It was thirty years ago today - just about - that the wakeup call that probably changed my life first bled over the airwaves. A ho(a)rse Belfast voice roaring "INFLAMMABA MATARRIA PLANNEDINMAHED, ITSA SUSPEK DEVICE THASS LEFT TWO THASNDEAD", followed by a snaredrum splat and highhat like a saw being snapped in my face.
A summer's evening, south Dublin, 1979, and my mate John Jones was introducing me to "Inflammable Material" by a Belfast punk band called Stiff Little Fingers. My head swam. I knew that punk was an act of rebellion, "a string of dirty words put to music" as my dad - a closet fan - described it. But my brain, marinating in puberty's chemical cocktail, got fried in the white heat sizzling from Jonesy's stereo.
A hundred miles up the road from us it was the year of the Shankill buchers, the Warrenpoint ambush. The tenth year of "The Troubles". Our island home was at war yet we felt surprisingly little effect in our suburban semi-d's, the fir trees swaying in the mild breeze. Those hundred miles away Jake Burns, SLF's frontman, only a few years older than Jonesy and I, was singing about Wasted Life. Screaming about it:
"I could be a soldier go out there and fight to save this land. Be a people's solider paramilitary gun in hand. I won't be a soldier I won't take no orders from no one. Stuff their fucking armies, killing isn't my idea of fun".
If Van Morrison famously has a voice like rough honey then Jake's is paintstripper. And when he says "stuff their fucking armies" it's not a Roddy Doyle-like fuck for the sake of dialogue. It's dipped in acid, sand blasted, chrome plated. He means it.
Then the song White Noise grabs me my the neck and spits at me. "Paddy is a moron, spud thick mick, breeds like a rabbit, thinks with his prick." It gets wilder: "Ahmed is a paki, curry coffee queer... ponce greasy wanker, worse than the yids". For a while we're stunned. SLF are a bunch of racists... but then the fist slams into our faces: this is a protest AGAINST racism/facism the oi oi oi yobs of the football stadia and plastic pubs.
This is punk with a conscience. And it's not the Sex Pistols, smacked up and puking, it's not even the Clash arty smarty lefty halfway round the world. This punk's for us. This drags us down the back alley behind the pub and kneecaps us, this is the "RUC dog of repression" barking at our feet.
It's such a brilliant piece of work on so many levels. Musically, nothing will ever compare with the opening riff of "Alternative Ulster". The humour, black and otherwise is searing and smart. Even the nuance of Alternative Ulster and Alter Native Ulster is priceless. Barbed Wire Love, about loving someone from the other side. Catholic? Protestant? Back? Arabic? Gay? Does it matter when you have lyrics like "hearts a bubble in the rubble, it was love at bombsite" to express it, to set the armalight?
And the genius of taking Johnny Was, Bob Marley's Rastaman vibration, from Trenchtown to Andytown. The drumming evoking a Belfast march throbbing towards an exploding AK. Highlighting the ultimate, the deepest grief of war, the mother losing her son. "A single shot rings out in a Belfast night. Can a woman's care cease towards the child she bears?"
Did you ever think punk could be poignant enough to prick tears to your eyes?
The album has been part of my life's soundtrack in many ways. Surely, on visits to my teenage pen-friend Miceal in Newry (sadly an Undertones fan). Later, on the night of my 30th birthday I drove high above the city of Tbilisi, looking down on the prison, and let Inflammable Material blast though the deep night.
Then in 2002 I raced home from Switzerland to take in a Stiffs concert in Dublin. I arrived in the middle of the set, smashed my way through to the front railing, and plunged into pungent, plangent punk with my oldest mate Richo. And we'd do it again tomorrow. Two suburban pappas, pogoing our polemics off.
Listening to the album now, as I am, I'm churning. I'm realising that the train of my life was shunted off the suburban sidetrack and onto a wild intercontinental ride thanks in no small way to the Belfast boys, the Stiffs, Sleff. They implanted a suspect device that ticked away inside me until one day, thank you Jake, it exploded, blasting me into a world I have been privileged, at times terrified, to see.
Another pal in punk, Blair, plays in a Kiev-based punk band, the C-men. On his Facebook page recently his status was "listening to beautiful, healing punk." That's the paradox of punk. Just like the blues can lift you when you are at your lowest, or how Leonard Cohen can make a mad world seem sane. When you let that rage wash over you, it can soothe the soul. You know why? Because this world is unjust, cynical, hypocritical and stacked against you. It was when you were fourteen, and it still is. You were right to be angry then and you're damn fucking right now. That's why.