Guitar Hero: Damian O’Neill at the Dirty Water (Photo: Kate Greaves)
This week saw the release of a new solo single from one of my musical heroes, a certain Damian O’Neill.
I’m tempted to not even bother with an introduction, but this Derry-raised, London-based guitarist made his name alongside brother John O’Neill, Mickey Bradley, Billy Doherty and Feargal Sharkey in The Undertones, a band that meant so much to me in my early teens and beyond.
If that wasn’t enough, Dee went on to That Petrol Emotion, the bedrock’n’roll of my gigging years around the capital in the second half of the 1980s.
Since the turn of the new century, he’s been back with The Undertones, these days with Paul McLoone in Feargal’s parka spot, so to speak.
And this past couple of years, another of Dee’s bands, The Everlasting Yeah – also involving ex-TPE members Raymond Gorman, Ciaran McLaughlin and Brendan Kelly – have come to light, and have newly released a mightily-impressive debut LP.
But in the midst of all that, Dee’s been recording his own songs, with Trapped in a Cage c/w Love Makes The World Go Round out on 7″ vinyl only via Overground Records, in a limited 500-copy run.
And – as with The Everlasting Yeah’s Anima Rising, which I’ve reviewed here last week – I can vouch for the fact that we have another winner.
Damian’s vocal on Trapped in a Cage underlines and showcases his ability in a rarely-heard department.
Then there are those guitars and that late-70s feel ‘tick-tock’ backing vox. It’s partly-abrasive, very raw, and definitely in keeping with the theme.
Love Makes The World Go Round is wonderfully catchy yet uncompromising in that, and reminds me of one of those b-sides you find by chance then can’t stop spinning.
There are hints of Lou Reed, early Go-Betweens, a large dose of Buzzcocks – I’d love to hear Pete Shelley tackle this – and even that new wave fire Graham Coxon managed on Love Travels at Illegal Speeds.
More to the point, Damian adds his own stamp. And while I’m at it, I love the way he sings ‘tatters’.
Both songs have their roots in Belfast playwright Gary Mitchell’s musical Re-energize. But while Gary penned the lyrics, Dee wrote the music.
Furthermore, he plays everything you hear on the record other than the drums, which were added by Stereolab sticksman and studio engineer Andy Ramsay.
Re-energize was commissioned by Derry’s Playhouse Theatre as part of 2013’s Derry City of Culture celebrations, with performances there and at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, and John O’Neill also involved.
The play follows four downtrodden individuals from Belfast who, now middle-aged and on hard times, decide against all the odds to reform their old punk band and in effect get a ‘second chance’.
Initially, the O’Neill brothers were commissioned to write eight pieces of music to lyrics by Gary, to be performed by the actors live on stage.
John wrote three, Dee came up with four, and they co-wrote another. And as Dee put it, “The songs went down really well, so I decided to take things further and record five of the songs myself.”
So why ‘vinyl only’, I asked, when we recently caught up on the phone and talked about Damian’s solo work, his multi-band workload, and much more.
“Well, I’ve always loved vinyl, and never really stopped buying it. It’s not a fetish, but … come on, it’s just nicer, isn’t it?
“It’s the artwork more than anything. CDs are just so cold. And I would say this of course, but this sounds so good on vinyl, with the kind of warmth CDs and digital don’t have.”
How did you get to know Gary Mitchell?
“I only met Gary at the beginning of last year, as part of the City of Culture celebrations, when he was writing his sequel to Energy, which was set during the Hunger Strike, so kind of gritty.
Play Time; Gary Mitchell
“The follow-up is present day, and things haven’t worked out too well for the band. They’re all kind of down on their luck and in debt, but over the course of the play they start going over old songs.
“And those were written by me and John, to lyrics by Gary. We were commissioned to write the kind of songs we would have written when we were 17.
“I got really into it, more than John really. His songs were more ballady, mine were more harder-edged. And I thought I should really do something with these.
“We couldn’t just let the play happen and that’s it. Consequently, I recorded five of the songs in London, paying for it all myself.
“In the play it’s the actors singing, but this time I did everything myself, with Andy adding the drums.
“I was really pleased with the result and through a friend this little label, Overground Records, heard the songs, and picked two for a single.”
Do you think you might expand on that to make an album?
“Well, I could. I’ll see how this goes. There’s definitely another I co-wrote with John that I really like, equally as good. If this gets a good reaction, I’ll possibly put another single out.”
Derry’s City of Culture celebrations were clearly an exciting time to be back in your home city.
“That was amazing, and we got lucky with the weather too, around 25 degrees – unheard of weather over there!”
He’s Frank: The Return of Colmcille writer Frank Cottrell Boyce
I recall there was involvement from one of my favourite authors too, Frank Cottrell Boyce, who was commissioned to write The Return of Colmcille.
“We met him, and he was a lovely guy. My daughter loves his books, and I got a really nice picture of him with her.
“He’s a sweet man, and a big, big Undertones fan of course. I think he also got John to do some music for the event too.”
Do you still get over to Northern Ireland a fair bit?
“Pretty much, with Undertones shows and stuff. We’re often playing dates in Ireland, and I go over to rehearse a few times, and for family reasons as well.”
Was this a first for you – working on soundtracks?
“Well, in 2001, there was A Quiet Revolution, my solo album, but none of those tracks ever got used for films or anything.”
I was only listening to that album again the day before speaking to Damian. I put it to him that maybe some of those tracks are still waiting to be discovered.
“Well, yeah, I know!”
It was a rather experimental affair, but fantastically quirky, and there are some lovely moments on there.
“There are, actually. I hadn’t heard it for ages but then played some tracks recently. Some of it’s not stood the test of time and some tracks are a bit long, but I’m still very proud of it.
“It was a cathartic time to do it. At the time, things weren’t going too well for me, personally, and it was great just to have this release.
“It didn’t sell, but I didn’t care. It was just so good to get it out. ”
It was released on Alan McGee’s label, Poptones, wasn’t it?
“Yeah, he knew me from That Petrol Emotion and The Undertones, and was very enthusiastic at the time.
“But things didn’t goo too well with the label itself, and we kind of lost touch after that.”
Actually, Damian later remembered a track he recorded on the 1998 No Flies on Frank EP – recording as O’Neill – for a French label called Artefact, called Moon Tide, which was used on the soundtrack of Hamlet, the year 2000 film starring Ethan Hawke.
In fact, I suspect he has a few home recordings from over the years too, possibly waiting to be shared, although some may be outside the remit of his current two-band existence.
“Yeah, these last few years I’ve been getting inspired again, and I have lots of instrumental tracks – not sample-based anymore, but with guitar, drums and bass.
“There are a few nice slow, even Irish folky pieces I want to do something with, maybe next year. But these things seem to take forever.
“Take this single for example, which we recorded this time last year. It’s taken a whole year. And that’s only two songs!”
Do you think the single might re-fuel interest in Gary’s play?
“Well, we’ll see. That would be good. The play ran a week in Derry, then two in Belfast. It was supposed to come to London and Glasgow, but never did.”
When you’re writing songs, do you start with a guitar?
“Virtually always. I just come up with a riff and build it up. And if it’s really good, that’s when I’ll take it into a studio.
“But these days no one’s going to fund it for you, so you have to do it all yourself, and it all takes time.
Derry Finery: The Undertones, first time around, with Damian second right. Note the clothes. (Photo courtesy of BBC)
“You have to be so independently-minded now. Bands like The Undertones and That Petrol Emotion got lucky in the fact that we were around when there were pots of money about.
“There were all these record companies that might spend half a million on a project, then write them off as a tax loss.
“Those days are long gone, but that’s the way it is and I kind of like the fact that I’m dealing with a small, independent label now.
“Maybe next time I might put something out myself on my own label. That’s just more exciting!”
You’ve clearly taken to the PledgeMusic idea, judging by the success of that approach with The Everlasting Yeah.
“Yeah we reached and exceeded our target, which was great. That said, a lot of that was down to Raymond and his PR skills, social media and so on.”
When I caught up with Damian, there was a slight delay on the finished project, with a national vinyl shortage (I kid you not) holding back the official release date.
“It was the same with my single, which should have been out months ago.”
It seems like you have a more organic all-together jamming approach with The Everlasting Yeah. Does that suit you?
“I think it suits the four of us, and although personally I’m not really into jamming, it seems that when we get together it really works well.
“It’s a bit of a cliché talking about chemistry, but there’s definitely something going on.
“Especially when Brendan and Ciaran are locked in together. It’s the most powerful bass and drums I’ve ever heard. They’re such a great power unit together.”
I’ve always loved the harmonies with all of your bands, and they seem even more important to The Everlasting Yeah – in the absence of an out and out front-man.
“Exactly, and I hope you won’t be disappointed by the end result on this album.”
I can add now – since my conversation with Damian – that I certainly am not disappointed, as my review of Anima Rising here will suggest.
“It’s more experimental than the Petrols, and there are longer songs. I guess we’re a little older and realise we can do what we want now.
“We don’t have some record company set to cut it down to three minutes or whatever. We do what we want.
“And the influences are still very much there. There’s a lot of Can going on, for a start.”
Incidentally, if you go to Damian’s wikipedia entry, there’s a clearly non-English written explanation of what The Everlasting Yeah are all about. It’s nuts, but I quite like it.
Apparently, they play ‘kosmische Krautrock influenced Musik mixed with most individual soundscapes creating most amazing atmospheres with powerful guitary, percussionized tunes.”
So that’s cleared that up then.
Of course, Damian was also a bass hero to me in those early days of the Petrols, and certainly knows his way around keyboards too.
So what else does he play? Everything but the drums, I’m guessing.
“Well, I can play drums a bit actually! I didn’t play them on the single, but I have an electronic kit at home, so I kind of guided Andy on what I wanted.”
Everlasting Appeal: Damian, Brendan and Ciaran at the Dirty Water, with Raymond just out of shot (Kate Greaves)
Judging by my interviews with Raymond a few months ago, that all goes back to your shared school days and home upbringing back in Derry, doesn’t it?
“Yeah, and in our house we were always encouraged to pick up an instrument.
“I was at the same secondary school as Raymond, and if you passed a test you were given an instrument for the orchestra.
“I asked for a saxophone but was given a trombone, and only lasted about a week. They then took it back and didn’t encourage me. And that still rankles.”
Perhaps if it was a few years later you might have heard the likes of Rico Rodriguez playing trombone, and taken a bit more interest.
“Yeah, or Big Jim Paterson! Who knows.”
So was it an Andy Mackay influence that drew you to the sax?
“I probably didn’t know much Roxy Music at 14 or 15, but it was a sexy instrument, and I’d probably seen some jazz on television and kind of liked it.
“But I guess it was too far out for a school orchestra.”
As it was, Damian learned guitar instead, and was later deemed good enough to step in to take middle-brother Vinny’s place in The Undertones by 1976.
You probably know the rest, not least the international reaction triggered by John Peel’s love of their Teenage Kicks EP for Terri Hooley’s Good Vibrations Records, recorded one wet and miserable day in Belfast in mid-June, 1978, when youngest band member Dee was just 17.
Those next five years saw The Undertones record four memorable studio albums, his own writing and co-writing credits including classics like Family Entertainment, Male Model, True Confessions, Mars Bars, More Songs About Chocolate and Girls ….
I’ll stop there before I get carried away, but I got to 26 songs over those albums, and at least another dozen from his TPE days.
The background of that whole story was told in recent years by a couple of very good documentaries, most recently the BBC 4 version, Here Comes the Summer, which promoted me to write this appreciation of the band.
“Yes, it was very good, and so was the first one, Teenage Kicks. I loved both for different reasons.
“And the BBC one was good because it delved more into the political side and the music itself.”
I still get the feeling that you’re still a little embarrassed by all this adulation and attention. Not just you, but John, Billy and Mickey.
But I’ve always seen that as part of the band’s charm. You’re certainly not ‘up yourselves’, so to speak.
“Well, that’s good! I have to say it can get frustrating with John though. He’s such a talent but lacks confidence sometimes.
“There’s a certain humility and humbleness, and that is great, but it can get a little negative sometimes!”
Of course, Raymond – particularly as the driver of The Everlasting Yeah – seems to be at the complete opposite end of that scale.
“He’s the total opposite! If anything, he’s over-optimistic!
“But I also have to say that Raymond and John saved me at a time when I was having a very bad time – back living in Twickenham, doing nothing, on the dole.”Getting briefly back to The Undertones, a fictionalised version of the band turned up in Good Vibrations, the charming 2012 film telling the story of Belfast indie guru Terri Hooley.
So what did Damian make of that evocative effort?
“Oh, the film’s great, absolutely brilliant!”
Was it a little odd to find five lads on the big screen playing yourselves?
“It was weird, kind of surreal, watching myself on celluloid. My only criticism was that we didn’t look like that.
“They had Sharkey with the parka – fair enough. I don’t think he wore one back then, but he could have, so that’s fine.
“But the rest of us looked like country bumpkins! No way! Most of us would have worn leather jackets or something.
“That said, the film was great. I was a little apprehensive. It could have been awful, but while they took licence with the truth a bit, they got the spirit.
“It was very funny, and Richard Dormer (who played Terri) was amazing.”
So let’s cut to the chase, Damian. How easy is it function in two bands at a time?
“Well, The Undertones remains my bread and butter, and it’s quite easy in the sense that we don’t play that much these days.
“Summer’s always busy, with lots of festivals, and there are European tours here and there.”
In fact, the band were about to set out on a brief run of dates in France, Switzerland and Germany when we spoke, with three more already in the diary for Dublin, Clapham and Paris next year too.
“We love playing in Europe now. In fact, I think we’d rather play there than over here. Don’t get me wrong though – we get a great reception wherever we go.
“We deliberately didn’t do too many shows here this year, but probably will again next year.”
But it appears that two bands and a solo project isn’t enough for Damian, as he explained.
“I’m actually in another project as well. We haven’t played yet, we’re just practicing, but we’re called The Noirs, with kind of a garage, 60s sound. So watch this space!”
“Yeah, with a couple of friends. It’s early days though. I wrote a few songs a couple of years ago with a kind of ‘60s, r’n’b feel.
“We’ve found a girl singer in the last few months, and Nick Brown, from Intoxica Records, plays bass with us. But we’re still at the home practising stage.”
Fond Farewell: That Petrol Emotion say goodbye. From the left, Raymond Gorman, Steve Mack, Ciaran McLaughlin, Brendan Kelly, Damian O’Neill (Photo: Dave Walsh)
Of course, the Petrols started with a female vocalist. But I got the feeling from Raymond that the experience of finding the right singer back then was enough to put him off that process again.
“True. But Steve (Mack) was of course amazing, and a great performer.
“Every band needs a vocal point, and what’s great about being in The Undertones is that I can take a back-seat. Paul McLoone is a true front-man, with the audience glued on him.
“That’s what it should be about really. I like taking a back-seat.”
I know what you mean, and still have great memories of my very first sighting of The Undertones, mark two, at the Mean Fiddler the day before the Fleadh in June 2000.
“Ah, thanks! I remember that well. It was a great show.”
So what’s it like to be in The Undertones in 2014, as opposed to maybe in 1982 or 1983?
“Oh, it’s a lot happier and a lot more relaxed.”
I guess you’ve got nothing to prove now either.
“Yeah, and back then, in those years you mention, it was very depressing and we were under pressure from the record company, EMI, to get a hit.
“Things weren’t going well with Feargal, and it was all falling apart. It was pretty miserable actually.
“But now – fast forward all these years – we play gigs when we want to play and we’re doing it all for the right reasons.
“And the songs still sound great, and we can still put on a great show as well!”
It only recently struck me that you were only 22 when The Undertones split. Did you feel let down by that experience?
“Yeah. I’d moved to London a year earlier, and was the only one who had. So I was kind of ready to branch out and do something else, although of course I wanted us to stay together.
Flick Off: Dee about to witness a highly-illegal Subbuteo flick-kick in 1980’s My Perfect Cousin video
“Despite everything, the split was still a bit of a shock. I tried to get a band together with Mickey, called Eleven. But it was pretty bad. We lost the plot, I think.”
Well, you say that, but I’ll stand up for Eleven, even if neither yourself or Mickey will!
I saw Eleven a couple of times at the Marquee in 1984, then aged 16, at a time when I was starting to travel up to more gigs in London.
I loved the band at the time, enjoyed your John Peel session, and loved David Drumgold’s booming voice.
“Really? Ah, it’s all still painful for me, and I haven’t heard any of that stuff for years. Actually, I was looking at some publicity photos taken at that time, and my God!
”We were going over the top with the haircuts and clothes. We lost our way. But anyway, it never happened.”
I think Damian’s lost for words at this point, but he soon composes himself again, and I ask if he stayed in touch with the rest of that band.
“I was talking with Mickey about this the other day, and David is an actor and in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert now.”
I had spotted that myself recently, but Damian then told me something I hadn’t realised – that the band’s drummer, Fred Ravel, who went back to his native France when Eleven split, died from a brain haemorrhage this year. Very sad.
Moving on a little further forward, is that right that Dee was on the verge of joining Dexy’s Midnight Runners around the time That Petrol Emotion formed?
“No, that’s been said, but I was never offered the chance to join Dexy’s.
“Kevin Rowland knew I was a fan and rang me up, inviting me along to Birmingham to watch them rehearse. I still don’t really know why, but it was great to meet him.”
Was that in the post-Too Rye Ay business suit days, when they were working on Don’t Stand Me Down and might have passed for accountants?
“Yeah, exactly! Just about a year before that came out. They were wearing those suits and going through those songs.”
It was kind of odd, and so different to what had come before, but I still loved that album.
“Yeah, and it’s become iconic now, a classic. Actually, I saw them at the Duke of York last year, and I believe they’ve made a film out of those shows.
“The night I went was really great, and I still revere him. He phoned me up last year, we were chatting away and were supposed to meet for a cup of tea, but somehow never did.”
Initially, you were writing most of your songs with Mickey. But despite all those songs over the years, you’ve only had two part-credits on the last two Undertones albums.
“Yeah. It’s funny, but when we started recording again as The Undertones I just wasn’t that inspired to come up with much.
“But if we were to make a new record now, I’d definitely have a lot more to offer. I did write the last single though – Much Too Late.
“That was also vinyl only, for Record Store Day in 2012. I also co-wrote the b-side for that single, When It Hurts.”
I can vouch for the fact that both tracks suggested there’s plenty more life in The Undertones candle too.
That’s good to know too, because it’s been seven years since the last album, Dig Yourself Deep.
Meanwhile, time marches on, Damian is now 53, and has been based in London for 32 years now.
These days, he’s happily married, with a 14-year-old daughter, based south of the river, as he has been for much of his years in the capital.
I find it hard to accept he’s that age, and also can’t quite get my head around the fact that it’s 30 years next summer since I first chanced upon That Petrol Emotion at The Pindar of Wakefield in King’s Cross and The Enterprise in Chalk Farm in June, 1985.
With that in mind, we reminisce a little about those early TPE gigs, not just there but also venues in Finsbury Park, Hammersmith, Kennington, Kentish Town, Kilburn, Tuffnell Park, and more.
High Octane: That Petrol Emotion, from the left, Ciaran, John, Steve, Damian, Raymond
I add that although I love a lot of those Petrols albums, I don’t think – and this could just be me with my nostalgic John O’Neill specs on – the band ever quite managed to capture the magic of those very first gigs on vinyl.
“I don’t think we ever did manage to replicate that feeling on an album, but Final Flame, the live album, was as close as we got to capturing that.”
There were a few covers in those early days too, as well as lots of great songs that ended up on Manic Pop Thrill and the early 12”s, such as Pere Ubu’s Non-Alignment Pact and Captain Beefheart’s Zig-Zag Wanderer.
Despite the power of all three bands Damian has recorded with, to my knowledge there has not been any cross-over, recording-wise.
But I do recall the Petrols tackling – at the Kennington Cricketers – an Undertones song, Bitter Sweet, one which only ended up on a later issue of The Sin of Pride.
“I think we did that a couple of times. Bitter Sweet was always one of John’s favourites, and originally it wasn’t on the last album.
“That was probably the last straw for John. He was so pissed off about that, but we didn’t fight to keep it on for some reason.
“So no one really heard it again until that album was re-released, years later.
“I think you’re right, we did do it with Steve at the Cricketers. And we probably did cut it in the end.”
Does Damian ever think he will move back to Derry?
“Only if the sun starts shining! But never say never. My heart’s always there, and part of me never left. I’m always over.
Past Days: The Undertones, with Dee out front
“That’s another great thing about being in The Undertones. I’m back and forth quite a lot.
“There’s things I love about the humour and the people, although there’s things that really get you down as well.
“I think I’m more of a Derry person than Raymond and Ciaran actually. They don’t get back so much. I’m more attached to the place.”
Talking of Stroke City, as it’s been dubbed in more recent times because of its twin-identity as both Derry and Londonderry – what’s John up to between Undertones engagements these days.
“Do you remember he was in a band called Rare? Well, he’s now teamed up with Locky Morris in a new project.
“Less samples and loops, but the same kind of area. They’re slowly getting a bunch of songs together. John’s devoting a lot of time to new songs for that.”
Did you ever think when you first joined The Undertones that you might still be doing it all four decades later?
“No, course not! Even when the first LP was out, we didn’t think we’d last long. We never thought of it as a career.”
There’s a funny story on the reissued first album sleeve-notes about the band almost splitting after the debut album, with Mickey threatening to quit.
“I remember that very well. He sat us all in a room and said, “I’m leaving the band now. I’ve done all I wanted to achieve.
“We were flabbergasted! Fortunately, our manager had a quick word with him.”
Finally, how about the O’Neill ‘middle-sibling’, Vinnie? Do you think he regretted handing over his place in The Undertones to his little bro all those years ago?
“No! I think Vinnie’s long over it. There were never any sour grapes there. None at all!”
To order a copy of Damian’s limited edition Trapped in a Cage 7″ on vinyl, head to this Overground Records link here.
And for more news on The Everlasting Yeah and how to get a copy of Anima Rising, check out their Facebook page or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.