Getting Personal with Feargal Sharkey
Written by: Claire Davies and Sophie Taylor
I have one thing in common with Feargal Sharkey and it’s not musical talent (of which I have none). It’s the shared experience that only those who were reared by an Irish mother can experience. Anyone who’s seen Mrs Brown’s Boys will know the stereotypes, albeit not all are a-typical of course (before my aforementioned mother kicks my sorry arse).
Mine certainly has that in-built Irish pride and is fiercely protective of her brood – upset her children and unto you will her wrath be exacted. She will constantly feed you and make sure you’re warm, but she’ll not take any nonsense.
Whilst Feargal may now call North London his home he was born and bred in Derry, Northern Ireland. The youngest of seven children growing up during a time of growing political unrest, poverty and tension. He describes it as “growing up on the frontline of a painful period of time”.
With parents hugely involved in political civil rights, Feargal describes a house that acted as a hub for political discussion, with the kitchen full of people discussing how to bring down the Northern Irish government.
An endless throng of politically motivated bodies dropping in and out of his life, whilst his parents remained a constant amongst the madness.
During traditional Irish music sessions in pubs, whereby musicians would play a constant stream of music well into the night whilst others in the pub would feed them free drink as they played, the youngest Sharkey would be wheeled out to exercise his lungs by singing those classic wailing Irish folk songs. By the time The Undertones came about he had something of a reputation (for singing… jeezus).
As Feargal got used to belting out a number in front of an audience the world around him was becoming increasingly strained. Secondary school was a haze of dissatisfaction, with violence and anger all around him and his classmates. Many of those he attended school with ended up serving time, in many ways it was part and parcel of the time and environment they were living in. He smiles wryly, pride and relief stretched across his face, whilst noting that his home town is “…now recognisable and I’m really pleased”.
The reasons for the birth of The Undertones is likely to surprise, it wasn’t for fame, fortune or even an inherent need to create music. Feargal confides that the main reason he and his bandmates formed what was to become known as arguably one of the most emblematic punk bands in the history of the genre is pure escapism.
At the time the Irish charts were awash with country music stars such as Philomena Begley and Ireland was largely infiltrated with two types of live music: traditional sessions and cover bands. Having discovered strange new acts such as The Stooges, The New York Dolls and The Ramones via their local record store the boys were hooked on punk music and as five young working class lads in an era of unrest, they could associate with the sentiments of the genre. The band decided to have a go at writing, partly as a two finger salute to the cover bands that dominated the venues at the time – we can write songs, so bollocks to you!
Having worked out that they could inflict their music on others by playing in youth clubs, the band made their first steps into the world of live music. Following rejections and put downs it became a long standing joke among the band that the more people told them they were crap, the more they would practise their arses off, determined to prove they could play. Soon large crowds started turning up to their gigs and those pubs who had initially refused to let the boys play started to call them up for bookings.
The Undertone’s rising success invoked the fury of some of the locals, mostly members of their teenage peer group, who looked upon the group as not to be tolerated. Incidents of violence happened occasionally, the boys were spat on and Feargal recounts one incident in Woolworths where he was dragged unceremoniously across the checkout desks. Not that it deterred them in any way whatsoever, but rather spurred them on to keep on going. In 1978 the band headed to Wizard Studios in Belfast where they recorded Teenage Kicks with the help of Good Vibrations, a Belfast based record store and independent label run by Terri Hooley. Terri, a prominent figure in the Belfast punk-rock scene, was instrumental in developing bands such as The Undertones. Terri took a slew of Teenage Kicks records to every label in London but was met with rejection after rejection. Meanwhile Feargal and bandmate John O’Neil had decided to send a copy of the track to legendary DJ and journalist John Peel.
In what became almost an urban legend of a story for the music industry John Peel ended up playing Teenage Kicks twice in a row on his BBC Radio 1 show and his admiration for the song reportedly reduced him to tears. The snowball effect of their career as a band was now in full pelt.
Feargal recounts those days after John Peel played their track. Standing around in his mum’s house when the phone rings, he picks up the call and each time it’s so-and-co from such-and-such big record label offering to fly the band to London. He laughs as he explains that his immediate reaction as a ‘suspicious Derry person’ was “go fuck yourself”, not realising that such a reaction is like stoking a fire when it comes to labels bidding for you.
Call after call came until Seymour Stein, (founder of Sire Records the label that launched the careers of Depeche Mode, The Ramones, The Smiths and Madonna), called him and said he was flying to Derry to meet with the band. Stein’s influence in the promotion and development of new wave music had already earned respect, but it was his offer to come to Ireland that further convinced the band that Sire were the right label for them. From here a whirlwind of music, touring and TV performances started.
“Let’s face facts here, and I say this with love, but Ireland is a rock in the ocean.
The idea of getting dressed up for Top of the Pops was ridiculous, so I just wore what I wore every other day of my life. I didn’t realise the stick I would get from Derry for embarrassing the town for wearing my parka on TV. Conversely, on the other end of the spectrum there was a whole load of teenagers in the UK going ‘bloody hell look at that it’s great’. So I saw both sides.”
After such success, it might be hard to imagine what compelled Feargal to leave The Undertones. “There’s never one single reason,” he declares. “I thought people were becoming less interested. I was becoming less interested in the music we were making.” Feargal explains how they were five blokes who weren’t getting on but had a moment in time that was coming to an end.
He continues with self deprecation, describing himself as cantankerous and awkward. When the possibility of a reunion was suggested in 1993 / 94, Feargal was in AR at Polydor. “I didn’t think it was a great an idea to look back like that, for me personally it’s not an option, I haven’t changed my viewpoint on that. I didn’t want to put my career on hold.”
Feargal addresses the the Vince Clarke rumour in Smash Hits. “It was completely untrue, I hadn’t even met him. But I thought it was a cracking idea and it brought us together. Curiously enough, fast forward 25 years and a guy calls me called Daniel Miller and says Roundhouse are doing this festival, will you perform Never Never with Erasure? It was the only time in 25 years. Out of respect for Daniel and Vince I did it. It felt utterly fantastic. But that doesn’t mean I harbour any desire to do it again.”
It’s true he’s had a pretty extraordinary life, from a child born in Northern Ireland in 1958, through to all his current achievements and acknowledgements, admitting, “what more could you possibly want in life?”
“Now it’s about giving young people the support and encouragement I can, because in my view it’s the very least I can do to give something back.”
Feargal describes himself as incredibly fortunate. “I enjoy the political stuff but I try to avoid it most of the time. Although sometimes I find myself in a situation where I realise instinctively that I have to get involved and do something about it. It’s my mothers fault! Sometimes you can change things.”
In 1970s sectarian Belfast in the midst of the bloody Troubles DJ Terri Hooley opened a record shop “on the most bombed half-mile in Europe”. 2013 comedy drama film, Good Vibrations, depicts this story of Terri Hooley.
Played by Richard Dormer he is a music-lover, idealist, radical and rebel inspired by the new underground punk scene, finding new musicians like Feargal and branching out into record production. Feargal is played by actor Kerr Logan.
“I was unbelievably delighted for Terri [about the film]. There was some poetic license but it was brilliant. He paid for the recording of Teenage Kicks and we did it in eight hours. Without him the record wouldn’t have been made.”
In 1985, Feargal released A Good Heart on Virgin Records. Written by Maria McKee about her relationship with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers keyboard player, Benmont Tench, and produced by the Eurythmics‘ David A. Stewart, this was the former Undertones singer’s third solo single. “I was having a bloody good time making that record [A Good Heart]. It sold over a million copies in this country alone. I’m very grateful for it too. I’m really quite bloody proud of it artistically and creatively.”
Feargal references the setting for tonight’s event. Sitting on stage at the Arts and Media School Islington, he stresses the importance of arts and music education in schools.
“I’m incredibly sensitive to who sets, and how culture is seen in academia. I find it quite outrageous how expensive music lessons at school are. I can hear my mum in the back of my head… it’s undervalued. I was amazed when I walked into AMDI and saw the facilities!”
Keep your eyes peeled for the next edition of ‘Up Close and Personal’ and take a look at the previous event with Gary Kemp in the meantime.
Produced by Neil McCormick and Ashley Grey, the event series aims to raise support and money for Arts and Media School Islington, whilst bringing interesting talks and shows to the school’s Barton Theatre.
Check out the school here.
Follow Neil McCormick on Twitter on @neil_mccormick
North Four are chuffed to be the media partners of Up Close and Personal and are proud supporters of the Arts and Media School Islington. The school and the event are also supported by lovely local independent business Davies & Davies Estate Agents.
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