Steve Dawson played guitar for several UK bands including Saracen, Bordello and 60’s icons The Animals.
I met up with Steve at his workshop in South Shields and Lou Taylor happened to be there on a social visit. We all got talking about a time in the early 80’s when Lou, as well as singing, was doing the lights and pyro for a lot of bands playing around Tyneside. One such gig was for ‘Venom’ who were playing Hebburn Quay Club. ‘They used a hell of a lot of pyro and they blew the electrics in the whole club’. You’ll have to ask Lou for the full story, it’s worth hearing. We said our goodbyes to Lou who had to leave at that point, and as Steve put the kettle on he said he’ll tell me a few stories but ‘only promising the good ones, you’re not hearing the bad or the ugly haha!’
First he remembered a gig he played with Saracen back in 1981…
‘This particular gig was at West Cornforth. We always took a massive road crew, (which included a very young Glenn Howes ex-Fist vocalist and guitarist), because we had so many lights along with all our backline. We’d hired a Luton van, drove to the venue, and dropped off the equipment. Vocalist Lou Taylor and a few of the crew stayed with the gear while the rest of us decided to go into a nearby town for some ‘supplies’. I was sitting in the front of the van between Les Wilson our bass player and Dave Johnston our drummer who was driving. In the town, we got what we came for and started back to the gig.
It was a hot sunny day and Davey, typically, was acting the goat, you know, the usual rambunctious rock drummer behaviour. He was driving along this country lane doing about 10 miles an hour, jumping out the van running alongside then jumping back in. He did this maybe three times while I was talking to Les, not really paying much attention to his antics, when suddenly Les shouts ‘There’s no driver!’ I could see in the wing mirror that Davey had jumped out, lost his balance, and fallen over. Now the van was hurtling down the country lane gathering momentum and veering over to the edge!! I leapt into the driving seat and pulled the steering wheel back over and slammed the brakes on while Les was frantically pulling the handbrake.
Davey came running up seconds later as we both shouted ‘Just drive the van for Christ’s sake!’
Who were your influences? ‘My influences were, and indeed still are, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Jimi Hendrix. The first record I bought was Voodoo Chile by Hendrix. I remember hearing it for the first time on the TV when he had died and it blew my mind, it was one of those truly inspirational moments.
When I was 11 my parents bought me an acoustic guitar for Christmas. The brand name was ‘Lark’ and it was made in China. They got it from Saville’s in Keppel Street, South Shields at a cost of £8. However, it was an electric guitar that I really wanted and a year later I got a Columbus Telecaster copy, again from Saville’s.
I also acquired a 30W amp and separate 50W cab from an uncle, it was an obscure brand and only had a very clean sound. I would later get a pedal that enabled me to get a dirty sound! Shortly after I moved on to using the popular low budget FAL Phase 50 which wasn’t much better as an amp, but it had a little more power’.
When did you start your first band? ‘Around 1975 me and school class mate Brian Rickman started a band, it didn’t have a name at that point but he was on bass and I was of course on guitar. We were playing songs by bands like Status Quo, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath and we rehearsed in Ricks bedroom in Wenlock Road, South Shields. We had a couple of drummers and singers come and go until my friend Glenn Coates joined on vocals. Another friend, from Tyne Dock Youth Club where we all hung out, Keith Macintosh, joined on drums and we started to rehearse in a little back room in the Club.
We would later rehearse upstairs in the Lambton Arms pub in King Street after being given the heads up from another band who were friends of ours and rehearsed there themselves – Zarathrustra, who later became Mythra.
By then I was using my new guitar, my first proper Fender Stratocaster, which I’ve still got, and my Marshall stack, (100W amp and two 4 x 12 cabs), basically what my heroes were using. It was inheritance money that enabled me to buy this equipment before leaving school.
After much rehearsal and sounding pretty sharp, we finally played our first gig in 1977 calling ourselves Midnight Lightning at The Tavern in Crossgate, South Shields. It was a 14-18 year olds disco and it turned out to be absolutely shocking because we had little experience outside our rehearsal space back at the club.
On that night though we learnt what not to do – Don’t have too much to drink before the show; monitors are essential when you’re not playing a small rehearsal room. We were so far away from each other we could only hear ourselves! We were paid off mid set and duly devastated at the time. I could go on and on about the mistakes we made, but hey, a harsh lesson about live sound that was to give us valuable experience for future gigs and we certainly took a lot in that respect from that first booking.
After recovering from the depths of despair we contacted some Youth Clubs around the town and arranged more gigs which were better suited to us.
By now my guitar sound had also evolved with the addition of a WEM copycat and Jen Phase Shifter, alongside my Colorsound Tone-Bender and Jen Cry Baby Wha.
Sadly, after about half a dozen gigs I left the band for reasons I can’t even recall. Thereafter I was asked to join a band called Kadanza with Vince High on vocals. Glenn and Brian eventually joined up with Martin Metcalf and John Lockney, later to become Hollow Ground. Kadanza weren’t together long and never gigged but I had started to write my own material by then and had acquired a second Fender Stratocaster, which I also still have. That was around 1978-79.
Sometime in ’79 I was approached by Les Wilson who in turn introduced me to Davey Johnston with the intention of forming a new band. Another school friend, Lou Taylor, brought along a tape of himself singing a Judas Priest song and it was surprisingly good, so yeah, we thought why not give it a go, let’s get this ball rolling’.
What are your memories from your early gigs? ‘Saracen took off at a rate of knots. Lou had a lot of connections as he worked in a Sound and Lights company and through that he got to know managers and promoters at various venues in the North East. The gigs were coming thick and fast.
We hadn’t really done any ground work with the smaller venues but we ended up going straight in and playing the Newcastle Mayfair, Tiffanies, Sunderland Mecca, Spennymoor Rec, West Cornforth which was a staple rock gig at the time. We played the legendary Legion Club in South Shields and packed it, I mean really packed it.
We also self-promoted a gig at the Bolingbroke Hall and booked a 4K PA, Lou got there early and set the lights up but when the PA Company turned up they said sorry we’ve double booked, and only brought 400 watts! Well that was woefully inadequate. The night was a total disaster! Yep that was a bad one. Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you’.
What are your experiences of recording? ‘Right from the start Les and Dave had wanted to get in the studio but I thought we should have developed our sound a bit more, let it breathe a bit, walk before we run so to speak. But yeah, we went into Guardian Studios in Durham where our friends, Mythra, had recorded their Death and Destiny EP. We booked a day there and recorded 3 songs. Speed of Sound, Fast Living and Feel Just the Same.
After that initial recording session, we were invited to attend a meeting with the owner Terry Gavaghan who proposed an idea to us about putting our tracks on a compilation album, called Roksnax. It was going to feature local bands Saracen, Samurai and Hollow Ground. Hellanbach were also at the meeting as they too were invited to take part, but they had no money (a requirement of being a part of the project!), also they had something going with NEAT records which was an obvious conflict of interest’.
‘Most of us were friends from school or through the scene, you know, being thrown together in this cauldron of New Wave of British Heavy Metal. So, we decided yeah, ok, let’s go for it. We needed a fourth song for the Roksnax project and booked another day to record Setting The World Ablaze. The album was basically a ‘live’ performance in the studio with minimal overdubs. I spent my 21st birthday in that place…I’ll never get it back’.
How long did Saracen last? ‘In the end the Saracen thing burned itself out really. Also, a major contributing factor was another band from the Midlands had the same name and had already recorded an album Heroes, Saints and Fools. They were getting reviews in the music press and it would have been confusing to go on.
After that it lost its momentum and we felt it was like going back to square one. That really put the final nail in our coffin because all the work we had done was pretty much nullified. We decided to call it a day’.
Where did you go after that? ‘Well I went to London in January 1983 where I was sharing a flat with Lou Taylor who had been there for a few months already; I’ve never eaten so many fried breakfasts in my life. Lou put me in touch with a band called Bordello doing original stuff but after a few gigs it never worked out.
I remember doing a showcase for CBS. We really went for it, putting our heart and soul into it you know. A guy called Dave Novek came along to have a look at us, we really laid it on in a good studio. But we found out that we ‘weren’t quite what they were looking for’. A couple of weeks later he signed Sigue Sigue Sputnik!’ Go figure Haha!’
What are you doing now and are you still involved in music? ‘I came back from London in ’87 and after stints with various local bands I was playing in The Animals from ’95 with original members Hilton Valentine, John Steel and later Dave Rowberry (who replaced Alan Price) and Jim Rodford from Argent and The Kinks. I had got myself another Strat to tour with and we went all around the world which lasted until 2002. I’d never even been out the country until I joined them at 35 years old.
Not long after leaving The Animals I got a job in Marshall Amplification’s revered R&D Department in January 2005 as a design engineer utilizing my knowledge of electronics to create new amps for my favourite manufacturer of guitar amplification. Talk about leaving one dream job for another! I stayed for nearly ten years but decided to move on in 2014 a couple of years after Jim, who I’d come to know as a dear friend, passed away.
Now I am running my own amplification business and currently performing around the UK with musicians in various projects. It’s in my blood and always will be. I wouldn’t want it any other way!’.
After pulling on his guitar in the rehearsal room 40 years ago, and the continued service in the music industry since, Steve isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Maybe he’ll always keep the bad and ugly locked away never to be released.
Interview by Gary Alikivi taken from the documentary ‘We Sold Our Soul for Rock n Roll’ and in conversation on 2nd February 2017.