Stiff Little Fingers - Biography
By Oliver Hall
Whereas you can hear many punk bands actually learning to play their instruments on their first recordings, Stiff Little Fingers, from Belfast, Northern Ireland, began as a tight cover band that approached punk as a style to be mastered rather than invented from scratch. Stiff Little Fingers are nonetheless beloved for their high-energy performances and the strength of their early songs, some of which rank among the most popular singles of punk’s first wave.
Jake Burns, Henry Cluney, Gordon Blair and Brian Faloon formed the cover band Highway Star, named after the Deep Purple song, in 1976. Bassist Ali McMordie soon took Blair’s place. In 1977, guitarist Cluney discovered punk by way of Eddie and the Hotrods’ Live at the Marquee EP (Island 1976), itself composed of four classic rock covers, and converted the other members of Highway Star to the new style. Lead singer and guitarist Burns renamed the band Stiff Little Fingers after a contemporary song by London pop-punk band the Vibrators.
Belfast journalist Colin McClelland took his friend Gordon Ogilvie, a writer for Belfast’s Daily Express, to see Stiff Little Fingers in late 1977. Ogilvie persuaded Stiff Little Fingers that they should write original punk songs in a social realist vein, and he and McClelland were soon managing the band. Burns and Ogilvie collaborated as songwriters on the early songs “Suspect Device” and “Alternative Ulster,” and Ogilvie, McClelland and the four members of SLF formed a record label called Rigid Digits to issue the band’s first single, “Suspect Device” b/w “Wasted Life” (Rigid Digits 1978).
The now classic punk single “Alternative Ulster” b/w “78 RPM” (Rigid Digits/Rough Trade 1978) followed that same year, co-released by the band’s label and the adventurous London punk/post-punk label Rough Trade. “[‘Alternative Ulster’] was a song written in the classic punk mode about having nothing to do,” Jake Burns told the Guardian in 2003, “because that was the overriding reality of life in Belfast for a teenager in the mid-70s. Not the fear of riots or bombs or whatever. It was the sheer tedium of having nowhere to go and nothing to do when you got there.”
Both “Suspect Device” and “Alternative Ulster” appear on Stiff Little Fingers’ debut LP Inflammable Material (Rough Trade 1979), the rawest punk album in the band’s catalog, largely cowritten by Burns and Ogilvie. The album was enormously successful for an independent release in the UK and Ireland and as an import in the US. The sound of the band’s early material is largely derived from the Clash, down to the gestures toward reggae: a lengthy version of Bob Marley’s “Johnny Was” takes up much of side two.
Stiff Little Fingers moved to London in 1979, except for Brian Faloon, who stayed behind in Belfast. Colin McClelland’s career in journalism took him to Dublin, and he sold his share of Rigid Digits, leaving Ogilvie the band’s sole manager. After “Gotta Gettaway” b/w “Bloody Sunday” (Rough Trade 1979), which introduced new drummer Jim Reilly, Stiff Little Fingers signed to Chrysalis Records and released “Straw Dogs” b/w “You Can’t Say Crap on the Radio” (Chrysalis 1979), the B-side of which affectionately pokes fun at the Clash’s “Capitol Radio.”
The second SLF album, Nobody’s Heroes (Chrysalis 1980), has a cleaner, more polished sound than Inflammable Material and sounds much like a cross between the Clash of Give ‘Em Enough Rope and the Jam of All Mod Cons. The band blasts through songs from its first two LPs on the live album Hanx! (Chrysalis 1980). SLF pursued a Who/Jam-inspired direction on the sweet-sounding Go For It (Chrysalis 1981), after which drummer Reilly quit. Dolphin, or Dolph, Taylor, formerly of the Tom Robinson Band, for whom the Fingers had opened a UK tour in 1978, drummed on the yet sweeter-sounding Now Then… (Chrysalis 1982), after which Stiff Little Fingers broke up. Henry Cluney writes on his website that “[Burns] wanted to pursue a solo career and walked away.” The double LP All The Best (Chrysalis 1983) compiles all of Stiff Little Fingers’ Rigid Digits, Rough Trade and Chrysalis singles.
Burns’s new band, Jake Burns and the Big Wheel, released several singles, and Ali McMordie formed a band called Friction Groove that released a 12-inch EP on Atlantic. Henry Cluney returned to Belfast, where he remained until Burns called him about a Stiff Little Fingers reunion in 1987. Burns, Cluney, McMordie and Taylor played four well-received reunion shows in December 1987. More reunion shows followed in 1988, and Stiff Little Fingers’ two nights at Brixton Academy that year were recorded for a home video and double album, See You Up There! (Virgin 1989). Ali McMordie quit the reunited band in 1990 and was replaced by former Jam bassist Bruce Foxton. Flags and Emblems (Essential 1991) was the first new studio album from the reunited SLF, followed by the live album Fly the Flags (Essential 1993), recorded at Brixton Academy in 1991. Burns kicked Cluney out of the band in 1993—Cluney says 1994, and that the band’s manager broke the news to him—during the sessions for Get a Life (Castle 1994). Pure Fingers (Dojo 1995) is another live album, recorded in Glasgow on St. Patrick’s Day 1993. Dolphin Taylor quit in 1996, and SLF recruited Steve Grantley, the former drummer for Jake Burns and the Big Wheel. After the studio album Tinderbox (Abstract 1997), Stiff Little Fingers signed to EMI, which issued the subsequent studio albums Hope Street (EMI 1999) and Guitar and Drum (EMI 2003).
Jake Burns released a solo album of traditional Irish music, Drinkin’ Again (EMI 2006), and Ali McMordie returned to play bass in Stiff Little Fingers after Bruce Foxton left the band in 2006. The band continues to perform regularly and maintains a website at www.slf.com. Henry Cluney now lives in Minnesota. Performing solo with an acoustic guitar, Cluney opened for the Damned and the Alarm on their summer 2009 UK tour. His website is www.henrycluney.com. Writer Roland Link has published the biography Kicking Up A Racket: The Story of Stiff Little Fingers 1977-1983 (Appletree Press 2009).