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The Price of Ambition

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THE UNDERTONES

HYPNOTISED

POSITIVE TOUCH

THE SIN OF PRIDE

(RYKODISC)

It's amazing that rock bands that achieve even moderate success can actually make more than two albums, and it's even more remarkable when the records are good. Internal conflicts ranging from musical to strictly personal have taken their toll on countless bands, and outside forces--namely sales figures and the media, which are inextricably linked--can have an even more devastating effect, exacerbating any already existing problems. Sometimes those problems manifest themselves in stylistic shifts that, at least in retrospect, seem to foreshadow a band's demise.

Northern Ireland's Undertones are a swell case in point, and their recent reissues on Rykodisc make them a convenient subject of study. Formed in 1979, two years after the explosion of punk rock, the Derry quintet exploited punk's raucous energy and applied it to an unfettered pop sensibility. Their initial record was an independently released four-song EP called Teenage Kicks, and influential BBC deejay John Peel flipped over the title track, making it a staple of his widely heard show. In short order the band was scooped up by Sire Records, who issued the Undertones' terrific debut album. Looking like the boys next door dressed up as motley punk rockers, the Undertones embraced the stripped-down, hard-rocking simplicity of the Ramones, intertwined with splotches of glam rock. Their lyrics were concerned exclusively with juvenilia, and mostly with girls. Punchy, crunchy guitars and a propulsive if sloppy rhythm section banged out an irresistible succession of 16 two-minute ditties. But what really made the Undertones stand out was vocalist Feargal Sharkey, a runty kid with a tremolo-drenched tenor that cut straight across the band's happy bashing and frequently jumped into a soaring falsetto. Whereas most British punk bands were fronted by heavily cockneyed, guttural louts, Sharkey's freakish voice was impossible to ignore.

Rykodisc's CD reissue of The Undertones tacks on an additional seven B sides (almost all of the bonus tracks on these CDs were previously compiled on an album called All Wrapped Up) and includes the 47-second "Casbah Rock" (an ode to a formative rock club the band frequented), "Mars Bars" (an ode to junk food), and "Top Twenty" (a song veiling their nascent pop star ambitions with sarcasm). The album stands as an astonishing, endearing, and supercatchy achievement of naivete.

"It's never too late to enjoy dumb entertainment," asserted the band in "More Songs About Chocolate and Girls," the first song on its second effort, Hypnotised. But the album spit in the face of the sophomore jinx theory. It captured a stunning musical maturation that clearly established the band's inherent pop smarts: a striking mesh of acoustic guitars, sharply articulated electric lines, and fat chords. Hypnotised was sort of a punk rock version of Rubber Soul: it had a loose sonic similarity to that album and marked an analogous stage in the band's creative development. Tunes like "Wednesday Week" and "Tearproof" convey a striking balance between pop sophistication and punkish exuberance, a blend that helps make this their strongest, most consistent album. One of the five B-side bonus tracks, "You've Got My Number (Why Don't You Use It?)," finds Sharkey emoting with an anger and frustration that goes well beyond sweet teen romance. But as much as the playing, the lyrics, and Sharkey's voice had improved, that first song showed that the Undertones still felt pressure to grow.

Positive Touch was their debut for Ardeck Records, the band's own imprint through EMI. This album came after what Alex Ogg's liner notes call an "acrimonious split" with Sire, and it represents a major stylistic shift. Graduating from three-chord rockers to the decidedly sophisticated landscape of this album in only two years suggests both rapidly evolving musicianship and unadulterated ambition. Adding piano (courtesy of Paul Carrack) and horns here and there, Positive Touch boasts a polish that completely deemphasizes the charming brashness of the first two albums. In its stead is a swirling, often oblique melancholy dreaminess along with occasional flourishes of soul. Sharkey's ever-improving vocals are more prominent, the delicate arrangements evoke traces of psychedelia--which becomes blatant only once, on the trippy album closer "Forever Paradise"--and the overall approach eschews the obviousness of their previous work. Even the bouncy, seemingly innocuous "It's Going to Happen" had a deeper meaning, referring to the waiting powder keg of Northern Ireland (though that's as close to political commentary as the Undertones ever got). Record buyers weren't so keen on the band's transformation; sales were disappointing in the UK, while in the U.S. the Undertones were dropped by their label, Harvest, altogether.

The cover of their fourth and final album, 1983's ironically titled The Sin of Pride, found the former punks trading in their scruffy clothes and spiked hair for silk shirts and fashionable coifs. But the harder they tried to be pop stars, the less success they had. Musically the album completed their metamorphosis from punks to psychedelic soulsters, and while it's far and away their most ambitious outing--horns, harpsichord, organ, strings, female background vocals, etc--it's also their weakest and least focused. Amid the ruins are some convincing doses of blue-eyed soul, including a fine cover of the Isley Brothers' "Got to Have You Back," on which Sharkey's voice is no longer an oddity but a well-developed delicacy, and the splendiferous Technicolor majesty of "The Love Parade." But some of it--like the forlorn, mopey "Love Before Romance"--just plods along. The six snoozy bonus tracks on the reissue, three of them previously (and deservedly) unreleased, suggest that the band had reached a creative dead end. The album sold poorly, and not long after its release the Undertones broke up, victims of their own overarching ambition and the media, which never fully allowed them to live down their reputation as puerile popsters.

The fact that Sharkey embarked on a short-lived but moderately successful solo career in Top 40, while brothers John and Damian O'Neill, the band's guitarists and principal songwriters, went on to form the bracingly political and musically aggressive That Petrol Emotion, indicates the kind of inner turmoil that was at work on the Undertones at the end. As lowbrow as pop is supposed to be, it's a rare case when its practitioners don't fall prey to the lure of money, fame, and self-importance. Unfortunately, the Undertones' early brilliance was dampened by their subsequent failures. Fortunately, hindsight allows us to recognize how terrific those first two records are despite what came after them.

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