Teenage Kicks is the answer to what can happen when rock n’ roll magic gets created based on the simple formula of three chords and a great melody. The song, in spite of its many accolades and its fame, is the rare example of a rock anthem that’s never been underplayed. Famously adopted by John Peel as his all-time favorite song, and included on the majority of compilations detailing punk in the late 1970s, Teenage Kicks captures The Undertones in their most enthusiastic, underdeveloped, yet exciting form. Here’s the story of how this John O’Neill-penned tune came to be.
The Undertones, teenage punks from Derry
By the late 1970s, punk-rock was a bonafide youth phenomenon in most parts of the world. U.S. bands may have birthed it, but the England groups had made it first-page news. The Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks were living out their glory days. However, the music industry in most other places besides the U.S. and England was not quite as interested in this guitar-rock from the streets. Northern Ireland’s Derry’s was one such place.
The Undertones were formed in 1975 by five local teenagers. The band included Feargal Sharkey as the singer, Damian, and John O’Neill and on guitar, Michael Bradley on bass and backing vocals, and Billy Doherty on drums. By 1977 they had become serious about their efforts. This was spurred on by the efforts of guitar bands back in London and Manchester.
The youngsters took the decision that they would actively seek to improve their music. They set off to play live as often as possible. They also decided to present a new song each time that they did, be it a cover or an original. It soon became apparent that John O’Neill was the band’s creative engine, penning most of their tunes. The band also learned plenty of punk and early rock n’ roll covers. Often they would substitute the words and the pacing with their own.
Early live shows
Initial reception to the Undertones was tepid and underwhelming. However, the same could have been said by any garage-rock guitar group at the time. There wasn’t much of a music scene in Derry, and the one that existed was centered around shiny pop music. The punk-inspired youngsters were viewed as as a novelty at best. At worst, they were seen as a bunch of strange kids to the more conservative locals.
There weren’t many places to play either. At least, not many showed interest in the Undertones, or in original music. The Casbah was the one club that gave the band home, possibly admiring their persistence and desire to promote “alternative rock”. The Undertones began playing here often, and soon enough their concentrated effort became obvious.
By 1978, the group was well-rehearsed and had worked its way through numerous covers as well as original songs. With so few people showing an interest, the quintet decided that they would attempt to record one EP that could serve as a memento of the group’s existence. Terry Hooley owned a record shop and a small record label, Good Vibrations. Enchanted with the Undertones’ enthusiasm, he gave the group the opportunity to record their EP on his indie label.
Introducing Teenage Kicks
John O’Neill, like the great punk songwriters back in England and America, had his ear to the ground. He and his bandmates read the New Musical Express religiously. They devoured all recordings by proto-punk groups like the New York Dolls and the MC5. They adored the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks. And, most importantly, O’Neill, while borrowing generously from his influences, attempted to create his own songs from the earliest days of being in a band.
Still, by the time that they got their opportunity to cut a record, they were without a singer. Feargal Sharkey, the distinctive voice of the group had quit, likely frustrated with the lack of progress. It took a good deal of persuasion from his peers to rejoin. They then began choosing the songs that would comprise their first release.
Among the songs chosen was one built solely around a classic chord progression played in a quick, syncopated rhythm. It had started out merely as a title, Teenage Kicks. It’s one-two punch owed, O’Neill says, a lot to the Rolling Stones and the MC5. The guitarist later found the first line of the song, “Teenage kicks so hard to beat“. After this, the song, lyrics, and music, according to the author, pretty much wrote itself.
The first time that the band played it live, their audience of a few dozen people reacted rapturously. It would be the first of many such reactions. While not considering Teenage Kicks the best song in their catalog, the group decided to include it on the EP, and use the expressive name as the title of the record.
Teenage Kicks EP
The four-song record came out in September 1978. Those involved in making it, likely, believed it to be no more than a keepsake of their together as a group. Instead, it immediately caught the ears of a few highly influential people. The first of these was John Peel, the premier DJ championing alternative music at the BBC. Peel played the tune regularly on his highly popular show, a ritual he would carry on doing for much of his life.
This, in turn, caught the attention of Seymour Stein, head of Sire Records. Stein had been the man that had signed and fostered bands like the Ramones and the Talking Heads, heroes to the members of The Undertones. The label chief invited the band up to London and negotiated a deal. Opportunely, Good Vibrations were also generous in surrendering the rights to the original recording.
John Peel then called upon the band to play live on his show. By the time they got ready to record a full-length album, they were adolescent phenomenons. The group that nobody cared about months earlier had earned star status across the United Kingdom. Still, not everyone in Derry shared the enthusiasm. The back cover of the original EP includes a picture of graffiti that reads “Undertones – shit, pish, counts, wankers“. Misspelling grafitti aside, the band’s hard work had paid off.
The Undertones’ influential career
The Undertones may have made their fame on Teenage Kicks, but they continued to serve originals that dealt with similar adolescent themes. They were not as political, or angsty as some of their punk peers, but they were just as honest about the way in which they presented themselves. Their debut album (which initially was supposed to omit Teenage Kicks) captures the group’s exuberant sound. Jimmy, Jimmy, Family Entertainment and Get Over You are sensational pop-garage songs that deal with the pains of growing up.
To some, The Undertones would never sound quite as good. With that being said, their next three albums would not stray far either in terms of quality or of the subject material being considered. Hypnotized was the first follow-up, and sounded just as loose and bright. It included tunes like More Songs About Chocolate and Girls and My Perfect Cousin. Next, their third album in as many years, Positive Touch saw the band looking to slightly expand on their rocking, three-chord punch on which their reputation had been built. By this time, the group had signed with an even larger record label, EMI. Sadly though, the very best of The Undertones may have already been behind them.
By 1983, the Undertones were one of the most respected guitar groups in the British Isles. Their music had taken on social causes, and they’d become a source of great pride for those living in Northern Ireland. Their creative energy, so overwhelming years prior was, however, running on empty.
They recorded the album the Sin of Pride. Much like many of the U.K. punk musicians that had made their debuts in the late 1970s, The Undertones had turned their attention to soul and Motown. It did help showcase Sharkey’s compelling vocal delivery but failed to generate interest in their early records.
With pressure to survive as a pop act, and diminishing artistic results, the group decided to pack it all up by the end of 1983. Their farewell concert took place, fittingly, in County Kildare, back in North Ireland where it had all started.
John Peel, cover versions and a place among the greats
The Undertones were a great band. At their finest, they possessed a natural instinct towards performing and crafting great, simple rock songs. Many bands have been influenced by them and had their most famous single been their only great achievement, their story would still be noteworthy.
No, The Undertones recorded enough terrific songs to make Greatest Hits packages or reunion live shows, compelling listens. Teenage Kicks was, however, the equivalent of catching lightning in a bottle. Nobody knew this better than John Peel, the esteemed radio DJ that gave the band their first taste of considerable exposure.
Peel considered the song to be the ultimate reflection of energy, hopefulness, and celebration of rock n’ roll and youth. He played it consistently throughout his career as a radio DJ. Upon his request, his tombstone is inscribed with words from the song. Ultimately, it was his decision to represent his lengthy and important contribution to popular music by this one song.
Cover versions of the song are numerous as well. They do, however, carry wildly in quality. Since the song is such a memorable and simple-to-play song, from the Raconteurs to most newbie musicians learning how to play Teenage Kicks on the guitar, you are likely to someday hear it song being performed in a live environment.
The legacy of the Undertones
The legend of The Undertones has grown in the years following their disbandment. Truly, the same thing happened to the punk scene as a whole. The group’s singles, especially, are treasured heirlooms of this brief, but influential period.
The five group members continued to play music separately. Feargal Sharkey enjoyed pop-fame in Britain. Damian and John O’Neill recorded numerous albums with That Petrol Emotion. Still, their status as heroes of Northern Ireland, and numerous calls from fans, made them reunite in 1999. They’ve continued to play live sporadically, often in Belfast, performing the hits strictly.
When the dust had finally settled, The Undertones began being appreciated for what they truly were, anxious, yet charming youngsters that captured their nervous energy in a string of 2-3 minute singles. Teenage Kicks is their shining hour. Not just that, while simple and immediate, it showcases rock n’ roll at its best. As John Peel would tell you, no rock band could ask for more.