DURHAM BLUES with Steve Hall former guitarist of North East band East Side Torpedoes

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When did you first become interested in music and who were your influences ? I was brought up in a musical family. My grandfather played violin in local band The Rascals during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. They played around the dance halls in County Durham and Newcastle, including regular gigs at the tea and supper dances at the Oxford Galleries in Newcastle. My uncles played saxophone and drums in local bands. My mother didn’t play in public, but played piano in the house.

As a young lad in the 60s and 70s I was more interested in sport. I played rugby and cricket at school in Consett and for local clubs. But I had always listened to music and started to dabble in playing guitar and piano at about 13.

My early influences were very eclectic, everything from rock and blues to jazz, soul and funk. I couldn’t make up my mind what I liked best. But when I heard American guitarist Terry Kath play on their first album Chicago Transit Authority it inspired me to practice harder and take it seriously. He knocked me out. Jimi Hendrix had described him as the best electric guitarist in America and I agreed.

I also listened to the great blues players like Freddie King and B.B. King, and the great rhythm players like Steve Cropper and Cornell Dupree so I could develop my rhythm playing, which to me has always been as important as lead. By the time I was 20 I had given up rugby and cricket to focus on music.

Where was your first gig ? It was at the Consett Methodist Church Youth Club in 1969. It was me and a few pals from school. We were OK as individuals but crap as a band. We had to put the bass, guitar and vocals through one WEM 30-watt amp. After that, me, the piano player and bass player got together at the YMCA and started practicing every week to get better.

We saved up and over a couple of years made our own wooden speaker cabinets for the backline and PA, powering them with second hand Sound City, Selmer and RSC amps. We couldn’t afford the up-market stuff like Vox, HiWatt and Orange. We played weird bluesy progressive rock, all our own songs.

Our drummer was Dave Storey, who ended up with prog rock band The Enid and stayed with them until a hip operation forced him to retire in 2016. We did a few local gigs 1970-72 and went down surprisingly well. One was recorded but the tape is long lost.

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How did the East Side Torpedos get together ? In 1973 Dave Storey left to go pro and the other guys all left town to go to various jobs and colleges. I bummed around for a few years, spending some time abroad busking and doing various jobs. I worked on building sites, steelworks and so on. I played in a couple of club bands doing covers and at the Grand Hotel in Tynemouth with the resident band, headed up by pianist Mike Waller. In 1978 I was spotted by local singer and record-company entrepreneur Mike Maurice. We formed a band called Roxoff, with ex-Animals guitarist Hilton Valentine on rhythm guitar.

We played the college circuit and had a residency at the Red House on the Quayside in Newcastle. We had a sort of Dr Feelgood style. By 1980 the band was starting to wind down when its single, a cover of Morning Dew, flopped, that’s when I was asked to join the Eastside Torpedoes.

In 1979 they had been runner-up in a Melody Maker contest and had a record deal with EMI. So I started a four-year stint in the band on lead guitar and backing vocals. We played all over the country but also had a residency every Sunday at the Newcastle Playhouse, taking over from the Newcastle Big Band and Last Exit. The band was very popular live, one of promoter Harvey Goldsmith’s favourite live bands.

Did you record any of your songs ? EMI dropped the band in 1981 because they thought our style, soul/R&B with a four piece brass section, was out of date and a big band would be expensive to cart around on tour. In 1982 Chas Chandler recorded the band’s first and only album Coast to Coast at Portland Studios in London.

But the album was poorly produced and we weren’t happy with it. Critics and Radio DJs who had loved the band live were waiting to play and review it, but we were so unhappy we buried it. We sold the first pressing through a local record company to our North East fans only and didn’t bother with promotion or a second pressing. We remixed the master tape at a local studio. It sounded a lot better but decided not to press the remix because we were unhappy with some of the arrangement changes forced on us by the production team during recording.

In 1985 the band recorded a single that was an airplay hit, but by then I had left. Recently, the first track from Coast to Coast has been given some proper mastering and sounds a hell of a lot better, more like the band’s actual live sound. What a pity it wasn’t properly mastered at the time.

Did you record any radio or tv ? We did lots of radio and some TV. In 1982 we did a full live recorded show for Metro Radio. The same year Tyne Tees TV made a documentary about us and we appeared regularly on Friday Live.

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Did the band have a manager or promoter ? The band went through more managers than Newcastle United. We had a bit of a reputation for obstinacy, so some didn’t last long. We didn’t like being told what to play or what to look like. When I was in the band the managers were Warren Haddrick, Hilton Valentine and Germaine Stanger. Various promoters took on the band, including Harvey Goldsmith, and we were active up and down the country on his Dingwall’s circuit. Our finest moment, probably, was playing at the Knebworth Jazz Festival in 1982 in front of 21,000 supporting Ray Charles. That year everything happened for me – married, first child, album, Knebworth. Never had another year like that.

Can you think of any funny moments being in the band ? Funniest moment I can remember was with Roxoff. We were playing upstairs in The Cooperage on the Quayside. We did a Dr Feelgood number called Lights Out, and when the chorus came in hard me and the bass player used to jump in the air. The ceiling in the upstairs room in The Cooperage was very low and we ended up on the floor with mild concussion. We took a long break and managed to carry on and finish the gig.

How and when did the band split ? I left the Eastside Torpedoes in late 1983. After that I played with a couple of club bands and got involved with commercial productions, writing a few jingles for radio and the advertising industry. The band carried on, I think, until 1986. I’m not sure why it eventually split up, but I know they had bad luck with their single, a cover of Jackie Wilson’s Higher and Higher. It was an airplay hit – Luxembourg power play and Dave Lee Travis’s record of the week – but the record company had trouble with the distribution so it got to the shops too late. Wouldn’t have happened today with online distribution.

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Are you still involved in music now ? In 1988 I left the music business to become an academic. I wanted to see more of my kids, and decided that touring wasn’t for me. I had a successful career in academia, eventually becoming a Professor of Criminology and writing a number of books. In 2017 I got a lifetime achievement award.

But I couldn’t give up music entirely. I played with numerous local bands including The D7s, the Richard Kain Band, The Questionnaires, The Wendy Saint Band and The Short Blues Line. The Questionnaires, played the Fish Quay Festival in 2003, supporting Paul Young.

What does music mean to you and what has it given you ? Throughout my life music was in tension with other things. First with sport, then with writing. So it was never second but it was never first, if you know what I mean. I wish I had been more dedicated, although in the early years I used to practice up to 6 hours a day. I was never in love with the lifestyle. I’m an ordinary working-class guy from a pit village in County Durham and I never had any real ambitions apart from seeing my kids grow up. And I like my Sunday dinner.

Life on the road didn’t suit me. But I loved the writing and recording side of things. I would have loved to own my own studio and just pump out albums, but it wasn’t to be, because I never earned enough money or became well-known enough to do that. Looking back, it gave me a lot of great memories and some good friends who I’ve kept in touch with for a long time. That’s enough for me..

Interview by Gary Alikivi March 2019