Monday, 29 July 2013

Punk Footnotes #3 Stiff Little Fingers -Johnny Was

'This is a song written by Bob Marley
About a guy getting shot
For being in the wrong place
At the wrong time
This is
Johnny Was'

So Jake Burn's introduced  the song on Hanx over the sound of a snare drum thrumming like in a marching band. Turning this 3 minute Marley album track into this sprawling 10 min howl of pain against the cheapness of life in Belfast was their finest achievement.

Though most famous for the more straight forward hardcore of Suspect Device, Alternative Ulster and Wasted Life, it is in Johnny Was that one can see the scale of the potential they had at the start. On there later albums there was always a workman like Reggae cover, Roots Radcials and Love of the Common People. But these were at best worthy. Johnny Was is much more, it takes the original but completely reinterprets it, placing it in a setting so vivid that when Burns sings 'a shot rings out, in a Belfast night' he could be singing about nowhere else.

Though they enjoyed a few hits and good commercial success, they always seemed trapped by the brilliant first album Inflammable Material. That explosion of rage was always going to be hard to follow. They lacked the musical and stylistic agility of The Clash. Deciding to stop writing about Ulster once in London got them accused of being dishonest, and the quality of the material drifted gradually away. They still exist in some incarnation with the bespectacled square head of Burns leading the line.

There are numerous versions of Johnny Was out there. For me the version recorded at The Rainbow for Hanx! is probably the finest.