Sunday, October 25, 2009

October 25: Stiff Little Fingers, "Inflammable Material"

Artist: Stiff Little Fingers
Album: Inflammable Material
Year: 1979
Label: Rough Trade

In the early days of the punk rock movement, regardless of the country of origin, the music was almost always driven by either oppressive authorities, or bleak realities of living conditions. From the "SUS" laws of late 1970's England to the harsh living environment of New York City at the same time, as it always tends to do, drastic living conditions led to some of the most amazing and world changing art in history. It goes without saying that for a majority of the last century, one of the most intense cities on the planet was Belfast, Ireland. From the intense violence and civil disorder emerged oe of the most hard hitting and brilliant bands of the entire punk explosion, Stiff Little Fingers. Though they are often referred to as "The Irish Clash," the title is both misleading and damaging, as Stiff Little Fingers have their own, unique sound, and never cared to explore the range of sounds as The Clash. Bringing an amazing fusion of stripped down instrumentation and unrelenting, in-your-face vocals, Stiff Little Fingers laid the groundwork for later bands like Street Dogs, River City Rebels, and Swingin' Utters among countless other groups. Only playing for a few years before disbanding and then reforming with new lineups, Stiff Little Fingers' sensational 1979 debut record, Inflammable Material, is easily one of the most perfect punk records ever made, as well as one of the most phenomenal recordings in history.

As was the case with many punk albums of the late 1970's, the release of Inflammable Material has a rather strange story, and it almost never saw the light of day. After agreeing to a contract with Island Records, the group recorded the album, but were then told that the label changed their mind, and the group was left to release and distribute the record on their own. After going to a number of labels, the band found an upstart record label called Rough Trade Records. Truth be told, Inflammable Material was the first ever release from Rough Trade, and it quickly sold well over fifty thousand copies. The sales of the album helped the record to crack the top fifteen in album sales on the UK charts, and Inflammable Material was the first ever independent record to chart anywhere on the charts. Stiff Little Fingers took these sales as a sign to move to London (which would lead to the first of many lineup changes), and their live performances, as well as the record itself, remain among the finest and most influential of their generation. The album itself is filled with powerful, yet fun angst-ridden anthems, yet the group has a bit more of a "friendly" approach then say, The Sex Pistols. Clearly bringing a slightly more musical approach to their album, Inflammable Materials lives on a testament to the fantastic group of musicians that made up the original lineup of Stiff Little Fingers.

Raw, straightforward, and without any distortion, the music found throughout Inflammable Material is truly as pure as the punk sound can get. From military style cadences to all out speed assaults, Stiff Little Fingers present the entire gamut of the punk ethos in brilliant fashion. Though he left the band instead of moving to London, drummer Brian Faloon is absolutely phenomenal throughout all of Inflammable Material. Setting himself aside from a majority of his peers, Faloon is easily one of the most technically gifted drummer of the punk genre, and constantly pushes beyond "just bashing for speed." The rhythmic textures that he is able to create enables the band to have a great amount of diversity in the style and sound of their songs. Helping this along is the other half of the rhythm section, bassist Ali McMordie. Though he would later play with everyone from Sinead O'Connor to Moby, it is his work with Stiff Little Fingers that stands as his finest. Winding in and around the drums and guitar, McMordie changed the image on the role of the bass within the punk lineup. Guitarist Henry Cluney is equally as fantastic as his bandmates, destroying every song, whether it be a simple SKA-based riff or a crushing punk chord-fest. Though the band had a number of other guitarists over th years, there was never another with the power and tone of Cluney, and it is one of the key reasons that Inflammable Material is so fantastic.

Supplying lead vocals, as well as a second guitar is punk rock icon, Jake Burns. With a voice that lands somewhere between Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, Burns brings all of the attitude that one could want, yet is always clear and concise with his vocal work. Burns delivers brilliant vocal performances on every track, easily transitioning between singing and screaming. In what is by far one of the most iconic and most famous songs ever written, Stiff Little Fingers perfectly describe the everyday life of the war-torn Belfast in their classic, "Alternative Ulster." However, though the fury of the punk ethos is clearly present, lyrically, the band is NOT rallying against the "powers that be," but instead encouraging the "change" that is needed to come from within each individual. This almost positive mood and approach is yet another way in which Stiff Little Fingers set themselves far apart from their peers. Proving their wide range of influences, as well as perhaps causing the comparisons to The Clash, Inflammable Material contains a unique and fantastic cover of the Bob Marley classic, "Johnny Was." The group spins the song brilliantly, and it is easily one of the most beautiful and almost non-punk songs one will ever find. Clocking in at just over eight minutes, the song proves that there was much more to Stiff Little Fingers then a simple "punk" label. After listening to the cover, one can clearly hear where the SKA/punk fusion bands of the late 1980's drew much of their inspiration. Everything that makes Stiff Little Fingers great, from the musicianship to the vocals, are on display on this cover, and it remains one of the most brilliant moments in the history of punk rock.

Though they are often placed in the "second" wave of punk icons, after experiencing their debut record, one cannot argue the importance and brilliance of Stiff Little Fingers. As unique as any of their contemporaries, whilst still subscribing to the punk ethos, the band created some of the most high energy, yet universally appealing music of their generation. The combination of flawless musicianship and fantastic lyrics enable Inflammable Material to stand the test of time, and the truth is, the record still beats an overwhelming majority of the albums released since it first appeared in 1979. The rhythm section of Faloon and McMordie are easily one of the beast of the time, and the way in which the two interact is a truly special sound to experience. With the dueling guitars of Cluney and Burns rounding out the bands' sound, there are few other groups who presented as much sheer sound, yet were able to keep it from becoming overpowering or distracting. This ability to find the ideal balance in power and volume is yet another aspect that makes Stiff Little Fingers so unique, and the unmatched vocal talents of Burns pushes them into the most elite group of bands of their era. Proving that even without a major label behind them, great music would still sell, Stiff Little Fingers remain today one of the most important and influential bands in history, and their 1979 debut, Inflammable Material similarly stands as a true classic an inspiration for countless bands since its initial release.

Standout tracks: "Suspect Device," "Johnny Was," and "Alternative Ulster."


Anonymous said...

I think it's worth mentioning that Suspect Device and Alternative Ulster were in John Peels Festive 50 in 1978 charting at no.4 and no.11 respectively.

Rory said...

Good pick. For an insight into what "Troubles"-era Belfast was like, watch "Hunger" (2008). Stiff Little Fingers arose from a politically charged environment (understatement), which as you state definitely impacted their sound/lyrics and sets them apart from other punk bands of the time. What's more, this music stands up even today.