In International Clash Day I mentioned a life-changing song: “Wasted Life,” by Stiff Little Fingers. SLF’s anti-military song literally changed my life; or its potential direction, at least. I was probably moving in an anti-war kind of direction anyway, to be fair, but it was definitely a trigger point.
People say — or used they to, at least — that a song couldn’t change your life. By comparison, I don’t think there was ever a similar tendency to say that a book couldn’t change a person’s life. I suspect that is down to their comparative sizes: it seems respectable for something the size of a novel to have a major impact on a human’s psyche, while a three-minute song? Not so much.
Although if it were merely length, then people wouldn’t have complained if you said an album changed your life. I’m not sure that anyone ever said that,1 but I suspect that if they had, their statement would have been pooh-poohed just as much as the same claim for a song.
At this point I feel I ought to quote Springsteen, giving the opposite view:
We learned more from a three-minute record, baby,
Than we ever learned in school
he sings in “No Surrender.” Hyperbole, certainly, but there is a core of truth to it: the truth of the feeling you can get from listening to a great song.
With “Wasted Life” the feeling for me was of sudden crystallisation, or realisation. I had, for some years, been saying that I wanted to be pilot, join the RAF. This was before the horrors of the Gulf War, or for that matter the Balkans. Though it was in the heart of the Cold War, and British soldiers were stationed in Northern Ireland during the troubles — though not so much RAF staff, I would think.
But I was blind to all that, brought up as I was on a diet of Second World War films, Commando comics, and Airfix models of warplanes. I had, in short, a thoroughly romanticised view of war. And I just wanted to fly.
But I didn’t want to kill. I had always known that, I’m sure. But two lines of that one song made it real for me:
Stuff their fucking armies
Killing isn’t my idea of fun2
And that was all it took. I remember that it was a while before I could tell my parents that I had changed my plans. Perhaps because they would have asked why, and I didn’t want to have to explain it. Maybe because I thought they’d be disappointed. I’m sure my Mum wasn’t. My Dad kind of was: “But you were going to be a Spanish-speaking pilot,” he said. He had always been slightly amused that my school taught half of us Spanish, instead of the then-much-more-conventional French.
A life can hinge on such a small moment.
I’ve just had two slightly odd experiences while researching Stiff Little Fingers.
SLF were the first band I ever saw live, and they had a major effect on my life — which is why I was researching them: I’m writing a longer piece about the effect they had on me.
So as I was reading the Wikipedia article about them, I became somewhat confused. Because it says they split up in 1983, and reformed in 1987. Now the breakup I’d forgotten about, but it seems right. However, I saw them on the tour in 87. I saw them two days in a row. I had tickets for the Brixton Academy gig, which I think was on a Saturday, and then when Time Out came out that week there was a small advert in the back (I’ve no idea how I came to see it), which said:
Belfast’s finest. Shhh: a secret gig!
Or something very like that. It was on the Friday night at the Mean Fiddler. Which I don’t think I had ever been to at that time, and which was a bastard long way from Tooting. But I wasn’t going to miss the chance to see SLF in a small club.
What I mainly remember was that the Academy gig the next night was a bit of a letdown after the intensity of seeing them at the Mean Fiddler.
But anyway, the point of all of this is that as far as I remember things, this all was — or was billed as — their farewell tour. That’s why the t-shirt (which I still have) says “Game Over.”
Now obviously they’re around again, and I’ve seen them since, and bought albums they’ve released since. But my memory says they broke up in 87 (or it could have been 88, but I think not (though actually March 88 if this setlist site is to be believed)), and then reformed later. But Wikipedia and All Music both say I’m wrong.
I don’t know. Who would you trust?
Actually probably not me. I’m becoming more convinced as I look at that setlist site, that I must have seen them several times at the Academy, after moving to London in 87, and the supposed farewell tour must have been later. In which case the Mean Fiddler was a bastard long way from Walthamstow, but that’s still true.
The second odd experience was that I clicked onto the Wikipedia talk page to see whether the history was disputed at all. It isn’t, but around five sections in there’s a section entitled “the?”, in which someone asks whether they were ever referred to as “the Stiff Little Fingers.”
And back in 2007 some guy called “Devilgate” answered firmly in the negative.