WHEN THE MUSIC’S (not) OVER.

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For the music is your special friend

Dance on fire as it intends

Music is your only friend until the end

Until the end, until the end.

(The Doors, When the Music’s Over from the album Strange Days, 1967)

First thing in the morning it’s the squawk from the seagulls, the gush of water as you fill the kettle then turn the radio on. Sound is all around us. At Junior school I remember hearing Jewish songs like ‘Hava Nagila’ and ‘Shalom Shavarim’. The radio played ‘Leader of the Pack’ by The Shangri-La’s and ‘Gaudete’ by Steeleye Span. Regular appearences on Top of the Pops meant pocket money bought a 7inch single by Slade or Sweet. I still listen to a lot of music today and buy the odd cd. Last one I bought was a double, a Best of Bob Dylan. I got it at a car boot sale for a quid ! Bargain. There were loads of great songs on so I got my wallet out but only had a £20 note. ‘Struggling for change here have you got nothing smaller ?’ said the bloke. I searched in my pocket for some change and counted out 90p. Holding the note in one hand and the coins in the other. He said ‘No chance, I’m not selling that for 90p….. it’s a double album !’  What value does music hold these days?

I’ve closed a lot of interviews by asking what does music mean to you or what has music given you ? The answers are fired back. No chin stroking, no pause for thought, just an instant reply. Here are some of them….

Michael McNally: ‘Music is an escape, a freedom from whatever ties us down. It can be the medicine we require to soothe or the motivation to move. Without it we are monotone, bland and sad’. 

Bernie Torme: ‘Meeting great people, shit people and doing things that a shy kid with a stutter from Dublin could never have imagined in a thousand years! Gave me everything really, for which I am eternally grateful, I wouldn’t have exchanged my life for anyone else’s. It definitely did not make me rich though! 

David Ditchburn: ‘Got loads of happy memories, I would never change it you know. 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 can’t imagine life without it really. It’s what I exist for I guess’.

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Danny McCormack: ’Well it’s got me around the world and it’s like a feeling of belonging. You go to a gig and I feel one of the crowd. I’m with my people, being part of a community of music lovers, and I can express myself in music. Being confident and comfortable in yer own skin which is important. The ultimate that music has given me is freedom’.

John Gallagher: ‘It’s given us so much, the opportunity to travel the world, meet my wife, have my family and just the ability to sit in a room with a guitar and bang out some riffs and create a song. Just to know that you have made something. We are incredibly lucky to be able to do what we do and do not take that lightly, so when we go out its 100% 24/7/365 mate!!!!

John Verity: Music has given me everything – but at times it has taken everything away too. It means everything to me. I have a very long-suffering wife, Carole. She lets me be what I am despite the faults and that’s amazing, the way she accepts my obsession with all things music related’.

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Robb Weir: ‘I’ve loved every second of my musical career, the whole ride has been like sitting at the front of a giant rollercoaster, hands up, screaming with delight! Music is a way of life, it’s a wonderful thing, and it can be your best friend. You can turn to music at any time of your life and it can be a great comforter. I absolutely love it.’ 

Arthur Ramm: ‘Well I can’t live without music. If my hands don’t work I don’t know what will happen. I listen to music all the time and I am in a band now with Les’. 

Les Tones: ‘When I’ve got a guitar I lose loads of time cos I can’t put it down. I’ve also been teaching music and I got into repairing and building guitars. I still play in a band now’. 

Tony Wilson: ‘It was like opening a door to the world – I’ve travelled, met good and bad people. Coming back to the folk scene I’m flattered that people remember me. There’s still some fantastic people who put you up, give you meals, drive you places…just the most incredible thing ever….really….that’s music’.

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David Taggart: ‘Everything. Even more so as I get older. Lying on my back as a toddler in our council house listening to Swan Lake, Ella Fitzgerald or the Fab Four. Or at the Newcastle City Hall to see the now legendary Rolling Stones concert where Jagger introduced the crowd to his new wife Bianca – while Bowie clapped in the wings. Fashions and fads fall along the wayside as your journey progresses and all you’re left with is the thing that really matters. The music’.

Gary Alikivi September 2018.

To read the full interviews just type the name in the white box at the top right hand of the page.

Don’t forget to check the ALIKIVI You Tube channel.

ALL THE WORLDS A STAGE in conversation with Sound & Light engineer Colin Smoult

What is your background in music ? ‘In 1991 I bought Jump, a second-hand record shop in Station Road, South Shields. Another shop called Excalibur moved in upstairs a few years later. This was a ‘Head’ shop where the owner Roy was selling hippy style stuff, clothing, candles, ornaments, that sort of thing. It was going well until the council started plans to demolish the buildings on Station Road, and as word got around the trade dropped off. So in 1998 I moved to Fowler Street with it’s higher rates and rent. But I also realised the entire record industry was changing with internet downloading, and soon vinyl albums and cd’s were slowly fizzled out. Excalibur had closed down by now, and I had realised there was definitely a trade there. People coming into the shop asking can you get this, can you get that…basically what Excalibur used to sell. So I changed to half records and cd’s, and half of what was a ‘Head’ shop. Then slowly phased out the records side of it to sell 100% head stuff’.

Where you playing in a band then ? ‘Yeah I formed Shovelmouth in the mid 90’s and then a few years later I started booking bands at The Office pub in South Shields. Just as a favour really because I had so many contacts for various bands on the circuit. I used to go and see a lot of bands around Tyneside and if I liked them then I wanted to get them on in Shields too. I was a big fan of live music, and still am. The vast majority of pub bands are hobbiests. You cannot make enough money playing pubs twice a week to make a living. It’s just pocket money for a lot of these bands, although often the gear they have on stage is worth thousands of pounds. They are very proud and want to play through good quality equipment so if they get it stolen then it’s heartbreaking. Guitars are different as they are pretty unique with serial numbers on, so they can turn up, whereas amps and other bits and pieces usually disappear into the ether’.

How did you progress to engineer live sound for bands ?  ‘I used to do Shovelmouth’s sound, and watching other bands you would pick up little tricks on how to get a better and bigger sound. Are the drums miked up? what’s the p.a. output? that sort of thing you know. At first I was sort of playing at it really, nobody teaching me, all self-taught. But there was one moment when it clicked. In the early 2000’s Powerage the AC/DC tribute band had a gig booked for some bikers near Chopwell. They couldn’t get a p.a hired but they could bring a sound engineer. The guy was called Tony Smith from Crook who regularly did sound on the main stage at Stormin the Castle Bike Rally. So I provided the p.a. mic’s and leads, he borrowed a mixing desk and done the sound on the night. I tell ya my little p.a. sounded a million dollars that night. There was my ramshackle gear and he has made it sound unbelievable! And that inspired me. Just spending one gig looking over his shoulder I learnt so much in that one night. About 6 years back I hooked up with a friend Glenn Minnikin, who is an incredible tech head, a very bright lad. We eventually ditched the analogue gear and went digital, plus keep on adding to and improving the kind of light show that we can do. It’s just snowballed from there, to doing sound and lights on a regular basis for numerous bands around the North East’.

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Colin with Glenn Minnikin.

What type of venues do you work in ? ‘Well we can tailor it down to pubs if needed, like Trimmers in South Shields, or up to a full-on spectacle if that’s what’s required. We’ve done many social clubs and some theatres as well. To be honest the bigger venues have way more appeal to us. We can do more impressive lighting and the big rooms let the sound breathe’.

With pubs and clubs closing everyday in the UK, have you seen a change in the venues and audiences ? The pub-band scene isn’t as vibrant as it was perhaps 10 years ago for people my age, and the younger audiences aren’t really coming through at a pub level. They’ll go to festivals to see major bands, but the support for original local live music at a grass-roots level is virtually non-existent unless they are family or friends of the band. University towns or cities tend to be different. The important thing is the limited amount of places they can play these days. But it’s the chicken or the egg isn’t it. Pubs don’t want to take the chance of paying money for a band and not enough people turning up. Back when we were younger we wanted to see why our mates were talking about this or that band, what the buzz was all about. We’d turn up and support them, but by the 2000’s it became affordable to have a home-studio computer software, and you didn’t need to be in a band to perform music. Not needing to work with other musicians, just programing your own drum tracks, bass lines, the lot, …all by themselves’

Earlier this year I went to The Sage in Newcastle and saw Judie Tzuke who complained during the gig of a bad throat. I got to thinking how serious an illness has to be before cancellation ? ’Maybe she was feeling fragile. She’d still have wages to pay and other costs to cover, so she’d still want to do the gig. If you’re talking main players like lead guitarist or singer are so ill they can’t do the tour, they’d have to be bedridden to cancel. Back in the 80’s bands were lucky to break even on ticket sales, so they made it up on the merchandise and record sales. Nowadays due to declining record and download sales, the ticket prices have escalated. Bands do not want to cry off on a tour, that is their bread and butter now’.

Have you come across musicians who want to pull the gig ? ‘I know of singers who with the slightest cold are looking to pull the gig, ha-ha. It’s like hang on, this gig’s been booked months in advance, the rest of the band are fit and ready, just that the singer is not at full strength. You not only let the band down, and the audience, but the pub might struggle to get another act on at short notice’. 

Do you think many backing tracks are used in live performances ? ’There are some name rock bands out there who will use backing tracks on the lead vocals. When the high notes come in the sound guy pushes the backing track up, likely recorded from a previous live show, but it helps him hit that high note. Many years ago it was rumoured that Journey had done that because the singer had trouble with his throat and they didn’t want to cancel any dates. When recording an album in the studio, they know they have to get it right because that album is going to be listened to over and over again, and any bum notes are going to stick out like a sore thumb. But when it comes to live performance it’s experienced in the moment. If something is played a bit faster really who cares, it’s a live vibe, it’s a buzz. Yet for live albums ? I’m not sure about them, it’s “that doesn’t sound so good let’s go in the studio and overdub it” ha-ha’. 

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Colin at Stormin’ the Castle Bike Rally.

You also compere at the Stormin’ the Castle Bike Rally….’Yeah, I just realised it’s been 15 years now. I’d previously played there in 2000 and 2002 with Shovelmouth. I was asked to come onboard and help with compering in 2004 because their guy couldn’t do it one night, and I’ve done the job ever since’. 

Any stand-out moments from there ? ’I’ve loved every year. There’s always great moments, great bands. Local bands who play always bring their A-game. Name bands play great shows as well. Maybe a stand-out moment was watching Pete Way performing with UFO absolutely plastered. As the gig went on his legs were getting more and more buckled. At the end of the show the band were laughing as he went off stage as they were so used to it. The Quireboys just played a great show this year, and there was Spike (vocals) another man who likes a good sup, a very affable drunk, loveable, likeable guy but you’re thinking, will he last through the gig? As he staggers up the steps with uncertainty to get on stage, you’re thinking this is looking dodgy. Then he gets on stage and click he’s into show mode! Throwing the mic stand up in the air, catching it, singing to the audience, brilliant vocals, so much charisma’.

In the last 10 years there has been a number of successful entertainers and comedians that have come from this area. Can you pinpoint the reason why ?Certain places have had that, Liverpool in the 80’s with Echo & the Bunnymen, Lightning Seeds, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Coventry with the Two Tone, Ska scene. They seem to have musical vibes about them. Obviously South Shields is not on the same level, but undoubtedly there is some talent here. There has always been incidents like when many punk bands started because they saw The Sex Pistols, or a number of rock bands formed because they saw Jimi Hendrix. Live entertainment has always been big in this town, even with the theatre, if people go to see it then perhaps they are inspired to then go and do it themselves. Maybe it’s a snowball effect of the more there is, the more people get inspired by it. But back to your question of why South Shields ? Really I couldn’t pinpoint one thing. Maybe there’s something in the water ha-ha’.

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Shovelmouth at the Ampitheatre, South Shields June 2012.

What does music mean to you ? ‘It’s a passion, it always has been. I started off being a music fan, watching bands and buying the albums. Then playing in bands and started booking bands. I enjoyed being part of setting-up live music up to entertain others and now it’s evolved to the point where I’d rather be behind the scenes doing sound and lighting, enhancing the bands’ performance. I get a buzz out of knowing I can make a good band shine a bit brighter. My satisfaction is knowing I played my part in that. When you see the audience loving the show that’s great. Yeah it’s my passion’. 

Interview by Gary Alikivi September 2018.

Don’t forget to check out the ALIKIVI You Tube channel.

COUNTRY ROADS – interview with North East singer/songwriter Hayley Ellen

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Hayley Ellen is a singer/songwriter from Corbridge in Northumberland….‘I started playing gigs when I learnt to play guitar, so just out of college. About 2013. I started playing buskers and supporting local artists like Billy Mitchell at charity events, and further afield with Katie Armiger and Holly May on their UK tour. I did a lot of stuff for the local Newspaper – The Hexham Courant and events for Corbridge to get my name out and support my local community. I’ve always wanted to play music but I think my defining moment was when I knew I could do it. I was in high school and was on a performing arts course. I sang a couple of songs and got a huge reaction from the crowd, that’s when the bug bit me’.

Who were your influences in music ?  ‘I definitely took inspiration from my mum and dad’s music while growing up. My mum is very into country, pop ballads, soft rock and my dad is very into rock n roll and things that sound a bit different like Kate Bush and Seasick Steve. I would say I source Taylor Swift as my biggest inspiration from a music, lyrics and business strategy point of view. Others include Nickelback, Savage Garden, Blake Shelton, Lonestar, Journey, Toto, Florida Georgia Line, AC/DC and many many more!’

What are your experiences of recording ?  ‘My first experience of recording was with Isaac Parker, who was a contact of Core Music in Hexham. We recorded the first take of ‘I Deserve Better’ at his home studio, and honestly it was a fun experience. A few years later I recorded my EP at The Loft in Newcastle, with Liam Gaughan who I would highly recommend. Prices are great and so is the attention to detail’.

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Have you recorded any TV appearences or filmed any music videos ?  ‘I did a charity single for the Manchester victims of the terrorist attack last year. That was with other North East artists and we done Arrianna Grande’s ‘One Last Time’. That was televised and a music video is up for that. I barely feature in it but it was a fun experience’.

Have you any stories from playing gigs ? ‘I particularly like when dogs come and ‘sing’ during a set. I think people can surprise you too, and sometimes have too much to drink. You never know what the crowd will be like’.

What are your future plans in music ? ‘I just want to get out and play gigs! Future plans? I’d like to record an album with my boyfriend and do some music cover vlogging! And if anything becomes of that, then it’s a bonus. Thank you so much for the interview, it’s been a pleasure!’

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Interview by Gary Alikivi September 2018.

Don’t forget to check the ALIKIVI You Tube channel.

ROCKIN’ ALL OVER THE TOON AGAIN -Alikivi blog makes the news.

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On the blog in June this year, Roksnaps featured photo’s of bands playing live over 30 years ago. The rare pic’s were taken by music fan Paul White. Photo’s which capture the atmosphere and excitement at Newcastle City Hall. 

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Music fan Paul White

On Wednesday September 12th journalist David Morton wrote an article and featured the photo’s in The Chronicle newspaper and on it’s website.

Newcastle was becoming a rock music powerhouse. Black Sabbath, Scorpions, Whitesnake, Motorhead, Thin Lizzy, UFO among others all trod the boards of Newcastle City Hall’. 

The blog is coming up to 40,000 views, plus this is the 175th post, so a great way to mark that milestone is with a double page in the local newspaper.

Gary Alikivi September 2018

 

Recommended:

Roksnaps #1 18th February 2018.

Roksnaps #2 22nd February 2018.

Roksnaps #3 27th February 2018.

Roksnaps #4  4th April 2018.

Roksnaps #5  20th June 2018.

1980 The Year Metal was Forged on Tyneside   11th February 2018.

Rockin’ All Over the Toon  22nd May 2018.

Don’t forget to check the ALIKIVI You Tube channel.

NORTHERN GROOVE in conversation with Garner Harris

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Tell me about the North East company ‘Creative Seed’…‘The Creative Seed was started as a production company and Carnival was one of the things we did. We made films, produced music and multi-media content. To give you an idea of how diverse our work is, yesterday we were doing event for adults with learning difficulties down in Stockton. It was a Caribbean garden party with the sound system, DJ and dancers. We also did the Newcastle MELA, where we worked with community groups from all over the North East. For that event we worked with 5 professional dancers, 2 stilt walkers, community groups, sound systems, props and we had to manage all that. It’s a lot so we’re going to narrow down the scope of what we currently do whilst developing the staff capacity of the company. I find myself managing more than creating these days, especially considering that my training was originally in dance and choreography so I would be nice to do more creative work’.

Working with people who wouldn’t normally take up movement and dance do you see how important it can be ? ’Over the years we have worked with quite a lot with adults with learning disabilities. We can see the difference it makes. Sometimes with movement it’s not the only the physical exercise that people are getting out of, it can be uplifting psychologically as well. There’s a tutor we work with, Sarah Shaw who teaches 3 groups of adults with learning disabilities in South Tyneside and she often comes back with stories of ’this one was doing this today and that one was doing something amazing today’ that sort of thing you know. That makes all the difference. Not everybody can connect with people like that, on that level. My partner and wife Sandy and I were talking about this lately, that we like working with people who have that ability to connect with a broad range of people. And it’s that openness to communicate with people. The people we work with all have that ability with the groups we work with’. 

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Did any of your family do any creative work ? ’Not really but my father was a sheet metal worker and he was always making things in the house. Like figures and sculptures. He would use everyday stuff like string and glue to bind stuff together in much the same way as we do for some of the techniques we use for making carnival costumes. He’s always there beside me when I’m doing something creative. ‘No Garner, do it like this’ I’d hear him say’.

What is your background, how did you get involved with creative work ? ’My background is in dance. I had always danced but got really into it in the 1970’s through disco. I was listening to disco and funk from America when I was 13 and going up to the 100 Club in the West End of London. This was a daytime club. We would get on the Bakerloo line train at Wembley Park station, up to Oxford Circus and the club was about 300 metres away. We would go as a group and meet other kid’s from different area’s of London. It was a downstairs dive type club. It would start 12 o’clock, the bass would be thumping, there was an old Jewish lady on the door charging 50p or something like that to get in and her hubby Ronnie L was the DJ. At the end of the club, at 3pm, the place would be like a furnace from all the dancing and they would have to open the doors at the back of the club and you could just see the steam rising. That was my first experience of dance, it was underground at the time. At 13 years old to have that amount of excitement was really stimulating and inspiring. So your imagination was allowed to just open up. That would lead to going to places like Pineapple, the Dance Centre and being introduced to formal dance training and that sector of the entertainment. I met my first dance mentor, an inspiring South African woman called Leoni Urdang and she took on 14 guys from that whole underground dance scene on scholarships to get a formal education in dance. That was my whole route into ballet, contemporary dance all of it’. 

What types of music do you listen to ? ‘I listen to the likes of Grooverider to Thomas Tallis to Beethoven I listen to it all. If I like it I like it. This genre of music thing has got to be out of the window by now. Something either touches you or it don’t’.

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You’ve done a lot of stage work how did that come about ? ‘Yeah also I’ve also done a bit of TV, music video’s, a British tour of a couple of musicals. We were backing dancers on Top of the Pops for Kim Symms, Shakin’ Stevens, Inner City people like that. I was also working McDonalds, cleaning pub’s in between the jobs it wasn’t a glamourous lifestyle haha. To be honest probably more downs than up’s’. 

How did you end up here in South Shields ? ’My wife’s family are from South Shields. Sandy and I went on our first date in ’92 at the Notting Hill Carnival after we first met in 91 when we were working on the stage show Starlight Express. She was head of wardrobe and I was swing and understudy where you had to learn and know multiple roles within the show because you could be called to go on stage at any time during a performance. Anyway the reason we moved to South Shields was because Sandy didn’t want to bring a family up in London so she packed up the Nissan Micra and came up North in 94’ and I followed her up shortly after’.

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I remember 2 shops in South Shields, Tribal Revival and Buggin’ Sounds that you were involved in.…’Yeah, Sandy was making jewellry and doing parties and stall’s and I said why don’t we get a shop selling carvings and drums, all sorts. So Tribal Revival was Sandy’s passion. When I came here I was offered Artist in Residence at Gateshead from 94-95 and at Buggin’ Sounds I was trying to develop a recording studio, a record label and we were doing club nights. We were doing Steppaz which was at Rockshots night club in Newcastle. Looking back it was way too many things at one time but when you’re younger you have that energy don’t you. But I went into sales because my family was young then and I needed a bit of stability. That was 4 years working for people like Reg Vardy, Springfield Auto’s, BT…but came out of that and started the Community Interest Company, Creative Seed, teaching dance in schools, community centre’s from Redcar to Berwick, all over the North East. I kept that up for about 5 years. I remember doing some dance sessions in Biddick Hall, at Percy Hudson Youth Centre. And it was wild. The energy in there was electrifying. Some of the kids were doing summersaults of the walls. If that energy could have been harnessed aww man. You know the happiest I’ve been is doing the work I’m supposed to be doing. When I’m working with adults with learning disabilities or kids who wouldn’t normally get involved in dance  and then they get it, they start to move. We at Creative Seed work with them and we see them shine…that’s when I’m happiest. When everyone in the room is getting on I love that, that’s what I strive for. That’s who I am. I’ve always been happy just sometimes the opportunity isn’t there’. 

In the past 10 years there has been a number of well known entertainers, comedians, writer’s who have came from South Tyneside. Can you pinpoint why that is ? ’One of my theories is because where it is geographically. You’ve got the river, the coast and the hill’s all close by. If you can escape the cities and expand your mind and things are not as bad as they could be. You can’t move in cities, it’s all confined. At least here you can go where the world is bigger than where I am at this minute. South Shields you can do that. You can go up Cleadon Hills and be anywhere. Go to the beach. The river. Wow…anywhere and let your mind drift. The other thing is that the North East is known for grafters. When people up here are working, they work really hard. Nobody can take that away from them. If your not inspired by people who work hard up here you’re not going to be inspired by anything. The grafting mentality from the shipyards, the miners, to the women working in the factories and making sure the kid’s get fed. That is why I love the place so much’. 

For more information about Creative Seed contact: 

https://www.creativeseed.org

Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2018

ALL IN A DAYS WORK with North East entertainer Howard Baker

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What have you been doing since last years interview ? ‘Vicky Price and I took about 5 month to put together an old fashioned 60’s show band, The Blue Flamingos. We had all the backdrop’s made and all the prop’s to make it look really good. The first half of the show was British 60’s and the second half was all American 60’s. But 60’s song’s only last 2 minutes so by the time we had committed ourselves we thought we’d have to do 40 songs haha. So we got a video up on the back wall and do a bit of patter cos it was a 2 hour show. We decided to go out of the way and try it somewhere new so we looked at The Westovian Theatre in South Shields. First night sold, so added the second night. People were singing along, yeah went really well’.

How did the gig at Westovians come about because it’s not known as a music theatre ? ‘That’s right I believe it was the first music show promoted there. It’s a small theatre that holds 260 and at first I was thinking of putting a rock show on there but I thought this 60’s show would be better suited. So we went down and paid the booking fee for 27th and 28th July. I was surprised how well it went down so we are taking it to The Phoenix Theatre in Blyth then hopefully moving it around the country. We are in the process of doing that now ourselves rather than using agencies although Steve Lloyd Promotions, a big national agency have just picked us up. He said he can get us on festivals with bands like Gerry and the Pacemakers, Amen Corner and The Merseybeats. I said yeah go ahead and do it. So he’s working on creating some national links for gig’s next year. We are a revue band we aren’t a tribute band like a Bobby Vee or Billy Fury, although we sing those songs we aren’t trying to copy. I still have the Howard Baker Band working with some really good musicians so really busy. We’re all older and wiser than before’. 

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Can you remember any gigs when you weren’t older and wiser ? ’We (Warbeck) were on part of a tour with Argent in the early 70’s. I remember playing at The Locarno in Sunderland and Argent had just brought out their single ’Hold Your Head Up High’. I was watching them from the side of the stage waiting for this song, they eventually played it and it went on for about 20 minutes…talking about stretching out the favourite haha. I talked to him afterwards he was a really nice guy I think he wrote ‘I Surrender’ which Rainbow recorded also ‘God Gave Rock n Roll To You’ a Kiss number so yeah he wrote a good few tunes. When I was in Warbeck we were playing at the Marquee in London and we were supporting a band called Upp. It was a project that Jeff Beck had put together. They were a sort of rock fusion, great sound – out of this world. He came in the dressing room, he is only a small, slim guy, he said to me I like your vocals, good band, keep at it. I don’t remember much from then but that was good of him to say that’. 

What do you think about the current covers and tribute bands scene ? ‘I played support to a famous singers son – I won’t name him. But he sung in the style of his father and he was so bad. You sort of recognise the songs but they weren’t anywhere near his father – and he was probably on a couple of grand. At that point I was thinking I must be doing something wrong’.

Is that the fault of the agent pushing them out when he should have more control over the quality ? ’Of course, but if your father is that famous it definitly has more clout. Karaoke singers might be good for a couple of songs but the agent tells them they have to do 2 sets at 45 minutes each. They say ’What I only know 3 songs’. Some of them get out to the club’s and die on their arses. Problem is some agents don’t go and watch them beforehand. I’ve had a few on with me and the agent say’s ‘What were they like Howard ?’ I’m like ‘Don’t go there with me mate, I don’t want to get loaded up telling you about someone. Get out there and find out for yourself’. One girl was so bad she came off stage and said to us ‘I’m thinking off doing cruises you know’. Somebody under their breath said ‘Aye, Titanic’ haha’. One night at The Latino in Sunderland a singer was on before us and some of the audience had been putting beer mats on the stage, with messages on. The singer thought they’d say ‘We love’You’re great’ and ‘Can you do this song’ all that you know. Well when it was our slot, I was in Warbeck then, I picked up some of the beer mats and they had written ‘Get off, you’re rubbish’ and ‘Don’t come back’ and a few others with shall we say choice language ha ha. I remember doing a show with Tom Jones and his band The Squires, also Bobby Thompson now these people were real pro’s and you could understand why they were at the top of their game. It’s their calling in life, it’s their gift’. 

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How much work do you put into performing ? ‘In my repertoire I’ve got about 4 and a half hour’s worth of songs. In my head I can possibly remember 200 songs. I done a lot of writing with Warbeck, Nightwalker, and for the cd I put out in 2016 The Paris Files I done a lot. The single off that was number one in the Reverbnation European chart, off and on for 44 weeks and the album got to number three. I got an email from a band called Red Cadillac in Kentucky wanting me to go over their and play. Well that’s difficult to do that because at the time I had 22 shows in 29 days in the UK. It would be great to go over their but I didn’t want to drop the other musicians in the shit. They would have lost 22 days of wages which add’s up to a lot of money. Yes it’s a full time job we gotta pay the bills’.  

Do you find it hard to switch off and rest your voice ? ‘It’s hard to do that. I’m lucky that I sing in 3 or 4 keys. So if I have a problem I can always change, if any the first thing that goes is my bottom end. My middle and top are no problem’. 

Is charity work something you do ? ’Not for the Cancer charities and the big one’s because they get a lot of donations and special nights put on for them so I stick more local like Feline Friends who are struggling so need more help. The owner Lynn works hard on it and she has a full time job. It’s a really good cause’.

When do you have a holiday ? ‘My wife, god bless her. I’d booked to go to London cos my son lives there. I’d booked 4 days. We saw a couple of shows went for a few meals but I get it in little bursts like that. I play a few weeks in Tenerife. When I was recording in Paris she’d be there for a few days but it’s no fun for her as I’m working. But she goes out with (producer) Eric’s wife so that’s ok but normally for holidays I have to book a year ahead. Last real holiday 7 days it was, we were in New York and went to this club, I ended up singing with the band haha’.

What type of artists come from the North East ? ‘Well you’ve had people like Marcus Brown keyboard player with Madonna, then the like’s of Sting, Johnna (Brian Johnson), Coverdale, Rodgers… it’s a bit like in the United States the North is more supressed than everywhere else, you know doom and gloom. Detroit and Bruce Springsteen the places that have a bit depression bring out the best in singers. I remember going through Middlesbrough in the 70’s and you ended up with a film of red dust on the car from the chimneys in the chemical works. Hartlepool was similar, but now them places are picking up. You had people like Chubby Brown, very controversial comedian lot of people didn’t like what he was doing, but it was a way out for him’.

Are you saying that they fight harder ? ‘Yes definitly, from here the rock bands like Raven fought like hell to get out and do something. Some sort of made it. Bands like Avenger look back and say at least I tried. I had a band Nightwalker in the 90’s with Ted Hunter on guitar, Shaun Taylor on drums we done a few gigs in France we were a cracking band, great musicians again from the North. The like’s of Ditchy (Dave Ditchburn) should of got further, I heard some of his original stuff – really good. Pete Barkley from Lucas Tyson, bands like Cirkus were all great players. They all had deals but it just fizzled out for one thing or another. I could cry that some of these didn’t get the right platform. We (Warbeck) were in there, in the veins of the Whitesnakes who we supported, but it was down to managements screwing the whole thing up’. 

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With the amount of pubs and clubs closing down where can you see the work coming from ? ‘Basically with the work the strong will survive. The good acts will always work. The work is really tight and the good acts are moving further afield. You’ve got to be more diverse. I do a full Irish show, a full swing show, full out and out rock, 60’s and 70’s and a ballad show. Luckily I saw that 15 year ago and that’s when I started diversing. It takes a couple of years to learn those type of shows, to bed it down. So if you’ve only one type of show your pigeon holed. Funny I done a solo show not long ago in Northumbria University and it was a 60’s night. 800 students came dressed in their tank tops, loons and wigs. Kids of 18-19 year old coming up to me asking for Herman’s Hermitts or Wayne Fontana haha’.  

How important is image ?Style and image are very important. The main difference now is being either a great singer or a great singer and good showman. You’ve got to make the effort. If I go on it’s shirt, waistcoat depending on the show sometimes a suit. Some people come into the club, set the gear up and go straight on stage. As a punter you should expect something a bit different from the artist, not the guy offf the street. I remember an agent called Andy Green I was doing the Jubilee Club for him, we were in a trio called Riff Raff. We were doing a 10 night run for him. Well Andy had been a Highland Guard or something, big strapping 6 foot 2 guy. He also used to put Wrestling events on. Anyway this Welsh girl came in, we were all set up she was going on first and Andy said on the mic ‘Ladies and gentlemen put your hands together for this young girl from Wales.’ Then it was ‘whoa hold on, hold on get off and get yersel dressed you’ve had that on since you’ve got here’. While the audience waited she had to change her dress and that’s what Andy was like. He only wanted really smart looking acts that looked the part because they are up on stage performing for the audience. And that’s what it should be’.

Do you listen to current music and how do you think the internet has affected music ? ‘No not really doesn’t really impress. Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran…couldn’t go and pay to see those guys. I know old school people who like their vinyl or cd’s because they haven’t a clue about downloading. Some bands are limited if they only release downloads but their expense is much smaller not having to make the product but advertising still costs. You can lose a lot more on vinyl or cd than you can on download. There is millions of songs out there on You Tube and young bands can use it as a calling card. The Amazons, Spotify’s, You Tubes are always making money and you might not – but that’s business’. 

Interview by Gary Alikivi 2018

Recommended:

Trevor Sewell, Still Got the Blues, 21st June 2017.

Howard Baker, Howards Way, 17th August 2017.

John Verity, (ARGENT): Blue to His Soul 7th November 2017.

Dave Ditchburn, Man for All Seasons 1st February 2018.

BECKETT , Music Matters, 9th April 2018.

 

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT in conversation with Ray Spencer MBE, Director of South Shields Theatre, The Customs House.

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Ray didn’t have the traditional arts related background associated with most theatres….‘I was born in Biddick Hall and my dad was a caulker burner who worked in the Middle Docks (Next to The Customs House where we are sitting). My mam worked in Wright’s biscuit factory. We didn’t have a big library of books in the house but my dad liked the Readers Digest. My first experience of showbiz was I went into a television studio I was 3. That was for the 1 o’clock show for Tyne Tees. A charabanc from the street went up to Tyne Tees and there’s a shot of me sitting on the stairs eating Spanish omelette. My first taste of Theatre was watching The Scottish Children’s Theatre at The Marine & Tech.  My first taste of Panto probably seeing the Happy Go Luckies at St Aidians Hall doing Puss in Boots. The first professional pantomime I saw was at The Sunderland Empire my brother worked at Cigarette Components and got me on their trip. My first performance was at Biddick Hall Infants as the inn keeper in the Tinder Box I moved on to shepherd in the nativity. At Secondary school there was always a big end of year show. Eddie McNamee was one of the teacher’s there and when I was 16 he suggested that I go and join the Westovians. (Amateur stage group) I appeared in my first panto with them in 1974 and met Bob Stott who became my partner in panto the following year. When I was 20 I appeared in a show with musician Alan Price and his drummer Theodore Thunder asked me what my next job was. Well I was training to be an accountant at the hospital so I said I was going back there. But he said I should be out there doing this. Anyway the show went out on a programme called Arena on BBC1. The play was written by Tom Kelly and that was the first time our paths crossed. Tom encouraged me and I went off to do a degree in drama and stayed in the area. There were opportunities to join companies outside the area but I wanted to stay here’.

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Ray Spencer and Bob Stott.

Can you remember any funny moments on stage ? ‘I was working with Bob Stott who was my panto mother for many years and we were doing a panto back in the 80’s. I was dressed as a teenage ninja mutant turtle bouncing up and down and I mentioned to the stage manager that the thrust stage, the extension bit, was flexing as I was jumping up and down shouting ‘cowabunga cowabunga’. And he said well it’ll last… it’ll be ok. A fortnight into the show and I jumped up, landed, and it snapped. Went straight through. The audience could only see my head and shoulders, they were roaring with laughter. Bob looked at me, then looked at the audience and said ‘Don’t laugh at him, it’s only a stage he’s going through’. I’ve never forgotten that ad-lib. Brilliant. Wish I’d said it’.

Did you do any other jobs then ? ‘I started selling video tapes. I used to drive down to the distributors near Crystal Palace in London for the latest films. Whip back here and go around nearly every mining community in the North East and sell them to the shop’s. The shop’s would then hire them out. Now say a video like Superman 3 was around £54 per tape, we got a margin of around 15%. The miners worked funny shifts and could afford video recorders but during the strike of 84-85 buying a video was the last thing they wanted to do. So I walked into South Tyneside College in ’84 and asked to train as a teacher.  When I put my qualifications down they said have you really got a degree in drama ? Ended up 7 hours a week doing drama. I also had an HNC in business studies so they asked me to do a bit of this and that. So I ended up being a part time lecturer and within 6 months, full time’. 

Did you enjoy your time at South Tyneside College ? ‘I was there over 15 years starting in Vocational Preparation and then teaching performing arts working with Tom Kelly and Carole Cook. I was aware Tom ( with Ken Reay) had written, a musical with John Miles called Machine Gunners. With the group of students we had I said we can do this. So we did, and took it to Edinburgh Festival for 3 weeks. While we were there we talked about what to do next. Catherine Cookson had just died. So we thought of a musical of their lives together rather than an adaptation of one of her books. We launched in Februry ’99, Tom and I went on Tyne Tees and played the first song that John Miles had written, which made the presenter Mike Neville quite teary. We had forgotten to tell The Customs House we were going on telly and they were inundated with calls for tickets for the September dates for Tom and Catherine – it sold out’. 

Ray also took on the role of entertainer Tommy the Trumpeter for 25 years… ‘South Tyneside council wanted a mascot for the Summer Festival. There were no guidelines, no job description or blueprint. Nobody knew what he was going to be. Tommy’s theme tune was written by Tom Kelly and the team behind Tommy were Richard Jago, Brian, Michelle, Kari and Andy – great team. We did things that kid’s would remember, from Betty bought Bob to marching to Tommy’s song.. It all developed along the way. At first they said can you do it for a fortnight. By the end thousands of people came, we had 25 summers down at the amphitheatre’. 

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How did Tommy the Trumpeter come about ?Tommy the Tuba was the original name and there were 2 people in for it but as time approached they both couldn’t do it so I got a call. I got shown a picture of what they wanted. I went to Tom Kelly’s wife, Carol, showed her the image and asked her to knock up a uniform for us. And she did. I borrowed a tuba from the Salvation Army went along to the press launch and was put in a box in an empty room. There were press camera’s there and local TV. They said they would tap on the box when they were ready and I would pop out. I could hear speeches outside, droning on. I was getting bored. I was making tuba noises inside the box. Eventually they tapped, I burst out said hello my name is Tommy the Tuba and if you come down to South Tyneside this summer you’ll have a magical time. Paul Frost who presented ITV then, said ‘Bizarre press conference today when even the central character didn’t even know his name’  Because between being told and the press release going out somebody, somewhere had changed it to from Tuba to Trumpeter. 

I remember I’d walk the length of the harbour telling tourists what was on. I bumped into a guy on the beach and said ‘By the way Jimmy Cricket’s on at the Bents Park at 2 o’clock if you want to see him’. He turned around and said ‘I know’. It was Jimmy Cricket sitting on the beach with his bairn. I went through the Marine Park with its lake telling people what was on and they would get up and go to the Bents Park. I remember I had to stay away from the fairground. One day some lads from the fairground came over and said ‘What’s red and blue and floats in the marine park lake?’. You!!! 

They didn’t like me taking their customers away. That was in the early days but as I become more established I was more accepted’.

In the late 90’s I remember filming at an event, Tommy turned up and the look on kid’s faces’Yes I know. I once got a call from a mother who said can you call in and see my daughter in the Ingham Infirmary. She’s been knocked down. I also got a call from the Children’s Centre about a girl who had been through a hell of a lot.  ‘She’s wrote down her good things and bad things on 2 lists. Tommy the Trumpeter is on her good list so can you come and see her’. I went to see her and it fill’s me with emotion because it was such a touching thing. But also a positive thing and I didn’t realise how important he’d become to many people. The final 2 Tommy parties were attended by a couple from London who took the time off to come up and see the shows. I got letters from New Zealand, Italy…big boxes full of cards full of lovely messages. I hadn’t realised how important he’d become’. 

Before you became Director at The Customs House you had a successful career at South Tyneside College, Tommy the Trumpeter was going well, you were compering at Summer Festivals and events like Youth Arts Week. But I remember The Customs House was dying on it’s arse – what happened next ?  ‘In the September we were in rehearsal for Tom and Catherine the musical. Gordon Bates, who was Interim Director here at The Customs House, called me into his office and said ‘You’re going to want to pay your company aren’t you ? But I gotta tell you there’s no money’. ‘What ? we’ve sold all the tickets’ I said. They had used all that money to keep the place open. Gordon got the council to intervene and keep the place sustainable. Then I was asked for lunch by the Arts Council, they had never asked me for lunch before. We chatted about what was happening and ultimately I applied for the job. I was interviewed by a panel and they appointed me as 5th Director of The Customs House in 5 years. I remember the Arts Council representative  saying “I don’t know how I’m going to go back to the office and tell them we’ve appointed Tommy the Trumpeter to do the job!’

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Ray compering at Youth Arts Week 1998 held at The Customs House. (Alikivi pic.)

What was your first job here at The Customs House, was it to build a team to get stuff done ? ‘Well I have to say Trish, my better half, was remarkable because when I think back we had one child and I was saying I was going to give up the security of college, a pension and holidays, to come here on a temporary 6 month contract to turn it around. The first thing on my desk was a strategic stock take report written by the Arts Council. It said many things but the thing that struck me was the phrase”The Customs House has neither a regional or national significance and is not worthy of our support.” That really resonated in my head and I had to write a recovery plan. We got around £250,000 to start to change things here. Which we did. Some people felt that being  Tommy the Trumpeter,was a hinderence to the doing the job, but it was the most positive thing. The place had been programmed for the community not with them. When Tommy was running the place they felt comfortable coming in. Let’s support Tommy kind of thing. We needed to talk more to people what they wanted to see rather than assuming who knew best. What’s been a passion of mine is to tell stories about people that are local a bit like yourself and your documentaries. Our stories aren’t shared enough. Getting back to your question I’ve always been very cautious with The Customs House. I didn’t do a massive clear out. A lot of people come and go but that’s the same in any organisation. But the building was unloved, unwelcoming and only 5 years old. So the money we got was to invest in the place. It gave us the computers we needed, gave us the box office that we needed, we wanted better carpets, clean the seats that sort of thing rather than move the old staff. The staff change is continual as it always has been over the years. The big change was when we started to win Arts Council contracts. At one time we delivered arts in schools all around North and South Tyneside. We were the first independent trust to deliver Creative Partnerships and  Find Your Talent a Gordon Brown PM initiative. So for a brief moment we had signed contracts worth £1.6 million. But then a change of Government and I got an email saying ‘make staff redundant & close the programmes down”. These were tough days and have remained tough for the last decade South Tyneside Council have kept faith and we have retained our position as a National Portfolio Organisation with the Arts Council but our public funding has reduced by over half’. 

With the demise of the pub’s and clubs have you seen any changes in audiences over the years at The Customs House ? ‘In terms of music programming the thing that impacted most was The Sage. When Customs House opened there was no Gala in Durham, there was no Exchange in North Shields, there was no Sage or Baltic in Gateshead and no 10 screen multi-plex up the road in Boldon. So we were a venue to do all things for all men – and women. When The Sage opened it just destroyed our guitar festival, a lot of musical acts that used to come here simply stopped. They were going there to play a big shiny building. So our music content has been damaged. We still get musicians play here but we are not known solely as a music venue but neither should we be because we are an arts centre. Sometimes we get people here who wouldn’t normally play a theatre. I have to say if they’ve come from that tradition of pub’s and club’s they love playing here. Not only are they lit correctly and the sound’s good but the audience sit and listen to them. So their sound is not background, people come here and buy a ticket because they want to see them. The driver here is what’s on stage thats why people come in. In pubs and clubs the driver was people going for a beer and meet up with friends. That’s why they were such a good training ground because if you could hook an audience who didn’t really turn up to see you then you were half way there. You must be doing something right and be good at what you are doing’.

What are you doing different compared to other Arts managers ? ‘The measure of success is that we are open and we’d be missed if we were shut. So there’s an ownership of the building. I feel the community love the place now. We are out on our own we aren’t a place in the centre of town where people walk by, you have to make the journey here. Some of the new shiny buildings are loved because they are shiny but the organisation inside isn’t necessarily loved’. 

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With the regeneration of the town centre of South Shields how does The Customs House fit into those plans ? ‘I had this radical suggestion that The Customs House should move to King Street back to where the theatres originally were. Let us run the multiplex, let us have the state of the art space, which would be the theatre. In doing that you would immediately bring 200,000 people a year to King Street. That’s how many people use this building. So your night time economy would happen because people would be going to the theatre. At the minute 4,000 people are coming to see the latest show When the Boat Comes In. They would be walking down King Street. Half ten this morning people are in to see the film they’d be walking down King Street. Then back again when it’s finished. I think it’s really exciting what’s happening in South Tyneside because we never had that Millenium project. But with The Word, Haven Point, Jarrow hub, Hebburn hub there’s been quite a lot of investment and it’s because of bold, brave leadership by officers and elected members. It reminds me so much of what happened in Gateshead – Newcastle in the 80’s. I hope it adds to what we have and not in direct competition to, so we have a bigger menu of cultural events. Just up the road St Hilda’s Pit head is opening up as a cultural space which is good. And I don’t just mean our immediate area of the Mill Dam to flourish, I would like our relationships with Jarrow Hall, Souter Point, Arbeia and the museum to blossom’.

How important are the arts as an outlet here in South Tyneside ? ‘Well I’m biased really. A lot of people will say more money should be spent on nursing homes or transport you know I can’t really argue with that. There are so many good things you can spend money on that are important but there is something about having a centre for celebration. A centre for people to see themselves and hear their stories, there is something important about that. However much technology we have there is a primeval need for people to get together and share things. When I was a kid the population got up together, got the buses to the factories, mines or shipyards. All came home together and all went to the pubs and clubs together. So there was a lot more togetherness and that’s why the Great North Run, the many festivals we have are so important now. I remember people lining the riverbanks for ship launches, celebrations for Westoe Pit doing 1 million tonnes of coal one year, we don’t have those to focus on now. I like to think we put on shows for people to come together, celebrate and feel positive about where we are’.

Performers from South Tyneside like Joe McElderry, Jade and Perrie from Little Mix, Sarah Millican, Chris Ramsey, all on a certain level now. Is that because they fight harder to reach that level ? ’I think talent will out wherever you are born and whatever you do. Brilliant performers like Bobby Pattison and Bobby Thompson, best seller in the North East. I remember he knocked Grease off the number 1 North East chart for best selling record when his act came out on LP. But he never made a break through. I just think there are a lot of talented people who are from the North East, is it the magic of South Tyneside? Perhaps the sea air and the river, but there’s certainly something here. There was always a very long tradition of amateur theatre. A big, big thing was to become part of South Shields Amateurs, or the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, Westovians or Jarrow. There was Hebburn Operatics and Jarrow Male Voice Choir. Don’t forget the brass bands and Richard Thornton who started the Moss Stoll Empire, born in South Shields and buried in Westoe Cemetery. There has always been that strong performance element in this borough and that still comes through if you look across all the different drama and dance schools. When I was a kid working in arts and entertainment wasn’t seen as a proper job, digging roads and building ships was a proper job but now people can see a route forward’.

‘Joe McElderry performed here in 2008, he was just a little lad but what an enormous voice and you just went wow, this is the genuine thing here. He belonged performing and that’s what he does so well. Why here though ? I don’t know. Jason Cook who wrote Hebburn has just shot another film, and Peter Flannery from Jarrow who wrote Our Friends in the North – he’s coming here soon. At The Customs House we have an Honorary Fellowship from film to opera, stand up to acting, singing to visual arts we have and will produce brilliant performers & creatives. we’ve got a lot to honour. A lot to celebrate’.  

Check out what’s on at http://www.customshouse.co.uk

Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2018. 

To check ALIKIVI films go to You Tube and why not subscribe to the channel.

WE SOLD OUR SOUL FOR ROCK N ROLL documentary on South Tyneside rock music.

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In February 2017 I transcribed interviews from the documentary and decided to put them out on a blog. I added some new interviews and updated the originals. Then more musicians got in touch. The blog has snowballed from North East bands like Beckett to worldwide musicians like John Dalton in California. To date it has reached nearly 40,000 views.

But how did I tackle this documentary and pull it all together ? Firstly I talked to a few musicians who passed over some of their archive of demo tapes, video’s and photo’s. Plus I already had a number of photographs I had taken through the 90’s. Then a lot of research was done in the Local Studies Library, South Shields. I remember during the 80’s reading a feature called Young Weekender in the Saturday edition of local newspaper The Shields Gazette. It featured interviews, releases by local and national bands, plus a list of gig dates around Tyneside. The library had all the Gazette’s on microfilm. It took a few visits but in all it was a good start. Then during May 2007 filmed interviews were arranged at The Cave in South Shields, formerly Tyne Dock Youth Club, where in the 1970’s some of the bands had rehearsed and performed as teenagers. 

I was surprised at the amount of people who turned up to tell their story, and what excellent stories they were. The title of the documentary is from a Black Sabbath compilation album and perfectly sums up the feeling I got when people were telling their story. Some bands even got back together after 30 odd year. After working on a few other commisioned projects, finally in 2010 a 30 minute version of the documentary was screened in South Shields, it was shown a few month later at The Cluny in Newcastle along with a film about the New York Dolls. In September 2011 a full version was shown at the Library Theatre in South Shields. 

‘We Sold Our Soul for Rock n Roll’ is on the Alikivi You Tube channel. To check out other films why not subscribe to the channel.

Gary Alikivi  2018

GOOD DAY SUNSHINE with Ian Slater in Benidorm, Spain.

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How’s life treating you out on the Costa Blanca? ’We had been planting seeds for a couple of years and eventually moved here last November. I work about ten hours a week and make a decent living. No gear to carry and all my gigs are within three miles of my front door. Absolutely loving it’.

How did you get involved in playing music ? ‘Just always knew it’s what I was going to do. My first memories were jumping around singing along to The Beatles and The Stones, into a hairbrush’.

Who were your influences ? ’Everyone from the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks to Sinatra and Tony Bennett via Alice Cooper and The Stray Cats’.

When did you start playing gigs and what venues did you play ?  ‘First started in punk bands in the very late 70’s. We played places like the British Legion Club and The Cyprus in South Shields. Also La Metro in Sunderland. Worked with Toyah, Dr and The Medics, The Rezillos… oh and The Cheeky Girls, who were lovely and actually far better vocally than I expected’. 

What were your experiences of recording ? ‘Can’t recall the names of some of them but Lynx in Newcastle that was early 80’s and The Bunker in Sunderland stand out. I recorded with South Shields band The Letters in another Newcastle studio, the name of which escapes me – 1983 that would have been. I don’t have any of the recordings. It was a vinyl single with three songs on Walk Away, You Girl and Hello. But the band had a few disagreements and all but a couple of the 1,000 copies were destroyed’.

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The Babysnakes

Did you record any TV appearences or film any music videos ? ’There’s a live video kicking around of a band I was in The Babysnakes at Newcastles Riverside. I think we were on with Paul D’Ianno’s Killers’. (The track is ‘Hard Lovin’ Woman’ from 1993). Babysnakes rose from the ashes of Gods Little Devils and was initially me on vocals, Stidi (drums), Gary Heir (guitar) Roy Page (bass) and Dave Stratty Stratford (rhythm guitar). We lasted from ’91 to ’93, when I moved to Turkey. Mark McGlauchlin took over on drums when Stidi went back to The Wildhearts. We did a 3 track cassette single which Roy probably still has copies of. Before that was The Smoking Beagles who were still called The Lipstick Junkies when I first joined. I’m not really one to hold on to the past so I don’t have any of the recordings from then, either. I live for the moment’.

Have you any funny stories from playing gigs ?  ‘We (The Smoking Beagles) were practicing in The Bunker and – as was usually the case – we had enjoyed some of mother nature’s finest Afghanistani import. Anyway, after practicing we often went to Washington Granada Services for an all day breakfast and a few coffees and we did so on this particular night. Must have been around 2am that Iain (Cuz) Curtis picked a sachet of sugar to go into his umpteenth cup and said, “Granada Sugar… You know why they call it that ?” and after a long pause, “They couldn’t spell granulated!” Now, under normal circumstances that wouldn’t be funny at all but when you’re wired on coffee and exceptionally good gear, it was the funniest thing we’d ever heard. We sat and cried laughing until we were eventually asked to leave at around 6am. Everyone who came in stared at us which just made us laugh all the more. We would get to a point where we were calming down then we’d hear the door go and off we went again’.

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You are using the stage name Cameron James in Benidorm…. ‘Yes I have several shows over here in Beni. An 80’s tribute, a rock and roll show, a tribute to Robbie Williams (!), a cabaret show and a sixties show. I’m your archetypal sell-out but I’m making a decent living in the sun’.

Interview by Gary Alikivi September 2018.

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK in conversation with Unified Media

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Ryan, Phil and Jon.

Sitting in the HQ of Unified Media at 7 Beach Road, South Shields  I’m talking with Jon, Phil and Ryan about how I had an office downstairs in this building over 10 years ago. The stairs didn’t seem as steep then. I first met Unified Media two years ago when I was looking for a team to help produce a DVD of folk musician Benny Graham and friends singing old Northumbrian songs. The DVD was screened in The Word, South Shields, as is their latest project about the author Catherine Cookson…

Ryan: ‘South Tyneside Council commissioned ‘Our Catherine’. They wanted a film to showcase as part of their new exhibition to commemorate the death of Catherine Cookson, which is twenty years ago this year. We didn’t want to make a piece with just historical images in a sort of documentary style – instead, we wanted something that was more dramatic, and moving’. 

Phil: ‘Yeah, we wanted to make something that would really pull people in. We worked with playwright Tom Kelly, which he ended up co-writing with Jon in order to adapt his writing for the screen’.

Jon: ‘The intention was to inform people about Catherine but also take them on a journey that as emotional as well as educational. It was important to us that even if you didn’t know who she was, or even if you weren’t from the North East, you could watch the film and still be moved and entertained’.

Ryan: ‘We knew that if we made a historical, documentary piece it may well only appeal to people who knew her, or her existing audience. None of us had any connection to Catherine Cookson and her work when we were commissioned to make the film. We had to discover her for ourselves when we began pre-production, because up until then we only knew her as someone our Mam’s read when we were kids. When researching, we were taken on a journey of discovery about a very talented and resilient individual. I think we wanted to take the audience on that same journey of discovery, whilst still appealing to her fans and readers’.

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The film has a fairly young cast….

Phil: ‘It does. Catherine left South Shields in her 20’s, and and so we wanted the film to focus on her coming back at that age and seeing her home from a different perspective’. 

Ryan: ‘Fortunately, we found the extremely talented actress and Catherine Cookson fan, Kerry Browne, who did a phenomenal job. It was really important to her that she got it right’.

Phil: ‘She’s from Glasgow, but understands how important Catherine is to the people of Tyneside. She wanted to get it right and gave 110%. It was wonderful working with her’. 

Jon: ‘We also had Rachel Adamson, who provided Catherine’s voice. She was brilliant, to. It was a labour of love for everyone. An experience none of us will forget, to be honest’.

Phil: ‘It seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people’. 

Jon: ‘The response to the film has been overwhelming. I think that’s a testament to everyone involved, and how much they gave for us’.   

How long did the whole process take? 

Ryan: ‘We did script amendments and voice overs right up to the wire. It took probably three weeks in total, if you tallied everything together. Filmmaking is something we’re still working out, as this is the first drama we’ve done together. It’s very much a learning process’. 

You had great weather for the shoot…

Phil: We certainly did. We had scheduled those 3 days for filming a few weeks beforehand, and were blessed with perfect weather conditions. We were very fortunate with that’.

Jon: The blue skies, the sun, swans, insects, mist, you name it – nature was working with us on those days. Nature was working in conjunction with South Shields and Jarrow on those days, and showed up for us in a very big way’. 

Have you got a family background in creative work? 

Ryan: ‘Not that I know of’.

Phil: ‘I’ve never been asked that question before, but no don’t think so. Maybe i’m the first’.

Jon: ‘There is a John Burton in the family actually, late 1800 to early 1900’s, and he was a Poet. He was local, didn’t sell millions of copies of his books, but he was certainly creative. That’s the only connection I can go back to’.

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Why in one of the most deprived areas of the UK for employment, education etc… did you choose a creative job which is way down the list of priority for funding ?

Jon: ‘We didn’t think too much about that. You can make excuses for not taking action, and I certainly have done that before in my life. We just thought maybe if we do what we love to do, as good as we can, it’ll work out. You could say that was naive, but the proof is in the pudding. I think we just believed in our ability to make it work, if that doesn’t sound too twee’. 

Phil: ‘I think we thought that we might as well risk failing doing the thing we love than carry on doing something we don’t enjoy for the rest of our lives. Sometimes you can’t help what location you’re in for jobs unless you decide to move, which we couldn’t do. We just let ourselves gravitate to what we love doing and give it our all. We still are. It seems to be working’.

Ryan: ‘I think we had faith and belief that we could do what we wanted to do. There wasn’t a job out there that fit what we wanted, so we just created that job. We started the kind of business we would want to work for. We were coming across a lot of the advice of successful entrepreneurs and business-owners who suggested as much, and it made a lot of sense’.  

Phil: ‘If it doesn’t work, I can always get a normal job and know that at least I’ve had a good go. Or maybe I’d try creating a different business. At least then I’d know for sure, and know that I tried, instead of it always being a pipe dream I could never quite bring myself to make a real go of. It could have went that way, but it didn’t, and I like myself a lot for having the balls to do that’.

Jon: ‘It helps we didn’t have kids when we started and nobody was financially depending on us. I felt it was my responsibility to try it for that reason among others. I guess also that starting the business wasn’t based too much on blind faith as we observed that despite where you live, it’s a good time to be a filmmaker or a creator of video content because of the absolute surgence of social media. There’s a huge desire for video content as a result of that. We’re riding a wave it would seem, that you don’t need to move to London to take advantage of’.  

Tell me what Unified Media is, and what the name means?

Jon: ‘Unified Media was about coming together and doing something that would be the combined, unified vision of all of us. We’d already been creative with each other for years prior. Phil and I made films together at University and Ryan and I were in a band together for a long time. We were always at our best and most fulfilled when creating stuff together. We wanted to do that as a way of life instead of just something we did on a weekend, or whenever we could get away from our day jobs’. 

Phil: ‘Unified isn’t so much a job in that respect. It’s living your life the way you want to, and being supported for that, financially and otherwise, because you’re good at what you do, and you love it. You take your work home with you because it isn’t work, it’s just what you do. It can be challenging, but the challenges are always making you better. They’re the kind of challenges that help you learn and improve, in a rapid way’. 

Jon: ‘It’s not like, ‘there’s my job over here and my life over there’ in separate places. It’s broken down the barriers between those things. It’s made them one and the same. That feels more organic and right for us’.

Ryan: ‘It’s not a cakewalk by any means, if this all sounds a little too good to be true. It’s not handed to you. You have to say yes to the responsibility of making something like that work and doing what it takes to make it work. The challenges come thick and fast, and you’ve got to meet them head on. We’ve realised from that just how much we can take. Starting a business like this teaches you a lot about what you can handle, what you can endure. There were months where we had no idea were the rent was coming from. We know we can handle that now. We can take the uncertainty. It certainly chips away at how fearful you are, because you know what you can handle. We stuck together and faced it together. The name Unified came from that, too. We supported each other through those times, which were tricky, to say the least’. 

Phil: ‘We’ve also got amazing partners and family who’ve always supported what we’re doing. Choosing an adventurous, risky lifestyle like this shone a light on those things and made me more grateful in general. People seemed to believe in what we were doing, and that was amazing. The Unified name then seems to stretch beyond the three of us’. 

Jon: ‘Yeah. There’s a Terence McKenna quote that says “hurl yourself into the abyss and discover it’s a feather bed”. It’s been something like that’.

Ryan: ‘And we’ve just built on top of that since the start. Initially it was all about the passion and creativity, all the gooey stuff – but there’s structure now, which is implied in ‘building’ a business. You can build on that passion, on that principle, on that idea’.

Jon: ‘We’re still building, and the structure is getting stronger. It makes us very proud and fulfills us more than we could have imagined. Unified Media is a dream that is becoming a reality. Let’s say that as a roundup to your question’.

Is it not crowded when you are editing a project? 

Ryan: ‘I prefer when we edit together. That’s what makes something a Unified film. It’s all very dynamic. Editing is never the same process from one job to the next, which I like because it keeps things fresh. It’s not like a factory line thing’. 

Jon: ‘Yeah, it’s very dynamic. You can’t box the process up. For example, if we’re working on something sports-related, Phil will have the initial drive to get it going, because he was inspired to and is the more sportcentric one of us, so we let him go as far as that inspiration took him, then we started co-editing together. But it’s different for every project. Each of us is good at different things, and interested more or less in different areas. The set up helps everyone play to their strengths. Though that’s not to say we never have creative differences, or even… ‘debates’.

Ryan: ‘Learning how to disagree and negotiate in a civil way is a constant challenge’. 

Phil: ‘I can get protective over my work, and I’ve had to let go of that and realise it’s not ‘my’ work, it’s our work. The lads challenge me to be better, and always push me to do the right thing for the project. Jon and I can be pretty stubborn’.

Jon: ‘No I can’t! Haha. Yeah, I absolutely can. We’re always all just trying to do the right thing, though, what the ‘right’ thing is isn’t always obvious, and you get in to the whole subjective/objective thing. Editing is a philosophical quagmire. Think about it too much and you’ll have a brain-burnout. There’s infinite variables, so you often have to learn to balance your intellect with your intuition. Though of course, you’re balancing all those things with that of two other people! It can get tricky, so it demands that we all be our best and learn how to be more civil’.  

Ryan: ‘We’re reading some books about editing now and it turns out they’re as much about philosophy as the technicalities of editing. In terms of our process, we’ve all got to be happy with something to sign off for the customer to see it, so getting there can be a challenge. You don’t want a ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ situation, but you don’t want anyone being dictatorial either. It’s a balancing act, and judging from the response to our work so far, we’re managing well enough! ‘

Phil: ‘We haven’t killed each other yet, so’.  

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What has been your most challenging project?

Phil: ‘It hasn’t been released just yet, but maybe the project for England Rugby?’

Ryan: ‘Yeah, they hired us after we made a women’s rugby promo video for the Durham County RFU. It did really well, so they approached us to make one for them, but, with a much more specific aim and outcome’. 

Jon: ‘The brief was ‘make a film that makes refereeing rugby appealing to women, and it has to be very emotionally engaging’. That’s the most specific brief we’ve had yet, and it was definitely challenging. England Rugby wanted to use it for an event in which it had to convince women that authority and rule-keeping was not only appealing, but something they should want to involve themselves in. In the end, it surpassed the brief and was a massive success for the client’.

Ryan: ‘One of the most fulfilling things yet was getting that right. It might have closed a lot of doors for us if we’d messed it up’. 

Jon: ‘I honestly feel like if we succeeded at that, we can succeed at anything’. 

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Within the 3 years of Unified Media, have there been any memorable moments?

Phil: ‘Too many to name. Though, perhaps the Home Alone music video for Boy Jumps Ship? We were tasked with recreating entire scenes from the Home Alone films using the band members all within like, two weeks’.

Jon: ‘Yeah, everything miraculously fell into place for that one in such a scant timeframe. We had two weeks to plan, shoot and edit the film, and the prop/location list was massive, and the set ups were elaborate. We accepted the job with a ‘we’ll make it work’ attitude, but really had no idea how we would. At the time, we needed a music video on our portfolio, so just bit that particular bullet’. 

Ryan: ‘Somehow, one by one, everything we needed just presented itself to us. The two weeks were an absolute whirlwind, and the universe just seemed to let us ride that wave, with each ambitious prop and location serendipitously revealed to us. It was an absolute adventure from start to finish. People talk about the ‘flow state’, and that’s really what that was’. 

Jon: ‘It was in many a ways the embodiment of why we started Unified in the first place. It was us throwing caution to the wind, doing what we love together and having a great time creating stuff as a team. Challenging, yes, but extremely rewarding, too’. 

Ryan: ‘Maybe we could also mention your involvement, Gary, if we’re talking about notable people as well as moments?’

Jon: ‘Yes! It was because of your support and help that we got our first office, and one of our first jobs, and whatever led on from there’.

Phil: ‘Get in, Gary, lad’. 

Jon: ‘Gazza, what a legend’. 

Ryan: ‘That was notable for lots of reasons, but it’s worth mentioning that all of us have worked in the industry before, and encountered a lot of ego, and vibes that almost put us off this work altogether’. 

Jon: ‘Yeah, but when we started Unified, we met people like you Gary, who showed nothing but enthusiasm, support and all round good vibes’. 

Phil: ‘And here he is again, writing a blog about us and getting us out there!’

Jon: ‘You’d think he was on the payroll’.

 Ryan: ‘Nah, just a class lad with a heart of gold’. 

Jon: ‘What a belter’.

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To find out more go to the official website : https://www.unifiedmedia.org.uk 

Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2018.