STIFF LITTLE FINGERS' seminal debut album, Inflammable Material, doesn't typically get mentioned in the same breath as the first records from the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, or the Clash. But it should. Released in 1979, that record mixes sharp hooks, snarl, and social commentary—and almost four decades later, it still explodes from the speakers.
Singer/guitarist Jake Burns remembers those days well. He was 11 when the civil conflict known as the Troubles began to simmer in Northern Ireland. By the time he formed Stiff Little Fingers in 1977, bombings, assassinations, and violence had become part of everyday life in Burns' hometown of Belfast. Curfews were enforced when things were at their most intense.
"It was boring. You couldn't go anywhere," says Burns, who's lived in Chicago since 2004. "In a way that probably led to a lot of bands. It's like, 'Well, there's nothing else to do; we might as well stay home and learn to play the guitar.'"
The unrest didn't necessarily push Burns to form Stiff Little Fingers, but life in Belfast did inspire him to write the band's first song, "State of Emergency." "We kind of felt we dealt with it in one song," he says. "Two and a half minutes, well, there's my life."
That's until Burns met journalist Gordon Ogilvie, who he calls "the most reluctant band manager in the world." Ogilvie co-wrote half of the tracks on Inflammable Material, including the lyrics to one of the band's best-known songs, "Suspect Device."
"I've often described it as almost like an episode of The Twilight Zone, where everything else in the room sort of liquefies and the only thing you can see is this piece of paper," says Burns of first reading those lyrics. "To say it changed my life isn't too much of an overstatement."
Ogilvie pushed the band to write more about their life in Belfast, and they wrote "Wasted Life" that same week. Burns has kept that philosophy of penning biting lyrics about social injustices over the course of 10 studio LPs, including the band's latest, No Going Back, a record he says he started writing seven years ago. "I came home one day and listened to the songs, and they sort of struck me as something I could've written when I was 20. They didn't sound like something a 50-year-old would write."
Burns scrapped most of the songs, and began writing material that reflected the realities of divorce, lost jobs, and lost homes. He jokes, "Then you're setting yourself on quite a path—like how the fuck do I write a rock 'n' roll song about paying the mortgage?"
One thing Burns can't be accused of is being disingenuous, whether it's in conversation or in song. That sincerity is likely what led fans to help Stiff Little Fingers reach their PledgeMusic funding goal for No Going Back in just 12 hours. It's also what makes early records like Inflammable Material and Nobody's Heroes the punk classics they are.
Almost four decades later, Burns recalls a time when he figured their debut would also be their finale. But punk rock was a style which then became a movement, which then became a lifestyle. Stiff Little Fingers and others built all of it simply by writing good songs.
"What excited me is that there were all these bands making these great pop records," Burns says. "And they were getting a chance to put these records out because they were doing it themselves. It was very liberating."