Perfect Pop Singles Vol. 9: Suspect Device

Stiff Little Fingers – Suspect Device (1978, Rough Trade)

Why It’s Perfect: I’ve often made the argument in these PPS reviews and elsewhere that qualities like “integrity” and “authenticity” are not a legitimate source of critique for pop songs; after all, it’s entirely contrary to Lady GaGa’s artistic intent to sound like she’s recording live to two-track in her parents’ garage. But sometimes a song just sweats such honesty that I feel like it’s connecting with me on a personal basis. Such is Stiff Little Fingers’ stone cold classic single Suspect Device, a fistful of power pop with brass knuckle guitars and barbed wire vocals served direct to the temple. Hailing from the periodic warzone that was Belfast, the Stiff Little Fingers had little in common with sweet-natured Northern Irish peers like The Undertones. Hardcore well before hardcore, their debut LP Inflammable Materials has a jagged quality to it quite unlike the deceptively well-behaved Clash, Sex Pistols or Damned records of the time, and the band on the whole seemed less interested than any of those groups with irony and aesthetic criticisms of rock and roll as a form. There’s a sense of politicized street-level seriousness to their early recordings, like Jake Burns’ strangled shout is being forced out through the throttling grip of the British establishment.

Suspect Device was quite possibly the angriest song ever recorded as of 1978, an absolute masterpiece of spluttering, inchoate rage; just listen to the post-My Generation stutter of the chorus, with Burns reducing the IRA bombing-era buzzword “suspect device” to a single venomous syllable, and then turning it into a demand that the listener think about the issue for himself. In fact, there’s a surprising amount going on in the lyrics, penned by Burns along with journalist Gordon Ogilvie. Sure, there’s the usual anti-authority position one expects of punk rock from Alternative TV through Green Day, but when SLF tell you to “question everything you’re told” they actually mean it; just consider the subtle shift in the last chorus, Burns’ rallying cry of “don’t believe them” changing to “don’t believe us.” That is an amazing degree of sophistication for what is ostensibly just a balls-out 115db venting of frustration. It surrenders the authoritarian position a singer holds over his audience, admits that as strongly as the band feel they can’t claim to know all the answers and won’t pretend they do.

But hey, enough pseudo-lit crit of the poor little song. What I love most about it is the music, man, the way it makes me feel like headbanging a hole in the wall. Guitarists Burns and Henry Cluney just tear ass from start to finish, creating such a frenzied momentum that I imagine the producer having to pull a ripcord at the end of the track so they didn’t end up splattered into hamburger on impact. I’m a bit of a sucker for good, melodic bass runs and Suspect Device has a doozy, with Ali “Amazing Name” McMordie’s work here serving to sweeten the chorus just enough to make you want to set the sucker on repeat for a few minutes/hours/days. This is the epitome, maybe even apotheosis, of classic punk rock.

Defining Moment: Is there any doubt?


The way the whole band locks together from the guitars on down to hammer home that syllable… it’s one of the fiercest moments in ‘70s rock. It’s like all of SLF’s kinetic power, all their energy comes together for a moment and threatens to shake itself apart. Other than maybe Angus Young’s crazy final solo at the end of AC/DC’s T.N.T, I’m not sure another band has ever come so close to expressing an explosion in musical form. Stunning.

Other Great Songs by Stiff Little Fingers: Although they’re rarely given credit for it, the SLF had a long, remarkably consistent career with plenty of gems. Inflammable Materials alone spawned punk standards like Alternative Ulster, State of Emergency and Wasted Life. Though they cleaned up their sound considerably after that LP, what they lost in intensity they gained by allowing their melodic sense to shine. Gotta Getaway, Nobody’s Heroes, Just Fade Away and recent classic Strummerville are only a small sampling of their fine catalogue. Those inclined towards punk rock would do well to look into their material.


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Filed under 1970s, punk

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