How I wrote ‘Teenage Kicks’ by The Undertones’ John O’Neill
The Northern Irish band’s chief songwriter and guitarist talks us through one of the most iconic songs of its era
As far as debut singles go, The Undertones Teenage Kicks has to rank as one of the finest opening statements in the history of music. The Derry band, consisting of Feargal Sharkey (vocals), John O’Neill (rhythm guitar, vocals), Damian O’Neill (lead guitar, vocals), Michael Bradley (bass, vocals) and Billy Doherty (drums) blended the spirit of punk with an instinctive melodic knack, and the result was exhilarating.
Indelibly linked with Radio 1 DJ John Peel, who not only considered it his favourite song but also confessed to being reduced to tears when he first heard it, the legendary presenter wanted the tracks opening line to be engraved upon his gravestone. Peel’s championing of the track was a key factor in its enduring legacy – but take nothing away from the song itself, which to this day remains an immediate document on the vibrancy of teenage dreams and young love.
“I was at home in Derry, I think it was around summer 1977. The Undertones had just recently started to play at The Casbah. It was the only venue in Derry that would take the risk of putting on ‘alternative’ acts. At that stage, I guess I had only written maybe five or six songs so we were desperate to play more original material. Our set comprised of a mixture of songs from contemporary punk bands like The Clash, Buzzcocks and The Ramones, as well as the bands that inspired punk music in the first place, New York Dolls, The Stooges, MC5 and the Velvet Underground. We were heavily influenced by the American garage bands of the 60s too, from Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilation. We had set a rule to either learn a new cover version or write a new song before each new show.
“I was totally obsessed with pop culture. Coincidently, the NME hired some of the best music journalists at that time and there were often many incredible articles about the history of rock and roll, describing it from a socio-political perspective. I have often believed that the NME had as much an influence on the music scene as John Peel had. Anyway, probably through various articles I’d read, I was well aware of the influences of Uptown R&B on The Ramones. Also, the New York Dolls first LP had been produced by Shadow Morton who had produced all those great records by The Shangri-Las records and how young Phil Spector, Carole King and Leiber & Stoller were when they first started writing all those amazing teen anthems in the late 50s/early 60s.
“I had been playing along on my guitar with various songs by The Crystals and The Ronettes and I could hear that most of them had the same I-IV-V chords with its relative minor; the same chords as most of The Ramones songs. So that got me thinking about trying to write something similar.
“As with most of my songs I first had a title. We used to play the Rolling Stones version of Route 66 and I always loved the chorus where Mick sang, ‘Get your kicks on Route 66.’ Also, one of my all-time favourite records was Back In The U.S.A by the MC5 and one of the songs on that record was called Teenage Lust so it wasn’t too difficult to come up with the title Teenage Kicks. Once I had the first line of, ’A teenage dream’s so hard to beat,’ using that chord progression, the rest of the song just literally wrote itself. It’s just so great when that happens.
“I know that, as a song, Teenage Kicks is very clichéd, not very original, but the actual recording seemed to capture something. By the time we recorded the Teenage Kicks EP, we were playing in The Casbah every week so we were pretty tight. Luckily the engineer, Davy Shannon, could hear we could play pretty good so he gave us complete control over recording it. We basically just recorded all four songs live a few times until we were happy with the results.
“We simply wanted it to sound as live as possible and I think the record pretty much captures the energy of band at that time. There is an innocence and an unpretentiousness that gives it a charm that a lot of people can relate to. Damian’s guitar solo is 20 seconds of genius and Feargal’s voice was fairly unique, so that obviously made it stand out.
“John Peel is the greatest DJ in my lifetime and the honour of having him say it was his favourite record gives Teenage Kicks unbelievable credibility. We used to play Gloria by Them in The Casbah and I always used to think that I would love to write a song that was just as great and as easy to play as that. A song that someone who is first learning the guitar could play, so maybe that is one of its strengths also. Teenage Kicks obviously is not as good as Gloria, but it is pretty easy to play!
“I feel really lucky. I genuinely think I have written much better songs but, as a record, I probably haven’t made anything better. I remember thinking it was a pretty good title but I never thought it was anything special. I was just trying to write a Ramones song.”