NO ORDINARY JOE – in conversation with Alan Fish former guitarist with WHITE HEAT

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Who was the first band you saw ? My first band was Ten Years After in 1971/72 at Newcastle City Hall, supported by Supertramp. It was a fantastic gig with Alvin Lee ‘the fastest guitar player in the world’. He had just come off the back of playing at Woodstock. I had an instant connection to the blues and rock music. I used to go to the match, Newcastle United, and have that feeling of disappointment when we got beat. But going to gigs at the City Hall was a lot more positive outcome to spending my pocket money (laughs). First game I went to was a European game against Feyenoord and we won the Fairs cup that season, I didn’t think it was going to be all downhill from there.

When did you first start playing in bands ? I first started playing in club bands doing covers, I was still at school. We played a lot of night club gigs on the chicken in a basket scene supporting bigger bands like The Fortunes and The Casuals, who were sort of one hit wonder bands. But these were ‘60s bands on the way down really.

There were hundreds of clubs so if you were a competent musician who could put a band together, play some songs off the radio, there was plenty work out there. I ended up playing Thursday night, Friday night, two gigs on a Saturday and a Sunday night. But your gear was expensive, a Les Paul guitar in 1979 was around £300 and I was never away from Mortons in Newcastle having my amp’s repaired.

But one thing about the clubs is the more you played they more you learned a discipline and etiquette. First set not too loud and if you didn’t hit the level of acceptance you would be paid off. And you had to dismantle your gear in full view of the audience with the Concert Chairman telling everyone ‘We’ve paid them off (laughs)’. So by the time I was 19 I was so ready to play in an original band.

How did the job with White Heat come about ? There was a 4 piece band called Hartbraker very much a Zeppelin/Free rock sound and they were playing to young people, and playing loud. They were essentially a Bry Younger band, a vehicle for his prodigious guitar playing. I had been offered a tour of Germany playing American Army Bases with the club band, I wasn’t keen. One night we were playing at the Guildhall and Bry Younger from Hartbraker came in and asked if I would be interested in joining the band. That was a lifeline for me really. This was time to explore my song writing abilities and the band were receptive to that.

Opportunity never comes to the front door it always comes to the side or the back door. Just always have your radar ready. It’ll be something innocuous, it’ll not be a certain thing but it’ll lead you onto the next step.

Line up for Hartbraker was Bry Younger (guitar) Col Roberts (bass) John Miller (drums) Bob Smeaton (vocals) Alan Fish (guitar). White Heat had the same line up with Alan adding backing vocals and when John Miller took a break, George Waters stepped in on drums.

Bands like Graham Parker, Elvis Costello and The Boomtown Rats were around and for some gigs we used to throw in a Small Faces cover into the set. The sound was changing from the blues/rock of Hartbraker so we changed the name to White Heat.  Bob was a big fan of James Cagney so he took the name from his film. This was around the time of New Wave and everything fitted as we shortened the guitar breaks, sharpened everything up and Bob’s lyrics fitted great.

 

How were the song writing duties shared around the band ? In White Heat it was very cut and dried. Out of the band frontman Bob Smeaton had most to say. He had a more challenging life to us and had more to shout about. He would give me a load of lyrics I would leaf through and find bits that could be formulated into songs. I had a gift for melody and you can hear a lot of it in the instrumentation. That would leave space for Bob to have a go at what’s wrong with society (laughs).

Did you play any gigs with name bands ?  If there was a big band in Newcastle at the Mayfair or the City Hall that needed an opener we would be one of the bands who would be contacted. At the last minute we got a call to support Judas Priest at the City Hall. We got on well with them so they asked us to stay on the tour. That was exciting playing to those audiences even though we weren’t exactly the same genre there was a crossover there. The sound crew said ‘You’re going down really well, we know your songs next gig we’ll have it nailed’. But we didn’t get the next gig as another band from the same label as Priest were called in.

What were your highlights from being in White Heat ? As an up and coming band we played the Bedrock Festival and it was a fantastic gig people told us we were the highlight and we picked up management from that gig. Local businessman Brian Mawson said to us ‘I’ll get you in the studio, on the radio, tv’ and he came good on these claims. He ran Rubber Records and was involved with Windows musical instrument and record shop in Newcastle. When somebody else puts faith in you it supercharges it, it was a pivotal moment.

Back in the late ‘70s getting in a studio was a difficult thing, it was an absolute fortune but one of the best thing’s we wrote was the first thing we recorded in Impulse Studios, Wallsend. It was a precise pop song, short and snappy, it was ‘Nervous Breakdown’. That got airplay and John Peel made it his record of the week. It started peaking the interest of record companies. Virgin finally signed us in 1980.

One of your songs ‘Bad Jokes’ has a New York Dolls feel to it. Is that a band you listened to ? Not me. I loved The Who and The Kinks. Maybe Bob was a Johnny Thunders fan (laughs).

 

White Heat called it a day in 1982 and Tyne Tees TV filmed the last ever gig for a 30 minute documentary. What was the atmosphere like around the band knowing it was coming to an end ? It was a really good atmosphere and there was a big sense of relief. For a number of years we were fully committed and chasing the big deal, but towards the end there was an air of desperation when Virgin dropped us. That was a big disappointment because we knew it would be very difficult to get signed again. When you have been signed and then dropped, you still have the debt. So for a second record company to come in and sign you they have to buy you out of your previous deal. That’s not going to happen.

When we made the decision to call it a day we all collectively breathed a sigh of relief. We had put everything into it and it was time to regroup. I remember telling the lad’s that was it for me. They were originally a four piece before I joined so I thought they would go back to doing that. But I was surprised they were having the same thoughts about leaving and glad I jumped first. We left in a constructive fashion because we had good support from management and Geoff Wonfor from Tyne Tees. People had put a lot of time and energy into us and we wanted to go out with a bit of a statement.

Brian Mawson set up our last hurrah at The Mayfair and said let’s finish on a friendly basis and go forward on a friendly basis. I liked that. I can talk calmly about it now but when you are young you think your world is falling apart. There is an amount of rage and uncertainty. So looking back it’s a good thing as a band we stepped away from it calmly.

Having a half hour programme broadcast is big exposure, was there not a thought that an agent might pop in with an offer ? There might have been a small amount of that but the concept of the show was a band in it’s final stages….but you never know (laughs).

Did you make any plans what to do after the band  ? The time you invest and the fact you are paralysed by poverty for want of a better expression, I had to get working again. I was offered a few interesting music projects but wasn’t interested. Fortunately I got a job off shore as an Electrical Engineer in the Petro Chemical Industry. The money was ok and it was a chance to get back pretty even you know. I was taking my guitar off shore I learnt harmonica and we had a bit of a band out there.

Then I heard from my song writing partner in White Heat, Bob Smeaton, he had got a small deal with a spin off company from Virgin called Static. He said I need some songs so I left the rigs and we ended up in 10CC’s studio in Surrey.

I was there only as a songwriter, we didn’t have a band. I was looking for a niche in the music industry just as a songwriter and I’d be happy with that. Unfortunately nothing materialised but we got a call from Geoff Wonfor who was putting together a programme for Channel Four featuring up and coming acts called ‘Famous for Fifteen Minutes’. That’s what led to the formation of a band called The Loud Guitars.

 

Have you any road stories from your time in White Heat ? When we recorded at Townhouse Studio in Shepherds Bush it was Virgins residential studio and there was another band there. It was the time just after Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne was getting Blizzard of Oz together. Randy Rhoades was there, he was a phenomenal guitar player. Ozzy came in the studio to listen to one of our sessions ‘I love you guys you’re great’ he said. He was with Sharon his girlfriend and manager, she was delighted that Ozzy had found someone to play with, not musically just to get him out of her hair (laughs).

We used to go out for a few drinks together, there were no airs or graces he just liked a good drink and a laugh. We’d go back to the residential and he’d be in the best suite, Sharon would be there and order in a Chinese meal cos she recognised we were skint and starving so they looked after us quite well. We used to distract them so we could pinch their booze out of the cupboard. One morning Ozzy came into the studio and said in his Brummie accent ‘Ere lads we must have had a good session last night cos there’s no booze left in me cupboard’ (laughs).

By coincidence we met Sharon’s dad, Don Arden. Years after White Heat split up we were offered a decent amount of money to play a comeback gig at the Exhibition Park in Newcastle. Aswad, Haircut 100 were on and a few others plus us as a local band who went down a storm. After the gig in our trailer in walks this bull like character dripping with gold and says ‘Lads I’m gonna sign you. Meet me at The Gosforth Hotel for breakfast and bring any contracts you’ve got’. We didn’t tell him this was a one off gig but we were interested in what he had to say. But in the end we didn’t get breakfast cos when he looked at the contracts he said he would be throwing good money after bad. ‘Right Alan’ he said ‘You’re stuffed no one will buy you out of this’.

What type of record contract did the band have ? Brian Mawson was still managing us but we obviously had Virgin representation from Richard Draper. The actual record deal was £70,000 and the publishing deal was £40,000. Virgin put a lot of money into us.  What I do know is the money went quickly (laughs). We made a lot of naïve mistakes. We spent more on recording than The Police did on their third album.

White Heat were a really good live band. That’s where we built our reputation. The chemistry between the members contributed to that. But that’s not good enough for the industry cos you are signing a recording deal. You’ve got to make the transition from live to recording. We failed to do that. The money that went into it, it just wasn’t good enough.

Part two of this interview will be posted soon, Alan will be talking about what he is doing now and another few road stories from his time in White Heat.

Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2019.

 

YOU KNOW IT’S ONLY ROCK ‘N’ ROLL – in conversation with current Geordie guitarist Steve Dawson

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How did the Geordie reformation come about? Peter Barton from ‘Rock Artist Management’, who handled The Animals when I was a member during the ’90s and early 2000’s, called me and asked, ‘What are the Geordie guys up to these days?’ I told him I wasn’t sure, but said I’d have a word with Tom Hill (original bass player) to see if he was up for a reformation. Tom was interested, but said we’ll need a singer who can handle the dynamics and range of original vocalist Brian Johnson, now of course with AC/DC. Both bands occupy the same stable and play in the same keys (laughs).

I last saw Brian Johnson on TV interviewing fellow musicians on ‘Life on the Road’. A great show including an episode with Dolly Parton who revealed she wrote ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘Jolene’ in the same session. Kerching. Back to Geordie. Johnna might be a bit busy for this job?  Indeed. We went to see a few local guys but didn’t really feel we’d found a match for what we required. It’s not an easy gig to sing. Then Peter came up with this guy from Lancashire called Mark Wright, now an honorary Geordie (laughs). He was singing in Bon, an AC/DC tribute band. Peter sent us a link to some YouTube videos. We weren’t immediately convinced. However, Peter was and persuaded us to come down to Clitheroe, to audition Mark with four songs of our choosing, at his expense. Just to have a run through, see what we thought in the flesh as it were. We were shocked how good it sounded, and so relieved we didn’t judge Mark on the YouTube videos alone (laughs).

So,now suitably convinced, Tom got in touch with Brian Gibson (original drummer) to see if he wanted to be part of this new venture. Brian said he was happy to step behind the drum kit once again. We did our first rehearsal and the band sounded great from the get-go.

Was original guitarist Vic Malcolm interested in the reformation? We got in touch with Vic in Cyprus and asked, if it became practical in the future, would he be interested in joining in with live work. He declared that some annoying health issues meant he couldn’t commit to that but would be on board for any new writing and recording. That was great as he was the main songwriter. He’s still a prolific songwriter to this day.

We’ve already started writing new material because we don’t just want to keep trading on Geordie’s back catalogue alone. We want to avoid the nostalgia trap.

How did you set about working in Geordie? I was already familiar with their music, just good old rock n roll, classic rock, simple hooks. It’s all about capturing that magical vibe. Really enjoyable to play, with some great tongue in cheek ‘70s lyrics which are of their time. Much of today’s music can be a bit serious, sometimes people want songs to distract them from the stark reality of life.

What type of venues are you looking to play? We’re looking at festivals, theatres and typical rock music venues. These days, package tours are very popular, so we’re looking in that direction as well. That sort of thing would be great, as getting on something like that would expose us to other bands’ fans. In Germany they’re still very much into bands like Geordie and welcome them with open arms. It’s a shame the band stopped playing a while back, as it takes a concerted effort to get the wheels in motion again. We just need to get out there and show what we can do.

We booked a gig at The Cluny a few months ago, and we asked Dee Dowling from Ginger Music Company in Pelaw, where we were rehearsing, to come along and record it. The intention was to put together a promo package. We had the backdrop, photographer, merch, the lot. It was a fantastic gig and the money we made from it paid for everything. We’ve just released the promo video, because it’s very difficult to get gigs on the circuit we’re aiming for, if you don’t have any kind of professional package to sell yourself. After only one month it’s had thousands of views on social media so it’s doing its job. We are very pleased with how it turned out.

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Can you remember watching music programmes broadcast on Tyne Tees Television, like Alright Now and The Tube?  Yeah, both those programmes. I think Alright Now was presented by Chris Cowey and Lynn Spencer. I remember The Geordie Scene more than Alright Now. That was around 1973-75 and I think it was the first music programme from the Tyne Tees stable. I saw many local bands on there as well as the popular bands of the day and it was the first time I saw Dr Feelgood, who were very impressive.

What does music mean to you?  I’ve always had a major passion for music. I lost my dad when I was 12, so throughout my teens I was on my own because my mother had to go out and work as a barmaid. Music got me through all that. I totally immersed myself in playing the guitar. I still have a passion for playing and could quite happily do it for a living again.

Ironically, these days I seldom enjoy just listening to music. I rarely have music on the radio in the house or car and hardly ever listen to CD’s or albums at home. I’d rather just play music. I think it’s been so long since I heard anything that inspired me.

The last time I remember being affected by something I heard, was back in the early ‘90s with The Black Crowes. Their first album had just come out, it sounded really organic, what I would call a proper performance recording, not a layered production like a Def Leppard sort of thing. But yeah, nothing’s really turned my head since in terms of an epiphanic moment (laughs).

Are you looking forward to any gigs this year? In January this year we played ‘The Giants of Rock’ in Minehead and the ‘Rock and Blues Festival’ in Skegness and we really stormed both of those, we did the business. This confirmed what we already felt about the band. There were a lot of reviews from the press and punters raving about us.

We’re currently talking to journalists in London about which venues to play down there and in particular, which ones are best for getting the band exposure. It’s hard to get gigs, you can’t just turn up and expect a crowd. You’ve got to do the groundwork first.

Contact details:

geordiebandofficial@gmail.com

https://www.facebook.com/geordiebandofficial/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y57t79VYvwc

 Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2019.

 

KEEP ON ROCKIN’ with Tom Hill, bassist with reformed Newcastle band GEORDIE

It’s 1980 and do you really need to know what happened to Brian Johnson ? ‘Nutbush City Limits’ was his audition song for a band he only knew the initials of. He backed the black. And won.

Rewind to ‘72 and with a line up of Vic Malcolm (guitar) Brian Johnson (vocals) Brian Gibson (drums) and Tom Hill (bass) Geordie released their first single ‘Don’t Do That’ and broke into the UK Top 40. 

By ’73 the debut album ‘Hope You Like It’ was recorded for EMI. The same year included two UK hit’s ‘All Because of You’ and ‘Can You Do It’ with appearances on Top of the Pops. Everything’s gaan canny.

Competing with glam rockers Sweet and Slade the band went through some upheaval, Johnson left, Dave Ditchburn came in on vocals and there was a Geordie mark II performing. By the early ‘80s a new Geordie album was released on Neat records but without any major success they changed their name to ‘Powerhouse’. Hoping to change their fortune, they took another throw of the dice and with a new line up released an album, but eventually called it a day in 1986.

Original member Tom Hill remembers how  Geordie first got together… Well it was Vic Malcolm who approached me to join a band he was putting together, but I told him the band I was playing in at that time was better. So Vic came to a rehearsal, heard the band and agreed (laughs). The members in that band were me on bass, Brian Gibson on drums, Brian Johnson, vocals and Ken Brown on guitar. Not long after, Ken left and Vic joined. We named the band USA and away we went. We got signed and changed the name to Geordie. This was late 72. We ended up playing all over the world Australia, Europe, Scandinavia, Japan, all over.

Who were your early influences ? That would have been The Beatles to start with then got into Zeppelin, Deep Purple and bands of that genre.

Who were your first band and what venues did you play ? My first proper working band was with Brian Gibson on drums, we worked together since we were kids. We done the Northern circuit of working men’s clubs and night clubs.

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How did the new version of Geordie get together ? It all came together nicely really. Steve Dawson came in on guitar. Me and Brian Gibson wanted to work together again so that was good and Mark Wright joined on vocals. An agent called Pete Barton pulled it all together. The band started rehearsing and it’s sounding tremendous.

What’s the plan for Geordie ? We are working really hard on projects with the agent trying to get bookings in Rock Clubs, Festivals and any country in the world that wants to rock.

What does music mean to you ? Music has always played a big part in my life and has given me a great deal of pleasure. And I’m hoping it’s going to continue.

The 2019 version of Geordie is Steve Dawson (guitar) Mark Wright (vocals) with original members Brian Gibson (drums) and Tom Hill (bass).

 Contact details:

geordiebandofficial@gmail.com

https://www.facebook.com/geordiebandofficial/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y57t79VYvwc

Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2019.

 

RUNNING MAN in conversation with Lindisfarne drummer, Ray Laidlaw

We’re in Tyneside Cinema Café in Newcastle talking about the blog….’I put it together because we all like hearing musician’s stories’. Ray fires back Do drummers count ? ha ha’

We both live on either side of the banks of the river Tyne, so does he think the river has an influence on who we are and what we do…Oh yes the river is a means of communication. Everything came in and out of the river. It is a barrier but also a conduit for ideas from other people from different parts of the UK and all over the world. Geordies have always been receptive to new ideas……and if they really like them they pretend they were theirs (laughs).

Paul Irwin and I started Tyne Idols. We are big fans of the region and it’s creativity so we came up with an idea of a bus tour around Tyneside celebrating music, TV and visit film locations. We often invite a guest on the bus, maybe an actor, comedian or musician. Last year we had Dick Clements and Ian Le Frenais, and went around locations of their show The Likely Lads. It’s a celebration of the area really.

Can you remember the music TV shows that came out of Tyne Tees studio in Newcastle ? Yeah we played a few, Lindisfarne were on the Geordie Scene. We also had a half hour show to ourselves on Alright Now. That was around 78/79 when we were making our comeback. We came up with a few ideas, in the first half we did a few songs and links in various locations then the second half was all live. Loved it. That was with producers Geoff and Andrea Wonfor. But sadly Lindisfarne never appeared on The Tube. Ray Jackson had a song on where we all backed him but not as Lindisfarne.

The Tube was great. Not just music but comedy as well. Stephen Fry, Dawn French and many others all got their breaks at The Tube.  It was  influenced by the 1960’s TV show Ready, Steady, Go. I’ve been working on a programme about that with Geoff Wonfor. It tells the story of the groundbreaking programme which was one of the first that had the cameras in view. The cameramen were brought in from the sports programmes because they were used to following action. That brought up the excitement when the bands were on stage. The documentary will be on BBC4 later this year.

Lindisfarne played Top of the Pops a few times, what did you think of the show ? It was ok, you just mimed. But the best thing was meeting other musicians. Most of the time you are touring on your own. It was like the early 1970’s festivals. We loved doing festivals because of the other bands you could meet.  Bands like The Faces, Medicine Head, The Beach Boys, Rory Gallagher, Humble Pie.

We played our first festival down in Devon in summer 1970 and on that occasion Free were top of the bill, they were just breaking then. They were supposed to close the show at 9pm with us playing just before them. At 10pm we hadn’t been on. Free had to be back in London for the next morning so they went on while we were backstage having a few drinks. We finally got on at 11pm and opened with ‘Lady Eleanor’. It’s a song which creeps in. A guitar, mandolin bit, a bass bit, drums, then guitar harmonics at regular intervals. Waited for guitar part…. no guitar part. In those days Simon Cowe used to play sitting down so Hully had to go and kick him up the arse cos he’d fallen asleep (laughs).

Do bands have their time, maybe an album or two then come back in the spotlight years later ? Yes there is a bit of that. But when we broke through it was the perfect time because we were so different from everybody else. Also having three great songwriters in the band, most have just one, we had three.

Lindisfarne  had a number members but when the band recorded the number 1 album ’Fog on the Tyne’ the personnel were the original five, Alan Hull (vocals, guitars, keyboards) Ray Jackson (vocals, mandolin, harmonica) Rod Clements (bass, violin) Simon Cowe (lead, acoustic, 12 string guitars, mandolin, vocals) and Ray Laidlaw (drums).

We had the biggest selling album of ’71 in Fog on the Tyne. Everyone had that record. We had lots of our own fans but we were also other music fans second favourite group, like Newcastle United in the Keegan era. The Fog album was such a huge success that everything after that was going to be perceived as failure. So the third album only got to number 6 in the charts. Yes, only (laughs). But we weren’t prepared for that. Management didn’t sit us down and say whatever happens it’s going to be a hard act to follow. Plus the record was put out too quick as we were the only band making money on the label. Maybe we should have taken six month off after Fog on the Tyne.

Who was your manager ? Tony Stratton Smith who owned the record company, Charisma. It was a big mistake. Basically Tony was talking to himself (laughs). ‘Do you want an advance’…’No’ (laughs). Charisma was a wacky label with Van Der Graf Generator, Monty Python, the poet Sir John Betjeman, us…where else would you get that ? Fantastically creative but had it’s drawbacks. So the band split in two because we couldn’t agree what to do after the third record.

The band with the same personnel, released the album ‘Dingly Dell’ and charted in the top 10. What recording studios did you use for the album ? In the early days the majority of our records were done in Trident Studios off Wardour Street in London. We used that studio for Nicely Out of Tune and Fog on the Tyne. We also recorded some stuff in Olympic and Island studios and then when we got back together again in 1978 we used residential studios like Gus Dudgeon’s place in Maidenhead, we also went to Rockfield, Chipping Norton and Ridge Farm. By that time we all had young families so using residential studios worked out better as the wives and kids could visit.

Were some songs recorded just for the studio or all written to play live ? I think everything we did we at least attempted to play live. We had a guide that if a song works with one man and a guitar or piano it’ll work with the band. The song has to have a strength of it’s own first, almost with no supporting instrumentation. Live you try different arrangements, build it up or strip it back. Some songs you would only do on one tour then put it back in the box. Some you have to play because the longer you survive the more material you have. It’s the early one’s that made your name. They have to be in the set list.

Do you come from a musical family ? Me Grandad was a pub singer and he could play piano. It was a good way of not buying his own beer. His daughter, my mam, was a good dancer but was a bit nervous to leave home so she never did it professionaly. That’s the only bit of a showbiz background. But it was me Granda that bought me my first drumkit. I just liked the look of drumsets, a bit like some folks like motorbikes. A couple of mates had guitars. I was getting interested in music about 1960 and it was a perfect time because there was so much great stuff about.

When I first started in a group I was with Simon Cowe who was also in Lindisfarne with me. Our first group was a 3 piece, just instrumentals, we couldn’t afford a microphone. We were just learning, playing instrumentals. We did a couple of gigs in social clubs, only during school holidays because Simon was at boarding school in Edinburgh.

Where did you rehearse ? Simon’s family lived in a big old Georgian house, the poshest street in North Shields. His dad was an architect. There were loads of rooms and we set up in one of the spare rooms downstairs. Music wasn’t the only thing we got up to. We also made homemade fireworks and stole fruit out of people’s gardens (laughs).

But yeah I was a bit of a show-off really but didn’t have the confidence to be a singer or guitar player.  Just had an affinity with drums and was pretty good at it.

After that I was in a band called The Druids with Bob Sergeant who went on to be a producer on BBC radio for John Peel, The Clash, stuff like that. The Druids were playing all covers and gigged youth clubs for about a year. Then I met Rod Clements who was another posh lad from North Shields. His band had just packed in and we got into the blues via the Stones and John Mayall. We loved the Yardbirds. All fast and furious – we decided to get a band together.

We used to watch The Junco Partners and they were the first band we had seen that listened to each other, didn’t all play at once, they realised they all had a part to play within the group. We were inspired and looked for people who had to be as good as they were. It took 4 or 5 years to finally get our dream band together.

How much were Downtown Faction influenced by the folk scene on Tyneside ? We weren’t at first, that all came later. We were into the blues, it wasn’t until we started writing our own songs that we developed that bluesy/folk and rootsy sound. Simon was a great guitar player, finger picking style like Bert Jansch and we started listening to early Fairport Convention, Dylan, intelligent song writing.

We had a bit of arrogance about us, ambitious yes, and we looked down our noses at bands doing nothing but covers. We did play a few covers but we chose unusual tracks, Bob Dylan, Moby Grape, Frank Zappa tunes. We were looking to be original, wanted to be better than everyone else, putting the band together was organic… we gradually found the right people, there was no speedy plan.

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What year was this ? Around ‘67/68. We were the support band on Led Zeppelins first ever UK gig at Newcastle Mayfair. They were still called The New Yardbirds then and had only been going two weeks.

Can you remember much about that time ? Well we used to be on at the Mayfair a lot then, Tuesday would be a couple of local bands and other nights would be a big band who wanted local support. I used to see a lot of bands there, I was always in the Mayfair. I remember that Yardbirds gig but it didn’t make a massive mark.

How old were you then and did you have a proper job ? 20 year old and a window dresser at Shepherds department store in Gateshead. I’d dropped out of art college and needed a job. I got on well at the store so was able to juggle my time with gigs and work. Simon was a photographer at Turners in Newcastle so that was great for arty publicity shots that we could put up in a shop window in the Haymarket. They became a bit of a talking point, we always tried to be creative with what we did.

What else was happening on the music scene ? We did a gig New Years Day 1969 at Newcastle old town hall. Somebody had the brainwave of putting on a blues and poetry day. There was no heating in the place so it was freezing. 2 bands played, 4 or 5 poets were on and about 100 people there. The street poetry was astonishing, I’d never heard anything like it. Poets like Tom Pickard and Tony Jackson, pre cursor to today’s Benjamin Zephaniah and people like that. Very working class, very political.

After that there was a few blues evenings, all very arty, hippy, sit on the floor pay what you can sort of deal.

Did the band have a manager or agent  ? Ivan Burchill was the main agent in Newcastle then, but we wouldn’t compromise about our music so didn’t get as many gigs as some bands. Plus at our gigs we never got the lasses you know, we’d get all the muso’s turning up.

A guy called Joe Robertson got us gigs when we changed our name from Downtown Faction to Brethren. That was when people were taking notice, we were headlining a few shows and Joe was also managing The Junco Partners. That was when Alan Hull joined and his manager at the time Dave Woods from Impulse Studio came in on joint management with Joe. Inroads to record companies started to happen then.

Did you know Alan previously ? He was in a band The Chosen Few who along with The Junco Partners were the big bands in Newcastle. After his band crashed and burned, he took a break then began song writing again. He used to play in the folk clubs where the tradition was they’d let newcomers play 3 songs early in the night. He used to try his stuff out there and so did we because you didn’t want to try new stuff in front of a blues/rock audience.

Beginning as Downtown Faction, the band changed their name again from Brethren to Lindisfarne and were signed to Charisma records in 1970.

Was it an emerging scene then…Yeah it was a bit of an underground song-writing scene on Tyneside that was parallel to the more pop based groups. Bit underground because there were musos coming down from Scotland – Rab Noakes and the JSD Band, there was Prelude from Low Fell, Milesy (John Miles) and his group The Influence from South Shields, many others. Folk guys were influencing the rock guys and vice versa. We were listening to Music from Big Pink by the Band (Bob Dylan’s backing band). They were doing stuff from American roots music with a rock rhythm section and that’s what we wanted to do. Fairport Convention were another band playing rock’n’roll versions of English folk tunes. Now here was music with a bit more history and depth, more gravitas. This is more like it. We loved that.

Our group all had different tastes but agreed on one thing. We loved The Beatles and we loved the way they treated every song as an individual piece of work. It wasn’t a problem for us to leave a guitar or drums off a track. It was all about the song. We were a song-writing band and we had to treat each individual song right. We could write something and if it was alright for Top of the Pops we were ok with that. We didn’t have a problem about being commercial. Some of the songs we had were great pop songs but we never set out to write singles. Same with an album, every song had to count…no fillers. If there was a single in there, great, if not, no worries.

Have you got any road stories ? Lindisfarne had a break from 1973-76, we had a few successful one off gigs then made a new album in ’78. The opening night on the tour was Leeds University were The Who recorded their album Live at Leeds. We broke their attendance record that night. Two weeks later the fire brigade came in and told the University ‘With the number of fire escapes you’ve got, you got to cut the capacity by 400’. So our record will never be beaten (laughs).

Anyway the opening night we had some pyrotechnics, we went a bit showbiz like, and they would go off at the end of the show. Balloons and confetti cannons. The big ending you know. At that point the soundman was to mute every channel – and he forgot. So it went down every microphone, the monitors were like tissue paper, the speakers blew out as did the windows behind the stage. We weren’t invited back (laughs).

Did you play any gigs that turned out to be a nightmare ? Some of the usual rock’n’roll stories where the promoter won’t pay you. And you’ve already played the gig. One time we had to get our crew to park our truck across the path of the headliners truck so they couldn’t shift it. Then the word would go out about dodgy promoters so you would ask for half the money up front.

Some tours were great fun with other bands. Genesis were on the same label as us in the early days so we used to be on the same bill along with Van Der Graaf Generator. Depending on what city we were in and who had the biggest following we would take turns headlining. But we used to finish the gig doing a song together. We’d play ‘The Battle of New Orleans’ a Lonnie Donegan song, with Alan Hull, Ray Jackson, Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel singing a verse each. All the bands singing together. And nobody recorded it!

What does music mean to you ? It’s given me my life. If I hadn’t been enthusiastic about music and taken the plunge I probably would of ended up being a not very good teacher. I’ve had a really exciting life and it still is, you never know what the next phone call is gonna be. I’m still a music fan and that’s how I maintain my enthusiasm. So many good times with music. I’m just glad me Granda got us me first set of drums.

What are you doing now ? We’ve been putting together Sunday for Sammy concerts. Our dear friend the actor, Sammy Johnson died in 1998 and we didn’t just want a plaque for him, we wanted to do more so we came up with a concert idea. I’ve been involved with Sammy since the beginning in 2000 with Lindisfarne, then drummer for the house-band and from 2006 producing the show. The proceeds of the show are put towards the start of creative careers for young people. To date we’ve raised around half a million pound.

It’s fun to do and the audience laugh along with it. We had Mark Knopfler on one year and the running gag was he never got to do his song. He comes on stage playing the opening bars of ‘Money for Nothing’ and Tim Healy runs on shouting ‘No, not yet’. After repeating the gag Mark comes on later and this time Alan Shearer shouts ’Knopfler, play yer hit man’ (laughs). So he never got to sing but eventually played ‘Local Hero’.

Yeah, we have great fun and so do the crowd seeing some well known faces doing things they don’t normally do on stage – singers in sketches, (Brian Johnson played an angel once) actors singing and TV presenters accidently swearing. It’s a family show but we recommend 14 years plus because sometimes people forget their lines and you never know what they’re going to say.

Who scripts the shows ? We have a few people. Dick Clements and Ian Le Frenais who wrote The Likely Lads and Auf Wiedersehen Pet, they write us a new sketch every time. Geordie comedian Jason Cook, Ed Waugh from South Shields. We also have a sketch writing competition for new writers, A Sketch for Sammy, we used two winners on the 2018 show.

Are you looking forward to the 20th Aniversary show ? To be honest I’m terrified and excited in equal measures.

https://www.sundayforsammy.org/home/blog/sunday-for-sammy-2020-ticket-news

Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ACCESS ALL AREAS in conversation with Stage and Production Manager, Colin Rowell

Motorhead came to the City Hall with their Bomber lighting rig. They strapped me to the cockpit and flew me round for hours ha ha. I remember drinking Tequila with them on the hotel balcony after a gig in Berlin…but don’t ask me about Brian Robertson’s hawaiin shirt ha ha. A few people told me ‘You gotta get Col’ he’ll tell ya loadsa stories’. A few weeks back I interviewed Chris Phipps who worked with Col’ on The Tube and he recommended I get in touch. He passed on his contact and we agreed to meet up.

This is the bit where I mention their background. What they’ve done or how they made their name. But where do I start ? Deep breath. What about Stage Manager at Wembley Stadium for David Bowie, Production Manager for Genesis at Knebworth, Reading Festival stage manager. Tour manager for Hawkwind, Motorhead, Buzzcocks, Big Country. And more. TV stage manager at The Tube, Razzamatazz, TX 45. Music shows across the BBC, ITV, CH4, USA TV. The list goes on. What do you do to relax Colin ? Listen to music Gary, what do ya think ha ha. With his infectious laugh and good humour Colin recalls his time of nearly 50 years in the music business. Yep 50. Let that sink in. So buckle up, strap in and… You know I’m just a lad from Hebburn who got to work with some of the biggest bands in the world. It was right time, right place.

How did you spend your teenage years ? My passion for music came in the ‘60s when me and a friend from Clegwell School were singing in North East Working men’s clubs. I was around 13 year old, still at school and earning more money than the teachers (laughs).

How did you get to be stage manager at Newcastle City Hall ? At college in the early ‘70s I ended up running the coffee stall in the Haymarket, booking bands and promoting concerts. At the Mayfair I had Fleetwood Mac on when ‘Albatross’ was in the charts. At the City Hall I had Sweet on with their hit ‘Blockbuster’. Another time was two days at the City Hall with Chickenshack, Savoy Brown and Tyrannosaurus Rex. The compere was John Peel. I also done some follow spot lights and other jobs around the hall. I knew the place well and got on with all the visiting promoters who said I done a good job.

I knew Bob Brown the City Hall manager so when the opportunity came up to take over the stage management he said ‘Col you know your way around will you look after the place ?’ So yeah I started hiring crew, getting equipment in, making sure sound checks were on time and just generally ran the venue. I was there for several years so the bands I saw and the stories I could tell you, we’ll be here forever. So I’ll keep them for my book (laughs).

Can you pick a few out, maybe a nightmare job ? There’s a few but maybe one that was a nightmare for others. It involves Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. They were on a UK tour and stopped for their gig at Newcastle City Hall. The singer Graham Bonnet came up to me and said ‘You don’t know any good hairdressers around here do you Colin?’  I said ‘Funnily enough my sister in law has a shop just down the road 5 mins away from the hall’. She said ‘Send him down and we’ll get him in. He went, got the cut, and everything was hunky dory…until after the show.

At 4am in the dressing room you’ve got Paul Loasby from Harvey Goldsmiths office, me, Ritchie Blackmore and the drummer Cozy Powell going mad cancelling the world tour because Graham Bonnet had his hair cut (laughs).

Another Blackmore story was we used to have to take the doors off the City Hall to get the rainbow in from their stage set, it was so big. The rumour was that on their way to America they threw it in the ocean. I was curious about this so Ritchie called me up and said ‘There is good news and bad news. The good news is that the rainbow still exists and I’m giving it to you as a gift. The bad news is, it’s in America under your name and costing you storage (laughs)’. Which yeah I thought was great, my story is littered with stuff like that. And I look back on those times Gary and think, can’t be bad can it.

Have you any gigs that stand out as really good memories? There has been loads of great times but one night we had Golden Earring on. You know they only had that one hit ‘Radar Love’. And the guest band were Lynyrd Skynyrd who were blowing them off everywhere on that tour. When they came to Newcastle City Hall the management of Golden Earring told them they couldn’t have any lighting and only 8 channels on the sound desk. Now as it happens I’d bought some lights off Lindisfarne and stored them in the hall. So I set the lights up and knew the sound engineer so we bumped them up to 16 channels. Well Lynyrd Skynyrd were over the moon and they blew them off. Again.

Next time they came to the City Hall on tour they were headlining and the guys came backstage to one of the rooms which was used for guitar tune up. 4pm in the afternoon they came to me and said Colin we’ve got a huge problem. ’There seems to be water coming in the room where we’ve got the guitars. Do ya’ wanna go an’ have a look ?’ I opened the door and found there was nothing in there. Then door get’s shut behind me, a water hose get’s pointed through the window and I get drenched from head to toe. It’s Lynyrd Skynyrd ‘innit. So I’m dragged out, put on the shoulders of the band and ran around the hall (laughs).

At the end of the night they gave me t-shirt’s, a tour jacket and left me two cases of Jack Daniels.

That’s a great gesture from the band… Yeah I was the only one on that tour that made the extra effort for them. The Skynyrd would have paid a fortune to be on that tour and part of that deal is sound and lighting. I thought it was so unprofessional of the other band, if they were getting blown off they should of played a bit harder.

How did you get involved with TV and in particular The Tube ? There was Geoff Brown, Chris Phipps and me sharing an office in Newcastle. What happened was they, as producers, had applied for this music television show and asked me if I was interested in joining the team as stage manager. You see from years at City Hall I knew the acts, the crews, the managers and they were all glad when they knew a familiar face and voice was going to be there running the stages in the studio. I had left the City Hall by the ‘80s and went and done a bit tour managing. Funny thing was I left on the Friday and by the next Thursday I was Rick Wakemans tour manager. And the gig was at you guessed it… the city hall.

What was your time like at The Tube ? Just five years of sheer magic. First off started with two stages, ended up with four and I did the deal with ENTEC who were a big sound company. They ran Reading Festival and owned The Marquee. It was a smooth operation with them providing all the sound and crew. It was flown in (hung from ceiling) off the stage making it easier for cameramen to have floor space and no big speakers in their way. Also a lot of the bands had done Reading festival so they could easily organise equipment with ENTEC.

Earlier on the blog an interview with Chris Phipps talks about bands that broke on The Tube. Can you remember any ? Yeah me and Geoff Brown were sent to London to check out Grandmaster Flash. It was the first time The Tube were going to have on stage a set-up of a band playing all the scratchy stuff. We get to the venue and there was a support band on so we went to a Steak house but it was dreadful, we didn’t eat it and went back to the venue. The support act were still on and it was Paul Young and the Royal Family. We listened in this time. This was good stuff.

We got back to Newcastle and in a meeting with one of the head guy’s at The Tube, Malcolm Gerrie, I banged the table and said ‘let’s get him on’. And we did. But Malcolm and I felt Paul didn’t get a good crack of the whip so we invited him back on again and the rest is history. So not only got him on twice and broke his career but in 1991/92 I was his tour manager…it all follows on.

Did you work with any North East bands while on The Tube ? Yeah Prefab Sprout. We used to do the Mid-Summer Specials on The Tube and unfortunately one show was cancelled on us. There was a boat parked on the river Tyne near the bridge called Tuxedo Princess. I had the boat all set up for them but it didn’t happen. There was an electricians strike.

I went on and done loads of music television shows, one of them was Big World Café in the Brixton Academy and Prefab were on that. I just saw Paddy last week with his long white beard. Lovely to see him.

You seemed to be constantly in work in what can be a fragile career working in the media ? Here in the North East in the early ‘80s I put on Rock on the Tyne festivals at Gateshead Stadium. We had three big generator trucks parked at the back of the stage and somebody had put a big sign on it saying ‘Do not switch off. Colin’s hairdryer in use’ (laughs). The crew had a laugh with me. You’ve got to get on with people.

I got invited down to Knebworth where I’ve stage managed 15 shows, last one was Genesis. I’ve been so many times there is a rumour that on the stained glass window of Knebworth Castle there is a painting with planes on and Queen in there, plus me in the corner and a glass of red wine (laughs).

But you have to be an affable person and getting people to work for you. You get a reputation. I’ve stage managed the Brits, MTV Awards countless other shows on reputation alone.

Have you worked abroad ? Yes many times, once I ended up having dinner with Boris Yeltsin in the Kremiln. There was a big cultural show in Russia, orchestra’s were on, ballet, all sorts. We got the TV trucks parked and set up in the heart of Moscow Red Square when some heavy looking Russian men approached. We all had walkie talkies and they asked us for them ‘Because they need to be configured’. Three hours later they brought them back. We asked what was wrong with them. Apparently they were interfering with their big red button below ground in the their military bunkers. Right under our trucks. Cudda’ went boom !

What you up to now ? Apart from writing my book and meeting my publisher soon, I still dabble in event production. We formed The Showblokes and worked with Sun FM, Century Radio, Newcastle Opera House, Stockton Council a load over the years. It’s my passion to still be involved. I’ve been in more hotels than living in my house so I don’t do any tour management but have for the last 9 years managed the Carlisle Blues and Rock Festival. Yeah still keeping my hand in.

Interview by Gary Alikivi 2019