I was in the kitchen doing the washing up a few nights ago while listening to the Mark Radcliffe show on BBC Radio 2 when this track came on. I quickly reached for the record button on the stereo and have had the song going through my head ever since. I’ve never been a fan of Stiff Little Fingers or the punk wave as a whole (it was a bit before my time in any case!), and am generally unfamiliar with their work, but this particular song, their acknowledged magnum opus certainly strikes a chord. No pun intended.
The song is fast and furious, capturing the disaffected mindset of a bunch of angry young men growing up in 1970s Belfast. But were they the genuine article? In a series of public spats with another well-known Northern Irish band who emerged from the punk scene of the late ‘70s, The Undertones dismissed them as a bunch of middle class boys from the suburbs who’d never been in a riot in their lives and were basically exploiting the political situation by writing songs about things they knew nothing about. Similar accusations have been levelled at southern bands like U2 and The Cranberries. The Undertones studiously avoided this subject in favour of teenage kicks, mars bars and perfect cousins, but weren’t exactly popular in their home town. There’s the old joke about the three most hated groups in Derry - the RUC, the British army and the Undertones. A classic case of Derry begrudgery perhaps?
Getting back to Stiff Little Fingers (after many hours at this keyboard that could have a quite literal meaning), the fact that Alternative Ulster’s still being played on the radio after almost 30 years must have some significance. With all the heated debate about sports teams and national anthems (just check out the football-related threads over at Slugger O’Toole!), maybe this song should become the official anthem for the Northern Ireland soccer team at Windsor Park. And before anyone raises the old “what about Cavan/Monaghan/Donegal?” issue, be fair – “Alternative Six Counties” or “Alternative two thirds of Ulster” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, now does it?