For years, people have asked me what “really” happened — why did I choose to leave one of the most sucessful punk bands in rock history? I’ve also read countless articles about SLF, how it started, and how it became a legend in punk history — articles mostly written from internet research based on misinformation.
It’s time to give you my side, my story of how it all happened.
Before I begin, I want to say I mean no disrespect to Jake, Ali, Brian, Jim, Collin, Russell or Gordon. They remain important figures in my past. We share a history of punk greatness, a history of more fun than a 17-year-old kid from Belfast had a right to. I have very special memories of them, of the time, of who we were. We could not have become the legend that is SLF without any one of them.
In 1974, my folks had given me a guitar for Christmas and I had begun to think of myself as a guitar player. Of course, it was one of those first guitars — where the strings stand about 1-inch off the fretboard — one of those unplayable, untuneable creatures that shoppes advertise as “beginner” instruments. But at the time, I didn’t care. I loved to play it, play it loud and proud. Looking back, I wonder how the folks, or my brothers, put up with “the racket” coming from my bedroom. But they did.
In the same year, I met Jake Burns at school. We shared a love for music, and I’d often find myself at his house listening to music. I suppose it was some kind of destiny, and we soon found ourselves putting together a group called “Highway Star,” a “rock” group gigging locally playing cover versions of rock standards.
In 1976, my daddy passed away from a stroke. The last words he said to me were, “Look, it’s Elvis Presley.” One of my life-long regrets is that he never got to see SLF, or know what we became. I can only hope he would have been proud.
1977 was a transitional year in music. Disco was dying and a new music was on the horizon. It was in that year that I purchased an EP that would change the direction of my life — “Live at the Marquee” by Eddie & The Hotrods.
I listened to that EP over and over. I tried to get Jake to listen, but he would have none of it. After weeks of pleading with him to let Highway Star play some of this new music, Jake kicked me out of the band. I guess I should have realized then this was shades of things to come.
After a few months of silence, Jake and I began to talk again, and he finally agreed to listen to this “new” music… and he agreed we should “go for it.” With Highway Star bass player, Ali McMordie, Stiff Little Fingers was born.
A chance meeting with Gordon Ogilvie soon followed. Gordon convinced us we should write our own music — about Belfast, about who we were, about our lives in our troubled city. In 1978, we self-produced our first single, “Suspect Device,” and the rest, you could say, is history.
In 1981, Jim Reilly left, and was replaced by Dolphin Taylor. Looking back, for me, that was the end of the REAL SLF.
After touring and recording for four years, Jake decided that 1982 would see the end of SLF. He wanted to pursue a solo career and walked away. I went back to a life in Belfast.
In 1987, Jake decided his solo career was at an end, and called me. He thought it might be time to bring SLF back for another go. We spent the next seven years playing and recording. Our music was drifting away from our punk roots. I voiced my concern that we might be going in the wrong direction.
In 1994, we were in the studio recording the CD, “Get a Life.” I had completed recording all my parts for the CD and had gone home. I hadn’t heard from Jake for weeks, so I called his home. His wife told me he was in the bath. I haven’t spoken to him since. Our manager, Russell Emanuel, called me soon after and told me my “services” were “no longer required.”
I have always regretted the ways things ended, but even more so, the lie that was told — that I chose to leave the band — a lie that continues to this day.
But life makes us who we are and I have moved on. In 1997, I moved to the United States and started a new life there playing in regional rock groups. It is now time that I return to the things I love — touring, recording — making the music that is part of who I am. I want to bring back a feeling of how the REAL SLF was.
I will always be grateful for the SLF experience and for all it taught me — for the thousands of supportive fans who continue to contact me and share their stories of how SLF was a big part of their lives. I can only hope that my new music will meet with their approval.
Henry Cluney talks about his days in SLF and his current solo life and live review
By Amy Britton -October 29, 20136
Live review and interview
24th Sept 2013
Interviewing Henry Cluney is a pretty easy job. Firstly, because I was never going to be short of questions for the original Stiff Little Finger on the blistering statements of intent that his band built; the soundtrack which made sense in the context of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Secondly, Cluney is accessible, open and upfront about everything I ask him. Lets not forget just how important his band were; when their debut album “Inflammable Material”, released on Rough Trade, charted at no.14 in the mainstream charts, it created a big part of independent history. And it is this which I begin my interview with…
You played a key part in Rough Trade’s history. What was your working relationship with them like?
Very, very good. We were the first indie album in the British charts. It was only supposed to be a couple of releases initially…then when they were successful we made the album, and the shop was effectively saved by sales of that album – before then they had only really had acts like Scritti Pollitti, who weren’t really selling. It made the label £250,000.But the 50/50 deal they gave us was crucial for us in helping us, it was totally unique. It also led on to the slot supporting Tom Robinson – Third World were supposed to do it, but then they had a big hit so they went off and did their own headline tour.
Did being on a “London label” separate you from the rest of the Belfast scene in any way?
No, almost the opposite, Rough Trade distributed all over the UK so they enabled us to stay in Belfast. We couldn’t have done things without Rough Trade, they were the best thing that happened to us.
What guitars and amps are you using these days?
I always used to use the Gibson LesPaul, but ever since I had a brain tumour last year I found the Gibson to heavy so I’ve been playing a Parker, which is really light. I just use Marshall amps.
What is your favourite SLF song?
Eveybody asks this and I don’t really know! I think maybe Wait and See (from Nobodys Heroes.)
So, this little disagreement with Jake Burns over the band name…
Jake’s current band aren’t really the “real SLF”, but that’s just an opinion. I’ve been saying this since 1994, its not like this has just been said. I know that his current band are trying to record a new album as the “real SLF”.The Wombles played live recently and I said, “oh, but is it the ORIGINAL Wombles…” its better to make a joke out of it…
Even though you’ve lived in America for 17 years I presume you’re still keeping an eye on Irish politics. Whats your take on the current state of things?
Well Northern Ireland is Britain, not necessarily Ireland. I know there were three murdered last week –its far from over. It might be less frequent but the people are more radical than ever; its fuelled by gangsterism. Its nothing to do with religion either, its just territory.
You were the only Irish punk band really tackling it…
Well the conflict was just day to day life so it was only natural to subsume it into songwriting…
Saving a Punk Legend
At age 55, Henry Cluney, a founding member of the seminal Belfast punk rock band Stiff Little Fingers, is still making music. But during his last tour,which wrapped up in September, he sayssomething seemed a bit off. While on tour,he started getting headaches and becamedizzy. During one show, a pal told Belfast’s Sunday World, Cluney seemed confusedand asked what he was doing there. Cluney wrote it off to new medications he wastaking and planned to get that fixed when he got back to his current home base ofRochester. (Yes, the one in Minnesota.)
But on Oct. 3, the day after he got home, Cluney blacked out (or came “as close as you need to be”) and collapsed, taking a few household items with him as he fell. His wife, Carol Purcell, Mayo Clinic Health Solutions, wasn’t having any more of that and brought him to Mayo’s Emergency Department to get him checked out.Cluney was still convinced it was the medications, but his doctors weren’t, and a scan showed it was something a little bigger: a brain tumor the size of a baseball.
The tumor, thankfully, proved to be benign.But getting it out was no mean feat. “That thing had grown so big that honestly I don’t know howthey did it,” Cluney says. He and Purcell both express amazement and gratefulness for the skill of the Mayo surgeons and the care and support of the staff who’ve aided his recovery. Their praise is matched by that of Cluney’s fans back home, many of whom have followed the ongoing coverage in the Belfast press, which applauded Mayo Clinic for saving their “punk legend.”
And Cluney’s surgeon, Jason Hoover, M.D., has become something of a folk hero there.
Speaking of back home in Northern Ireland, friends, fans and former bandmates there have put together a fundraiser to help Cluney with his medical bills. “Kicking Up A Racket for Henry Cluney” will take place at the Black Box in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter on Dec. 1, accordingto the Sunday World. It’s turned into an all-day event with more bands wanting to kick up a racket for Henry than one day can hold.
Cluney says he’s been overwhelmed by the support he’s received, and while he won’t be able to be there in person, he does plan to send a message via video to his old mates.
Reprinted with permission from In The Loop