The lasting impact of Belfast band Stiff Little Fingers
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The lasting impact of Belfast band Stiff Little Fingers

OCCASIONALLY I see footage of Seventies Belfast on the television and it shocks me to my soul. It looks like an alien country.

How did we manage to become so savage and bitter and conditioned to misery? Where were the coherent voices that were raised against this pile-up of ignorance and dread?

What I remember most, as a young teenager, was the random eruption of a car bomb or incendiary device, and a scramble to the bedroom window where we could gaze across Belfast and try to pinpoint the part of the city that had taken a hit.

There were power cuts and no-go areas and murder gangs at large after midnight. Getting home from school was like a daily re-run of Warriors. On the local news, politicians carried themselves like street fighters, launching accusations across the studio, bawling and berating.

And so we endured the ring of steel and cement around Belfast, the body searches and the terrible sense of vacancy every evening. But then punk rock arrived, with a whole other vision.

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It was a sound that related to the teenage rage, and there was no more appropriate place to make this heard. We were living in a hyper-real Clash song, the cheap holiday full of misery that nobody in England ever wanted to consider.

When I hear Suspect Device by Stiff Little Fingers, the mood is intensely revived. I grieve for the lyric at the start when Jake Burns sings about the 2,000 dead, because a further 1,000 would die before the situation improved.

I feel excited when I hear the rasping voice and the fierce guitar because it was the sound of a novel attitude — the idea that you might rewire the mentality of the Belfast youth and direct it against the warlords.

It was a thrill to hear this song on the John Peel show and to reflect on the flip side, Wasted Life which mocked the act of joining a paramilitary gang. And of course there was Alternative Ulster, a rather melodramatic charter for a new society that still provokes damage to a Belfast dance floor. The song told us that the answer was out there and that we could grab it and take it. In essence, we could be empowered.

Ali from SLF once told me that many young people had walked away from the armed struggle after hearing the band’s music. Rock and roll may actually have saved a few lives. And around the same time I listened to Adam Clayton from U2 when he supposed that if you speed up With Or Without You, it sounds like Alternative Ulster

Punk was a judgemental time, and some of us were rather tough on Stiff Little Fingers. After the initial buzz of the early records, we questioned their posturing, their slogans and their working method. We had swapped one kind of tribalism for another. And with hindsight, we were wrong.

Their version of Johnny Was affects me really deeply now. It returns me to that old Belfast, looking over the city skyline, tracing the columns of smoke to a devastated bar, bus station or department store. And the terrible statistics that followed.

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When Stiff Little Fingers play Belfast these days, the parents bring their kids along. The music crosses generations but thankfully, there’s a line under the songs about wasted lives. It’s become a kind of a history lesson.

And I believe that if you can trace the start of the French Revolution back to some rather insolent plays by Marivaux, then it follows that the peace process in Northern Ireland was founded on the opening chords of Suspect Device. Stiff Little Fingers, you see, made a difference.

What You See Is What You Get by Roland Link is published by Colorpoint