IT WASN’T ABOUT BECOMING ROCK STARS – in conversation with songwriter & producer Steve Thompson

An interview with Steve is on the blog (The Godfather of North East New Wave of British Heavy Metal, 27th June 2017 link below) where he talks about his songwriting and production work with Rodger Bain, Pete Waterman, Venom, Tygers of Pan Tang, The Hollies, Neat Records, Sheena Easton (!) and more.

But before that he started out as bassist in North East rock band Bullfrog, who were active during the early ‘70s. I wanted to know more about his early days in music to add to his story. In November 2019 as chance happened he was in a recording studio in my hometown South Shields, so I arranged to drop in.

Before recording with engineer Martin Trollope, we had a half hour chat an’ a cuppa where I asked Steve was he looking to ‘make it’ at being a musician, getting a record deal and moving to London ? When I left school I was working at Consett steelworks and I learnt more there on how to be a record producer. I learnt how to communicate and in particular using humour. So I don’t regret going into the steelworks. But I think not having to work there might have been the motivator.

It’s interesting to look back because we saw everything through a lot younger eyes. If I’d been armed then with what I know now I would have been invincible – but we were young and naïve. Really my motivation and maybe not the other guys in the band who were all older than me, I just wanted to get into this making music thing and I figured I just had to get into a band. It wasn’t about becoming rock stars it was all about getting the first gig. Then get more gigs and to just do it.

How old were you then ? I was 16/17 year old and had a couple of stabs at rehearsing with people but it was going nowhere. There was another apprentice a year above me that had been at the same school so we sort of knew each other – a lad called Robin Hird. The first year you are in the training centre and the second year that Robin was in, you go out onto the plant.

We made contact and got talking about music, guitars and bands we liked such as Cream and Hendrix, then he sold me an amp. When I got it home the speaker cabinet was a drawer from a chest of drawers with some foam backing and a circular hole cut in with a speaker fixed in.

Robin said let’s form a band, I have a guitar and a bass which I’ll give to you. I agreed and then he brought a drummer, Mick Symons, to my parent’s house. I played them a few songs I’d been working on and Robin said ‘I told you he’s got talent’. I was in.

Where did you rehearse ? We got a room where the local brass band rehearsed, we shared the place for years. We started to live and breathe the band. I’m not sure that we thought about a record deal then because that was just a distant dream. The dream that was closer was to get gigging on the local circuit. So for us this was The Freemasons Arms in Consett.

We’d go there every Saturday night and watch who was on and say how much better we were. Then the obligatory fight would break loose, the glasses would fly, bodies, tables and chairs all over – that was Saturday night.

Can you remember your first gig ? We went to see a Mrs Eiley and she gave us a date for The Freemasons, it was her only gig. The week beforehand we went to the pub and got up to play with the band who were on, that was my first time on stage. I remember one of the songs we played was Sunshine of Your Love by Cream. The following week on our own show we stormed it. Afterwards I went home and told me mam, it was a life changing moment for me.

We got loads of shows after then but we always returned now and then to The Freemasons Arms. We once done a sort of homecoming gig there and the punters were queuing down the side street, along the alley – we got such a following.

Did the band talk about what you were going to wear on stage ? No, it just didn’t enter our imagination. Although we were doing some clubs we were doing them on our terms and not in sparkly suits. I suppose we would have dressed like Free, Sabbath, Deep Purple you know. The perception was that they were wearing the same clothes that they had just walked in off the street.

In those days we never played any pop stuff it was all rock, then we started introducing our own stuff and got away with it. Although when we had two sets of 45 minutes each to fill we never done a gig with just all our songs. You had to play The Hunter or Child in Time and you’d be stupid not to do them, the audience wanted to hear those songs.

Did you have a manager ? We had a few, but looking back I was doing a lot of the organizing, I wasn’t in charge but was doing a lot of stuff. This whole thing of a bunch of young guys going out on the circuit attracting the attention of some guy who might be a plumber but has more money than you and fancies a dabble in management, well we had a few of them who had no background in the music industry.

We had one guy called Skippy who said we need to have one of those moments like The Beatles on the rooftop. So one Saturday afternoon, it was reported in the Sunday Sun, we went down to Old Eldon Square in Newcastle broke into an office and ran a cable up to the monument in the middle and performed. It was the first time anybody had played there and it hit the papers. It didn’t end well for Skippy, he got arrested and deported back to Australia.

What venues were you playing ? The North East agent Ivan Birchall got us masses of gigs supporting name bands. Venues like Newcastle Mayfair, The Viking in Seahouses and the thing was I never drove the van so I just got picked up and we drove out into the wilds.

At The Viking we loved that gig it was a big trek to get there. There was Bellingham Village Hall and a really good one was St Johns Chapel in Weardale. I can only imagine that the populous was starved of entertainment because they went crackers when a decent band turned up.

I remember we supported Suzi Quatro at the Mayfair and this was just before she cracked it and everybody was gobsmacked at not only a girl playing the bass but she was really rocking it out.

We nearly always got booked into the right places but eventually got a gig where we ended up in a place where no matter how quiet you turned down they were going to hate you. We really should of seen it coming and not got up to play. The concert chairman came up to us and said I’ll give you half your money lads and off you go. The thing I remember was the shame of carrying yer kit out from a packed club.

Every now and then you would do a gig where there would be two bands. One night we played The Rex Hotel in Whitley Bay and there are two stages there. Now this was a sign of our ambition cos we used to try and arrive later than the other band so we could headline the gig – we were top of the bill at The Rex (laughs).

The other bands would do it as well cos we saw them driving slowly along the back lanes. Beckett were one of the bands cos I recognised their posh Merc – we only had a van. We done a gig with a band called Jasper Hart. The singer was Brian Johnson, the band must have been the forerunner to Geordie, and of course he ended up in AC/DC.

Most times we’d be out gigging and finish around 2am in the morning and coming back we’d go to a cafe near Central Station in Newcastle that was open all night. All the bands would go there, we discovered we didn’t need sleep

I remember visiting Ivan Birchall one day and up on the wall he had lists of the bands he had on his books. There was an A list and a B list. We were on the B list and I wasn’t happy. He said the A list are his priority bands, if a show comes in at short notice I go to my A list and as priority they pay me 15%, and the B list pay me 10%. ‘Do you wanna be on the A list ?’ I replied ‘I insist’. In one fell swoop I gave him 50% more commission (laughs).

Did you meet with any record companies ? Well it was a struggle. We had some demos and we were going to set the world alight so we went down to London, our first time there. To save money Robin and I booked return rail tickets travelling on a weekend cos it was cheaper then. But as we found out it was the day’s when record companies were shut (laughs). So we just had a weekend in London, the closest we got was Orange had a music store selling amplifiers and they also had a record label so we gave them a tape.

I remember typing hundreds of letters sending them out one at a time cos there was no photocopiers them days, I must have been a mug and the rest of the band were having a life ! I have some of the responses and out of the blue got a nice letter from Brian Auger, he was organ player with Julie Driscoll (Wheels On Fire). So clearly I wasn’t just sending to record companies. I think I went through the Melody Maker yearbook getting address’ and pitching stuff left, right and centre. It was a tape I sent out that finally got us a deal.

How did that come about ? Cube Records who were formerly the Fly record label based in Soho, London with Joan Armatrading, T.Rex, Procul Harem on their roster, so they had a big track record, then we came along (laughs). They ran an advertising campaign looking for bands so I sent them a tape about the same time we had won 3rd prize in a competition run by EMI. We went to a recording studio in Manchester Square, EMI’s headquarters in London, yes we had two record companies chasing us.

Cube told us that at EMI we would only be a small part of a big machine. But on the day of going to the EMI reception we thought we couldn’t make it cos we had a gig in Durham on the same night, but they organised a flight for us to get to London and make it back to Durham for the gig. Our roadies had set the gear up and just as we were going on stage we saw the concert chairman and told him we’d just made it here as we have flown up from London. I don’t think he believed us (laughs).

Cube Records were really keen and they came up to Durham to watch us live and we couldn’t have arranged it better. The punters were swinging from the rafters going ape shit, after our first set Cube came into the dressing room and they were gobsmacked. They signed us there and then.  Now we signed everything, publishing, recording, management to that one company and the one gig that came from that was for the Newcastle Odeon supporting Wishbone Ash.

What did you record on Cube Records ? I remember taking a guitar lick into the rehearsal room it was a Jazz sort of thing and Pete the singer said it sounded like riddly, tiddly, tum. So we wrote a joke song called that. Cube were looking for the first single and we had done some recordings with Rodger Bain (Black Sabbath) and Hugh Murphy who done a lot of Gerry Rafferty stuff but when they heard Riddly, Tiddly, Tum they said that’s the single. We were mortified, it was only done as a joke. No it’ll be a hit they said.

They allowed us to change the title to Glancy, Mick Glancy was our original singer who had been replaced by Pete McDonald. To promote it we pulled a stunt with Tyne Tees TV where we were driven around Newcastle in an open topped car, but we promoted the B side of the record, In the City, we were embarrassed about the A side. That put a nail in our coffin as far as the record company were concerned.

Unfortunately that was when the dream became muddied by what the music business is about. They had the means to get our songs out there but they weren’t as clever as they thought they were. Maybe releasing a novelty song was going to be a good idea but I’m glad I’m not saddled with it – and having to do a follow up (laughs).

About 10 years ago Glancy ended up on a compilation album called 20 Powerglam Incendiaries and went to the lower regions of the album charts.

How long did Bullfrog last ? Initially we started out as Mandrake until we found another band was going out under that name so we changed it fairly quickly. It got to the point where it became our lives. We were gigging every Friday and Saturday plus some mid-week nights. I’ve still got my diaries from then and we were going out for £15-£20. It was really exciting to be out there.

Our first gig was in 1969 and we were at it until ’74. We sort of got a taste of the big time making demo recordings and sending them out to the record companies, we did have a burning ambition. There were other local bands getting record deals and the scene was really vibrant.

Eventually we took to drugs, our drummer introduced us, there was a certain brand of cough medicine and if you drank the whole bottle it would send you crackers, we all done it bar the singer. I remember doing a show in the Amble Ballroom and that was a strange one cos the stage sloped to the front so the vibrations off my bass amp pushed it towards the edge. Anyway we finished what we thought was a great gig and when we got off stage the singer said ‘Guy’s lay off that cough medicine cos I can’t sing those songs at that speed’. Apparently we played all the songs at double speed (laughs).

When did you know the dream was over ? I remember doing TV show The Geordie Scene twice. One live and the other miming, and I felt really silly miming. I always hated seeing bands giving it what fettle and not even being plugged in. So I plugged mine in to make it look at least legit. But I was embarrassed and you’re not rock star material if you are embarrassed flaunting yersel in front of TV cameras. We almost cracked it but I wonder if I was cut out for it cos I went on to become more of a backroom boy – song writing and producing.

But there was also another North East band, Kestrel, who signed to the label and the label put their guitarist Dave Black together with our singer Pete McDonald essentially destroying two bands.

We reformed as Bullfrog 2 adding keyboards and a female singer but my heart wasn’t in it. I had lived this thing from being a kid, it was all consuming, but now at 22 after working with producers Hugh Murphy and Rodger Bain, who also introduced me to Gus Dudgeon, I thought I’m gonna pull back from this thing.

I could of kept going at it but wanted to switch to song writing which led me to production. And that is where I was meant to be because here we are today in a recording studio talking about it and I’m getting ready to record some of my new stuff.

New album ‘The Long Fade’ is available here: http://thelongfade.xyz/

Read the first interview here:

https://garyalikivi.com/2017/06/27/the-godfather-of-the-north-east-new-wave-of-british-heavy-metal/

Gary Alikivi November 2019.