Talking “Teenage Kicks” With The Undertones’ John O’Neill
An examination of one of the greatest punk and power pop singles of all time.
This article is part of our series 'Nice Song, What's It About?,' where we revisit old greats and go deep to get the stories behind them. To see the column's archive, click here.
Visit the cemetery at St Andrew's Church, in the village of Great Finborough, Suffolk, and you will find the grave of legendary BBC radio announcer John Peel with the line "our teenage dreams so hard to beat", from The Undertones' "Teenage Kicks" engraved on the tombstone.
Peel, who died in 2004, was a great champion of the Northern Ireland band's punk anthem and famously played the song twice on his radio show the night he received his copy, saying "it doesn't get any better than this". Throughout his life, he declared it his favourite song.
Seymour Stein, the president of Sire Records – in London on business – heard Peel play the song and signed the band to the label in September 1978.
Written in 1977 by guitarist John O'Neill and recorded 16 June 1978 at Belfast's Wizard Studios, the track was initially released that September on independent local label Good Vibrations. It has gone on to become one of the greatest and most recognised punk and power pop tracks of all time.
The band formed in Derry in 1974 as five friends who originally drew inspiration from the Beatles and Small Faces. As the punk explosion hit their mix of new wave melody and vocalist Feargal Sharkey's snarl became synonymous with late 70s adolescent angst. Though they released thirteen singles and four studio albums between 1978 and 1983 before Sharkey left, none have matched the urgency and power of "Teenage Kicks" which has become one the greatest punk songs of all time.
RIP John Peel.
Noisey: How does it feel to have the song as John Peel's all time favourite?
John O'Neill: It was one of those once in a life time magical moments. I'd been listening to John Peel since around 73 and he was the first DJ to embrace punk in 76 when everyone else was using it as a pejorative term. He knew exactly what it meant and for him to say it was his all time favourite song, well, it doesn't get any better than that!
Have you visited his grave?
Yes, we were there last November. It took a bit of finding but it was worth the search and very humbling.
Was it true that it was rejected a few times before he actually listened to it?
No. It had been demoed in a tiny four-track studio along with four or five other songs. We sent it to several independent record companies but the quality wasn't great so it didn't really surprise us no one liked it. The first time John heard the song was when we sent the Good Vibrations E.P. to him and that was when he famously played the song twice in a row.
Can you remember where and when you wrote it?
We were playing regularly in a small bar in Derry every month from around the middle of 77 and we didn't have many of our own songs to last the usually expected two hour set. So we'd often do covers by the New York Dolls, The Stooges, MC5 , Velvet Underground and the Nuggets garage punk compilation. However we thought it important to continue to write our own songs and really "Teenage Kicks" was just another song as far as I was concerned. Virtually all those songs that I wrote for the first LP were written at home with an acoustic guitar and a tape recorder, pretty much the same as most people did in those days.
What was it like growing up in Derry in the 60s and 70s? Were you from the Creggan? How did The Troubles affect day to day life?
I lived half way between Creggan and the Bogside. Playing in a band was an escape from what was going on around us. It was a positive way to fill our time rather than join in with the rioting. Discrimination, emigration and unemployment were a fact of life if you were a Catholic in the north of Ireland. We knew that was what the civil rights movement was trying to change.
What were you doing for kicks back then?
Kicking a football, there wasn't much else to do…
What were you listening to?
Before punk we grew up listening to the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Bob Dylan etc from our older brothers record collections and started buying singles from the glam rock era of the early 70s. I was fascinated by the idea of the art form of the three-minute pop single and when we eventually got our hands on the Nuggets American 60s garage comp, that became our template.
"Our instinct was to be belligerently facetious ..... it seemed too obvious to write trite slogans about 'the war'"
The songs were about relationships rather than politics.
As well as the Clash and the Sex Pistols our favourite bands in 77 would probably have been the New York Dolls/ Heartbreakers, The Ramones and the Buzzcocks. Just like the garage bands' songs, the majority of their songs were invariably about unfulfilled relationships or about the aftermath of a broken relationship, things that happen no matter what environment you are living through. I was also a very naïve, diffident teenager. I didn't have the confidence to write about the political situation and do it justice. As a band, our instinct was to be belligerently facetious, do the opposite of what was expected of us. It just seemed too obvious to write trite slogans about 'the war'
Much has been said of your location but the song itself has a universal sentiment and sounds like it could have come from 50s California or a Ramones album.
I was listening to a lot of uptown R&B, Shangri Las, Phil Spector, as well as early Beach Boys so I guess it was inevitable those influences would come though. I could hear those influences in the Ramones songs so I probably just copied them!
What was the recording like?
We recorded the four songs for the EP in one day and came back the next day, I think, to mix it. I didn't think it was all that great to be honest. Even when we were sent copies I was disappointed with how it sounded. But that shows what I knew!
Why didn't it appear on your 1979 debut?
That was our punk idealism, and again a throw back to 60s records when singles didn't always appear on the LPs.
Were the handclaps always in the song?
Not live. It was done during the recording as a throwback to 50s and 60s songs.
Who made the banner on the video?
I think we all made it at the place it was shot as a last minute idea to try and distract from our embarrassment miming to the camera. It was probably thrown away afterwards.
There are some fine looking sweaters in the video too!
It was cold in the studio! We were never too fashion conscious, we wanted to look the same as we were walking around Derry.
Many bands have covered the song? Do you have a favourite? What do you think of One Direction's version?
Nouvelle Vague's version is nice. I don't think I've ever heard the One Direction version but it was nice of them to cover it, if you know what I mean.
How do you feel about the legacy "Teenage Kicks"?
I think our version is a great record, I never really thought of it as a 'great' song. We all feel privileged to have it associated with John Peel. Without that I don't think any one would really think it was that special, really. So I feel very lucky indeed.
Illustration: Ben Thomson