Slim Jim Phantom has reasons to remember Birmingham. “Who saw our show at Birmingham Odeon on 21st March 1961?”, he enquires. “It was my 20th birthday and Robert Plant was in the crowd”. MV won’t claim to have been there, your humble scribe was five and a half, but it does speak to how long Slim Jim has been stood behind the kit. The “our” in “our show” is the Stray Cats of course and this 40 minutes is jam packed full of the same sort of sound. He opens up with “Rumble In Brighton” changing the last line to ‘rainy Birmingham” to reflect the miserable March weather, and his love of Sun Records rock n roll shines through. “Matchbox” the Carl Perkins tune, “C’mon Everybody” and “That’s Alright Mama” (“you’ll pick up your bit, easy as a penalty shot, it’ll go straight in the goal” says Jim, clearly having watched the football before he came on) come and go, while “Oh Mama” is a highlight (“everyone needs a bit of Buddy Holly” he smiles). The band – including his wife Jenny Vee on bass – are fun, and their takes on “Stray Cat Strut”, and a superb “New Rose” (“I always loved that song”) take things up a gear before “Rock This Town” sees them take their leave. “I’ll play for you on my birthday anytime” says Slim Jim Phantom with a cheery wave, and certainly it felt like a celebration here, of music and of life in general for a man who has had enough of both to be proud of his legacy.
Stiff Little Fingers have just started “Roots Radicals Rockers & Reggae”. It’s the third song in their set and one of three covers they play tonight. MV can’t help but smile when we watch bassist Ali McMordie (one of two founder members of the band) leaping about – if anything underlines why they keep coming back year after year its that moment. This band loves playing these songs.
Give or take a couple of days, it is three years since I sat in this room watching SLF, I didn’t know then it was to be 18 months until I saw another gig. It scarcely seems real now, but it’s always in my mind when I see the finest punk rock band of them all (there’s no point in me not saying it, impartiality is a BBC prerequisite, not mine).
Tonight marks the third time I’ve seen them since then, and this is a new, fresh look. No longer their 2020 Visions jaunt, this is the Everyone Is Someone tour, here with a new intro tape (the TV themes are gone, mores the pity, but Arthur Mallard and Hylda Baker’s version of “You’re The One That I Want” won’t preceed many shows in 2023) and to celebrate the 43rd anniversary of their seminal “Nobody’s Heroes” record, released on 7th March 1980.
Appropriately they start with “Straw Dogs” and “Nobody’s Hero” from it, but in typical style, where most bands would have gone with a lazy complete run-through, not Jake Burns and the boys.
Instead, they’ve got a new song to play. “Tower In London”, a vicious condemnation of the system that allowed people to die in unsafe homes in Grenfell, and wonderful trademark display of anger and melody heralds a set that contains some stuff they’ve dusted off for 2023.
“Full Steam Backwards” with its sentiment that “this is all a big fixed club and you’re not in it, as Burns puts it, is sadly more apt for this current mob than it ever was, and there’s superb version of “Doesn’t Make It Alright” dedicated to Terry Hall, before Burns displays his new found guitar skills on a new take on “Get A Life”.
As ever “My Dark Places” forms some sort of centrepiece, certainly it has a great importance attached as it discusses male mental health, but after the acerbic “Silver Lining” (another that proves that when it comes to Tory governments, the more things change, the more they stay the same) there’s a couple that show an almost folk side to the band.
Ian McCallum dons his new guitar (“it doesn’t look like an acoustic but it plays like one” explains Burns) for “Each Dollar A Bullet” which becomes one of the highlights and a vitriolic “Harp”, before “At The Edge”, the outsiders anthem, for the outsiders they’ve maybe always been? and the usual hurtle to the finish of the hat-trick “Wasted Life”, “Gotta Getaway” and “Suspect Device”.
The encore is an interesting one – in keeping with a set that had been full of surprises – as they offer up an extended version of Bob Marley’s “Johnny Was”, which (as it was on their debut album) is made their own and built around Steve Grantley’s marching drum beat. And, after the classic “Alternative Ulster” when they leave the stage they play Morecambe And Wise’s “Bring Me Sunshine.” On the face of it, the two things have little in common, but how about this: the track is 44 years old. If it came out tomorrow, it’d still be one of the finest punk rock songs ever made.
The point being the best stuff – whatever it is – doesn’t date, and if its dated now, it was crap then too. Stiff Little Fingers are not of their time, they are for all time. They just proved it for 90 glorious minutes.