Nobody’s Heroes, the second album which many Stiff Little Fingers fans think tops even their incendiary debut, was unleashed on the public 40 years ago today.
I was a 13-year-old who had played catch-up with the band’s first couple of years, after dropping pop music for punk when I went to ‘big school’ and my circle of friends broadened.
I’d bought their first three singles, then debut album Inflammable Material after my mate’s older brother played it to me. It’s my favourite record ever, and probably always will be.
So then to March 1980, and my first chance to get a Stiff Little Fingers album on the day it came out. I ordered it from my local record shop (pre-orders didn’t exist then – and isn’t it the same thing?), saved up enough pocket money to pay for it, and eagerly awaited the big day, March 7.
It was a Friday, and I rushed to the shop, about a mile away from school, as soon as we were sent home at 3.30pm. By 4pm I was on my home on the bus, clutching my prize, and marvelling at the artwork, which was a big thing about albums back then.
The front was a peculiar barcode-type design, which was supposed to say Stiff Little Fingers if you held it away from you at a certain angle, so schoolyard legend had it, but I couldn’t see it – and still can’t! The back was a rejection letter from Chysalis, the major label the album was being released on after the band switched from indie Rough Trade.
Handily, there was an inner sleeve containing the lyrics to the tracks – well, nine out of 10 of them anyway. And, unlike Inflammable Material’s, handling this one didn’t leave fingerprints all over it.
I’d heard a few of the songs before, as Gotta Gettaway and At The Edge had been released as singles, while others had been recorded for John Peel sessions, but it was still with an enormous sense of anticipation that I lowered the needle onto side one before I’d even taken my coat off.
I waited for the familiar scuzzy intro of Gotta Gettaway. But lo and behold it was a re-recorded version which sounded much cleaner and sharper than the single. I still can’t decide which one I prefer.
The album was recorded by what many people consider the classic Fingers line-up of Jake Burns (guitar and vocals), Henry Cluney (guitar), Ali McMordie (bass) and new drummer Jim Reilly.
Track two was Wait And See, which I fell in love with immediately. It’s basically the story of SLF, and how original drummer Brian Faloon left just at the point where things were taking off for them. I particularly love the lines “you’re not good enough to be a dance band, they told us, but we’re not giving up, we’re not giving up, we’re not giving up, we’ll show them!” Brilliant, and still one of the songs that makes me lose my shit when they play it live, which sadly isn’t that often.
Next is the anthemic Fly The Flag, a song which the right-wing tried to appropriate, but failed miserably, as it’s not about nationalism, but a putdown of the ‘I’m all right Jack’ generation begat by Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher. If any good came from her hateful reign it was giving punk bands plenty to write about.
The single At the Edge is next, and what a song this was, about the frustrations of growing up with ambitions that you’re told you’ll never fulfil. “Here’s somewhere I don’t believe in, wish someone would take it all away.” I wonder how many teenage punks that resonated with. I know it did with me.
Side one finishes with Nobody’s Hero, the title track, and again it’s a stormer, with Jake exorting his listeners to “get up, get out, be what you are”. They’re words I’ve tried to live my life by for the last 40 years.
Flip over and we start side two with Bloody Dub, the band’s first (and last) attempt at a dub reggae instrumental. It’s probably the weakest song on the album, but showed they wanted to try new things, and not keep to the same formula as the first record.
Next up is Doesn’t Make It All Right, a song which Jake merrily confesses “we stole from The Specials”. The ska revival band were on the same label, and had included the song on their debut album Specials a few months earlier. SLF toughened it up a bit, and the breakdown after Jake screams “Go!” is still one of my favourite pieces of music, ever.
I Don’t Like You is one of the best ‘fuck you’ songs I’ve ever heard, if only because it finds so many ways to deliver that message without swearing. If you haven’t heard it in a while go and listen to the lyrics: “If a thought came into your head, it would die of loneliness, you rate absolute zero, no more and not even less”.
No Change sees Henry takes lead vocals, and addresses people’s changing attitudes to the band when they went back to Ireland, which they had left for London as they sought to make it in the music industry. Not a classic, but not a bad song.
Last, but no means least, is the mighty Tin Soldiers, a song so good it was released as a double A-side single with Nobody’s Hero, and remains a popular live set closer to this day.
It’s about a fan who signed up to the army “for just three years, it seemed a small amount, but they didn’t tell him that the first two didn’t count”. Another SLF classic, and probably one of their top 10 songs.
The album wasn’t particularly well-received by the weekly music papers, who seemed to think the band had lost some of the raw energy which had been the trademark of Inflammable Material.
Me? I loved it. Even at my tender age I knew bands couldn’t just make the same record again, otherwise they would stagnate, and was a band I could believe in.
If I was writing a review of Nobody’s Heroes today I would give it at least 8.5/10, probably 9 if I was in a good mood. It’s still one of my favourite albums, particularly when I listen to the larynx-shredding chorus on Fly The Flag, the teenage angst-them At the Edge or the bittersweet Wait And See.
Happy birthday Nobody’s Heroes. I look forward to you soundtracking the next 40 years of my life, as you have the last 40.