That Petrol Emotion

TrackAlbum / Single
Another DayChemicrazy
ChemicrazyVirgin VS 1261 B-side
Sweet Shiver BurnChemicrazy
CellophaneEnd Of The Millennium Psychosis Blues
KeenPink Records Pinky 004 A-side
FleshprintManic Pop Thrill
Hey VenusChemicrazy
Speed Of LightFireproof
Big DecisionBabble
A Million Miles AwayManic Pop Thrill

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Contributor: Neil Waite

One of the most powerful things about music is its ability to take you back to a time or a moment. For me, 1984 was a strange year. Musically I was disorientated; the Undertones were no more, which was catastrophic. Punk was gone and new wave was being nudged aside by the likes of Duran Duran and Wham! Instead of TV programmes with Bill Grundy asking the Sex Pistols to ‘say something outrageous’, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax was being banned by the BBC – hardly exciting. The most exciting event in 1984 was nearly Michael Jackson’s hair catching fire during the filming of a Pepsi advert.

But still in 1984 a lifeline appeared in the form of That Petrol Emotion. Being a massive Undertones fan (see toppermost #272) I was receptive to related projects, and this new group included two Undertones. The music was great but after John O’Neill’s sweet and benign compositions with the Undertones I was surprised by the strong political content of these new songs, although I was into music and knew little of politics.

Damian and John O’Neill are two of the most underrated musicians. John, a shy and unassuming man, is one of the most innovative songsmiths. His younger brother, Damian, is one of the most underrated guitarists in the music world. So when I read that the two were in a new band, things brightened up, though I hoped the songs wouldn’t continue along the lines of Sin Of Pride. I needn’t have worried.

Unfortunately, when John O’Neill formed the band from the remains of Derry hitmakers, Bam Bam and the Calling, there wasn’t room for another guitarist, with Raymond Gorman taking the second lead. So, Damian played bass. They were lucky to secure an American singer called Steve Mack with a distinctive youthful voice and a strong presence.

Keen, on Pink Records, was a brilliant debut single. Everything about it was refreshing, even the cover – Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’ in black and white, signalling a seriousness you also see in the video as they set fire to sheets of paper with words like ‘injustice’ or ‘plastic bullets’ on them. The sound was raw and urgent with a gunning drumming sound. And Damian O’Neill laid down a powerful bass line. “I’d never thought that you could be so mean,” Mack sings – not a line you’d have heard from the chivalrous Feargal Sharkey. The sound seemed to blend the Undertones with Joy Division.

The second release, V2, was great, though not better. The album Manic Pop Thrill appeared in May 1986. Again, I couldn’t help comparing with the Undertones – the Petrols were also tuneful but darker and heavier, which is how I’d have liked the Undertones to have evolved. It was a great debut and many say their finest hour. The singles were It’s A Good Thing and Natural Kind Of Joy but I preferred the pogo-dancing Fleshprint and the gentle A Million Miles Away, with trimmings of African-style guitar.

In 1987, they produced Babble and in 1988, End Of The Millennium Psychosis Blues. Both were consistently good and it’s interesting to hear how their style was gradually moving toward the fourth ‘pop’ based Chemicrazy. The best track on Babble was John O’Neill’s brilliant Big Decision, with punchy guitar and an unforgettable chorus. Babble was more successful than the musically diverse Millennium but the latter is better, partly because of Cellophane, another brilliant John O’Neill composition. The song has acoustic guitar, accordion and a relaxed vibe, despite the riot police rushing about in the video as the band play in a field. “I can only find the murder machine” the chorus goes – but all I heard at the time was the warm, laid-back music and Mack’s serene vocals.

John O’Neill announced his departure from the band during the Millennium sessions. He went on to form the band, Rare. Being such a competent song writer this worried me, but at least it enabled Damian to move from bass to lead.

John’s departure from the band did change things but not in any negative way that initially concerned me. Drummer Ciaran McLaughlin and guitarist Raymond Gorman took over the main songwriting duties and they made a great job. Chemicrazy (1990) yielded four superb singles and the album got to No.1 in the UK indie chart. It certainly was a more ‘chart friendly’ album. The singles were fab but together with the hit Hey Venus I’m choosing two album tracks and a B-side which are even better. My favourite Petrol’s song has always been Damian O’Neill’s Another Day. A brilliant tune with a palate of guitar sounds I never tire of. The other is Gorman and McLaughlin’s ballad Sweet Shiver Burn, which allows us to hear just how good Mack’s voice is. Chemicrazy was the title track which didn’t make the album; it appeared as the B-side to the single Sensitize. This always perplexed me as it would have been one of the best tracks if it had been included. Unfortunately, the album Chemicrazy didn’t sell as well as Virgin were hoping and consequently the band were dropped from the label – which seemed a little bonkers to say the least.

Fireproof, their fifth and last studio album, followed on well from Chemicrazy but had to be released on the band’s own label, Koogat. Fireproof was a brilliant album with great songs and catchy guitar riffs. The standout track on the album is Speed Of Light which is full of fiery guitar runs, as in Undertones songs, but modulates into something more complex.

Then sadly, in 1994, the band split up.

The farewell concerts in London and Dublin were released as the album Final Flame: Fire, Detonation and Sublime Chaos. In 2008, there was a great reunion with a few more dates the following year. I’d love to see another reunion but it doesn’t look like it’s on the cards. However, the new incarnation without Mack, The Everlasting Yeah, looks exciting.

That Petrol Emotion have become more critically acclaimed over the years, as if you realize how good something is only after it has gone. They deserved more commercial success but they turned up just when needed with the sort of vibrant and tuneful music I was missing, and which I still thrive on.

 

That Petrol Emotion facebook

The Everlasting Yeah official website

Damian O’Neill official website

That Petrol Emotion biography (iTunes)

Neil selects his best of The Undertones at Toppermost #272.

TopperPost #307

1 Comment

  1. Paul Asplin
    Dec 24, 2014

    One of my all time favourite bands, I can remember as if it were yesterday seeing them at the Boston Arms in December 1986, should have been massive.

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