STIFF LITTLE FINGERS + BLABBERMOUTH – DE LA WARR PAVILION, BEXHILL-ON-SEA 3.11.21
Belfast punks Stiff Little Fingers burst onto the scene in early 1978 with ‘Suspect Device’, a self-released single of ferocious intensity, with lyrics overtly focused on the experience of growing up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Championed by legendary DJ John Peel, they secured a distribution deal with independent label Rough Trade. Their debut album, ‘Inflammable Material’ is widely considered a punk classic, and was the first independently released album to make the UK Top 20.
A major label deal with Chrysalis Records followed, and a pop-punk approach that garnered three more chart albums and some Top Of The Pops appearances. The band called it a day at the end of 1982, but they reformed five years later, and with a few personnel changes, have been around ever since. Lead vocalist and guitarist Jake Burns has been a constant presence, and the present lineup also features original bassist Ali McMordie. Guitarist Ian McCallum and drummer Steve Grantley joined in the 1990s. The current ‘Wish We Had 20/20 Vision’ tour has been rescheduled a few times, with most dates now put back to March 2022. Ahead of the main itinerary, a couple of shows have been booked, including this one at the iconic De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea.
Support tonight comes from Blabbermouth, an up-and-coming four-piece from the vibrant music scene in nearby Hastings. I’m pleased to see them on the bill as they are an exciting prospect, with an expansive indie-rock sound well suited to larger stages and venues. They’ve played here before (supporting Kid Kapichi), and their demeanour as they take the stage looks like a mixture of delight to be back and apprehension at the prospect of winning over an older, partisan punk audience. A respectable sized crowd has come in to check them out though, and they get a warm reception.
Centre stage is vocalist and guitarist Max, leaning on the mic stand, a Telecaster casually slung at his side. Blessed with plenty of the charm and charisma necessary to successfully front a band, he has a classic boyish rock star look going on, with a hint of Marc Bolan or Pete Doherty. Between verses he’s exuberantly flinging himself around the stage. House left, guitarist Leon favours a Strat, and tends to drop to his knees and writhe about during his impressive solos. Bassist Alfie is house right, sporting more hair and beard than his bandmates, pumping out the low end from a white Fender Jazz. His signature move is leaning right back, with the headstock of the instrument thrust skywards. Behind the kit, drummer Harry has a beautifully fluid style, maintaining a languid insouciance whilst thumping out a pounding beat with frequent rolls tumbling around the toms.
Musically, we’re in jangly indie rock territory with plenty of hooks, and forays into more ambitious and angular passages. Most of the songs have been released as singles, so it’s a sharp, snappy set of catchy numbers. ‘Is This Everything You Dreamt Of?’ has an appealing guitar figure, with Max and Leon chiming in unison, Thin Lizzy style. ‘Razor Switchblade Smile’ boasts an absolutely massive vocal line and a crunching riff, punctuated by brisk flurries of super-tight drum fills. ‘Just Tell Me The Truth’ is urgent and exciting, with a dramatic climax that terminates in a crashing stop.
‘Youthful Haze’, which was the band’s first single, features a ludicrously catchy chorus vocal. There’s a change of vibe with ‘When I’m In The Moment’, which has a steadier feel, embellished with some tasty guitar strokes. The solo leads into an absolutely delightful end section of clanging staccato guitars and big drum hits. Current single ‘Cynic’ is particularly interesting, with a pumping rhythm contrasting with more delicate sections. They close the set with ‘Let Me Out’, which is based around a supremely catchy ascending guitar riff that would sit nicely in the classic rock canon somewhere between ‘Low Rider’ and ‘Cool Jerk’. The band are giving their all, immersed in their performance and bounding around the stage with reckless abandon. They get a warm cheer at the end, suggesting that they’ve won a significant section of the crowd to their cause. Blabbermouth are definitely a band on the rise, and worth looking out for.
Max Williams – vocals, guitar
Leon Knowles – guitar
Alfie Rolph – bass
Harry Giles – drums
‘Is This Everything You Dreamt Of?’, ‘Razor Switchblade Smile’, ‘Just Tell Me The Truth’, ‘Youthful Haze’, ‘When I’m In The Moment’, ‘Cynic’, ‘Let Me Out’
Given that the main attraction provided a significant part of the soundtrack of my youth, I decide to stay in the hall and stake my claim to a bit of crash barrier at the front. The interval music is a nostalgic selection of 1970s TV themes, which probably says something about the expected demographic, although I have seen a fair few younger people in tonight. The tour decor has a comic book theme, and the glowering backline of Marshall and Ampeg stacks is nicely dressed with cloths that blend with the backdrop. Guitar and bass amps either side are emblazoned with “20” figures, to complete the 20/20 vision motif. There is no smoke or moving lights, at the band’s request, so for once my phone snaps might actually come out. Our photographer Sara, whose shots always come out, has plenty of room to work between the barrier and the bass bins.
There’s a huge cheer as the recorded music changes from the theme from ‘Minder’ to ‘Go For It’, a stirring instrumental from the Fingers’ 1981 album of the same name. This can only mean one thing: it’s time for Stiff Little Fingers to take the stage. The bouncing rhythm of a joyous cover of Bunny Wailer’s ‘Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae’ sets the crowd around me straight into some extremely vigorous dancing.
Jake is centre stage, wearing the trademark Western shirt that has been his look for many years now. He wields an ESP guitar with a fancy green finish and a Daffy Duck sticker, and his playing is fluid and assured. House right is Ali McMordie, grinding some serious growl from a black StingRay bass. Looking trim and fit, he is mobile and animated, bounding around in circles and covering plenty of stage. The bleached hair of his former punk style has long since given way to a more cropped biker look, but he was cool back then and he’s pretty damned cool now. House left is guitarist Ian McCallum, playing a left-handed Schecter in a Telecaster shape. He’s wearing a T-shirt with the logo from ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’, the BBC’s live music showcase from the 1970s. Behind a massive Natal drum kit, whose riser and front skin are an integral part of the stage dressing, is Steve Grantley, unleashing fills and hits with the sort of power and precision that comes from long experience.
With a couple of songs from ‘Go For It’ and a couple more from ‘Nobody’s Heroes’, there is plenty of singing along and punching the air, not least from yours truly. Obviously there are songs in the set not from the first few albums, and ‘Strummerville’, a touching tribute to the late great Joe Strummer of The Clash, is a truly impressive piece of work. Melding the chorus line into the playout from ‘Clash City Rockers’ is an inspired touch. ‘16 Shots’ is contemporary and topical, the lyrics dealing with the killing of teenager Laquan McDonald by Police in Chicago, where Jake now lives. ‘My Dark Places’, from 2014 album ‘No Going Back’, is a moving number dealing with Jake’s personal experience of depression.
For the most part though, the set is one massive chant-along of treasured anthems from days past. ‘Doesn’t Make it Alright’ bounces nicely, and the crowd do a very commendable job adding the high vocal in the doo-wop section of ‘Barbed Wire Love’. The lyrics to ‘Wasted Life’ and ‘Tin Soldiers’ were seared into my consciousness at a young age, and hearing them performed again by this kick-ass incarnation of the band is quite emotional. By the time the frenetic intro of ‘Suspect Device’ strikes up, I’m pinballing around in a lively mosh of ecstatic punters, most of whom are, like me, old enough to know better. The set concludes with ‘Gotta Gettaway’, and I’m utterly transfixed watching Ali McMordie, foot up on the monitors, grinning broadly as he wrangles the familiar bass line.
The crowd roar their approval at the end of the set, and we’re treated to a fast and furious encore of second single ‘Alternative Ulster’. Jake thanks us all for coming out, and manages to launch his plectrum into the crowd in an impressive arc. Everyone around me is looking sweaty and happy. It’s great that Stiff Little Fingers are still playing, still have something to say, and can still turn in a blistering live show.
Stiff Little Fingers:
Jake Burns – lead vocals and guitar
Ali McMordie – bass and vocals
Ian McCallum – guitar and vocals
Steve Grantley – drums
Stiff Little Fingers setlist:
‘Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae’ (Bunny Wailer cover, from ‘Go For It’ 1981)
‘Just Fade Away’ (from ‘Go For It’ 1981)
‘Nobody’s Hero’ (from ‘Nobody’s Heroes’ 1980)
‘At the Edge’ (from ‘Nobody’s Heroes’ 1980)
‘Strummerville’ (from ‘Guitar And Drum’ 2003)
‘Silver Lining’ (from ‘Go For It’ 1981)
‘State of Emergency’ (from ‘Inflammable Material’ 1979)
‘Doesn’t Make It Alright’ (The Specials cover, from ‘Nobody’s Heroes’ 1980)
’16 Shots’ (unreleased)
‘Listen’ (from ‘All The Best’ 1983)
‘Barbed Wire Love’ (from ‘Inflammable Material’ 1979)
‘My Dark Places’ (from ‘No Going Back’ 2014)
‘Wasted Life’ (from ‘Inflammable Material’ 1979)
‘Tin Soldiers’ (from ‘Nobody’s Heroes’ 1980)
‘Suspect Device’ (from ‘Inflammable Material’ 1979)
‘Gotta Gettaway’ (from ‘Nobody’s Heroes’ 1980)
‘Alternative Ulster’ (from ‘Inflammable Material’ 1979)
LIKE WHAT WE DO? HELP US TO DO MORE OF IT BY DONATING HERE.