Album Analysis | Stiff Little Fingers - Inflammable Material
Forty years later, Stiff Little Fingers' debut album remains one of punk rock's most exhilarating expressions of the anger, boredom and pent-up frustration that emerged from the era.
Stiff Little Fingers' debut album Inflammable Material was released in February of 1979. Forty years later, it remains one of punk rock's most exhilarating expressions of the anger, boredom and pent-up frustration that emerged from Britain's experiment with an urban dystopia.
The album was released as the U.K.'s punk scene was fragmenting. On the day of its release, Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose which, following John Lydon's departure a year earlier, ended the Sex Pistols' turbulent existence. Meanwhile, The Clash were writing and recording London Calling, the album that accelerated their departure from the roiling intensity of punk towards a more eclectic sound, one that would find its apotheosis a year later with the triple album Sandinista. The Damned, another influence on Stiff Little Fingers, would release Machine Gun Etiquette in November, which had softer musical elements than their two previous albums. Post-punk was picking up speed and gaining a clear focus on what was next.
Inflammable Material was a throwback to the the crashing energy of the initial wave of punk. Initially formed as a covers band named "Highway Star" in 1977, named after the Deep Purple song, the band changed their name to Stiff Little Fingers and embraced the punk movement through their guitarist Henry Cluney. The final missing piece in this transformation was the songwriting that was handed to them by journalist Gordon Ogilvie. Having seen them perform in Belfast, Ogilvie approached frontman Jake Burns and gave him the lyrics to what would become their first single, "Suspect Device", along with an offer to manage the band. Burns accepted the management proposal and worked up the music to the lyrics and this adrenaline soaked song was mainlined into the public consciousness by influential DJ John Peel.
Ogilvie, Cluney and Burns, who had by then written "Wasted Life" and "State of Emergency", set about composing an album’s worth of songs that reflected the experience of living through the Northern Irish sectarian conflict that became known as The Troubles. The conflict's sheer terror and chaos influenced this petrol bomb of a record.
The album's debt to The Clash is apparent with its manic energy and Burn's Joe Strummer-like guttural roar, but it sidesteps the trap of pure imitation to stake its claim as one of the greatest punk records. It opens with the aforementioned "Suspect Device", a two-and-a-half minute rattling and defiant reminder that a free mind can be an irresistible weapon. The final verse is a classic call for youth rebellion, but also a reminder that in Belfast revolt meant confronting the Army and paramilitaries, and that the bombs were real and not strictly rhetorical. Burns screeches the last line as if he can barely stop himself from exploding.
"We're a suspect device if we do what we're told, But a suspect device can score an own goal, I'm a suspect device the Army can't defuse, You're a suspect device they know they can't refuse, We're gonna blow up in their face"
In "State of Emergency", Burns highlights the trap that the hatred of the other side inspires, adopted by those living through the Belfast conflict and reflected in the events themselves. Burns has said that he couldn't affect any change or stave off boredom by shouting on street corners, but by writing songs he could do both.
The album weaves its way and in and out of themes of personal autonomy and suffocating external pressures. "Here We Are Nowhere", written and sung by Cluney, is a frantic and short rant against the boredom of living in a city strangled by the security 'ring of steel' that encircled Belfast's center, thematically reminiscent of The Clash's "48 Hours".
"Wasted Life", a three minute howl directed at the paramilitaries who looked to recruit "soldiers" for their cause, cranks that rage to another level. Inspired by the death of a friend, this one was personal to Burns and is underpinned by Ali McMordie's bass playing and Brian Faloon's cymbal crashing drumming. The song wraps itself around the pain caused by the manipulation and futility of the conflict and serves as a brave and concise rejection of the politics of fear and murder.
"Law and Order" and "No More of That" bring salient reminders that the odds are firmly not in their target audience's favor. These songs, all rooted in the everyday Belfast experience, achieve a difficult balance in a divided society: they don't take sides. Their power is enhanced by the willingness to decry all parties in the conflict.
With "Barbed Wire Love", Burns and Ogilvie inject a moment of light relief, punning their way through the trials of love in a war zone and adding a middle eight that is an ironic tribute to The Beach Boys via a humorous doo-wop interlude.
Burns departs from directly addressing The Troubles on "White Noise", a darkly-humoured run-through of racial epithets that links the anti-Irish racism and bigotry of British society to that aimed at other minority populations. Likewise on "Rough Trade", which bitterly recounts their experience with Island Records, Burns sticks to “writing what he knows” while expanding the album's sonic horizons. Rough Trade was coincidentally the name of the independent label that went on to release the record.
"Johnny Was", written by Rita Marley for her husband to perform, gets a moving revision. A minute and half of military style drumming from Faloon, machine gun guitar riffs and a pulsating beat by McMordie’s bass lay the groundwork for Burns to enter the fray with a plaintive and impassioned vocal. The song is faithful to the original lyrics until the setting is dragged from Jamaica to the streets of Belfast with one of Burns' signature wails, his voice breaking and straining as he delivers the following additional lines:
"Johnny went out on a Saturday night never hurt anybody,
never started no barroom fight,
Johnny never did nobody no wrong,
never hurt anybody, Johnny was a good man"
It's a devastating performance, proving that the band had much more to give musically and that Burns was one of the finest punk vocalists to emerge from the era.
What follows is one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in punk history as the opening chords of "Alternative Ulster" ring out. Originally written to be given away with a fanzine of that name, the song became a lasting and anthemic contribution to protest music.
"Is this the kind of place you want to live?
Is this where you want to be?
Is this the only life we're gonna have?
What we need
Is an Alternative Ulster,
Grab it and change it, it's yours"
Burns was later regretful that the final track, "Closed Groove", made the cut. In a 2006 interview, he said, "I wouldn't have put ‘Closed Groove’ on there. I never rated it much as a song anyway and I feel its inclusion actually detracts from the impact of the album as a whole.” Musically and stylistically, it's a departure from what has come before; the arrangement is staccato and affected, Burns’ vocal ferocity is pacified and the atmosphere echoes Gary Numan more than The Damned.
As we approach the twenty-first anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and linger in the shadow of Brexit, which may harm the agreement, Inflammable Material is a salutary reminder of the oppressive violence and animosity which that accord helped defuse. With Inflammable Material, Stiff Little Fingers were dynamic voices of their time and place. Its energy bursts from the speakers, hijacks your attention and stirs your soul.
Listen to Inflammable Material on Spotify here.