Talking "Alternative Ulster" With Stiff Little Fingers’ Jake Burns
The vocalist and guitarist of Northern Irish punk legends reflects on their stirring anthem.
Image: Ben Thomson
This article is part of our series 'Nice Song, What's It About?,' where we revisit old greats and go deep to get the stories behind them. To see the column's archive, click here.
It begins with a guitar riff that's almost martial in its call. Then a howl of “Nothin' for us in Belfast, The Pound so old it's a pity, OK, there's the Trident in Bangors”, before it speeds up to the chorus of "Get an Alternative Ulster, Ignore the bores and their laws" that has helped make it one of the best known songs of defiance, boredom and youthful anger.
Belfast's Stiff Little Fingers released their second single "Alternative Ulster" in 1978 at the height of the Northern Irish 'Troubles'. Police brutality and sectarian terrorist violence was part of daily life and there were few places for a young band to play. Singer and guitarist Jake Burns, guitarist Henry Cluney, bassist Ali McMordie, and drummer Brian Faloon, started the band a year earlier from the development of a cover band Highway Star, named after the Deep Purple song.
Released on the band’s own label Rigid Digit and London’s Rough Trade labels, the song followed the equally anthemic "Suspect Device", and also appeared on their 1979 debut LP Inflammable Material. It has since become a punk anthem from Belfast and Derry and beyond.
"It was a song written in the classic punk mode about having nothing to do,” Burns told The Guardian in 2003. "Because that was the over-riding reality of life in Belfast for a teenager in the mid-70s. Not the fear of riots or bombs or whatever. It was the sheer tedium of having nowhere to go and nothing to do when you got there."
We spoke to Jake about the song and life in Belfast in the late 70s.
Noisey: What was the inspiration behind the song?
Jake Burns: The editor of Alternative Ulster, a local fanzine, asked us to record "Suspect Device" for a flexi-disc he wanted to include with an issue. We’d just recorded the song for our first single so I told him I'd write another song. I went away and wrote "Alternative Ulster" pretty much as it exists today. This would have been in 1977 and so of course there was no digital recordings to send him. The only way he could hear it was to come to one of our gigs. So he came to our next show and at the end of the gig we asked him if he'd heard it. He said, “Yeah, it’s shit though” (haha)
“Suspect Device” and “Alternative Ulster” are almost like the bookends of your debut album.
I never wanted the last song “Closed Groove’ on the record. It came as an after thought. Our manager, who was also my co-songwriter, was particularly proud of the lyric and really wanted the song. I thought it kind of weakened the record. We should have bookended with "Suspect Device" and finished with "Alternative Ulster". That’s an argument that he and I have to do this day when we meet up.
In 1975 the Ulster Volunteer Force attacked the tour van of the Miami Showband, a popular Dublin band returning from a gig in Northern Ireland. Did this attack on a band have any affect on the song?
Not at all. My understanding of the incident was that the guys tha stopped the van was to plant a bomb on the van that the band would be unaware of. Just bury it among the equipment somewhere. The plan would be that it would detonate when they got closer to the city centre. Apparently it went off prematurely. Then there was a panic and there was shooting and stuff. It was a tragic disaster but it wasn’t a deliberate attack on entertainers.
The opening line "The Pound is so old it’s a pity" is often confused.
Yeah, The Pound was an old jazz club. Formerly Sammy Wilson’s Jazz Club, it had been around since the 50s and 60s and was basically a small stable at the back of a bar. It had been a pound for animals going to market and was once memorably described by the NME as looking like a a sheep dip and a beer cellar. The reason I say it was old because the only reason you could get a gig there is if you were a band who played Eagles covers or Van Morrison covers.
There was venues catering to people our age. We were mid to late teens at this stage and we weren't the only ones. There was a band called Rudi and the Outcasts and all these bands had their own little following. So that was my little dig at the Pound and eventually the Pound did stat allowing punk bands to play once they realised that there was an audience for that music
Was it easy for young people to move around to see bands back then? You read of sectarian and 'no go' areas of Derry and Belfast or was the city centres OK for everyone to access?
Both cities were very different. Derry is pretty much divided by the river with Protestants on one side and Catholics on the other, whereas Belfast is more like a patchwork quilt and was much easier to walk into trouble. The city centre was considered no mans land. You were rarely questioned. Many people say that punk rock brought both sides together in Northern Ireland I would argue that you go back further and you will find that music in general did. Rory Gallagher used to come and play every year right through the Troubles.
There is a feeling of restlessness in the song.
If you took the references to the RUC and the British Army out you have a song that is about bored teenagers. A song about having nothing to do and wanting that to change. It complains as much about tired venues and their unwillingness to allow young people to play there as it does about the fact that there are police and army on the streets.
Did any group try to co-opt the song or use it for their own means?
Not at all. We were either adopted equally by both sides or just ignored equally by both sides. The band was made up of both Catholics and Protestants and we were always very open about that. We never made a point of taking sides. It’s a style of writing that I’ve adopted, where I will point out problems. If I had the answers I’d be a politician.
What’s it like playing the song now? I imagine that when that opening riff starts a few pints are held high.
For a band who didn't have a hit, I refer to the song as having your star soccer player on the bench. If the show’s not going well, we’ll put him on and if he can’t save us nobody can.
Stiff Little Fingers Australia 2018:
Feb 19 - Perth at The Rosemount
Feb 20 - Adelaide at The Gov
Feb 22 - Brisbane at The Triffid
Feb 23 - Sydney at Metro Theatre
Feb 24 - Melbourne at Croxton Bandroom