“A teenage dream, so hard to beat.”
When 16-year-old footballer Chris Rigg scored his first league goal for Sunderland, those were the excited words of TV commentator Chris Mann.
Among those watching a young Sunderland side beat Southampton that day was one to whom those texts meant more than most.
Billy Doherty’s ears perked up when he heard those words, taken from the debut single by Northern Irish punk rock band The Undertones.
“Sunderland played really well,” Billy tells me. “It was a great goal and the commentator used that text. It was great.”
“I never really think about it, but it’s great that it still resonates 45 years later.”
The song in question is, of course, by Teenage Kicks and Doherty, drummer for The Undertones, has been part of their history for almost five decades.
In fact, it was Billy who came up with the name “The Undertones.”
He discovered the word in a school history book written by bandmate John O’Neill and it immediately touched him.
“I thought the name sounded really good,” he says. “It had a reference to a sound – which I liked – and it ticked all the boxes.”
However, it didn’t go down well with singer and frontman Feargal Sharkey, who was on vacation at the time.
“Feargal saw it and went wild, he didn’t like it at all,” says Billy. “But it was too late and the rest is history.”
When we talk about history, the story of Teenage Kicks is the stuff punk rock legends are made of.
Written by John O’Neill in the summer of 1977, it really gained traction the following year when influential BBC Radio One DJ John Peel took it to his heart.
Billy played a big part in the success, as it was he who first called Peel during one of his shows to promote the record.
Peel agreed to play it, after which Billy and the rest of the band gathered at John and his brother Damian O’Neill’s house.
“We always hung out there, it was like our cave – and we were there when John Peel played the record,” says Billy.
“Immediately afterwards he played it again. There was this stunned silence for a few seconds and then the place exploded. It was completely unreal.”
It was the first time Peel played the same song back to back. He liked it so much that when he rated it, he gave it 28 stars based on his scale of one to five stars.
He always called it his favorite song of all time and explained that after his death he wanted to have the words “teenage dreams so hard to beat” engraved on his gravestone.
Billy says he only realized how important the record was to the DJ when he attended Peel’s funeral and Teeage Kicks was played as his coffin was carried out of the cathedral.
“It really meant a lot to him,” Billy says. “We have so much to thank John Peel for. He was definitely a catalyst for the band getting a record deal and later career.”
And what a career the Undertones had.
“Teenage Kicks” may remain their best-known and most popular song, but they had a number of hits – My Perfect Cousin, Jimmy Jimmy, Wednesday Week and It’s Going To Happen, to name a few.
Energetic frontman Sharkey left the band in 1983 – he is now best known for his work against river pollution – and The Undertones disbanded shortly afterwards, their members going their separate ways.
But that wasn’t the end for The Undertones. They reformed in 1999 – Paul McLoone replaced Sharkey as lead singer – and have been touring ever since.
Billy, who worked for a computer company between gigs until recently retiring, says the band wasn’t a “full-time thing” and he never saw it as a job.
“I fulfilled my ambitions very quickly,” he says. “The first was to make a record, the second was to have John Peel play it and then get on Top of the Pops. Everything that came after was a bonus, I never saw the band as a career.”
The band are currently in the middle of a UK tour to celebrate Teenage Kicks’ 45th anniversary and will be back next week (Friday October 20th).
“Newcastle was the first place a girl ever asked me out,” he remembers. “I couldn’t believe it, I was really shocked.
“We were doing a show in Newcastle and this girl who was absolutely gorgeous came up to me and asked what I had done that night.”
“I froze, no girl had ever asked me out before. I said no – I probably should have said yes. That’s my most vivid memory of Newcastle.”
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Now 65, Billy says he’s very grateful to still be able to play and is looking forward to being back in Newcastle – although it’s hard to imagine the 45 years since Teenage Kicks was released.
“It’s kind of hard to navigate,” he adds. “As a band, the way we approach things has always remained the same since we formed and throughout.
“We’ve never taken it for granted and I’m extremely grateful that we put on shows and people come and like them.”
- The Undertones will be playing the Boiler Shop, Newcastle on Friday October 20th with special guests the Neville Staple Band. Tickets are available upon viewing