ARTIST: The Undertones
ALBUM: The Undertones
Last week, a colleague asked what I thought the quintessential, classic Punk Rock single of all-time was. I responded immediately with "(I'm) Stranded" by The Saints because .... well .... as far as I'm concerned, it is. There's just no arguing with Ed Kuepper's wall of furious guitars on that track. As much as adore da brudders, this song manages to out-Ramone the Ramones. Of course, being the fatuous geek that I am, I then felt urgently compelled to cite the inevitable "runners-up," including tunes like "Blank Generation" by Richard Hell & the Voidoids, "Boredom" by Buzzcocks and "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment" by the afore-mentioned Ramones. But I still think "(I'm) Stranded" trumps them all. You, of course, may beg to differ.
Long after that conversation, my brain kept cranking out other great singles worthy of a mention. While so much is made of the contributions from the go-to bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash (and justifiably so), there were countless other great bands of that era who produced some incredible, vital music. The Damned, The Vibrators, Siouxsie & the Banshees, The Heartbreakers, Stiff Little Fingers, The Jam, Penetration, 999, Generation X, The Dead Boys, The Stranglers (a huge fave of mine), Chelsea, Sham 69, .... the list is endless, and this is to say nothing about the generation of hardcore, oi and post-punk bands that followed in their wake.
Another track that sprang to my mind too late to recommend to my co-worker was "Mars Bar" by The Undertones. Clocking in at a stealthy two minutes and seven seconds, "Mars Bar" is sheer punky insouciance and youthful adrenaline writ large, played by five lanky, acne-speckled goons from Northern Ireland.
I was never a wild fan of The Undertones. I'd heard "Teenage Kicks" (widely renowned as the favorite all-time single by iconoclastic British disc-jockey John Peel), but always considered it a pale appropriation of a Buzzcocks tune. My judgement of them was further clouded by the fact that lead singer Feargal Sharkey (did I mention they were Irish?) was later responsible for an insufferably twee New Wave single called "Never Never," recorded with ex-Depeche Mode & Yaz, pre-Erasure keyboard-twiddler Vince Clarke under the alias, The Assembly. I don't know if you've ever heard "Never Never," but it made Culture Club at their limpest sound like Slayer by comparison. After Sharkey left The Undertones, the rest of the lads formed the perfectly respectable (if not terribly exciting) That Petrol Emotion. End of story, I thought.
Then, in 1995, I was visiting some friends in San Francisco. They all took off for work one day, leaving me to discover the city by the bay on my own. As was my usual modus operandi, I quickly determined the best record and compact disc shops to hit and off I went. Said quest led me to a celebrated record store in Berkeley called Mod Lang (is it even still there, I wonder?). I was thumbing through the racks, having already snagged a copy of the import cd-single of "Connection" by Elastica and a curious single called "Thundersly Invacar" by a go-nowhere band called Collapsed Lung when all of sudden this bracing burst of high-spirited, vintage Punk came blasting out of the sound system. I asked the hepcat behind the counter what we were listening to, and it was "Mars Bar" by The Undertones. I had to have it.
I picked up the Rykodisc re-release of The Undertones eponymous debut and bought it on the spot. The track in question, it turned out, wasn't even on the original version of the album, rather it was one of seven bonus tracks on this edition and originally the b-side of single called "Jimmy Jimmy" (also included on the album, along with the afore-mentioned "Teenage Kicks").
I'd been wrong about The Undertones. This first record is chock full of great, high-energy music rife with serrated guitars and infectious pop hooks, though my favorite tracks are among the afore-mentioned bonus cuts ("Smarter Than You" is another fine one). Regardless, "Mars Bar" remains my all-time favorite. Eschewing the call for social upheaval as espoused by their peers and ignoring the plight of the teenaged romantic, "Mars Bar" is simply a speedy ode to ruining your dinner via an unhealthy consumption of chocolate. Play it loud, leap around the break stuff.