In the annals of music, there are countless bands that in their heyday were criminally under-rated. Bands that did everything right who failed to bag the kind of acclaim they really deserved. The reasons for their under-championing are as broad as they are inexplicable: from being innovative or ahead of your time (Devo), falling between the stools of several genres (various -80s bands) or extricating yourself from what other bands around you was doing at the time (American Music Club).
Some of this rationale applies to That Petrol Emotion, who sprang from the ashes of The Undertones, drafting in a dreadlocked singer from Seattle who’d never been in a band before. The Undertones, so beloved of John Peel, were one of the first alternative Irish bands to have major chart success in the UK. After they disbanded, John O’Neill, one of the song-writing lynchpins, met Reamann O’Gormain who played in a band called Bam Bam and The Calling. Along with drummer CiarÃ¡n McLaughlin, they upped sticks to London in the early -80s. After hooking up with John’s brother Damien, another ex-Undertone, they began the hunt for a singer. Steve Mack was a post-college kid from Seattle working in a pizza restaurant.
‘A colleague was going out with a guy from Derry, and one day casually asked: -Does anyone know someone who wants to be a singer?’. I of course replied, -yep, me’. It was only later on, she mentioned that some of the guys had been in The Undertones,’ Mack smiles. ‘I couldn’t believe it, as I was fan and had bought their records.’ Up -til that point, Mack’s musical collaborations had consisted of basement jams with friends. Little did he know that a one-year sabbatical in London would turn into an 11-year music career. According to Reamann O’Gormain, Steve had his work cut out for him, in more ways than one. ‘God love him, he had to put up with us constantly talking about Ireland so he had to swot up a lot on history,’ O’Gormain laughs. ‘In retrospect, I felt bad for him.’
Despite The Undertones’ past fame, it didn’t do the band a lot of favours in getting That Petrol Emotion off the ground. Steve admits that while they weren’t starting from scratch, a huge amount of graft was required to get noticed. ‘For the first six to nine months of the band, I was still working in the restaurant,’ he remembers. ‘The guys would drop me off after gigs and I’d work cleaning floors as the night janitor. The Undertones name meant that pubs would book us, but then we still had to play a lot of pubs. It was hard work and everybody was still on the dole too.’
Reamann agrees that there were no PR or media leg-ups: ‘The Undertones didn’t really open any doors for us. Alan McGee in Creation was interested but they were only starting out and broke, so were focusing on The Jesus and Mary Chain. We had to go with another label and in a way it kick-started a chain of us jumping from label to label.’ The band played every weekend and eventually started getting offered decent support slots. In the early days, John and Reamann had written the bulk of the Petrol’s songs back in Derry, but with Steve on board, more of the writing was worked out in the rehearsal room.
‘I wasn’t involved in writing the lyrics, as much as people would think,’ says Mack. ‘A lot of the lyrics had a political undercurrent to them, which was a conscious decision made by the band. People used to ask me -how can you sing this stuff when you’re not even Irish?’, and I’d always reply that the things we were singing about were universal themes.’ Ex-NME Editor Stuart Bailie feels that like My Bloody Valentine, ‘the Petrols were completely beyond Irish music. They were looking for some universal challenge out there.’
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