Review Summary: Just about as genuine as early punk rock got.
All early punk rock was fuelled by anger, but in the grand scheme of things, most of the bands in question really didn't have all that much to get worked up about. Political injustice, social meltdown and label disputes are far from ideal, but it's not as if the Sex Pistols The Clash et al were living in a war zone, with troops lining their streets, the sound of bombs ringing in their ears and no clear end to their life-or-death issues. Stiff Little Fingers on the other hand, did experience all of that. Hailing for Belfast, Northern Ireland, SLF was formed by a quartet of school friends at the height of the nation's Troubles. They may on the surface seem like your typical punks with their limited skills as musicians and full-throttle approach to writing, but where most of the genre's early torch bearers carried gimmicks, Stiff Little Fingers had none. They were the real deal; a bunch of ordinary kids from a working class background with something genuinely worth getting pissed about, and as such it comes as no surprise that their debut LP remains one of punk's defining statements.
The commonly used "Irish Clash" tag is a lazy one, but there can be no denying the influence that Strummer and co had on SLF. Band leader Jake Burns has never made a secret of his admiration of the London legends, and cites his first spin of their classic self-titled debut as a key moment on his road towards forming his own group. The Clash's imprint can be found all over his songs too, with a similar balance of grit and melody appearing in the record's more up-tempo moments. There's even a reggae crossover here in the form of their Bob Marley cover "Johnny Was," which along with the classic singles lifted from the album (more on them later) ranks among the highlights.
As well as being songwriter in-chief, Burns also acts as the single most important component of the band's sound throughout Inflammable Material. The record's production is red raw, but even less polished is the singer's voice, an intense, powerful and yes, angry weapon which gives the majority of his songs their added edge. Even more impressive are Burns' lyrics, which provide absolutely everything you'd want from an album made in such desperate context. As far as openings go, the shrill cry of "Inflammable material is planted in my head/ It's a suspect device that's left 2000 dead" takes some beating, and the album is packed full of similar moments of introspective genius. Take "Wasted Life" for instance, a stinging anti-militant anthem packed with refrains such as "I won't be a soldier/ I won't take no orders from no-one/ Stuff their ***ing armies/ Killing isn't my idea of fun" which ring just as true today as they did when they were written 34 years ago.
"Wasted Life" and the aforementioned opener "Suspect Device" make up two thirds of a trio of singles which are quite simply stone-cold punk classics. The third, "Alternative Ulster" was also the most successful, topping the UK's independent chart but more importantly providing perhaps the most frank statement of dissatisfaction with their homeland on the whole record. The rest of it isn't half bad either, and can pack just as strong a punch. In true punk fashion, the band experienced a backlash to the raging blast of "White Noise," with many accusing them of being racists despite the fact that the song's underlying message is of quite the opposite stance. Not so controversial but equally thrilling are the likes of "No More Of That" and "Breakout," but amid those standard punk moments it's "Barbed Wire Love" which brings the biggest surprise. As it's title alludes, it's lyrical core is as abrasive as Burns' other songs, but this composition also shows his more tender side, displaying a versatility which the band would come to expand on with subsequent releases.
Really, the only misstep here is finale "Closed Groove," a song which holds a similar level of lyrical brilliance as the 12 to it, but fits them around a melody which sounds pathetically amateur. Burns himself has never held back in his criticism of it, claiming that he's never rated it as a song, and deeply regrets including it an album where it simply doesn't fit. Aside from that though, there's not really much that you can fault with Stiff Little Fingers' debut. It's singles may rank as clear high-watermarks, but the same could be said of just about any classic punk album of it's time, and the album tracks can certainly hold their own anyhow. They may have arrived a little late and thus missed out on the hysteria surrounding the genre's earlier bands, but Inflammable Material was just about as genuine as punk rock got, and for that reason alone it deserves to grace anyone's collection.