Before 1980, punk rock was most associated with three bands of three distinct flavors. There were the Sex Pistols, whose loud, over-the-top shtick revolved around rebellion and vitriol; the Ramones, who trafficked in energetic, lovably dopey pop songs; and the Clash, who carried themselves with the sobriety of community activists, focusing on sociopolitical songwriting and a multi-hued sonic palette. Feeling invigorated by punk's back-to-basics approach and the sense that he was there for music history, a young Jake Burns helped form Stiff Little Fingers, his own punk band, in 1977. Wanting to pattern SLF after one of that trio, Burns went with the third option, establishing an outfit whose explosiveness and smarts still shine today.
"When I heard the Clash, they were writing about things that actually meant something and doing it with an intelligence," the Chicago-based guitarist/vocalist, 56, says. "Obviously, I know there was an intelligence in what the other bands were doing, it was just they buried it under a cartoon image or some form of provoking hysteria. Seeing and hearing the intelligence of what the Clash did connected to me on a similar level to the Dylans and the Marleys of this world."
His excitement about punk notwithstanding, Burns didn't believe the genre had any real legs or gravitas until he heard the Clash. "Career Opportunities," in particular, spoke to him as he heard it while looking for his first job. After having a go at covering rock standards with a group called Highway Star, Burns and company lifted the name of a Vibrators track and started Stiff Little Fingers.
Around that period, SLF manager/occasional lyricist Gordon Ogilvie pushed Burns to focus his lyrics on the issues that mattered to him, much like the Clash did. Being that SLF were a group of young men from Belfast, Northern Island, growing up amidst the regional violence of the Troubles, he had no dearth of inspiration. Before that, Burns tried writing love songs and was terrible at it. Moreover, he says, "If you try to write a love song, you're number 255 million in a list of X million against 'When a Man Loves a Woman,' whereas if you're writing a song about being bored in Belfast and you write 'Alternative Ulster,' you're number one in a field of one."
Stiff Little Fingers roared out the gate with 1979's Inflammable Material, a must-have punk album and the record they would be measured against for decades to come. The group's calling cards were Burns' sharp bark of a singing voice, raw-sounding instrumentals that were dangerous as dynamite and taut as hell, and biting, sardonic lyrics about the world directly surrounding SLF.
Inflammable's "White Noise," in particular, showed how uncompromising and confrontational the group could be. It was a track loaded with racial epithets launched at blacks, Pakistanis and, in the song's latter half, Irishmen. The point here, of course, was to show Irish racists how stupid their own racism was by directing insults toward them, but not everyone understood the message: In Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, a local councilor of Pakistani origin heard his daughter playing "White Noise" and had Stiff Little Fingers banned from performing in his city.
In the years since, the band's history has grown increasingly vast and complicated, involving a breakup, a reunion, lineup overhauls, sound shifts toward reggae and ska (again, like the Clash) and records trickling out at an increasingly slow pace. This year's No Going Back, their tenth album, is heavier on the rock than the punk, but SLF continue to address the same fundamental subjects as they have in decades past: political charlatans, oppression, social injustice. The bigger story here is how the album arrived: Using the Kickstarter-like PledgeMusic, SLF reached their target goal to fund the album in just one day, eventually ending their campaign with 375 percent of their goal.
All this is a tad wild once you consider how Burns emphasizes that he originally just did music for the hell of it and had no plans whatsoever to make this a career. Yet after sticking with the project for so long, he will continue to do so until either the public loses interest or it's not fun to do anymore — neither of which seem to be happening soon. "The last thing I want to do is end up with myself as a 70-year-old with three 20-year-old kids who have no idea who Stiff Little Fingers are playing a bar on the South Side as Stiff Little Fingers," he says. "But for the moment, everything seems rosy. To be honest with you, I feel like I've sat at home too long. I'm looking forward to getting back on the road again."
Stiff Little Fingers perform with GFP at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Sept. 2, 8 p.m. $25. All ages.