Following the split of The Undertones, John O'Neill returned to his hometown of Derry and teamed up with friend and fellow guitarist Raymond Gorman (ex-Bam Bam And The Calling). The two formed first a new song writing project and then a new band, playing a couple of gigs with a drum machine and Gorman's then-girlfriend as a singer. Another friend, drummer Ciaran McLaughlin (formerly with The Corner Boys, but who had also played a few Undertones gigs covering for an absent Billy Doherty) was the next member to join. In autumn 1984, the nascent That Petrol Emotion relocated to London, where the existing three members were joined by John's brother and former Undertones lead guitarist Damian O'Neill who turned down an invitation to join Dexy's Midnight Runners in order to play bass for TPE. Seattle-born American singer Steve Mack (at the time, on a year out from his studies and working in a pizzeria) completed the line-up.
Babble the band's second album and major-label debut (released in 1987) broke into the UK Album Chart and won universal acclaim, being voted as one of the albums of the year by Rolling Strone Magazine critics and receiving an A- 'grade' from journalist Robert Christgau. In the UK, the single "Big Decision" charted at number 42. This would be the band's highest chart position for a single release. Past Night From Glasgow reissed Babble for the 35th anniversary.