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The Swedish photographer couldn't have been nicer. Could you please stand a little closer together? So the five of us made some sort of effort to squeeze into the step leading down to the water. We were in Gothenburg, we didn't really know what paper this man was from, and after five years of photographs, and five years of standing a little closer, and five years of trying to arrange your face into something that wasn't a smile but wasn't a complete picture of grumpiness either, we were a wee bit scunnered. We shuffled about a bit, said nothing, and looked again at the camera. The photographer must have realised he wasn't going to win any prizes with this session, and left us. And at the same time, so did our singer, Feargal Sharkey.

Stranger things may have happened in a tent in Bundoran ...but I wouldn't' bet on it. I was in the second week of a

fortnight's camping with my friends. Vinny O'Neill, John O'Neill and Billy Doherty. It was August 1974 - I was nearly

fifteen. I suppose it wasn't much of an initiation into the world of rock and roll - it was more a case of

"Do you want to be in the group?"
"Do you want more beans?"

The group had existed for about six months, but only in the minds of John, Vinny and Billy, John and Vinny O'Neill were brothers - Vinny was in my class at St Peters Secondary school. The friendship began simply by the fact that he lived in the same direction as I did from the school. We used to go home together at dinnertime, and on a Tuesday we used to talk about what the new Top Thirty chart would be. Radio One used to announce it at one o clock on Tuesdays, just in time for us to run home and hear the countdown.

Listening to me now you would think I was a big pop music fan when I was fifteen, but I wasn't. I was just going along with things, thinking of something to say to Vinny when we would discuss the new chart.
"I don't like that new Gary Glitter song - too slow"
"Aye that's right too slow"
I was just going along with things the same way I would just go along with things throughout the Undertones' career.

I said there that the group only existed in the minds of John and Billy and Vinny. And that was true. There were no instruments - no drum kit, no electric guitars, no amplifiers. There were no songs, maybe because there were no practises. It didn't stop us discussing the future of the band - who would play what instrument, and what kind of songs we were going to do. All of it in our heads. We would sit in Mrs O'Neill’s front room, play records, drink tea, and talk about the group. At this stage it was just "the group" - we hadn't bothered to think of a name.

O'Neills was a great house. Not a big house, just the normal terrace, but it was great. And looking back on it, their mother and father were very accommodating. I must have called in every night. The O'Neills would all be sitting in their back room, watching the TV,- John and Vinny and their wee brother Damian and their sister Deirdre, and Mr and Mrs O'Neill - and both Billy and I would be sitting there with them. We weren't great conversationalists, either -
"How ye doing, Mr O'Neill" was about the height of it.
And we'd sit and take tea, and eat their toast, and be fifteen years old. Occasionally we would hear the odd hint about the overcrowding, when a friend of Mr O'Neill, Patsy Duffy, would call in -
"Full House tonight Louie"
"Aye its like a flipping youth club"
But we wouldn't go away.

The TV watching would go on for a few hours, then either John or Vinny would say "Mon, we'll go into the room" - and we'd all go into the front room - the room with the record player. In 1974, I hadn't many records of my own - one single by Leo Sayer which I bought the year before, but didn't like anymore. The O'Neills, though, had records. John was two years older than me and Vinny, and had already got a fair collection of LPs. He also had a definite musical taste, which was more than I had - so the talk about songs, and the group, was led by him. Billy also had some ideas - he was always going to be the drummer, even though the only thing he had was a pair of bongos - don't ask.

All this time, we didn't have a singer - as we didn't play anywhere, it wasn't such a problem. But we did realise if we were

to do anything at all, we'd need to get one. It was Billy, the bongo player, who had the answer.
"There's a boy in my class would be great."
"Who, Sharkey?"

Billy had been talking about Sharkey for a few weeks, but we never really took him on. I think we all knew of him - everybody at St Peter's did anyway. Apart from the fact that he had won every Feis competition he entered, and appeared in the papers every year with cups and medals and a huge grin, boys at our school knew him for his red check suit. He was a year ahead of me and Vinny, but we spotted him - like everybody else in the school - wearing it. This you must remember was the era of the parallel trousers, worn well above the ankle - it was also the era of the high buttoned French flare, and the platform shoe - but it was never the era of the red check suit. Word filtered down through the school that he got it from some relative in America. I never ever asked him if that was true, even when we were in the band together years later.

I think I never brought it up because I also remember him walking down from school at that time, about twenty yards ahead of me and Vinny - and the whole way down the road, there was this other boy, walking beside him, and shouting abuse at him. I think the word to describe it is barrage - a barrage of abuse.
Feargal just ignored him, stared straight ahead, didn't say a word, and kept on walking. The other fella must have been running, or trotting, or jogging, because Sharkey was - and probably still is - a fierce fast walker. Seeing the stick that he got for wearing the suit, maybe he's blocked it out of his memory. Or maybe he's still got it.

Anyway, Billy asked Feargal to join the still un-named group. He said alright, and suddenly things started to move. This was towards the end of 1975, and we decided to get some money together, and buy instruments and equipment. None of us had any money at the time, apart from the few pounds John and Vinny got for working in their fathers fruit and vegetable shop on a Saturday. But we had already a sort of savings club - £1 a week, which was originally to pay for the camping holiday the year before. We kept it up, sporadically, and bought things like Billy's bongos, and a microphone. Nothing to plug it into, but it was good to know you had one. But what we needed was some capital - so with Mr O'Neill as guarantor, we got a couple of hundred pounds from Provident. For those who are unaware, Provident is a loan company, who provide what is called a provident cheque. The only problem was that it wasn't like a cash loan. As I remember, the cheque was only taken at certain shops. Which is why our equipment was bought in a music and electrical shop in Raphoe, just over the border in Donegal.

Feargal's brother Jimmy had a car, so he was pressed into service for the day. I didn't go with them to buy the stuff - I couldn't really take a day off school - but when I went down to O'Neills that night, I saw what they'd brought back. We had a drum kit - we had a bass guitar (for me) - and we had two amplifiers. We were nearly like a real group. From then on, we each paid £2 a week towards paying off the money. Actually playing a show was still four months off - actually getting paid for a show was a year off. So while we practised, we paid.

Feargal Sharkey, the newly appointed singer, was also Feargal Sharkey, scout leader. He wore the blue uniform of the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland and his troop were based in Creggan, in a small hall. Next door to the hall there was another building used by the scouts - I think it was an old farm outhouse - there long before Creggan estate was built. We were allowed to practice upstairs, and to keep our amplifiers and drums there. If you've ever been in a band, you'll know how much of a pain it is to get somewhere to practice. Up until then it had been in Vinny and John's bedroom - which as you can imagine, wasn't really appreciated by the rest of the O'Neills.

So a few nights of the week, we were practising in this room, very slowly building up our "repertoire". Four months of practice, and about four songs. But now we had something to work towards, because Feargal had arranged a show. We were to be the entertainment for the wee boys in his scout troop. No money of course, but if we could keep them entertained we could keep anybody.

This was still a few weeks away, when the group had the first crisis. I was coming home from school with Vinny, and we were talking about the scout hall show, and the practising, and this and that, and he said "I'm not in the group anymore." Now, Pete Best had to leave the Beatles because his drumming wasn't good enough - Robbie Williams left Take That because he wanted to have a solo career. Vinny O'Neill had to leave the Undertones because he had to concentrate on his O' levels. Not a great reason. I spluttered and gauldered and said I wouldn't stand for this - wait till I see the rest of them, and so on… but nothing came of it.

At the time I suspected the decision wasn't entirely his own - I think there might have been a bit of parental pressure. But whatever the reason, we were down a guitar player - and the scout hall show was coming up. As none of us had ever been in a band before, we didn't have a list of guitar players we could ring up and audition. I think we tried one boy, and gave up. Well not exactly gave up - we decided to ask Vinny and John's younger brother Damian. Damian had been ploughing his own furrow at the time - he ploughed it with a lovely red electric guitar and his own amplifier. Now you might ask, why wasn't he in the group from the start, as he was better equipped than the rest of us? And the answer is - I don't know - but I think it's because he was too young. There's only eighteen months difference between Vinny and Damian, but when you're fifteen, that's a big age gap. So he wasn't part of the gang. You'd clip him round the ear on the odd occasion, but that would be the only contact. Anyway, Vinny was out, Damian was in, and that was that.

A wet Thursday night in February, and there's about sixty cub scouts, aged from nine to eleven, running around the scout hall and on the stage (which is about one foot off the ground) there's the five of us, playing rhythm and blues songs, repeating them two or three times to fill time, and trying to keep the wee boys off the stage - the debut of the band which would become the Undertones. We still didn't have a name. But we had for our second show, which was in St Joseph's secondary school a month later. None of us went to the school but for some reason a teacher called Pat McNab was looking for groups for his school variety concert.

It was in the assembly hall, with a proper stage, the whole school in the audience, and we'd been panicking about it. Well I'd been panicking about it - it could have been stage fright, but all through this time I always wanted something to happen so the show would be called off. Then I could go home and watch the TV and forget all about having to go on stage and play in this group - I couldn't admit this of course or I could be out with Vinny.

So we're on stage at St Josephs, behind the curtain, ready to go, and this teacher is about to announce us. He turns to Feargal and says - what's your name? If it had been a 1950s rock and roll film, we would all have turned to each other and said - Hey! lets call ourselves the Fontaines, or the Youngbloods, or even The Undertones. But no - as soon as the words left the teachers lips, Feargal said "The Hot Rods".
The Hot Rods! Bad enough on its own, but there was a band in London who were getting a lot of publicity, and they were called Eddie and the Hot Rods. The rest of us didn't even have time to stop him - the teacher disappeared through the curtains and announced "The Hot Rods".
There were a few dirty looks at Feargal, but only aimed at his back. He had grabbed the mike stand, and he was away.

Michael Bradley - The Undertones

My Life As An Undertone

Part One

By Michael Bradley