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

Alan Cluny pic 2

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.