watch what you say in your songs?
Well I probably should, but I don’t. When Peter Bywaters from Peter and the Test Tube Babies was refused access to the US for dressing up as Trump and taking the piss, the rest of the band looked at me and said “ You may want to think about deleting your Facebook page mate!” It does make you wonder how far the reach these guys have. If they wanted to, they could be listening to this phone call right now.
After living here for twelve years, I’ve literally just now got round to applying to become a US citizen. I’m hoping at some point during the interview they don’t ask me why I’m applying for citizenship after twelve years because the honest answer is “So I can vote that arsehole out of fucking office the first chance I get!” The minute he won, I turned to my wife and said “That’s it, I’m taking out citizenship”. Under Obama it wasn’t perfect but it was ok but not with the overgrown toddler. I’m not happy at all.
Did you see the Trump victory coming?
No not at all, absolutely not. We were at an election night party because we assumed Clinton was going to get elected but that turned into a wake very quickly. I just went home to bed and tried to pretend it didn’t happen. I don’t think anyone saw it coming and I don’t actually think he saw it coming either. I actually don’t think he wants the fucking job because it’s a job and he’s doing as little of it as he can. He’s out playing golf most days and to be honest I’m happy for him to do that as when he’s out on the golf course he can’t fucking kill us all so just go and play golf as much as you want mate!
There’s talk of a couple of new songs being worked into the set shortly?
We were hoping to get one into the set on the most recent tour but that was building up to the Belfast show which was a celebration looking back. We did it in rehearsals but it wasn’t completely ready to play in public just yet but we’re on the road now for the next month and that should give us time to kick it into shape so hopefully it should be in the set for the UK leg of the tour in October.
I’ve actually written two and I’ve got a load of ideas so we are gearing up to write another album, assuming that they’re all half decent.
Stiff Little Fingers are on tour in the US at present and return to the UK in October.
They are on Facebook and tweet as @rigiddigits. Jake Burns tweets as @JakeBurnsSLF
All words by Dave Jennings. More from Dave can be found by checking out his Louder Than War Author Archive. He is also on Twitter as @blackfoxwrexham.