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The Great Northern Songbook - 2. Alternative Ulster

Stuart Bailie | 16:20 UK time, Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The second performance of the Great Northern Songbook event in Belfast was delivered by Rams Pocket Radio. Contentiously, they handled a big punk tune from Stiff Little Fingers and there wasn't a power chord to be heard. Alternative Ulster has been given the string treatment before - I can just about recommend the London Punkharmonic Orchestra and the 'Classical Punk' album. But the Rams version avoided the pastiche and instead Peter focussed on the yearning feeling in the lyric. The SLF version makes me agitated, angry at the impasse of the Seventies. But Rams Pocket Radio made it sound like a sad meditation, a peculiar update. While the Belfast landscape is less explosive these days, many of the problems are lurking, insidious. Arguably, the song remains the same.


1978 was the year that music got angry in Northern Ireland. It officially began on St Patrick's Day, when a seven inch single called 'Suspect Device' made its appearance. The sleeve of the record pictured some bomb-making equipment and the contents of the record were no less incendiary. Punk rock was about to make an important statement.

The single was all noise and fury, an attack on the paramilitary organisations that had contributed to the dread, the disorder and the death toll. The song took a cynical look at the language of the so-called freedom fighters and the nasty contradictions in their method. According to one line, "they take away our freedom, in the name of liberty". And by the end of the lyric, the young person has decided that he might use his explosive potential to actually strike back against this sectarian empire.

The band was Stiff Little Fingers, from north Belfast. They had once been a metal covers act called 'Highway Star', but punk rock had encouraged them to put away the Deep Purple albums. They took their new name from a song by The Vibrators and they found inspiration with bands like The Clash, who were singing about letter bombs and riots in Notting Hill Gate. So if you could channel the tension of west London into amazing songs, then why not try to articulate the intensity of Northern Ireland's conflict, and a casualty rate of two thousand?

Jake Burns from SLF addressed this for the first time in a song called 'State Of Emergency'. Soon he was finding his voice and his method. 'Suspect Device' was co-written with Gordon Ogilvie, a journalist from the Daily Express, working in Belfast. And while Jake would eventually blossom as a writer, the connection between the band and an English tabloid writer was an issue to some local critics.

This didn't matter to Radio 1's John Peel, who played 'Suspect Device' repeatedly on his night time show. He also commissioned the band to record a Peel session for the programme. One of the tracks they put down was a cover of the Bob Marley song 'Johnny Was', which took a reggae track, and transferred the stray gunfire from Kingston to Belfast.

Another recording was called 'Alternative Ulster'. This had been written around February 1978. It was a story about frustration and wasted opportunities. One of the few music surviving venues in Belfast was the Pound, a run-down establishment that had previously been use to herd animals ahead of the cattle market. For the punk community keen to hear live music, you had the option of the Trident Bar in Bangor, often involving a walk home of more than 11 miles. That was the kind of determination you needed in early 1978. The sense of solidarity had also been strengthened on 20 October 1977 when a Clash gig at the Ulster Hall had been cancelled and the kids had caused a commotion outside. There plainly was the need for some new response, something beyond the stalemate of an older generation.

This was at the heart of Jake's new song. It had been written at the request of a local fanzine called 'Alternative Ulster', who were thinking about a cover-mounted flexidisc. When this didn't happen, the song was recorded for the Peel session and later as a demo for Island Records in London. Stiff Little Fingers were devastated when the record label had declined to sign the band, but the tape was obtained and the track was remixed to the satisfaction of the band and the independent label, Rough Trade.

It was released on 17 October 1978, the fourth record on the Rough Trade catalogue. 'Alternative Ulster' was pure intent, from the signature guitar intro to the abrupt command at the end. Jake sang about those frustrations but importantly on verse two, he was urging the listener to look around, to examine the causes of this. He was living in a militarized nation, marshalled by the Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. "Is this the only life we're gonna have?" he implores.

That is why the chorus of the song is so resonant. It puts the responsibility back on the punk generation, to ignore the bores and their laws and excitingly, to become an "anti-security force". This was the pure message of empowerment. There really was another option, that you could alter your native land.

'Alternative Ulster' sold over 25,000 copies, and John Peel called it has single of the year. Stiff little Fingers went on to sell 100,000 copies of their debut album, 'Inflammable Material, effectively founding the indie music industry. The noise and the message of their most definitive song would have an important bearing on acts such as U2 and Sinead O'Connor, while the likes of Therapy? and Ricky Warwick are still delighted to play it on stage. But if you're really fortunate, you might still hear Stiff Little Fingers perform it live. As ever, Jake Burns will ask his listeners to be upstanding for the National Anthem. And why not? 'Alternative Ulster' is timelessly, what we need.

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