Stiff Little Fingers' comeback albums had plenty to enjoy
More than 40 years after they came blazing out of Belfast, Stiff Little Fingers are still going strong, headlining festivals and selling out good-sized venues on their own tours.
But like many of the second wave of bands, they had to split before realising there was still some mileage in the songs which took many of them into the charts in the late 70s and early 80s.
After splitting in 1983, frontman Jake Burns, guitarist Henry Cluney, bassist Ali McMordie and drummer Dolphin Taylor reconvened in 1987, playing a few live shows so they could afford to go back to Belfast for Christmas.
It proved so successful that they decided to make the reunion permanent, and, not content to live on past glories, they began top produce new music too.
This 4CD boxset of albums which might be considered 'mid-period SLF' show what a creative force the band still were, even if things were a little turbulent behind the scenes.
The first disc is Flags And Emblems, released nine years after their 1982 studio swansong Now Then…, which Burns had described as “the best album we’ve made – and the best we’ll ever make”.
He describes Flags… in his sleevenotes to this set as “not our greatest recorded moment”, but as the main songwriter he’s being pretty harsh on himself, as it includes gems like Each Dollar A Bullet, the single Beirut Moon and No Surrender.
The record marked the SLF debut of Bruce Foxton, former bassman with The Jam, after McMordie left, and has contributions from Burns’ guitar hero Rory Gallagher and Dr Feelgood singer Lee Brilleaux.
There are three bonus tracks added here, a remix of The Cosh, and demo versions of (It’s A) Long Way To Paradise (From Here), all previously found on a mail-order-only CD.
It was only available to those who bought early copies of live album Pure Fingers, recorded live at Barrowlands in Glasgow on St Patrick’s Day 1993 – still the biggest day in any SLF fan’s calendar.
It was the band’s fifth official live album, and as a document of where they stood at the time it’s pretty good, containing three cuts from Flags And Emblems, Foxton taking lead vocals on a cover of The Jam’s Smithers Jones, and Cluney doing likewise on Val Doonican’s Walk tall (yes, really!).
As well as old favourites like Nobody’s Hero, Suspect Device and Alternative Ulster (featuring special guest Ricky Warwick, from The Almighty), there’s also a trio of then-unreleased songs which would feature on their next album.
There’s also a bonus track in the shape of Johnny Was, their punked-up version of the Bob Marley tune, which was omitted from the original release for reasons of space.
The next album in question is 1994’s Get A Life, which was a big step forward from Flags And Emblems in terms of songwriting, and the first SLF record not to feature Cluney, who had been asked to leave during the recording sessions.
From the upbeat title track which opens it, it’s a fine record, with Can’t Believe In You, Harp, The Night That The Wall Came Down and When The Stars Fall From The Sky all worthy (if rarely played these days) additions to their canon.
The only mis-step is Cold, a slower-paced number which I might have been better kept for the solo album which Burns released a few years later.
The set is completed by 1997’s Tinderbox, again recorded as a three-piece, but with new drummer Steve Grantley, and although it’s probably their ‘least punk’ album – more than one song features a horn section - it’s my favourite of the four included in this set.
There’s some excellent examples here of just what a good, yet under-rated songwriter Burns has always been, from the catchy (I Could Be) Happy Yesterday, to the upbeat You Can Move Mountains and A River Flowing.
There’s a cover of Grandmaster Flash’s The Message which works surprisingly well, and an epic in the shape of the Roaring Boys (Parts 1 & 2), which, as its name suggests, is two songs in one, with a wonderful change of pace in Part 2.
If you missed these albums at the time this is a great way to catch up with them - and they're well worth the effort. 8/10.