Davey Ditchburn has been vocalist and songwriter in bands including Brass Alley, Geordie, Fogg, Talisman and Pilgrim – spending a lifetime in music. We arranged to meet up as I thought he would have plenty of stories to tell from his time becoming a professional musician, signing with major record labels, recording in Rockfield studio, playing The Marquee in London, but first I wanted to know what turned you onto music ?
‘I think it was just the advent of rock n roll really. I was at the High School in South Shields at the time and didn’t have any idea about what I wanted to do. Like a lot of kids I wasn’t really into school you know. Me mam bought us a guitar that I had been ogling for quite some time in Savilles Music Shop in the town. But the problem I always had and still do to this day was being left handed.
Of course there was no amenities for left handed people then and no way you could get a guitar that was left handed. So I tried learning it upside down but I couldn’t do that. I changed the strings around and got away with that for a bit. But to really learn you had to go to somebody local and there wasn’t many local guitarists about.
So I ended up going to this guy who lived in the cottages beside Vaux breweries in Sunderland and learnt a few chords off him. At that time skiffle was really big and I loved all those players, Dickie Bishop, Lonnie Donegan, all those people so I got a skiffle band together. We were called The Worried Men and used to play the youth clubs and over 60’s pie and pea suppers things like that.
That ran it’s course and rock n roll came round, Elvis Presley happened and that changed the whole thing. So that was the advent of proper rock n roll, like Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, I absolutely loved that era. I used to go to see every band that I could. We played with Johnny Kid and the Pirates, Gene Vincent and several other bands’.
What type of venues did you play then ? ‘Some of them would be dancehalls like The Majestic on the Sea Front at South Shields. We’d play the Picture Houses in Newcastle and one thing led to another and I met Vic Malcolm, Joe D’Ambrosie, Mickey Golden and we formed Vince King and the Stormers. That was around ’62 or ’63. We played the dances around the North East like Wheatley Hill, Low Spennymoor, Coxhoe places like that. Then of course the look was lame suits and all that tackle.
We went on a while like that then The Beatles happened and the scene changed to a hippy come rocky sort of thing. The Stormers were quite successful, we played with The Beatles in Middlesbrough we supported a lot of big bands at the time at venues around the North East. Then I met up with some other guys and one of them was Barry Alton. The other members were some of his family and they played jazz rock. It was an eight piece with sax, trumpet and guitars – we were called Brass Alley.
But the trumpet player, who worked in the shipyards, got crushed by a big pipe so he couldn’t play. The two sax players also left the band. So that left a four piece that became the real Brass Alley in 1972 and we went professional, we made a living out of it.
But it wasn’t an easy decision to go pro because we had wives, kids, and steady trades. But I thought if I don’t do it now I never will and the other lads were of the same mind. So we just went for it, we were young and had confidence’.
‘Brass Alley had a manager called Mike Rispoli he was a bit Mafiosi he introduced us to quite a few people in London. He was a very strange guy. Mike got us this house next to Richmond Park in Surrey. There were 13 of us living there and we’d buy a sack of spuds and it was chips every day haha.
But don’t get me wrong some times we had to go the Temp Agency and get temporary jobs, one was in a wine factory. It was just to get by you know even then London cost a fortune. Because we’d have families we’d send money back home so we’d do without you know. That’s why young professional musicians are skinny as rakes, they’re emaciated you know.
But we used to play places like The Marquee, The Speakeasy, Colleges and Universities in the South we had some great gigs down there. Then we got a contract with RCA around 1972. They gave us an advance but we blew that all on a van and some gear, cabs, amps that sort of thing. We met a guy called Matiah Clifford who was an African songwriter and we recorded some of his songs like Mongoose and Rainbow. We had a good relationship and I’m still in touch with him now.
We recorded an album in Rockfield Studio with Dave Edmunds who at the time was part owner there. The studio is in Monmouth in Wales, it’s pretty well known. We also made an EP for the Hartrock Festival in Hartlepool and one of the songs was written by musician Kenny Mountain. It was called Pink Pills and it’s recently been picked up and released on a compilation album in Chicago – great stuff to release it, bloody awful song though !’
‘The Brass Alley time was the best as in terms of still having hopes and dreams when you’re young and getting that one big break. You get that beaten out of you after a while and become just another muso. We always did well, played great gigs, we got radio play through Johnnie Walker, Dave Lee Travis, he had us on his Radio One roadshow but the band did great live but never managed to transfer that to the studio and make that one great record. We travelled all over the country and made a few records with RCA and Alaska but never had much success’.
‘It lasted until 1976 and I formed another band with Vic Malcolm who had just left Geordie. We were a Brass Alley 2/Geordie 2 but we couldn’t use the Geordie name because it was copyright of the Red Bus record company. We ended up as Brass Alley 2. We had George Defty on drums, Vic on guitar, Frankie Gibbon on bass, Alan Clark on keyboards who went on to be in Dire Straits and me on vocals.
Jonna (Brian Johnson ex AC/DC) was hanging around as he was original singer for Geordie, and we sang together. But I was having all sorts of problems at home and the band split up after a year’.
‘Next I got a knock from a guy called Dek Rootham who had a band called Fogg. I’d known him for a few year and their singer was struck down by an illness so I joined the band. We recorded a few records and were on TV show The Geordie Scene which can be watched via You Tube’.
‘But that band fizzled out and I was kicking about with Jonna when he had just joined AC/DC and he said why don’t you get a band together and I’ll see who I can introduce you to. So in came Paul Thompson from Roxy Music on drums, a guy called Peter Morrison on guitar, again Frankie Gibbon on bass and Alan Clark on keyboards. We were called Armageddon and we got picked up by this American who shall I say was a bit shady.
He used to met us in his room at The Ritz in London and bring a suitcase full of money out from underneath the bed, it was stuffed with dollar bills. He used to give us quite a lot of money for our gear and wages. We’d get paid more for rehearsing than some of our gigs. He said he was gonna do this and that for us, then one day he just disappeared. But again that band didn’t last long and I was at a loose end until I met up with former Armageddon guitarist Peter Morrison and we cracked on and formed Talisman. This was around the 1980’s’.
‘We were together for 8 or 9 years and it was the most successful band that I’ve been in. We done some stuff on North East Radio and TV with people like Mike Neville. We played a lot, some festivals in the North East like Gypsies Green on the seafront in South Shields, Budgie headlined. In fact I’m busy recording an album with Talisman now. We’ve all acumalated songs over the years so we have loads to choose from.
We’re not intending to play live but want to make a decent album. We’re using First Avenue studio in Newcastle, when they have a slot we can jump in there’.
What happened after Talisman ? ‘When we split I joined Three’s A Crowd which was quite successful locally then after that I had time off and went to sea and travelled. When I came back I formed Pilgrim with my son Dean. Loosely still in them now as we play once or twice every six month. In fact I’m also playing in a Ukele band now, I’m not a music snob, I enjoy any music’.
Any stories from playing gigs ? ‘Well there’s a few but I’m not sure they are suitable here haha’.
Did you use any stage effects ? ‘Yes Talisman once smoked out a venue we were playing. I remember we were at Sacriston Club and Merv the roadie/engineer was rat arsed on Brown Ale. He was an electronic whizz, and worked for Bill White in Sunderland who sold all the amplifiers. Anyway he pumped out far too much smoke from the machine and the whole club had too be evacuated haha’.
Finally, what has music given you ? ‘I can’t imagine life without it really. It’s what I exist for I guess. Really I’ve done a few other things in life and enjoyed them but still every night I sit down and play the guitar and write songs. I listen to The Eagles or Ry Cooder, all sorts of music I have wide tastes really. I go to see bands, just saw Chris Rea at Newcastle City Hall, he’s struggling now cos I remember how he was but he’s still getting up there playing his music. Got loads of happy memories, I would never change it you know’.
Interview by Gary Alikivi December 2017.
Steve Dawson (THE ANIMALS): Long Live Rock n Roll, 2nd April 2017.
Harry Hill (FIST): Turn the Hell On, 29th April 2017.
Steve Dawson (SAXON): Men at Work, 28th May 2017.
Trevor Sewell, Still Got the Blues, 21st June 2017.
Kev Charlton (HELLANBACH): The Entertainer, 23rd June 2017.
John Verity, (ARGENT): Blue to His Soul 7th November 2017.