The Undertones’ Damian O’Neill on Celtic ‘honour’, political protests and Teenage Kicks: part 1

Forty-one years ago, Teenage Kicks blasted into our homes announcing the arrival of Derry’s finest, The Undertones, the pop-punk pioneers who are still touring to this day. In this exclusive interview, Green-tinted Specs caught up with lead guitarist Damian O’Neill to talk about their debut song’s ‘timeless’ appeal, musical evolution, political protests and the brutality of Thatcher, the joys of Mars bars, the ‘God’ that is Jock Stein, and playing at an ‘incredible’ Celtic Park… twice!

GTS: The Undertones have been a top-10 band, have played all over the world, have an instantly recognisable sound that can be heard to this day blasting out in pubs, radios and TVs. So, would it be fair to say that you achieved your ‘teenage dreams’ by playing on the Celtic Park pitch?

Damian: Ha! Well most of us were football mad when we were young and no doubt we all dreamed of becoming professional footballers.

Alas, that wasn’t to be, but being invited twice as a band to Celtic Park as entertainers was an honour and a privilege.

GTS: Seriously, though, how would such a gig match up to a regular performance and what did you make of the atmosphere in general?

Damian: You couldn’t really compare it to a normal show as we only got to play 15 mins or so. Also, we were forced to mime the music and only the vocals were live.

We were a tad uncomfortable about that but it didn’t matter as the reception we got was amazing. We were so nervous though! The atmosphere in the ground was incredible, especially with the Milan game.

GTS: The first game, you dedicated Teenage Kicks to Aiden McGeady, who was 18 at the time. It didn’t do him any harm as he played a blinder and was applauded by Milan legend Alessandro Nesta. Were you keeping a close eye on the youngster’s performance?

Damian: Yes of course! We were well aware of his intelligence, speed and skill and he certainly wasn’t fazed by the big occasion at that game. It was obvious how great a player he was for someone so young.

GTS: McGeady, of course, chose to represent the Republic of Ireland over Scotland. It wasn’t a big deal for most Celtic fans who would have understood his logic, but it was regarded with an outpouring of rage in certain quarters here. Were you aware of the controversy?

Undertones Celtic Park
Damian O’Neill, Billy Doherty and Paul McLoone

Damian: Yeah we heard he was getting a lot of stick and abuse and being called a traitor etc., but that wasn’t surprising considering the mindset of those giving it out.

You only have to look at the vile sectarian and racial abuse Derry’s very own James McClean has to go through every time he plays in England to see how far we still have to go to kick bigotry out of the game.

GTS: You were back at Celtic Park again for the Arsenal game a few years later. It’s fair to say that the pre-match entertainment might have been better than the match. With no goals scored in two games, a lot of superstitious fans would be thinking of ditching a scarf or an unlucky item of clothing. Who in the band were you thinking of binning?

Undertones
Vinny O’Neill, Mickey Bradley, Paul McLoone

Damian: We would’ve ditched the new blown-in Paul McLoone. After all, he’s only been with us 20 years.

Also, can I say sorry to all Celtic fans out there as we seem to have jinxed the team as both times we were there, they got knocked out! I very much doubt we’ll be asked back.

Undertone
Ciaran O’Neill, John O’Neill, Damian O’Neill, Paul McLoone, Billy Doherty

GTS: You obviously were a young band when you broke through in the 70s. Being from the Creggan and the Bogside, there would have been an affinity among many of the locals towards Celtic, who hadn’t long ago won the European Cup and got to another final. Did the names of Jinky, Bertie Auld, Billy McNeill, Kenny Dalglish and Danny McGrain ring out in those days?

Undertones Celtic Park
Billy, Mickey, John, Paul and Damian before gig

Damian: Of course. Everyone in Derry who loved football knew the names of all the Lisbon Lions by heart and the likes of Danny and King Kenny were legends too.

Our brother Vinny was a mad Celtic fan and used to buy the Celtic View and even though me and John were big Chelsea fans, we always supported Celtic too. John’s father-in-law, Paddy Moore, was at the game in Lisbon and a Celtic fanatic and he used to tell us great stories about the experience of actually being there.

I also remember hearing a song called ‘Passing Time’ on a 7” single by Jimmy Johnstone. I think Vinny must’ve bought it as Jinky was his favourite player. Was it a B-Side? Pretty cheesy song if I remember rightly!

And during a day off on tour in Glasgow in April ’83, me, Mickey, John and Billy attended Celtic Park to watch the Celts beat Motherwell 3-0 (see pics).

At the end of the game we suddenly spotted the great Jock Stein sitting about five rows ahead of us and I remember this old man next to us suddenly get very animated and pointing at Jock. He said to me in his heavy Glaswegian accent, “See that man there? That’s God that is.”

Damian O'Neill Undertones Celtic
Danian at Celtic Park in 1983

GTS: The club’s Irish following didn’t get much chance to see Celtic on TV in those days, so with eyes focused on Match of the Day and the English sides, was that how you got into Chelsea at the time? And was it long before football started to play second fiddle to music, chocolate and girls?

Damian: Like I said, me and John were Chelsea fanatics in the early 70s when they had that great team that won the FA Cup and Cup Winners Cup and so yes, to us the English First Division was way more important than the Scottish League.

Most of the band bonded over football (except Feargal Sharkey who didn’t like the game). In the early days we were always having a kick about in the Bull Park which was right next to The Undertones HQ in Beechwood Avenue where me, Vinny and John resided. In fact, the classic photo of all of us sitting on a wall for the cover of the first LP was taken at Bull Park.

But as soon as we got more seriously involved in the band, football took a back seat.

Undertones Celtic Park 1983
Mickey Bradley (L) and Billy Doherty at Celtic Park in 1983

GTS: It must still be a great boost to play a gig and hear a packed out crowd singing back every word. You have a new generation of fans coming through too?

Damian: Our fans are our lifeblood. Nothing beats hearing a thousand people singing along to Teenage Kicks or My Perfect Cousin.

Initially, when we first reformed, most of our audience were of similar age (and girth) to some of us but these days we attract all generations. The songs are timeless.

Undertones Celtic Park 1983
Celtic 3 Motherwell 0, (McGarvey, McAdam, OG) Looks more than 15,454!

GTS: Who influenced and inspired you back when you started in 1974?

Damian: In the early days we’d cover songs by the Beatles, The Rolling Stones (Beggars Banquet being our favourite album), Creedence Clearwater Revival, Them, early bluesy Fleetwood Mac, Cream. Then we started doing Dr Feelgood and Eddie and the Hotrods covers in ’76.

Around that time, we had a friend called Donal who was a doctor’s son and therefore had more spending money than us and who lent us amazing records by The New York Dolls/MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges (the holy trinity).

Also, Lenny Kaye’s incredible Nuggets compilation was a huge influence on us. All these records helped join the dots when punk came around with the Ramones/Sex Pistols/Buzzcocks etc.

GTS: The Undertones steered away from politics in their music, unlike for example Stiff Little Fingers or, in England, The Clash or The Specials. Was the music more about your own personal escapism from a dark time in Ireland’s history, or just trying to make other people’s worlds a bit of a happier place?

Damian: We never purposely made a decision to steer clear of politics but initially it never entered our minds to write about it. That would’ve seemed a corny and obvious thing to do. Our attitude then was that politics are for boring grown-ups.

In hindsight, I can now see that us writing joyous pop songs was, nevertheless, an unconscious political statement in its own right considering where we came from. Being in the group was our escape from the madness and mayhem around us.

The great Derry journalist Eamonn McCann said it best: “The Undertones made a beautiful noise coming from an ugly place.”

GTS: There’s was an obvious exception, wearing the black armband on Top of the Pops after Bobby Sands became the first hunger striker to die. Tell us about that…

Part 2

PART TWO OF INTERVIEW HERE

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