You know you are in for an interesting evening when the last song playing before the band’s intro music kicks in is ‘You’re the One That I Want’ by Hylda Baker & Arthur Mullard. This version of the John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John hit from the 70s movie Grease is what passed humour in 1978. Please check it out if you don’t know it. Once seen, never unseen. The song before that was ‘Funky Gibbon’ by The Goodies.
As the song (a term I use loosely) whirled around the O2 City Hall in Newcastle, I surveyed the crowd. You could feel the energy in the room. The people were in their starting blocks, waiting for the starter’s pistol to fire, signalling it was time to let rip. I had a few butterflies in the pit of my stomach as I waited. That may have been a reaction to Baker & Mullard.
The first few drumbeats of Stiff Little Fingers instrumental ‘Go For It’ leapt out of the speakers. The crowd roared with approval. The band were just moments away from taking the stage. Then one by one, they appeared – Steve Grantley assumed the position behind his drum kit; Newcastle-born Ian McCallum marched across the stage to grab his guitar; Ali McMordie, resplendent in a 2-Tone t-shirt, draped his bass around his neck; Jake Burns strode to his position, front and centre of the stage, ready to play the ringmaster.
No messing about, the band jumped straight into ‘Straw Dogs’. The crowd let free the pent-up energy they had been storing, like a Mentos-filled bottle of Coke. It was clear this was going to be a good night. Stiff Little Fingers (SLF from hereon in) are certainly loved in this part of the world. Burns loves this part of the world, living in Newcastle for 16 years.
‘Nobody’s Hero’ kept the pace going as McMordie pulled a few shapes with his bass and Grantley’s arms became blurry forms as he thundered out the song’s punchy rhythm. For a bunch of slightly older gentlemen, they can still cut it on stage. Burns’ thundered along, delivering the lyrics with gusto and an undercurrent of anger and bile.
Next up for SLF was ‘Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae’. Burns was in fine form as he assertively sang, “So throw away the guns and the war's all gone/So throw away the hunger and the war's all gone/So throw away the fighting and the war's all gone/So throw away the grudges and the war's all gone”. Simplistic viewpoint? Perhaps. Accurate statements? Absolutely.
I wondered how long it would take for Burns to let his anger spill about the state of play in the UK. I didn’t have too long to wait. He mounted his soapbox to highlight the disparity of lives between people like Boris Johnson and David Cameron and that of most of us. Things go wrong but these folk are never affected. Meanwhile, the majority take the hits and sink lower, fighting to survive. This leads us into ‘Full Steam Behind’, a song that sadly becomes more relevant every year, it seems. “So, you knuckle down until you lost the job/You ended up just another sorry slob/And all your money, well it simply drained away/It’s the end of your glittering career/Now it’s over you’re out on your fucking ear/And all the people who have done this have gone away/With a big pay day”. Mr Burns, you are absolutely on the mark.
Burns led a tribute to the late Terry Hall followed by the band sliding into a cover of The Specials ‘Doesn’t Make It Alright’, a simple, yet effective, anthem to racial equality. There seemed to be a genuine love for Hall amongst the crowd. Maybe I’ve got my rose-tinted glasses on, but it feels as if there were more artists making social and political statements through music in the 70s and 80s than we see today. I’m pretty sure there are as many things to be angry about in 2023 than there were back then.
The crowd flexed their collective vocal cords, belting out the chorus to ‘Listen’. This would prove to be a valuable warm-up exercise for later. Burns then got serious as he talked about mental health, encouraging men to talk, not to bottle things up, and to seek help. Burns has had his issues with the black dog in the past and explores this in ‘My Dark Places’. As he sings, “Well it cuts just like as knife/Takes away your love of life/Puts out your fire and leaves you in the ashes/And you lay there in the hole/What you loved now leaves you cold”, you can hear in his voice that he’s been there and knows how murky it can be. If you feel you are falling, please reach out.
‘Silver Lining’ highlights the disparity between the haves and have-nots and those who rig the system and keep the system rigged against the masses. Written in the 80s during the Thatcher era, the song holds the same weight now as it did then, if not more so. “Don't be told, don't be consoled/Don't be ruled and don't be fooled/Because things are so bad you can never make do/And there's always someone better off than you” Burns spits out at the engaged audience.
Before the band fired up ‘Each Dollar a Bullet’, which sent the crowd into jumping about/flailing arms mode, I scanned the venue, looking at the people around me. Full of old people, right? 70s punk band will be like an Age Concern rally, surely? Not at all. Sure, there were some more mature folk, but quite a lot of younger people too. Maybe they got into the band through their parents (even grandparents), but it says a lot when a band whose lead singer recently turned 65 can still speak to the younger portion of modern Britain. Great music never dies. Nor does the need for music with passion, rage and a soul.
When the bass and drums began firing like a machine gun, the crowd got a second wind as it knew ‘At The Edge’ was being unleashed. All I could see from my vantage point was a sea of bobbing heads and fists punching the air. Burns doesn’t snarl quite like he did years ago, but he’s still got some bite to those vocals when he needs it. To be fair, you can’t sing many of the earlier SLF songs without a plentiful supply of Vocalzone throat lozenges on standby.
‘Wasted Life’ continued this blast of fan favourites. The atmosphere was building nicely. On stage, Grantley was still all sticks and elbows as he rattled out the trademark SLF drum sound. McCallum was prowling the stage, clearly enjoying being on home soil. McMordie was firing out cracking bass lines and Burns was being Burns.
I soon found myself checking that I hadn’t suddenly been transported to the Gallowgate end at St. James’ Park. As the band took us into ‘Gotta Gettaway’, the voices of the crowd synchronised and began chanting, “Gotta gotta gettaway, gotta gotta getaway”. It sounded superb as it reverberated around the City Hall. I half expected a rousing rendition of Blaydon Races! Burns is a Newcastle United fan and probably would have appreciated it.
This was just an amuse-bouche for the grand finale. The final song of the main set was ‘Suspect Device’. At least I assume it was based on what the crowd were singing. I couldn’t hear Jake Burns. It wasn’t a technical issue; the crowd just drowned him out with their fervent singing. It really hit me emotionally. There’s something amazing about being in a room with a couple of thousand like-minded people and sharing this common passion. Live music – there’s just nothing like it.
The band departed the stage to a rapturous reception before Grantley reappeared, settled in behind his kit and started to beat out a military march – the opening to ‘Johnny Was’. The others filed out and they launched into one of the best songs SLF ever recorded. Originally a Bob Marley & The Wailers track, SLF put their mark on it, and it has become a live favourite. And rightly so. It’s bloody awesome! The crowd absorbed it like sponges, looking half-pissed as the song created an intoxicating effect (though I dare say, for some people it was because they had imbibed one too many shandies).
The night ended with what I believed to be ‘Alternative Ulster’. Again, I had to take this in good faith as once more Burns couldn’t be heard as the packed City Hall crowd put their remaining energy into one last hurrah. A few t-shirts were flung into the air, people danced and the building felt alive. The song was once described by Burns as being about, "the sheer tedium of having nowhere to go and nothing to do when you got there." Well, tonight that song sounded like the ultimate party destination for the SLF disciples within the City Hall.
Before the band left the stage, they took a well-deserved bow to the audience. This was greeted with adoring applause and cheers. I wonder if the thought of not seeing SLF live again added an extra edge to the evening. Whilst the band have not said they won’t play live again once the current Everyone Is Someone tour ends, it is unlikely they will embark on full-scale UK tours again. It will likely be short tours or one-off events like festivals.
As we left the venue to the sounds of ‘Bring Me Sunshine’ by Morecambe & Wise, I was buoyed by enjoying a superb night. However, I also felt pangs of melancholy as I realised this may be the last time that I get to enjoy seeing such an enduring and influential band. SLF has been such a big part of many people’s lives. They can still cut it live and their gigs are a celebration of their music. If you can, get to see them before it's too late. Don’t have regrets. You have been warned about the Baker & Mullard situation, so take the necessary precautions.
One thing is for sure, SLF haven’t had a wasted life…
Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae
The Tower in London
Just Fade Away
Full Steam Backwards
Doesn’t Make It Alright
Get a Life
My Dark Places
Each Dollar a Bullet
At The Edge
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