For a band that celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, Stiff Little Fingers are in very goodnick.
Their energetic 90-minute set at the Royal Festival Hall, as part of this year’s MeltdownFestival curated by Massive Attack, showed they are still kicking against the pricks with someforce.
The Belfast boys, led by the diminutive but charismatic Jake Burns, made their name as a punk-popband whose aggressively melodic music was matched by some hard-hitting lyrics about life during theTroubles in Northern Ireland. Their contemporaneous compatriots The Undertones may haveenjoyed bigger commercial success with their infectious tunes about teenage kicks but SLF havealways been a more political band.
Apart from their anti-partisan stance, SLF have been strong champions against racism. However,they have never been po-faced posturers: their music is passionate and unpretentious, notparticularly subtle but exhilarating when played with full commitment. No frills, but plenty ofthrills.
Their best material may have come out of the New Wave in the late ’70s/early ’80s, but after afive-year break SLF re-formed in 1987, since when they’ve released five albums with changingline-ups (including at one point ex-The Jam Bruce Foxton on bass), Burns being the only original memberleft. Without troubling the general public’s attention very much, the band has retained its hardcorefan-base – many of whom, with middle-aged beer bellies swelling beneath their SLF T-shirts, werepresent at the South Bank venue.
After acknowledging the cheers with “This is fucking posh, isn’t it?”, Burns and his band launchinto At the Edge, a song seething with desire to escape from a claustrophobic dead-end urbanexistence. No Surrender, originally written as a condemnation of the first Gulf War, is now appliedto the current war in Iraq, with Burns attacking “both bastard Bushes”. Harp is the only song whichhas an Irish folk feel to it, with its spirited response to anti-Irishness, while Strummerville is atribute to the Clash frontman. According to Burns, the more soulful Silver Lining is the “closestthing I’ve written to Motown”.
Although starting with these later songs, most of the evening is devoted to playing all 13 tracksfrom their debut 1979 album Inflammable Material – for the last time, apparently. And it’s stillfiery stuff. It is mainly about the experience of being raised in an atmosphere of tribal conflictpassed down from generations in Northern Ireland – but although the situation has now blessedly beentransformed into peace, the songs still stand up strongly.
The band’s first single Suspect Device is still an explosive rejection of the bombing campaignsof paramilitary organisations, while State Of Emergency is a powerful indictment of bigotry. Here WeAre Nowhere is a one-minute song of teenage frustration about nothing to do on a Friday night.Wasted Life – “I won’t be a soldier/I won’t take no orders from no one” – asserts individualidentity, and Barbed Wire – “Love I met you in No Man’s Land/Across the wire we were holding hands”- is a bittersweet love song. Rough Trade is a bitter reaction to being “betrayed” by the eponymousrecord company who withdrew their promised contract. There’s a rousing performance of Johnny Was, aneight-minute Bob Marley song, where punk meets reggae on equal footing. And the plea for a freshstart in Alternative Ulster still comes across urgently.
SLF go off stage after performing one of their best-loved songs – the self-empowering Nobody’sHero – to rapturous applause, but come back for an encore of a cover version of The Specials‘Doesn’t Make It All Right, featured on SLF’s second album. The audience want more but one and a halfhours at full throttle is not bad going for a bunch of 50-year-olds.