This interview was originally published for, and first appeared in, the Metro Herald.
Charting nigh on 40 years, The Undertones’ tapestry is one chequered with climbs, falls and rebirths. I’m grateful then, to find bassist Michael ‘Mickey’ Bradley in such genial, expressive form. A mainstay of the band for every second of its existence, his status as a key member of the iconic Northern Irish outfit is beyond reproach. Thankfully, so too is his memory and he recalls the intricacies of the band’s genesis and progression with remarkable ease. ‘I didn’t think we’d last two years!’ he laughs. ‘I just thought I’d still be friends with all of them.’
Ultimately, he was to be proven wrong on both counts. Forged against a backdrop of political unrest and widespread violence, it’s no surprise that The Undertones’ fledgling steps were tricky ones. ‘I wouldn’t say we were playing under the radar because there was no radar,’ Mickey admits. ‘Bands in Derry simply didn’t get media coverage but it meant we had the luxury of being able to spend three years learning how to be a band.’ Indeed, the sound honed during those formative years contrasted sharply with their overbearing surroundings. Politics and religion were ignored and in their place came fun, catchy riffs and tales of adolescent angst via Fearghal Sharkey their frontman. ‘We were interested in punk-pop records and the garage bands from the 60s.’ Mickey explains, when quizzed on this juxtaposition. ‘You’d need to be Bob Dylan to knock something about the Troubles out and not open yourself up to ridicule, especially in your home city.’
As with many of music’s great success stories The Undertones’ big break was ‘an incredible slice of luck’. With proper label interest receding, John Peel happened upon ‘Teenage Kicks’ and was so enraptured by it that he played it twice in a row on his popular BBC Radio 1 slot. ‘Would we have got a deal without John Peel? I really don’t think so,’ admits Mickey. ‘When he played the track it was heard by Sire Records and they sent someone over to see us. A few months earlier we had sent it out to all the independent labels and heard nothing!’ Peel’s devotion was the catalyst for the band’s ascension as they rattled out three albums in the early 80s. Hits like ‘My Perfect Cousin’ and ‘Here Comes The Summer’ boosted their profile further but then suddenly, it was all over.
By their fourth record the tensions between Fearghal and the others had reached breaking point. ‘The craic had ended,’ Mickey acknowledges. ‘We had a particularly bad tempered photo-session in Sweden of all places and at the sound-check Fearghal said ‘I’m leaving’. We could have gone on but we wouldn’t have been true to ourselves.’ It wasn’t until 1999, some 16 years later, that they changed their minds on the matter. A request from The Saw Doctors saw the band briefly reconvene for the Galway Arts Festival, albeit with a key exclusion. ‘We didn’t ask Fearghal’, Mickey recollects. ‘That was probably very bad of us but it just wouldn’t have worked.’ The renaissance was cemented when Derry’s Nerve Centre venue asked the band to reform for their reopening. ‘We said yes and then then we realised that we needed a proper singer’.