Failte go dtí ...        Welcome to ...

Northern Ireland as reflected in the lyrics of "Stiff Little Fingers"

An essay by Jens Holtappels

1. Introduction

The history of Northern Ireland is indeed a tortured one. The conflict, which is now known as "The Troubles", began about thirty years ago but has its roots going back to the seventeenth century. While the conflict is typically described in religious terms, namely Protestants versus Catholics, it does not focus solely on religion. The disagreement also involves questions of nationality, sovereignty, and colonialism.

Between the 17th and early 20th century the whole of Ireland was governed by the British, who encouraged Protestant settlement in the northeastern corner of the predominantly Catholic country. After the British fought a number of nationalist rebellions they granted "Home Rule" to Ireland in the 1920s. The southern counties of Ireland won independence from Britain in 1922 and later became a Republic, whereas the North remained part of the United Kingdom. This division gave rise to two movements: the nationalist and the loyalist movements. The Nationalists, who are typically Catholic, want the six counties of Northern Ireland to be reunited with the Republic. The Loyalists, who are typically Protestant, prefer that Northern Ireland remains under British rule. The conflict between these two adversarial parties led to the numerous terrorist attacks and armed riots which are now called "The Troubles".

The conflict escalated on "Bloody Sunday", January 30th 1972, when 14 Catholic people were shot dead by British paratroopers during an unarmed "Civil Rights Organization" demonstration. That same year Britain suspended the regional Parliament in Belfast and imposed direct rule over Northern Ireland from London. This completed the division of the island.

Life in Northern Ireland during those times must have been pretty rough. Though the number of active participants in violent acts remained relatively small, the hatred between the Protestant and Roman Catholic communities shaped the lives of many people in the country for almost four decades. Sadly, violence and the fear of attacks of paramilitary organizations like the IRA became a normal, daily concern for most of the inhabitants of the larger cities like Belfast.

2. The band "Stiff Little Fingers"

In the first half of the 1970s Jake Burns, now lead singer and songwriter of the band, teamed up with a couple of schoolmates and founded the group "Highway Star" (a cover band). When they got their first gigs at larger bars in their hometown Belfast they realized that covering famous acts was not what they wanted to do. In 1977 Gordon Olgilvie, a local journalist, came to see one of their gigs and was deeply impressed by their style. He encouraged the band to write their own songs about what they knew best: life in Belfast. With the change in the type of music they also changed their name. From now on the band was known as "Stiff Little Fingers".

Stiff Little Fingers back in 1978
Image 1: "Stiff Little Fingers" back in 1978

Through Olgilvie's help they released their first two songs on their own label. Olgilvie sent one of their songs to BBC 1 Radio. With the radio station playing the song almost every night, the band soon became popular all over Britain. The following deal at a large record company made a contribution to the success of "Stiff Little Fingers".

From that point on the band could enjoy the benefits that come along with such a contract, such as incredible advertising campaigns for their records and wide-ranging distribution of their singles and albums.

Stiff Little Fingers circa 2003
Image 2: "Stiff Little Fingers" about 2003

The type of music the band chose, punk-rock, resulted from the themes they discuss in their songs which all revolve around modern society. However, they shared little else in common with other "ordinary" punk-bands. Although punk is widely known for its narrow-minded anarchistic attitude and its destructive criticism, "Stiff Little Fingers" has always intended to directly mention existing problems and to find concrete solutions to those challenges. They do not complain and make the audience feel trapped and helpless; they rather try to call attention to nuisances and to get people to change the things they are unhappy with. Most of the topics the band discusses in their songs are underlying problems of modern society and therefore extremely complex. Even professionals cannot untie some of these Gordian knots, but the group does their best to solve them.

3.1 Poverty and welfare state

Stiff Little Fingers: "All the Rest"

(…)
I thought we were past this stage
Never in this day and age
These things are still going on
Tell me where did we go wrong
I thought we had changed for good
Maybe I misunderstood
Does our new and caring nation
Only care for politicians
Those that have will all do well
All the rest can go to hell
(…)

This excerpt from the song "All the Rest" deals with a serious problem not only in Northern Ireland but in all European countries. Most of their songs are equally universal. Here it is all about the "unfortunates" as Jake Burns (lead singer of the band) calls the homeless, "who tend to hang around shopping malls and city centers, guzzling cheap cider all day" . The problem is not these people, who perhaps disturb you as you walk by, but rather their unmet need for help. One cannot tell why they are in these circumstances but it is obvious to everybody that they are discontent with their lives of poverty. Today "people tend to just block them out of their line of vision". This is sad because on the surface we pretend to stand behind certain values such like the welfare state and the support of indigent people but in reality no one seems to care anymore about those values on which our society was built. The sense of the welfare-state was that you support the poor with a percentage of your income so that if you lose your job, for example, society also helps you. That was and still is a plausible system. Unfortunately it does not appear to work these days due to the rich who are certain to never become indigent themselves.

Their lack of the experience how it is to live under those tough circumstances is the main reason why they are not willing to donate a part of their money or even offer help.

This problem of fading solidarity in modern societies is looming large. Jake Burns cannot imagine a solution, and if there was one, we would not have these problems.

The intention of the song is not to criticize the welfare-state, nor to solve its defects; the point is to mention them and to motivate the listeners to change their attitude. It's a call for people to stand up and try to change the situation.

3.2 Youth

Stiff Little Fingers: "Bits of Kids"
(…)
It was nothing like that in my day, not here in my town
We didn't get things all our way till we were full-grown
Now they go into pubs, and you're gonna get mugged in my town
So you read about it every day, in the headlines
How they take and take and drive away, sex and late nights
And it's gotta be wrong, because they're so young
They're only bits of kids, they're only bits of kids (…)
Broken cities, 'n' broken homes, bits of kids who don't grow whole
(…)

Another general problem about which the band writes in the song "Bits of Kids" is the false maturity of youth. Back when the band was young "it was nothing like that". Teenagers didn't get things their way till they were full-grown. There were rules which were to be unquestioningly followed. Today the situation is completely different. As is mentioned in the verse, the kids go into pubs and drink until the crack of dawn.

Even though the songwriter knows that "it's gotta be wrong, because they're so young", this behavior is widely accepted or at least tolerated in society these days. Why is it that the situation changed so dramatically within this rather short period of time?

In his book Jake Burns blames the parents for this drastic change by pointing out that the children "are never part of a secure home environment, through no fault of their own" . That is true because it is to all intents and purposes their parents' duty to create a safe atmosphere.

Furthermore the kids are also being confronted with other serious issues like their "single parent mother having endless streams of boyfriends"2 and they do not - and certainly cannot, due to their immaturity - understand that.

He concludes that they, through their parents' educational mistakes "are never actually given the chance to become rounded human beings" .

To put it in a nutshell, those "social misfits", as they are often called, really do not intend to misbehave. They simply have not learned anything else. How can one realize his faults if he does not know what is right and what is wrong? How can he know if nobody ever taught him?

3.3 Media

Stiff Little Fingers: "Stands to Reason"
(…)
The media all twist the facts; I read it in the paper (…)
You've heard it said so it has to be the truth (…)
But come again; question it when you see it doesn't fit
And you never get the truth if you never ask yourself (…)
So you ask me what's the score
Well, I can only say to make up your own mind
(…)

The value of the media is being disputed in society time and again.

On the one hand it connects the world and has vastly contributed to globalization, but often the sources and the news itself are so controversial that one can rightly question their credibility. Is the media objective or is the story exaggerated to boost ratings?

In the song "Stands to Reason" the band examines this particular problem and also adumbrates the irony that lies within it. This is illustrated in one key line of the song: "the media all twist the facts; I read it in the paper". It is understandable that people, to a certain extent, have to rely on the media to form an independent view. However, if the provided information is insincere then the resulting opinions do not stand on solid ground. The verse "You've heard it said so it has to be the truth" alludes in an ironic way to that very issue of plausibility.

For that reason Jake Burns, the songwriter, warns that you must not take everything that is said at face value but rather "question it when you see it doesn't fit". That is the most appropriate advice, namely "to make up your own mind".

3.4 "Law System"

Stiff Little Fingers: "Forensic Evidence"
You got the lawyers and establishment
You got the proof
You got public opinion
And it's all the truth (…)
So the only person guilty
In this court is me (…)
But you never hear my voice
Never listen when I talk
Made your mind up in advance (…)
My friends and relations
Never gave up hope
That one day you'd listen
And admit you're wrong
But the old school system
Turns another blind eye
And I'm so unimportant
That I might as well die (…)
Now the truth has been unearthed
And opinion moves my way
You can't hold me in this prison cell
Not even for another day
And you have to hear my voice
(…)

In the song "Forensic Evidence" the band criticizes the "law system" and especially the "miscarriages of justice" .

The song is a reaction to the case of the "Birmingham Six", a group of six men who were wrongly sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975 for two pub bombings in Birmingham. Their convictions were overturned in 1991 after the six spent almost three decades behind bars.

The band accuses the law system and particularly the judges and the prosecutors of having their minds made up in advance and of trusting putative evidence or witnesses without scrutinizing. Even worse, they do not admit the misjudgements they make unless there is enough public interest in a case that they are forced to revise it. In the song this is commented on with the line: "But the old school system turns another blind eye".

These situations create more victims by wrongly locking up "criminals". It is a form of mental torture, not only losing freedom but knowing that they have been wrongly blamed for a horrible crime. Nevertheless they are not able to do anything because no one would ever believe a prisoner.

As already mentioned, the only way the band sees for a person to get out of such a dilemma is for the "opinion", as the public interest is called in the song, to clear the way for the accused. That can solely happen if there is a sort of "media excitement" about the case. Otherwise there won't be enough people reached to get the attention that is required to compel a revision.

3.5 Friends

Stiff Little Fingers: "Human Shield"
How do you propose to live your life in times like these
Growing up surrounded by the fear and hate disease
I believe that we all need protection from the world
And our friends enfold us like a barrier unfurled (…)
People try to use you and abuse you every day
Doesn't seem to matter what you do or what you say
Then you need a friend that you can count on when you're down
Someone who will ward off all the hatred all around
(…)

The band does not only discuss negatives. They also deal with a multitude of positive topics, such as the relationships between friends and family. This is likewise the principal theme in the song "Human Shield".

In his book on page 132 Jake Burns describes the phrase "human shield" also in a very different way. He linked it with the gulf war which had been just beginning when the song was written. Around that time Saddam Hussein started to position hostages around known military targets to prevent attacks from the enemy. That never before practised method of abusing human beings to avoid losing important strategic facilities had heralded a new chapter in warfare and triggered an outcry from the population due to its incomprehensible cruelty.

However, as already indicated, the song is mainly homage to both friendship and family.

In the first lines the songwriter Jake Burns delineates the difficulties in life and asks how "you propose to live your life in times like these". He suggests that growing up surrounded by the so-called "fear and hate disease" is extremely tough and that everybody requires protection from the world. By employing a synecdoche in this context the songwriter emphasizes the importance of this shield. With this stylistic device, in which the whole world stands as a symbol for those obviously few negative aspects, he exaggerates their relevance in order to demonstrate the absolute need for friends.

It is friends on whom you can count when you are down and "who will ward off all the hatred all around". Here, the repetition of the word "all" stretches the idea that everyone is reliant on someone, be it his friends or his family.

With this song the band tries to give guidance on how to get a grip on your life, but they also remind you to be grateful that you have such caring friends and family.

4. Conclusion

There is a subtle distinction between the music of "Stiff Little Fingers" and the music of other punk bands. It is worth noting that "Green Day", a currently famous punk band, does almost the same thing. They also criticize society - in this case mainly the United States' policies. They want to show that the Iraq War (for instance) is preposterous and that it is therefore crucial that people get involved with politics in order to contribute to society and avert disaster. "Stiff Little Fingers" were one of the first bands ever to introduce this style of "punk". Around 1980 they broke several taboos by criticizing the government, for example. Nowadays that is nothing special but back then it was a huge risk. That sort of criticism was widely considered to be highly offensive and their developing career could have been at stake. The type of music was thus totally new - there had never been anything like it before - so that was indeed a substantial invention by the band.

That is not the only difference between "Stiff Little Fingers" and other punk bands. They do not simply complain to receive attention, as is common among most punks. They try to change something with their lyrics. If you hear the songs or read their verses you can feel that they are dead serious about it.

Analyzing all those topics, one still has to keep in mind the main subject that let the band write about all that in the first place. The often difficult circumstances in Northern Ireland during "The Troubles", under which most of the members of

"Stiff Little Fingers" had to grow up, is the main reason that they are so concerned with those sorts of issues. Though the times of the "The Troubles" are more or less over, that does not mean the situation in Northern Ireland has dramatically changed. It is true that the IRA disarmed a few years ago and promised to give up their policy of terrorism.

There are no armed riots or attacks anymore; the problems shifted to another level though. Now the land has to face - like most European countries - other challenges, like the collapsing of the welfare system.

However, the essential question remains: did the band contribute to the improvement of the situation in Northern Ireland? One has to admit that the influence of a band is way too small to effect elementary changes in a whole country. It is an incontrovertible fact that they simply do not have enough attention and fame - and they are probably not going to ever reach that status due to their advanced age - to shake the land up. But that is not what you would expect from a band, is it?

5. Appendix

5.1 Lyrics

All the Rest

He's drinkin' supermarket cider
In a doorway in the town
And he's shouting 'bout the government
And how they let him down
He's got a sister lives in Brixton
Always tried to do her best
Yet she winds up broke and shafted
Just the same as all the rest

He's got a torn and greasy greatcoat
And a New York Yankees vest
And some strongly held opinions
That he must get off his chest
Yet his friends don't think about him
They all gave him up for dead
And they all got real embarrassed
About the problems with his head

(Chorus:)
Shout it out! (Shout it out with me)
Shout it out! (It's a mystery)
Shout it out! ('cause what I can't see)
Why he's invisible to them
Yet so obvious to me

He make his home in cardboard boxes
And the pigeons are his friends
And you cross over to avoid him
Never try to make amends
For the way that he's been treated
And we all must share the blame
And we never look him in the eye
And never ask his name

(Chorus)

I thought we were past this stage
Never in this day and age
These things are still going on
Tell me where did we go wrong
I thought we had changed for good
Maybe I misunderstood
Does our new and caring nation
Only care for politicians
Those that have will all do well
All the rest can go to hell

(Chorus x2)



Bits of Kids

It was nothing like that in my day, not here in my town
We didn't get things all our way till we were full-grown
Now they go into pubs, and you're gonna get mugged in my town
So you read about it every day, in the headlines
How they take and take and drive away, sex and late nights
And it's gotta be wrong, because they're so young

They're only bits of kids, they're only bits of kids
It's always bits of kids today

She makes the breakfast, one of eight, all in one room
Each uncle's call keeps them up late, yes, in this town
And he won't go home. 'cos he'll just be alone till night time

They're bits of kids, they're only bits of kids
It's always bits of kids today

Broken cities, 'n' broken homes, bits of kids who don't grow whole
Broken cities, 'n' broken hearts, bits of people who fall apart
In my town

And it seems there's nothing anyway, not here in this town
Everything is only yesterday, and on the way down
And we're gonna be wrong, so we gotta be strong
In our own time

We're bits of kids, we're only bits of kids
It's always bits of kids today
Bits of kids, we're always, here in my town



Stands to Reason

They say our country's on the rocks and Britain is the greatest
They say the blacks get all the jobs, they say that they are lazy
A nice girl won't let you have sex, enjoys it if you make her
The media all twist the facts; I read it in the paper

Stands to reason
You've heard it said so it has to be the truth
Fact or fiction, what's the difference, they say it's so
But think again, repeat mistakes and it's never gonna change
And you never get the truth if you never ask yourself
What do they know?

They say all cops are bastard thugs, they're all a bunch of racists
The Scots are mean, the Irish mugs, at heart all men are rapists
Girls today they ask for it, I never touched your mother
And youngsters now are all on drugs, yes, thanks, I'll have another

Stands to reason
Mark my words, take a tip from one who knows
You will know more when you're older, they say it's so
But come again, question it when you see it doesn't fit
And you never get the truth if you never ask yourself

So you ask me what's the score
Well, I can only say to make up your own mind
I'd rather see the whole world die than you or I believe a lie
What do I know?

We had it hard when I was young, we used to have such great times
A man took pride in what he'd done, you should have seen the breadlines
To get back to that golden age there must be unemployment
But kids today don't want to work, they're just out for enjoyment

Stands to reason
It won't change cos it's always been the same
People hating, people fighting, they say it's so
Do you believe that? Perhaps you do but it's only up to you
And you never get the truth if you never ask yourself
What do they know?



Forensic Evidence

You got the lawyers and establishment
You got the proof
You got public opinion
And it's all the truth
You got first rate witnesses
Straight from the scene
So the only person guilty
In this court is me

You got forensic evidence
That never lies
You got someone who says
I'm guilty by my eyes
You got lie detectors
That you never use
But I'm the only person here
Who knows the truth

But you never here my voice
Never listen when I talk
Made your mind up in advance
And I'm going to take that walk

(Chorus:)
You based your case on circumstance
That's all it was and ever will be
And I never stood a chance
The old boy's network's stronger than me

My friends and relations
Never gave up hope
That one day you'd listen
And admit you're wrong
But the old school system
Turns another blind eye
And I'm so unimportant
That I might as well die

And you never here my voice
Never listen when I shout
You put me in here long ago
And I'm never getting out

(Chorus x 2)

Now the truth has been unearthed
And opinion moves my way
You can't hold me in this prison cell
Not even for another day

And you have to hear my voice
Have to listen when I scream
Yet I wonder how you sleep
But if you do I hope you dream
(Repeat)

(Chorus x 2)



Human Shield

How do you propose to live your life in times like these
Growing up surrounded by the fear and hate disease
I believe that we all need protection from the world
And our friends enfold us like a barrier unfurled

I believe in the human shield
I believe in the human shield

People try to use you and abuse you every day
Doesn't seem to matter what you do or what you say
Then you need a friend that you can count on when you're down
Someone who will ward off all the hatred all around

(Chorus:)
The human shield protects your soul
And keeps you on the ground
The human shield protects your heart from being ground down

Dreams will all be shattered and your hopes dashed on the ground
As you grow to realize, this world's a real hard town
I believe that we all need protection every day
And our friends will form a shield that works in every way

I believe in the human shield
I believe in the human shield

(Chorus)

Bibliography

1. Pictures

2. Books

3. CDs

All by "Stiff Little Fingers"

4. Internet sources

Erklärung

Ich erkläre hiermit, dass ich die Facharbeit ohne fremde Hilfe angefertigt und nur die im Literaturverzeichnis angeführten Quellen und Hilfsmittel benützt habe.

Erlangen, den 26.01.2006 ____________________________ Unterschrift des Schülers