One night in the early ’80s, four lanky kids stepped out of a cab and ambled down Necco Street with biker jackets and Belfast lilts. As Stiff Little Fingers neared the night’s venue — the Channel — the city of Boston left a deep impression on frontman Jake Burns. “There were handwritten posters pasted on lampposts that said, ‘This is the third or fourth time Stiff Little Fingers have played in this city and we never get to see them cuz we’re under 18,’ ” recalls the singer-guitarist over the phone from his current home in Chicago. “It was written by kids who were organizing a petition for us to play an all-ages show. That blew me away.”
Stiff Little Fingers had come to Boston bearing explosive reports from the front lines of the conflict in Ireland — reports that left an indelible impression on the local punk scene. More than two decades later, the anthems on SLF’s first three albums, newly reissued by Rykodisc along with the live album Hanx!, remain woven into the bristly fabric of Boston rock, from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, to Street Dogs/Dropkick Murphys, to up-and-comers Suspect Device, whose name is borrowed from an SLF tune.
“For us, they were huge,” says Bosstones guitarist Nate Albert in an e-mail from Brooklyn. “I would say basically every solo I’ve ever done on any Bosstones record is based on Stiff Little Fingers.”
Having fronted the Dropkick Murphys before starting Street Dogs, singer Mike McColgan is in a unique position to comment on SLF’s impact on Boston punk. “You look at the Bosstones, you look at Dropkick Murphys, you look at the Bruisers, the Ducky Boys, and you hear SLF in all those bands,” he says. “It’s in the lyrics, and it’s in the chord structures. When you heard Jake Burns, it was real and tangible. It grabbed you right away. It didn’t sound manufactured or contrived. In Boston, people love that — they love the struggle, they love the underdog.”
That Stiff Little Fingers came to Boston as punk emissaries from Ireland, not England, is one of the keys to the formative impact they had on aspiring local punks. “We’ve always felt drawn to Boston and been comfortable there,” says Burns. “And we’ve always had great audiences there. I can only think it’s because of the big Irish population.”
The link between Burns’s Belfast brood and Boston punk has been further solidified over the years. Taang!, the one-time local punk label that gave the Bosstones their start, released new material by a reunited SLF in the ’90s, and in 2004, the band was honored by Massachusetts for “25 years of outstanding music and continued commitment to peace and justice” in a proclamation put forth by Representative Kevin Honan.
Albert was 10 when he discovered the band on college radio, while both McColgan and Jason Bennett, singer for Suspect Device, caught the bug in high school. Bennett recalls his initiation in ’89: “That very next day, I went out and bought Inflammable Material, Nobodies Heroes, and Go For It. I remember listening to them over and over, in order, for months.”
Originally released between ’79 and ’81, those albums were influenced by British punk. But very quickly, SLF put punk’s “anger can be power” ethos to their own use, focusing on the violence and despair of life in Belfast. Whereas London bands responded to economic doldrums with art school bromides and soccer terrace aggression, Burns was busy navigating the first decade of “The Troubles” — the rash of bombings and assassinations between Catholic and Protestant factions that plagued Belfast.
Burns, bassist Ali McMordie, rhythm guitarist Henry Cluney, co-lyricist Gordon Ogilvie, and a succession of drummers, came from various religious backgrounds and they weren’t taking sides. They were simply fed up. Their ’78 debut single “Suspect Device” targets both the Irish Republican Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. “They play their games of power/They mark and cut the pack/They deal us to the bottom/But what do they put back?” Burns rasps. And in “Wasted Life,” Burns finds traces of fascism at the heart of the conflict: “They ain’t blond haired and blue eyed/But they think they’re the master race.”
“I couldn’t go and stand on a soapbox in the center of Belfast and shout at the people who were marching in support of this terrorist stuff that was going on,” Burns recalls. “I would have just got myself beaten to a pulp. But what I could do was stand on a stage and sing a song that said, ‘There are a lot of people here who actually don’t support violence.’ ”