STIFF LITTLE FINGERS
Henry (2nd from left) repping T Rex
Henry Cluney interview
by David DiPietro
Along with the Clash, Belfast's Stiff Little Fingers were amongst the first punk bands to dive into social and personal issues, other than Anarchy in the U.K. Coming together in 1977, SLF was founded by guitarist Henry Cluney along with singer/guitarist Jake Burns, bass guitarist Ali McMordie and drummer Brian Faloon.
Most of the early songs were written by Burns and co-manager Gordon Ogilvie but Cluney had a few songs on the first album (1979's Inflammable Material), which became the first indie record to chart in the UK. SLF became part of the small but nascent Irish punk scene and known for their lyrics reflecting the British occupation/war there. Later, Tom Robinson drummer Dolphin Taylor would join their rhythm section and SLF would break up in 1982, after four albums. They reformed in 87 (with Jam bassist Bruce Foxton also joining around then) but Cluney was 'asked to leave' in '93, with Burns and McMordie carrying on SLF to this day. Nowadays, SLF are punk icons, having influenced U2, Green Day and many other bands that sprang up in their wake.
Cluney graciously agreed to do an interview with Perfect Sound Forever to speak about SLF's history.
PSF: How are things where you are, regarding the Trump Virus?
HC: He left no plan for the recovery. . . . As far as I'm concerned, he has the blood of thousands on his money-tinged hands.
PSF: Can you first tell us about your early life in Belfast? What led you to the guitar?
HC: Jake, actually. I met him at school, and he had a guitar. I needed one then. LOL. He taught me a few things, and I was off!
PSF: Who were your early musical influences? I am assuming Marc Bolan, and Deep Purple, based on your Electric Warrior T-shirts and the band you and Jake played in pre-SLF, Highway Star.
HC: Marc Bolan . . . Jake loved Deep Purple, hence the name. Unlike him, though, I was, and still am, a huge glam rock fan.
PSF: How did you, Jake, and Ali first meet?
HC: Jake at school, but a friend said he knew a bass player who liked that punky waver stuff . . . his words, LOL.
PSF: I am curious about SLF's manager, Gordon Ogilvie. He is credited with encouraging Jake to write songs about the unrest in Northern Ireland, which led to your first two singles, "Suspect Device" and "Alternative Ulster." How did the band come to meet Gordon and have him take you under his wing?
HC: Gordon was a friend of Colin McClelland. Colin worked at the News Letter, and Jake used to bombard him with letters about how good we were. Gordon was the Daily Express reporter in Northern Ireland, and they both came to see us one night. They must have liked it!
PSF: Gordon was rumored to almost be a fifth member of the band. Would you agree with this? Was he involved in actual songwriting and the actual recording process?
HC: Very much. Gordon wrote most of the lyrics. He was great with words, and when we told him what we thought a song was about, he put it far more eloquently than we could.
PSF: What was your first rock concert? What is the best show you ever saw, or at least some of your favorites? Every time I saw you, you played a Les Paul. Was that your first guitar? How old were you when you started playing?
HC: First gig was Rory Gallagher at the Ulster Hall, January '75. Best show, hmmm. Metallica and Megadeth at Milton Keynes . . . I'm a huge metal fan. Roy Wood at the Marquee. Too many! First guitar?!?! Nooooo . . . my first cost 27 quid, Christmas 1974.
PSF: In previous conversations, you told me that you feel SLF was only SLF when Jim Reilly was on drums. As a drummer myself, I would have to agree. Out of the two studio records and live album Jim played on, which is your favorite, and why?
HC: Probably Go For It. The lineup with Jim had energy and an edge. . . . They left when he did. Stiff Little Fingers ended then too.
PSF: Bono of U2 credits SLF with being an early influence. Did you ever meet or play a gig with U2? I think it would have been great if you could have played with them after their commercial breakthrough, but by that time, 1982, SLF was splitting.
HC: Oh yeah, met them a lot. We never did a gig with them, though. Would have been a fun night.
PSF: The Now Then album was a big change of pace musically, coming close to power pop. I think Jake has stated it is his favorite SLF record. Why did the band break up shortly after the release of that record? I thought it was a very good album.
HC: I don't. It has a few good songs but [it] wasn't SLF. Jake was disappointed in the sales, so basically [he] wanted away.
PSF: The track "Two Guitars Clash" is obviously about the band the Clash, and Jake being introduced to punk rock. Did you know the Clash personally or ever play a gig with them?
HC: No, it's not about the Clash at all. It's about the power of two guitars in a band. Again, never did. . . . Wish we had, though.
PSF: What are some of your favorite albums by other bands? What was the first record you ever bought?
HC: Oooo . . . probably an album called Ride a White Swan, a cheap T. Rex compilation. Electric Warrior is my favorite album, but any David Bowie album with Mick Ronson on it I love. First Black Sabbath album . . . Led Zeppelin II, etc.
PSF: I believe you are still playing in a band with Jim, XSLF. How did this come about? Are you writing new material, or just doing the old classics? Would you ever tour the U.S.?
HC: Jim left, but we just released our second album, Northstar. We play a mix of new and old. Like to think we play with the energy the real SLF had years ago! Love to tour the U.S., as I live there now.
PSF: Are you still in touch with Jake and Ali? Could there ever be a chance of a reunion of the classic Stiff Little Fingers lineup?
HC: Let's just say they both unfriended me on Facebook, and I have to jump through hoops to talk to Jake. I think a reunion is what most fans want, but unfortunately some people are greedy and don't want to share money.
PSF: What happened to your first drummer, Brian Faloon? Why did he leave the band, and how did Jim come into the fold?
HC: Brian left because his girlfriend told him it was her or the band. Jim answered our ad, and we had tried a few drummers, but being from Belfast too, he had an advantage, LOL.
PSF: Why did Jim leave the band and, soon after, join Red Rockers? How did Dolphin Taylor (ex-Tom Robinson Band) come to join SLF?
HC: Jim is like that. He just gets fed up and wants to move on. We needed a drummer, and Jake thought he would see what Dolphin was up to. Unfortunately, he joined.
PSF: In 1987, the band briefly got back together, and the result was a live album put out in the punk series called Live and Loud. Why did this reunion not continue? Was it because of Jake's project, The Big Wheel, or other concerns?
HC: No, it did continue. They asked me to leave in '93, and basically any group of people with Jake call themselves "SLF" these days.
PSF: In the last roughly fifteen years, vinyl has made a comeback. What would you attribute that to? Do you collect records?
HC: I used to. I had a rock radio show here for five years, so have a lot of them! I think it's the fun of playing a record. Much more involved than streaming.
PSF: Finally, what might be some advice for young guitar, bass, or drum players around in the weird times of the early 2020's?
HC: Just play what you enjoy. Don't compare yourself to others, as you get an inferiority complex that way!
XSLF with Henry on right
You can read up on Henry's latest doings with his band XSLF at his website: https://henrycluney.com/
Also see our later interview with Henry Cluney
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