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Band: Stiff Little Fingers
Album: Inflammable Material
Released: February 2, 1979
Length: 41:08 (15 tracks)
Band’s Origin: Belfast, Northern Ireland
What do you get when you form a punk band at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland? A really fucking good album. This was one of the first political punk albums out there and in my opinion, it’s even more politically charged than The Clash’s debut. Pretty much every track on Inflammable Material is political and is just the band being pissed off by the scene going on in Belfast. The band’s debut delivers one of the best punk anthems out there in Alternative Ulster and Suspect Device was also the first punk single released in Belfast. Long before the topic of selling out became a big talking point in punk in the mid 90’s and even before Minor Threat was calling it out with Cashing In, SLF showed they were against selling themselves to major labels in Rough Trade. If you didn’t already know the band’s political position in the previous 10 tracks, the 8 minute epic Johnny Was will help confirm it. The song kicks in with the militaristic drumming from Brian Faloon and also features an awesome solo from Henry Cluney while telling the story of a man who “never hurt anybody” but was killed due to the violence of the troubles. There’s just so much I can say about this album, it was one of the first hardcore albums I’d ever heard and definitely the first one from the UK. Inflammable Material in my mind is one of the first albums someone should listen to if they’re just getting into punk; it’s hardcore without being so much so that it turns you off and it’s super political and fits right in with the punk ethos. Stiff Little Fingers proves with this and all of there other releases that there was great punk in the UK outside of England.
An awesome punk album that we feel really bridges the gap between punk and post punk. Also the guitar work on the cover of the Bob Marley track “Johnny Was” is epic. Maybe our all time favourite cover?
Exploding out of Belfast and breathing new life into a flagging punk scene, Stiff Little Fingers – fronted by raw-throated firebrand Jake Burns – saw their debut album Inflammable Material album reach the UK Top 20 on its release in 1979. The raw, angst-ridden sound influenced largely by the Irish Troubles, Inflammable Material veered from spiky anthems like Suspect Device and White Noise to a remarkably mature take on Bob Marley’s Johnny Was that shone a light on the vibrant quartet’s burgeoning abilities.
“Belfast was a backwater in those days, so we were always going to be playing catch-up,” Burns told Classic Rock in 2017. “When we first got into rock music we were used to bands bypassing Northern Ireland. We reckoned the only way we were ever going to hear rock music played live was to do it ourselves. [Inflammable Material] was our initial burst of anger, comparable to the initial bursts on the mainland and in New York.”
Originally released in 1979. Taking their cue from the Clash politicised attitude, SLF’ self-penned (inflammable) material, articulated their frustrations with “”the troubles”” in Northern Ireland. Unlike many punk debuts, Inflammable Material manages to meld high-octane potency, with a varied musical palette. Thanks partly to the influence of Don Letts, the regular DJ at the Roxy, the punk fraternity had embraced reggae, identifying strongly with its spirit of protest and, like the Clash, SLF included a reggae cover on their debut LP. Their eight-minute-plus raggedy version of Bob Marley “”Johnny Was”” transports Johnny to Northern Ireland, “”A single shot rings out in a Belfast night and I said oh Johnny was a good man””. Equally eclectic, though slightly less serious, is the doo-wop surf pastiche “”Barbed Wire Love””, a warped tale of love in Belfast No Man Land. Of course, as the rest of the tracks readily attest, SLF are principally purveyors of furious fusillades of guitar-snorting punk rock. And let face it, any album that includes “”Alternative Ulster”” and “”Suspect Device”” has to be considered a classic. –Chris King
STATE OF EMERGENCY
HERE WE ARE NOWHERE
NO MORE OF THAT
BARBED WIRE LOVE
LAW AND ORDER
JOHNNY WAS cover of the Bob Marley
Stiff Little Fingers came roaring out of Northern Ireland in 1979 with a ferocity and sense of black humour that could only have come from growing up in a war zone. While other contemporaries (such as the Undertones) tried their best to rise above the conflict in pop embrace, Stiff Little Fingers chose to address the daily indignities and injustices head-on. Aggressive punk anthems such as “”Wasted Life””, which rejects violence as a solution, and the call-to-arms “”Alternative Ulster””, which envisions the creation of a new social order, are based in SLF political awareness.
INFLAMMABLE MATERIAL is among the most powerful political albums in punk rock history. Besides the government and military, the band tackles record company shenanigans on “”Rough Trade””, and the difficulty in loving someone from the wrong side of the fence, as in “”Barbed Wire Love””. Either way, Stiff Little Fingers managed to make even the worst scenarios come alive with black humour and gleefully guttural vocals. An often neglected punk classic and a must for all serious students of the genre.
In the punk world, there’s always been one elephant in the room that nobody likes to really talk about: what do these mostly white kids from first world countries really have to complain about, anyway? While I try to search out punk by less than privileged groups, it’s no secret that a lot of the punk bands in history have had a significant amount of privilege. Joe Strummer was the son of a British diplomat. Henry Rollins was from an affluent Washington D.C. neighbourhood and attended prep school. While I don’t think this truly diminishes the achievements of these punk rock greats, the question of “Why are you complaining so much?” is one that remains unspoken but ever present for any punk band from a first world country. While I certainly think anyone living under capitalism who isn’t in the wealthiest elite is getting an unfair deal, it’s also true that there are places in this world where people have more to complain about than some street kids in London and New York.
Stiff Little Fingers were a little bit different in this regard, coming from the middle of war-torn Northern Ireland in the middle of the Troubles, as sectarian violence between the Irish Catholic nationalists and British loyalists left Northern Ireland a very dangerous place to live. My favourite anecdote about Stiff Little Fingers is that, when they sent out the cassette tape single for “Suspect Device” to a radio station, they jokingly decorated the cassette to look like a bomb. The radio station was forced to call the band to ask for another copy of the cassette because they had thrown it in a bucket of water to try to defuse it in case it was an actual bomb. That’s just the kind of story that you don’t get in the history of New York or London’s early punk scenes. In the oppression Olympics of the early punk scenes in the late 1970’s, Stiff Little Fingers absolutely won the gold medal.
That’s not to say that Stiff Little Fingers ever took a side in the Troubles, and the album Inflammable Material makes that abundantly clear. Despite complaining about the British police forces in “Alternative Ulster” in vehement terms (“the RUC dog of oppression”), in the song “Wasted Life,” frontman Jake Burns thumbs his nose at those who would have him waste his life fighting for the IRA. The band contained both protestants and Catholics, as they often loved to point out to demonstrate how opposed they were to both sides of the conflict. In an interview with Vice, Burns once said about the famous single “Alternative Ulster,” “If you took the references to the RUC and the British Army out you have a song that is about bored teenagers.” In that sense, the band falls back on very traditional punk themes seen as far back as The Ramones’ debut album.
The album’s second most famous song, opening track “Suspect Device,” was notable for the amount of screaming employed in the song for 1979. Sure, in 2019 when we’ve seen bands like The Locust come and go, the amount of screaming in “Suspect Device” seems pedestrian by comparison, but it was a lot for the time. The song talks about the violence on both sides of the conflict and about both protestants and Catholics using people, particularly young people, as weapons in their war. “Barbed Wire Love” talks about love in a war zone, using imagery of the Troubles as a clever metaphor for this endearing love song set amongst the sectarian violence. “White Noise” highlights the different types of racism in Northern Ireland in the most visceral way possible, using harsh racial slurs used by British loyalists against minority groups. “Johnny Was,” a Bob Marley cover that is lightly modified to take place in Belfast, talks of an innocent man being gunned down in a conflict he was never a part of. The crown jewel of the album, “Alternative Ulster,” as stated before, is as much about youth boredom as anything else. The song encourages the youth to take back their hometown, not only from the British police forces, but from the older generation and from boredom and drabness in general.
Stiff Little Fingers are still together to this day, although frontman Jake Burns has been the only consistent member throughout the band’s entire career. While the situation in Northern Ireland still isn’t perfect, particularly with the ongoing Brexit negotiations, The Troubles are pretty much considered to have ended in 1998 and the country isn’t in as chaotic as it once was. Because of this, more recent Stiff Little Fingers albums don’t exactly have the fire and fury of the band in 1979, but Inflammable Material remains a perfect time capsule of a very difficult era and, at the risk of punning, the band’s most explosive album to date, and a definitive punk classic.
What a great fuckin’ album!
This was the first album on an independent record label to enter the UK Top Twenty – it hit number 14
This is the debut album by this Northern Irish punk band released in 1979. Most of the album’s tracks are about the troubles & the grim reality of life in N. Ireland with themes of teenage boredom, sectarian violence, RUC (police) oppression, etc., & urging people to “grab it and change it, it’s yours” as they say in what became one of their most popular tracks “Alternative Ulster”
Give Northern Ireland back to the Irish. Since 1973 there has been no official Northern Ireland flag.
“Alternative Ulster” is the second single by the Northern Irish punk band Stiff Little Fingers. Originally released as a single on October 17, 1978, the song later appeared on the band’s 1979 debut studio album, Inflammable Material.
Background and creation:
Jake Burns, the lead singer of Stiff Little Fingers, was asked to record “Suspect Device” for a Flexi disc to be included in a Northern Irish fanzine called Alternative Ulster. As “Suspect Device” had already been recorded for release as the band’s first single, Burns offered to write another track. Burns described the song as “written in the classic punk mode of having nothing to do,” describing the main frustration of Belfast youth of the time as “the sheer tedium of having nowhere to go and nothing to do when you got there.”
Working with Eddie and the Hot Rods manager Ed Hollis, the band cut a series of demos for “Alternative Ulster” at Island Studios in London in May 1978. When Island Records turned the group down, they signed with Rough Trade Records.
Derry-based punk band The Undertones released their debut single, “Teenage Kicks”, the same week as Stiff Little Fingers released “Alternative Ulster,” starting a rivalry between the two bands within the Northern Irish punk scene. While the Undertones were accused of ignoring the events of The Troubles in their music, the overtly political lyrics of “Alternative Ulster” and “Suspect Device” drew criticism from the other side. When asked in 2007 if “Teenage Kicks” was the best song about being a teenager, Bono responded, “My soundtrack was more Alternative Ulster by Stiff Little Fingers.”
In modern culture
“Alternative Ulster” has appeared in the films Fifty Dead Men Walking, Good Vibrations, Everybody Wants Some!!, and The House of Tomorrow, as well as in the soundtrack for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game Skate 2.