26 March 2010

"So how does it feel to make a grown man want to die...?"

You Little Thief by Feargal Sharkey. A big, brassy song that made the Derry singer a rather famous piggy-in-the-middle while also giving him a final UK Top 10 hit.

The story is well-thumbed, but just in case you didn't know... Maria McKee wrote A Good Heart when she was a teenager about her failed tryst with Benmont Tench, a keyboard player in Tom Petty's band, the Heartbreakers. Sharkey sang it and took it to No.1 in the UK. Then he recorded this, written as a riposte by Tench, and reached No.5 with it.

You Little Thief has a marvellous introduction, with that little preface of piano giving nothing away before this rumpus of a brass hook kicks in and immediately stays in your mind. Sharkey then does his usual heavily-accented delivery in that unique, raucous tone of his.

But back to the piggy-in-the-middle stuff. McKee had written A Good Heart, a song which to me seems to be dominantly negative but with a few bones thrown, after Tench and she had split. Then Tench responds with this, a song with little in terms of respite. He calls the subject not just a thief, but a savage, a nightmare and, worst of all, a whore. And, of course, there were no hard feelings, as there were no feelings at all. She obviously got to him.

One assumes there was no coincidence involved in all this. Sharkey got the McKee song and sang it, and was then sent Tench's composition and was brought very much into the picture what was going on here. McKee was an unknown jobbing songwriter as far as Sharkey's audience was concerned and therefore couldn't be choosy about who made a success of her art; Tench was a background artist and perhaps in a stronger position. Either way, my belief is that Sharkey knew exactly what he was doing and saw a chance for decades of dinner party conversation and pop trivia questions long after his singing career had faded.

The other intriguing thing is the rapidity of it all. I don't know when either song was recorded, but A Good Heart was issued in the UK in October 1985 and got to No.1. You Little Thief was out within three months of that, and both appeared on Sharkey's eponymous solo album. So Tench evidently wrote his riposte when McKee's song was still unknown, rather than seeing an opportunity for an easy few dollars. He must have been really riled by her if he wasn't even remotely inspired by filthy moolah. How Sharkey ended up with both songs when each was as unknown as the previous one becomes more of a mystery.

The video to You Little Thief showcases the truly luxuriant hair that Sharkey had cultivated for himself by the time of his mid-80s comeback. When he brought out Carl Smash's Listen To Your Father as his first solo single in 1984, Smash Hits interviewed him and used a "before and after"-style comparison of the moody kid in the Undertones with the stylish, well-groomed pop star of now. They clearly wanted to remind those old enough to remember just how little pride in appearance was deliberately taken by working class new wave bands of the 1970s, as Sharkey was in a tatty jumper and was covered in zits. The contrast was obvious. Underneath was a quote from the interview: "If someone had said to me at 16 'You'll end up a successful musician', I would have laughed in their face."

Sharkey gamely sings You Little Thief through the video while his two ultra-hairsprayed girly drummers bash away simultaneously behind him - they should have had just one drum each, like whenever Jon Moss went on Top Of The Pops with Culture Club and they couldn't be arsed to drag the whole kit in for just one mime - and those Women's Army Corps recruits (at least, I think that's what they're supposed to be) go up and down the staircase pyramid, one footstep per beat. The brass section is, as was customary for all guest brass sections of the 80s (see TKO Horns here too), utterly barking, leaving even the most naive pop kid wondering how on earth they can play such a bigshot hook while waving their trombones around like flags.

You Little Thief entered the charts at No.26 and instantly climbed to No.5. A second consecutive No.1 looked possible from such a huge rise but there was an even bigger climber above it - Dire Straits had gone from No.30 to No.4 with Walk Of Life - and so it got no higher, spending only one more week in the Top 10 as a whole. Feargal Sharkey would not grace the Top 10 again - indeed, only one more UK Top 40 hit would follow, and that was five years away. Also about five years away was Rodney Trotter giving estranged wife Cassandra a copy of Sharkey's latest LP for her birthday ("I bought her some earrings and a Sheargal Farkey LP") so at least he is semi-immortalised in overrepeated sitcoms too. There's even a moment when Cassandra is playing the LP, though presumably for the same PRS-related reasons that used to give radio stations nightmares in the 1990s, she removes the stylus within five seconds.

The B side, by the way, of You Little Thief is a delightful tune called The Living Actor. It was on the TV Cream Top 100 B Sides, so good is it.

A last thought. At my weekly 80s night, I will occasionally, if the mood is right, put A Good Heart on during the final half hour when people are too drunk and knackered to dance at full pelt and prefer to sway gently while singing very loudly. It is totally ideal for that, in fact, and the chorus often raises the roof. However, a nice couple who come in regularly and natter to me all night about music always threaten to fall out with me when I play it. There is, apparently, something that disallows Undertones fanatics from liking anything Feargal Sharkey did once he left the band. I haven't asked, but I assume this includes the Assembly too. I might stick Never Never on after A Good Heart one week and see if I emerge from the premises alive.

I have never played You Little Thief at the 80s night however, as it is simply not well known enough for a commercial 80s crowd. Perhaps I should.


Suzy Norman said...

Ah, it's one of my favourite songs. I'd dance at your disco.

Clair said...

I knew someone who wrote a song about killing his dad and shagging his mum, which makes the Tench/McKee spat look like nothing.

JM said...

Not one single reference to television premieres at altitude and faulty monitors? For shame...

Dave from Brissie said...

Ok, Question... Who are the 2 drummers in the video and have they gone on to other things?