Northern Ireland’s The Undertones, which formed in the 1970s, are still playing music for the fun of it. (Courtesy photo)

Northern Ireland’s Undertones in town on non-reunion tour

Brothers John and Damian O’Neill maintain their punk band’s integrity

It might resemble a typical show business saga — how the proto-punk combo from Northern Ireland called The Undertones exploded onto the scene with an eponymous masterpiece of a debut in 1979, only to break up four years later when charismatic vocalist Feargal Sharkey chose to fly solo. But it’s not, insists guitarist John O’Neill, who reformed the group in 1999 with another powerhouse frontman, Paul McLoone. Yet when O’Neill and his guitarist brother Damian hit town this weekend, they aren’t on a big anniversary tour, recreating “The Undertones” song by majestic song. There’s no new album to promote, only a 2013 single, “Much Too Late”/“When It Hurts I Count to Ten.” And the merch booth will feature no CDs or vintage punk paraphernalia. “My brother and I, we started a band just for the fun of it,” he says.

So The Undertones has a special magic for you?

We formed just for the art of it, back in Derry. But whenever record companies get involved, you find yourself making compromises and doing things you’d rather not — which we did rather reluctantly. But Feargal was much more focused on that part, on being successful, and he didn’t really care about the art of it because he didn’t write any of the songs. And that’s what led to our breakup in the end, actually. I had this idealistic, fixated thing about it. As long as I was able to write and go play those songs, I felt incredibly lucky. Naively, of course, because you have to try and sell records.

What was in the Derry water back in 1979?

Punk was partly political in a sense. But because we were Catholics living in Northern Ireland, we were the oppressed. But you still had to have a life at the same time, and obviously the way the media portrayed it, it was Republicans blaming the Cathollics. So we started sloganeering, but at the same time didn’t want to cheapen anything that was going on with The Troubles. But there was already an innate sense of conflict when we were going off around the world playing all these cool concerts. But integrity was so important to us. That was what punk was all about.

But you don’t really hear politics in the songs.

Well, my next band after that, That Petrol Emotion, was my attempt to address that. But because there were different leanings within the group, I thought it would be unfair of me to try and depict only that — that would have been selfish of me. So there’s always that kind of compromise within the band, too. But with the Petrols it was different — the messsage was of utmost importance. But lately I’ve been recording with a guy named Lucky Morris, who was in a post-Petrols thing with me called Rare. We have a whole album ready to go.


The Undertones

Where: Slim’s, 333 11th St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Sunday, June 2

Tickets: $22 to $25

Contact: (415) 255-0333,

Pop Music

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