STIFF LITTLE FINGERS + DEATH BY UNGA BUNGA @ THE EL REY THEATRE
Photos by Lex Voight Words by Ron Garmon
Last month I signed up to cover the L.A. stop on the fortieth anniversary tour of these OG punk idols knowing it would fall a day or so after returning from Burning Man. That was my first and (thankfully) only mistake but you’d have never known it by the desert-battered, pink-haired wraith that tottered through the doors of El Rey. My lips were cracked, my stare well past the thousand-yard mark, my skin still faintly itched of dust and, due to various kinds of exotic stimulation, I was yet seeing tracers. Still, duty beckoned and even swung the venue’s door open wide for me just in time for Death By Unga Bunga. I took up a note-scribbling position at stage right near the wall, which earned me the instant ire of some meaty douchebro, who flexed his muscles in amusing mimicry of primal aggression. His irritation at my presence seemed profound but I bore it with the consoling thought that people almost never actually die from being stabbed with a pen.
The place was very far from packed but DBUB threw down like they were mainstaging at Coachella anyway. Energetic Norwegian imps drunk on a garage-y 1970s stadium power pop that’ll put oldsters in mind of Cheap Trick or the Raspberries, they really got the sparse audience chugging and late arrivals walked into just one Hell of a lot of giddy noise. Lead singer Sebastian Ulstad Olsen swayed and postured, screaming like a hog-caller into the mic as a way of making banter and letting us know “WE KICK ASS!” So they did.
The place began to fill with a demographic perhaps best describable as “Punks’ Night Off” – OG and latter-day punk rockers committed enough to go out on a Thursday but not about to spend three hours climbing into Saturday night gear. Most sensible, on the whole, but a clear exception was a breathtaking brunette to my left. Got up in thong and fishnets, she seemed to step right out of Burning Man to devil my thoughts, which were amusingly distracted until the headliners made their much-delayed entrance.
Stiff Little Fingers was formed in Belfast in 1977 and became, after the Sex Pistols imploded, one of the signatures acts of U.K. punk. These ferocious fellows made records that charted (and well), appeared on Top of the Pops twice and in general rolled with the big boys until the band dissolved in 1983. Reforming in 1987, they’ve been performing and recording since though the sole remaining Class of ‘77 members left are bassist Ali McMordie and lead singer Jake Burns, a portly dynamo who presided over the revels like a punk Falstaff. This being the band’s big four-oh, Burns told of the band’s twisted history, scrapes with censors and London critics, his own propensity towards depression and toasted long departed mates Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy and the Clash’s Joe Strummer, the latter with a blistering cover of “Clash City Rockers.”
The set ended with a rough and abrupt smash and the band filed out for a few seconds before reappearing for the encore. I was still feeling frail but well-energized, so I picked my way slowly to the back and out on Wilshire Boulevard ahead of the mob, where T-shirt vendors and Uber drivers awaited. Eventually there were cops, but I was speeding away by then.