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"If you're happy everything else will fall into place" - In conversation with The Undertones

Ahead of a tour celebrating 40 years of the Northern Ireland band, Epigram catches up with drummer Bill Doherty on all things 'Teenage Kicks'.

By Isabel Williams, Co-Deputy Arts Editor

From the release of their first album way back in 1979 to their compilation album of 2022, The Undertones’ music has always been the sound of carefree adolescent recklessness. Their rough-hewn but upbeat track ‘Teenage Kicks’ has long been a favourite with love-struck teens and indie bildungsroman movies alike. I can vividly remember dancing around a fairy-light adorned bedroom at two in the morning, my friend and I singing in loud faux-whispers to avoid rousing the slumbering parents in the room above us.

Even after the replacement of their original frontman Feargal Sharkey with Paul McLoone, The Undertones haven’t lost their quintessential spark. Their last album Dig What You Need featured a compilation of their top tracks, remixed to provide a crisp and highly polished production quality. Even with the band members being well into middle age, the album’s sound maintains a distinct vitality that still channels the teenage angst of their early days.

“I think the drive and the energy have always been there”, Doherty tells me. “The Undertones sound will probably always be associated with Feargal Sharkey’s wobbly sounding voice, but I think Paul is doing an admirable job, I think he’s terrific and he’s very, very funny. He makes me laugh. For me those kinds of attributes are probably more important.”

It becomes clear throughout the course of the interview just how much Doherty appreciates being able to play as part of The Undertones, both for the joy of the music and for the close friendship of the other band members. In 2017, the drummer suffered a heart attack and a stroke, which he describes as being “a real shock” at the time. The solidarity of the band seems to have been a real comfort to him, as he tells me: “I had terrific support from my family and friends, I consider myself unbelievably lucky”. More recently, he’s been diagnosed with skin cancer, which he is currently receiving treatment for. He mentions that it makes him feel a little apprehensive about the upcoming tour dates. “Hopefully I will be okay for the dates from September onwards,” he says, “please god, everything works out okay.” I ask what will happen if he has to pull out due to his health? “It’ll be the end of the world. It’ll be the end of civilisation as we know it” he responds unflinchingly, before laughing at his own joke.

Although members of the band have worked on solo musical enterprises, with Doherty playing as part of a ceilidh band for a while, he doubts that The Undertones will be producing anything entirely new. “I just see them like we’re this kind of force and we just try and get on with it and do the best that we can” he says. I ask if he’s listening to any new music instead. “I tend to listen to Classic FM, that kind of music” he says, referring to himself as “suspicious” of the modern music industry. “I never really liked it, but I think it’s gotten actually worse now. You’re famous because you’ve got so many likes on Facebook or social media. I think: is that really a way of judging how good somebody is?”

It’s an unfortunate side effect of fame that many bands grow to detest their most popular songs. Considering the enduring appeal of ‘Teenage Kicks’, I can’t help but wonder whether The Undertones may have garnered some feelings of resentment towards the song over time. Doherty agrees that at the height of their career, they were much less interested in playing the song live, “Which we should have been doing,” he admits, “which was a really bad mistake.”

Nowadays, however, the band’s feelings are much changed. You can practically hear the smile on Doherty’s face as he reminisces about a Spanish festival they played a few years ago: “It was great because I could see everyone, just this big sea of movement, everyone was getting into Teenage Kicks” he says, before adding “I feel really honoured to be playing these tracks with guys that I like and I get a great buzz from it.” It is this message of easy contentment and appreciation that Doherty is keen to get across. “Just be happy” he tells me. “I know it seems very simplistic and kind of idealistic, but just be happy. If you’re happy, everything else will fall into place.”

It’s a warming sentiment to hear, but does Doherty think of himself as happy now? “Well, I’m sitting here; it’s a gorgeous day and I’ve got Bobby beside me, he’s my dog. I got the guys- they’re building a little cabin at the back of the house, it all looks absolutely stunningly beautiful and I just took them up some Coca-Cola and some bars of chocolate. And I’m quite happy and I’m quite content.”

Featured Image: Rob / Sonic PR

The Undertones play O2 Academy Bristol, 29 September.