Friday 7 September 2018

Clandestine Classic LVIII - Lettuce

The fifty-eighth post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

Everyone loved The Undertones. A great, Peel-endorsed singles band with a cheeky attitude and a distinctive vocal style. Even a song about Mars bars. What was not to love? A fair proportion of the fanbase might have felt a bit short-changed by Feargal Sharkey's solo career though, aside from a couple of catchy singles - the smooth, polished sound was miles away from the rough and ready rock and roll he'd been making with his Derry mates before getting all sophisticated. Lucky for us all then that two fifths of The Undertones (guitarist and songwriter John O'Neill plus his brother Damian) went on to form That Petrol Emotion, a band whose name was, John explained, meant to evoke the frustration and anger of those living in Northern Ireland at the time.

This new five-piece, fronted by Seattle-born singer Steve Mack, released their debut album, Manic Pop Thrill, in September 1985. It would eventually limp to number 84 in the charts, although would top the indie chart. Far more diverse musically than most of The Undertones' output, the band wore their influences on their sleeves. It was also a step forward lyrically, moving away from songs about cars and girls towards politics and social issues. As guitarist Raymond Gorman memorably suggested, it was "like the Undertones after discovering drugs, literature and politics, with a lot more girls in the audience dancing." And it was a denser, heavier sound than the highly-produced pop sheen their former band-mate Sharkey would embrace.

Manic Pop Thrill was critically, if not commercially, successful. John Peel continued his endorsement and Rolling Stone magazine described the band as "The Clash crossed with Creedence", which is a pretty good tagline for any band. And it was the start of a moderately successful career that would see them release six albums, the last in 2000, after which they split. There have been subsequent reunions, of course, but not much in the way of new material.

Today's classic is an album track, not one of the three singles from Manic Pop Thrill, and is called Lettuce (Rol, take note, should you ever do a 'salad' top ten). It's a great example of the heavier sound O'Neill was now chasing, whilst retaining the increased musical complexity of the last Undertones recordings. Crucially, the knack of producing an infectious riff, an ear-worm, has not been lost. Before today, I hadn't listened to this for at least ten years, yet every note remains ingrained. O'Neill's innate pop sensibilities hadn't been lost either - this is all over in less than two and a half minutes. Lyrically? A bit more obscure, I think; it's either about getting laid or getting high, I reckon. Who knows.

There's no That Petrol Emotion "best of" anywhere, which seems like a bit of an omission on somebody's part. If you want to pick up today's classic you're looking at Manic Pop Thrill or an equally good version on their Peel Session. Alternatively, it's on the excellent (and highly recommended) New Season Peel compilation, which is where I first found it. Or there's YouTube, of course.


  1. It is very good - although such an uninspiring title for a song!