The First Time: Stiff Little Fingers, Dundee University Students Union – 30th October 1982

Suspect (Memory) Device.

Forty Years on. As the deadline for this post approached the old memory would not oblige. I can remember bits. Travelling to Smokey’s Nightclub in Arbroath to catch the Associates. Alan Rankine’s father worked alongside my dad. I’d been to Glasgow to see someone at the Apollo. I remember the crappy car, a Volvo 66, but not the driver or the gig. I’d slept outside the Caird Hall to secure tickets for Genesis but have little recollection of the concert itself. I’ve just recently given the badge away.

Can I be given dispensation if I describe the moment I witnessed my first stage dive? It remains quite vivid and takes me back to those less-than halcyon days. In the very early eighties there was a dearth of live music venues in Dundee. Big names still came to the Caird Hall but usually we had to travel to catch a band on tour. Tickets were often bought in advance from Grouchio’s record shop on the Perth Road. Fat Sams did open at the end of 1983 and it soon became a legendary staging post for new Scottish talent. I certainly cashed a few cheques behind that bar as a student.

It was beneficial to know someone studying at Dundee University. Someone who could get you access to the student union and bands they had booked. Keith was a school friend. We shared the same birthday. He had a god-like brother studying medicine. I’m sure I was heavily influenced by both the brother’s taste in music. I’d been with Keith to see Nazareth and Thin Lizzy at the Caird Hall. It was rumoured that our business studies teacher at school had played drums for Nazareth in the early days.

I certainly wasn’t confident enough to share my appreciation for artists in my old man’s record collection.

The brothers liked Stiff Little Fingers. A band from Belfast who brazenly wrote material about growing up in ‘The Troubles’. Although looked upon as Celtic Cousins and never attacked, trouble was only twenty-eight miles away from us. They had a huge impact on Scotland. Religion still held sway over a lot of our lives. Just the previous year Pope Jean Paul II had visited Bellahouston Park in Glasgow where 300 000 people had gathered for a Papal Mass. In Scotland sectarianism and hate were openly displayed on the street, at school, in the dwindling job market and in the unemployment lines. In the pubs and at football matches. Supporters buses, colours shrouding the back windows, left from towns all across Scotland each Saturday to amass and sing at their chosen old firm game. We all knew of someone in the army. Stiff Little Fingers were loud but you could always make out Jake’s combative lyrics. They must have brought out the young Sandinistas in us. Here was an opportunity to see them in our city after a disappointing Dundee Derby.

Had we’d listened to the band’s new album beforehand? Probably not. New vinyl was expensive. Singles were affordable but unless it was Christmas, LPs were usually borrowed from the library. Maybe we should have followed the band more closely in the music press. Like many there that night we went expecting new songs but similar to tracks on ‘Inflammable Material’. That didn’t happen. Forty years later, with the help of the internet I know why. ‘Now Then…’ was Jake Burns attempt to become a mainstream rock band. The songs were still combative and heartfelt but Belfast and The Troubles didn’t have a monopoly on their content. This did not go down too well with their hardcore fans. Those hankering after the early years of Punk. I was probably wearing my Kevin Rowland dungarees and avoiding eye contact with anyone quiffed and stabbed. We stood beside a group of these disgruntled punks who had obviously not got the recent “gonnae no do that” spitting message from most punk bands, including the Clash.

What I remember before the music kicked off, was new drummer Dolphin Taylor, jumping from the monstrously high stage onto the nose of a punk in the crowd. I saw him later in the toilets looking like an extra from Raging Bull. It certainly curtailed his ability to spit. The music? Some of the songs on ‘Now Then…’ are excellent. I remember the band did a cover of Marley’s ‘Johnny Was’ that was incredibly long but brilliant. They appeased a few of the hardcore fans by finishing with ‘Tin Soldiers‘ I think and they covered ‘Love of the Common People’, recognisable as the title track from the 1967 Waylon Jennings album in my old man’s collection.

The band was to split the following year and had a five-year hiatus. When they came back their set lists did not include any material from ‘Now Then…’ My copy of ‘Inflammable Material‘ was probably later handed over as part-exchange in Groucho’s. I’ve never seen Stiff Little Fingers since… I don’t think. Forty years later I can still feel that charged atmosphere, the rage in the speakers and suspect this was the beginnings of my tinnitus.

I’m still in awe of Jake Burns and his longevity. I read recently that Jake’s top five albums that he can’t live without include Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits. “Hank was my dad’s all-time favourite artist and as such I was obliged to hate him until I was old enough to admit that my dad was right, I was wrong and Williams was a genius.” My children have yet to ‘See the Light’.

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