Teesside based songwriter & producer Steve Thompson is planning an audio and video presentation of stories from his time as house producer at Neat records.
‘I’ll also add some studio out-takes and unreleased tracks’ said Steve.
In 1977 Thompson became house producer at Impulse Recording Studios in Wallsend and helped set up Neat Records earning him the title ‘Godfather of North East New Wave of British Heavy Metal’.
The first couple of releases at Neat were pop records, but with the Tygers of Pan Tang, Neat led the charge for the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM)- North East Division.
Before leaving Neat, Thompson also produced Raven and Venom. The North East trio became arguably the most influential bands of that period, especially in the USA. Metallica in particular recognising the influence the three North East bands had on them.
Steve recalled the Raven album sessions… ‘Producing the Raven album was intense and rewarding. I’ve heard them described as ‘athletic rock’ and that’s just about right cos as they were recording I had to gaffa tape the headphones to their heads as they were just bouncing off their heads as they were banging ten to the dozen!’
Venom drummer Tony Bray said ‘When our first producer Steve Thompson heard us crashing through ‘In League with Satan’ he had the understanding that he was able to record something original and ground breaking. We didn’t, but that’s a good producer’.
What will we expect from the show Steve ?
‘This is an depth presentation of my time at the coal face of heavy metal. I want to paint a picture of what it was like to be there when these historic events happened. There are some interesting aspects to the story, some hilarious and some outrageous. This is a rock and roll story so beware if you’re easily offended’.
Thompson went on to write songs recorded by mainstream artists Sheena Easton, Elkie Brooks, Celine Dion and Wavelength who appeared on Top of the Pops with Hurry Home. The single peaked at number 17 after three month in the UK Singles chart.
In these covid times how will we be able to see the show ?
‘When lockdown eases I will present this story at a venue with reduced capacity. We’re also installing a state of the art camera and streaming system. You will be able to book tickets for the venue (limited numbers) or book a ticket for the live stream. More news will be released when I have it’.
Here in the North East the Tyneside Bloc has given up a load of music stories from bands including Venom, Fist, Satan, White Heat, Angelic Upstarts, plus Tygers of Pan Tang.
Since forming in the coastal town of Whitley Bay in 1978, the Tygers have released a number of studio albums with their latest Ritual in 2019. The present line up of Robb Weir, Gav Gray, Jack Meille, Craig Ellis and new guitarist Francesco Marris have chipped in with up to date news and stories from the Tyger camp.
Former members including Jon Deverill, Fred Purser, Dean Robertson, Glenn Howes, Micky McCrystal and more have told their side of the story. John Sykes must have lost my number.
The blog has also featured interviews with original members Robb Weir, Richard ‘Rocky’ Laws and now, Brian Dick. After extensive gigging around Europe, plus live shows in Japan, and playing on six studio albums, Brian called it a day in 1987, here he remembers where it all started.
DELIVERING THE GOODS
By the time I’d saved enough money to purchase my first drum kit, for several years I’d been harbouring the idea of being in a band. I attended gigs at Newcastle City Hall on an almost weekly basis since I was 11 year old, all financed by paper rounds.
I would soak up anything and everything from Zeppelin to Leonard Cohen, always mesmerised by the drummer. I only ever played along to records, with my Russian hi-fi speakers inches from my ears – luckily I had very tolerant neighbours.
During A levels I used to go to Newcastle Poly most Friday nights, there would be name bands playing almost every week. This is where I met Rocky Laws who had a Heavy Metal DJ slot upstairs, turns out he played bass and lived round the corner in Whitley Bay. We got together in his parents garage with his mate Robb Weir. Rocky came up with the band name, Tygers of Pan Tang, he lifted it from Sci-Fi novel Stormbringer by Michael Moorcock. And so it began.
RATS IN THE CELLAR
First gig was in a pub cellar in Durham City, we were a four piece then with singer Mark Butcher. It was a memorable gig as only one person attended and I cut a rat in two putting my bass drum back in its case. Songs included Ted Nugent cover Cat Scratch Fever, Rush’s Bastille Day and Motorhead. We regularly played pubs including The Golden Eagle in Blyth and some working men’s clubs.
After releasing their first single ‘Don’t Touch Me There’ on Neat records, MCA picked up the band and re-released the record earning them a record deal and releasing their debut album, Wild Cat.
TYGERS ON 45
We had previously been to Impulse Studio in Wallsend to record demos. So to record ‘a record’ was very exciting. I remember Cronos from Venom was the junior staff member. I would imagine it was all done and dusted in the same day. It all led to record and publishing contracts, national gigs, giving up the day job as a Computer operator at Tyne and Wear Council, plus our first ever trips abroad. Brilliant.
PENNIES FROM READING
We played Reading Festival twice, 1980 and 1982. The first was very nerve-wracking. We were onstage during the daytime and you could see the cans and coins coming towards you. The second was much better. We played in the dark as we were the penultimate band of the day before Iron Maiden. It was much easier than playing a pub where audiences are on top of you.
Several years ago I heard a BBC recording of the 1982 appearance on Radio 6 and was quite taken aback – it was bloody good. Definitely a career highlight.
THE CAGE TOUR
Can remember the Mayfair gig for three reasons – I got the bus to town in true rock star style, my then girlfriend was accidently knocked out after the gig resulting in several hours in A&E, and my Dad came to see us for the first time. He was still very disappointed I’d left my secure job but following the Mayfair gig could see why.
Any road stories ? Three that came to mind, but there is many, many, more. Loads of drug and drink fuelled tales that will remain untold to protect the guilty and their subsequent families. There were also many jolly japes like when a plastic fork was dipped in dog shit before an unnamed member ate his Chinese takeaway.
The time when our manager had to leave early doors for London’s King’s Cross train station and was barricaded in his bedroom with several rooms worth of furniture. Then Trevor Sewell (North East guitarist) was depping for us in Barcelona and forgot his guitar, he came on playing a broom.
I was in a great band called Sargeant, still in touch with Stevie Lamb (guitar). We opened for Accept on that tour and I remember Tony Liddle (vocals) at the Hammersmith Odeon. He had eaten too close to gig time, puked on stage, shouted ‘rock an’ roll’ and the stalls rose to their feet.
ALL ABOUT THE SONG
It’s been many years since I last listened to the back catalogue and with little thought two songs come immediately to mind, Life of Crime and Stormlands, both b-sides, both recorded in 5 minutes with no real production. My favourite album is Spellbound by a country mile, fave tracks are Gangland and Hellbound – when performed live the bpm is on overdrive!
Tygers came to a natural end for me around Autumn ’87 following a final run of gigs across mainland Europe.
THOUGHTS FOR TODAY
I was due my new teeth in Turkey this month and am the beneficiary of free prescriptions for the over 60’s ! Out here on Exmoor National Park in West Somerset where I’ve lived for 20 year, me and my partner share our cottage, outbuildings and land with several animals. My daughters and grandchildren live in the North-East so I’m a regular visitor, or rather was until covid.
Until lockdown I was active on the local pub gig ‘scene’, an enjoyable hobby with good craic.
Part four of an interview with Brian Rapkin (Brian Bond), he recalls when Punishment of Luxury decided to call it a day and brings the story up to date with what they are doing now.
With Punilux, after the first tour of Europe we had second album syndrome – songs we were demoing in early 1980 were very different, which was fine, but also they were not as strong as those on Laughing Academy. Song lyrics in general weren’t so clear and effective – I was writing a few good bits here and there but also some obscure, self-indulgent stuff. Creatively it was like a cul-de-sac.
Before our second European tour in August 1980 UA ceased as a record company. EMI took over and then dropped us, so we were in a bad place. Our A&R man Tim had left EMI so we had no-one to fight our corner.
To EMI we were a band with no hit singles. No album bands any more, no nurturing of talent over a three year period. Thatcher was in. Monetary mindset – instant success or the sack.
Did EMI spurn the new material because some of the songs were anti-war? Who knows? At an EMI farewell party, Cliff the head man shook hands and wished us luck. I said “Good luck to you too.” He said “Why?”
LEAVIN’ AIN’T EASY
When we got back from Europe in August, spirits were low. Self-belief had taken a battering. We were at an impasse and it seemed time to part ways, so I left. It was a difficult divorce, but it was also interesting to write different keyboard-based ideas, in a piano room in Newcastle Polytechnic every day, demoing songs at Spectro Arts Workshop, who gave me a grant for recording. These songs, like Spots on the Sun, were the basis for forming a new project in Punching Holes, this was late ’80 and ‘81.
Memorable gigs for Punching Holes was the first and best gig, at the Cooperage, Newcastle on Chinese New Year, 5th February 1981. With Norman out of the Big G on sticks, Tim Jones from Neon on guitar, Sid Smith the performance artist on bass and Steve Cowgill the jazzman on keys. it was pure adrenalin, very exciting.
We started to collaborate again as Punilux in 1983, recording in Waterloo, but despite some great songs like Doubting Thomas and a Brixton gig, my involvement was too peripheral and didn’t work that well.
EARNING A CRUST
I had to do theatre work for survival, so a 24-year gap followed when we lost contact and got on with our lives. In 2019 I was a freebie actor for half a day with Northumbria Police in Northumberland Street, being secretly filmed improvising as a man in his 60’s with early onset dementia, asking passers-by for help – it found its way onto Facebook (5.7k likes) and YouTube with the tag-line ‘The heart-breaking video that has police officers in tears. Grab your hankies, it’s emotional’.
The 1980s were a testing time but the old line-up got back and still lives on. In 2007 we reunited in The Green Mandolin, Gateshead to play for Jimmy’s birthday.
Then in 2008 we started gigging again. We got a great write-up in The Guardian by Dave Simpson, which Nev mentioned in his excellent blog. The team spirit was in good shape. We recorded ‘5’ at Blast Studios, Byker.
At our Punilux gigs since 2008 we haven’t done any songs from the 1980 writing period. The high-impact material comprises songs from 1977-79, and some from the ‘5’ EP (2011).
RECORDS & TAPES
In autumn 2019 with Punishment of Luxury I did gigs in Middlesbrough, Leeds and Trillians, Newcastle to promote Puppet Life, a 5 CD box set of all live and recorded material on the Cherry Red label.
Last year, it was the turn of Punching Holes, with a vinyl album out on ZX records – The Ghosts of Pilgrim Street, from the lost tapes of their 1980/81 songs engineered at Spectro Arts workshop in Pilgrim Street, Newcastle, by the electronic maestro Ian Boddy.
It’s a historic album, as there’s no band as such any more, but we’re still all in touch. The gorgeous gatefold cover was by Richard Sharpe, who was in Holes during ‘82 and now runs ZX records in Essex.
Last year also saw the recording of Here We Are, a song for lockdown, in Mark ‘Biz’ Taylor’s back yard in North Shields with him on bass and effects, as seagulls screeched overhead. Tim Jones, ex-Neon and ex-Holes, mixed and mastered the music files in Penrith.
It was entered for the King Lear Prizes, for 70+ writers and it was a nice surprise to be ‘highly commended’ by a music panel led by Julian Lloyd Weber. A written piece The Diviner, based on my dad as a soldier in wartime Sicily, was also lucky enough to get highly commended in the short story category of the same competition.
In 2018 my partner Kathi and I performed Angels Wings by request at our son’s wedding in Bangkok. Kathi was lead singer and co-writer in Punching Holes during 1988-89 with debonair drummer Richie Donnison and quirky keyboardist Jeff Horsman adding their own potent brand of virtuosic creativity.
Angels Wings was a revamp of a Holes song, Gone Loco, from ‘81 and was featured in a Tyne Tees TV video just after the band had finally split for good. She sang it beautifully on the video and at the wedding, and folks seemed to like it.
IN THE NOW
There’s now a Punilux website and a Punching Holes website, and Punishment of Luxury continues on the roller-coaster of life. Sadly in early 2020 we tragically lost our close friend and colleague, the inspired artistic visionary Simon Underhill, who with Neil Defty did brilliant visuals and projections at our gigs all over the UK. His images, like a mass of yellow rubber gloves twitching in unison, were always a feast for the eyes and a delight for audiences.
Jimmy and I get together when possible, Steve is still going strong and Nev now lives and writes in Hampshire – we’re all still in close contact, writing and sending each other songs, or playing each other songs on zoom, so we’re raring to go again with some brand-new material.
Part three of Brian Rapkin’s (Brian Bond) memories of being a member of Newcastle post punk band Punishment of Luxury and recording in London studio’s.
We never lived in London but we stayed when recording or touring there. When we recorded Laughing Academy we stayed at a house in Fulham. Recording in London was brilliant.
The first single on Small Wonder we produced ourselves at Berry Street studio with an engineer but when the line-up was almost stabilised, we signed to UA and then the singles were produced by Mike Howlett, a lovely man and brilliant producer, prematurely grey with a calm outlook and a great sense of humour.
The first single after we signed up was supposed to be Jellyfish, but the board at UA didn’t like it as an A-side. Tim, the A & R man, said “Look guys, I’m up against a brick wall here!” We reluctantly agreed to Engine of Excess as the A-side.
Then we signed to Screen Gems-EMI Publishing who gave UA a bollocking about the choice of A-side. So UA re-released the single with Jellyfish as the A-side but by then it was too late to get airplay. The momentum was lost. So that side of it was frustrating. But recording the songs was still magic.
At Eden Studios in Chiswick, Lene Lovich was packing away her sax as we came in. At Wessex Studios, Public Image Ltd were silently sat on a bench facing us as we came in, giggling at our long-haired roadies as they struggled with the equipment. Joe Jackson was playing pool in the rest room.
When UA were about to sign us, Tim the A&R man saw us there and loved the gig, especially All White Jack. He was on cloud nine as we were. That was a highly charged night and a great venue full of atmosphere. It had such a history with the Rolling Stones and so many other great bands. It was an honour to be there, the crowd were superb.
Our first trial gig was as the Luxury Bastards at Gatsby’s, Whitley Bay ‘77. We were terrible. Our bassist, Badger, didn’t turn up but he hadn’t rehearsed with us, so it’s no surprise. It was before Jimmy, so Nev and Mal kept swapping guitar and bass for different songs, Les pounded the drums and I gurned for England, pulling faces as we died a death in dim lighting.
When the Big G started, whoosh, on came the bright lights and each with one foot on a low brass rail (except drummer Norman) they looked professional and slick. That taught us a lesson. Get sorted.
The first gig at the Blue Bell, Gateshead in 1977. We had to change into our stage gear in the toilets, avoiding puddles. We were so nervous, we hid behind amps while the first band The Carpettes played, and then raced through our songs at double the normal speed.
SOMEONE CALL THE COPS
The Guildhall 1978 with Neon and the Angelic Upstarts. We were bottom of the bill and missed the riot. During our set someone lobbed a can at the stage. We were doing a new song called World War 4 and I was wearing a dressing gown. I caught the can and put it in my pocket.
Later the Upstarts charged the stage with their fans when the headliners Neon were playing. There was carnage, blokes and girls beaten up, blood everywhere, the police came and made the rioters walk home to South Shields without their shoes.
Newcastle University 1978, where we were dripping from head to foot with spit, everyone gobbing at us like maniacs. Nev’s guitar, strings dripping, almost unplayable. Luckily I didn’t swallow anyone’s spit. After that gig the gobbing started to end, thankfully.
I remember headlining at the Music Machine, Camden 1978, with our name up there on the domed roof in big red letters, post-gig standing next to Lemmy from Motorhead at the bar. Members of Wire and Annie Lennox enthusing in the dressing room. Robert from Wire kept saying “You’ll make a fortune!”
HAZY DAY IN THE ‘DAM
We played The Milky Way (Melkweg), Amsterdam 1980. As we walked towards the entrance, we could see folk milling around, openly smoking joints. Jimmy muttered “Ah, look, they’re aal smuurr…” and his voice trailed away as the Dutch promoter welcomed us in. During the gig half the audience were lying on mattresses spread out over the vast floor. The haze of dope smoke was all around.
Then there was the heady atmosphere of Reading Festival in 1979, with John Peel introducing us after we’d been on his radio show twice. The build-up was nervy but up onstage it felt surreal and tremendous to be facing 25,000 people.
SPY IN THE CROWD
We played the Leeds Sci Fi Festival in 1979 with Public Image and other great acts like Joy Division. It took place in what was like a huge aircraft hangar but it worked so well. It was overwhelming and exciting. John Lydon had his back to the audience much of the time.
The Leeds Sci-Fi Festival in 1982 had the legendary Nico headlining and we – post Punilux band Punching Holes – were a 7-piece by then, with Richard Sharpe on synth and Jonah Sharp on percussion and sax.
I remember Berlin 1980. It was magical. Like a dream. Checkpoint Charlie then the gig. And an interview on the radio. We stayed in the legendary Hotel Steiner, but on the way out we got hopelessly lost in Potsdam, on the edge of East Berlin. It was like a scene from the Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
The dark grey cobbled streets were wet with rain. Burly Russian soldiers on motorbikes bristled with machine guns, revving up behind our minibus. We couldn’t find the route back to West Germany. We stopped to ask directions from a friendly middle-aged East German with a bushy moustache. After we got back into the van, we assumed he’d be dragged off and shot by the Stasi, or the KGB, or both. Somehow we made it back to the West.
Next up on the blog read part four of the interview with Brian when Punishment of Luxury call it a day and find out what they are up to now.
In the first part of the interview Rapkin talked about his stage and TV career, in this second part he remembers his early days in music looking for a record deal with Newcastle post punk band, Punishment of Luxury.
A song can have an unbelievable power – either the power to make you step inside yourself and think, or the power to galvanize you with energy and joy. I saw this when turning 19, hitch-hiking through France alone.
I stopped off in a juke-box café for a while. The Beatles’ Lady Madonna started playing and the cafe came alive – all these French guys got up and started dancing, laughing, and singing along to ‘See how zeyRun’.
I was beaming with delight, so proud of The Beatles, the piano, Paul’s voice, the guitar, the sax, the harmonies, the inventiveness and the euphoric drive of that music. It was magic. Two minutes and fifteen seconds of a song could take people to a different dimension. And it did.
There was an old radiogram in our house, with speakers going into another room. Being much younger than my jazz-mad brother and my pop-crazy sister, a world of music drew me in. My parents didn’t get on well, so in a strained atmosphere music was an escape into other worlds.
Mr Sandman was haunting like a nightmare, Green Door by Frankie Vaughan told us of a secret world where people partied but the singer was lonely. Coconut Woman and Island in the Sun by Harry Belafonte were rays of warmth amidst the shadowy music. Every song went deep.
I first heard Elvis’ Heartbreak Hotel at 7. It stopped us all in our tracks – the vocal reverb, his passion, the electric guitar, the theme of loneliness, the sad double bass, the quirky piano. My sister worshipped Elvis. She took me to her friend’s house to hear Hound Dog. I was mesmerised.
Elvis’ Hard-Headed Woman had a compelling manic energy as did GreatBalls of Fire by Jerry Lee Lewis, and JennyJenny by Little Richard, the first single I bought. He ran out of breath and broke down mid-track but they still released it. He made a mistake and they kept it in! Who needs perfection?
ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE
I had piano lessons for a while but hated practising and struggled with sight-reading. At 14 I learnt to play a cheap old Spanish guitar and re-taught myself piano, writing songs that copied The Animals and Them, Dylan and even Eleanor Rigby. The Beatles, Stones and Dylan were gods, with The Kinks and The Who.
Music was an escape from difficult schooldays – my headmaster was an ex-Japanese POW and was a bizarre sadist.
At 17 I left school, worked as a brickie and saved enough to cut a disc in a studio in Surrey. I wrote and recorded it using 12-string guitar, wooden flute, Hammond organ and the engineer on bass.
It was teenage atheism Heaven’s There for Those Who NeedIt, but it was a first stab at recording.
At university me and my best mate wrote and performed songs. We recorded at a studio in Coventry in 1969, and made about 100 copies of an LP, Dreams of the BlueBeast, selling them at Uni for 32 shillings each in 1969.
Germaine Greer (Australianbroadcaster & writer) was my Shakespeare tutor – even she bought one.
STAR MAN & KEMP
I also rearranged Lord of the Dance, sang it and played organ in Coventry Cathedral while Annie Stainer mime danced down the aisles as a female clown Christ.
Lindsay Kemp (Bowies dance collaborator) heard my voice on her rehearsal tape and hired me as a singer in a production.
I worked again for Kemp in Flowers years later. His marriage of theatre and Mozart, 1920s songs and Pink Floyd, was so powerful.
Flowers started with Mozart’s Requiem all of us dressed as nuns in high heels, stockings and suspenders, rubbing ourselves against a pillar.
Angie Bowie came to it, recruiting dancers for Bowie’s London Rainbow gig. Not being a dancer, I didn’t get picked by her but got a peck on the cheek and a freebie to the Rainbow– it was a mind-blowing gig, making me more determined to pursue music with visuals. Kemp and Bowie showed the magic of music combined with images.
In the mid-70s I met Nev and Steve in Newcastle. They joined our theatre group Mad Bongo for projects like the musical of Orwell’s 1984. Punishment of Luxury began and song-writing with Nev became a new experience.
I discovered the inspiration of sharing ideas with him. He was a talented guitarist, composer and lyricist, who could change my ideas and de-normalise them, making them crazier. I could help him shape his ideas too.
We were alchemists, turning base metal into gold. Then with a superb bassist like Jimmy we had a super-strong combination. Later we got Steve, the dynamic drummer we always wanted.
As well as the inspiration of Bowie, we wanted to write powerful songs after seeing the Sex Pistols on Top of the Pops, doing Pretty Vacant.
It was 1977 and I was visiting Nev in his flat on the 26th floor of The Rocket, a high-rise in Dunston, Gateshead. Johnny Rotten seemed to leap from the screen into the room – visually and musically he was phenomenal, it was a seminal moment. We knew what we had to do.
The Newcastle music scene in 1977 had The Big G as the leading punk outfit and the Young Bucks with a devoted student following at the Cooperage every week. Their drummer later joined Dexies (Midnight Runners).
One band, the 45s, had their own student following at the New Darnell, Fenham. The macho keyboardist used to down a full pint with one hand while playing a solo with the other.
The Big G were much better than us for a while, then we pulled our fingers out and got their guitarist Red Helmet to join us.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
Our songs reflected our lives. Nev wrote most of Puppet Life, about fascism and people controlling our lives in relationships or in politics.
He also wrote the music for, and I did the lyrics for, a song called Pouf, which we later dropped, as people misinterpreted the song if the sound system was poor and lyrics were unclear.
As the singer I was in role as a gay-bashing bigot, whereas Nev and Jimmy were singing defiant words as oppressed gays. It trod a fine line between ironic humour and provocation.
At the Blue Bell pub in Gateshead, pointing at men in the audience and chanting ‘pouf’ was a way to get them involved but it would be wrong to do it now.
The word was maybe used more casually in the ‘70s but is now acknowledged to be grossly homophobic and that kind of role-playing, often misunderstood then, would feel clumsy and awkward now.
It was partly inspired by my teaching days when teenage lads passed me in the corridor whispering ‘pouf’ at me. Real life was always a basis for song writing, but songs like that wouldn’t work in 2021.
Once we discovered we could all work well together and our songs were going down well with local audiences, we wanted to take it further, play in other places and record the songs – we couldn’t afford to fund it all ourselves so we needed some money behind us to do justice to the songs and make a living out of what had become a passion.
We got our first London gig at the Elephant and Castle. With the aid of our manager Frank we played to a small bunch of people and an agent called Richard Hermitage liked us.
He booked us gigs, and we started touring more and more, getting good reviews and a better fee each time.
We had recorded Puppet Life,Blood of Love and The Demon at Impulse Studio, Wallsend at our own expense. We took the tape to London but it was the week before Christmas 1977. No-one saw us – they were all at Christmas parties – except Arnold Frollows at Virgin, who was interested.
He heard Puppet Life, then dove into a cupboard and came out with Devo’s Jocko Homo, an import single, saying Puppet Life was quite similar.
We did a gig at Spectro Arts workshop in Pilgrim Street, Newcastle. Arnold Frollows came up to the gig and it got a glowing review in Sounds. It was a start.
We were offered a standard Virgin eight album deal, but the line-up wasn’t quite stable enough, even though many bands would have leapt at the chance.
So we went to an indie, Small Wonder in Walthamstow, East London. Pete Stennett, an open, visionary guy with long hair and a woolly hat, immediately liked the songs and said yes.
We had control over the artwork and production. It was so right. We stayed at Patrik Fitzgerald’s (the Punk Poet) big house, which he kindly lent us for a couple of days.
One of the biggest highs was sitting in the Cooperage with a drink and a transistor radio, listening to John Peel play Puppet Life for the first time. A dream come true.
Read part three when Brian is recording in London studios and rememberssome memorable gigs.
Smeaton first featured on this blog back in November 2018 talking about his time as lead vocalist and frontman with Newcastle bands Hartbreaker, White Heat and Loud Guitars. Over 17 years Bob played over 400 gigs, his last was in 1991.
Some say White Heat were the best band to come out of Newcastle who ‘never made it’. They signed for Virgin records in 1980, went on tour with Judas Priest and headlined London Marquee – they set alight to the Tyne, but sadly not the Thames.
Smeaton turned to acting on stage and TV, and like most North East actors was cast in an episode of Auf Wiedersehen Pet.
‘I was in the second series that was mostly filmed in Nottingham prior to them moving the action to Spain. I had known Jimmy Nail from when he used to come and see White Heat and had also met Tim Healy a number of times, as I had once worked with his wife Denise’ remembers Bob.
Nearly 40 years later the show about a group of British workers on a German building site is still being repeated on TV today.
Even though some scenes have been chopped out – it still gets me smiling which is a hard ask at the best of times. I suppose it’s a great example of ‘feel good telly’ – and nothing comes close.
‘My role as shop assistant in a man’s boutique was very much blink and you miss it, and in fact it didn’t warrant a mention in my memoir. I’m sure that role could have been played by a hundred other actors.
I was told recently that my scene has been cut from the re-runs on UK Drama but my name is still there in the end credits!
As chance would have it I was in a club in London a couple of years ago and a bloke came up to me pointed to my trousers and asked ‘Do they do the Italian paratrooper in your size’. Which was one of my lines from the scene.
He then proceeded to run the whole scene with him playing the role of Oz and me reprising my role as the shop assistant’.
Fans of the programme still regard it with much affection and the interview with Auf Wiedersehen actress Lesley Saint John, is by far the most popular interview on this blog (link below). Lesley appears in ‘Hasta La Vista’, the episode thatBob appeared in.
It just goes to show what a brilliant series it was and how people still look upon it with great affection. I was also lucky to have been in a scene with Tim Spall, he is a genius and nothing like the character he played on screen.
When my careers guidance teacher asked me what I wanted to do when I left school I told her I wanted to be an actor or singer. This didn’t seem like an option and she suggested the shipyards as a third option. As it turned out I have been fortunate to do all three.
Without doubt singing in a band was, and remains, the best thing that I’ve ever done. Nothing beats being on stage and performing to an audience. And my love of music was the springboard to my present job as a director of music documentaries.
Even working in the yards had its upside, it gave me loads of material for song lyrics and made me realise ‘there must be more to life than this’.
I always felt there was an element of acting in being in a band, you learnt your lines, put on a show and hopefully entertained an audience with a degree of honesty.
I first acted in school plays at junior school even though at South Benwell school we didn’t do drama. Therefore, I would write plays and give myself the lead role. Often with a few songs thrown in for good measure.
When White Heat split I was very fortunate to be cast in a Film on Four called Accounts. The guy who wrote it, Micheal Wilcox, had seen me presenting a television show called The Colour Programme, and thought that I would be right to play the part of Andy Mawson.
The role had previously been performed on stage by Kevin Whately. Mike McNally played the role of my younger brother, Donald. Mike and I have remained good friends and I look forward to getting up a doing a turn with him at ‘Jarra Tapas’ in the not too distant future.
15 MINUTES OF FAME
I thought that having had a lead role in a film would be the springboard to more acting work, but that wasn’t the case. I soon learnt that for every role there would be hundreds of actors going for the same part.
I was up for roles alongside the likes of Robson Green and Joe Caffrey, great actors with more experience than I had.
As far as my acting career goes the thing that got me noticed most was an advert for McEwan’s Best Scotch. When it was broadcast I discovered what it was like to be famous for 15 minutes.
The irony was I was recognised more for that ad than I did for being in a band. But I guess that’s that the power of television. It’s still out there on You Tube. And I can laugh at it now and it’s great to have a record of what I looked like all those years ago.
Like most local actors I did a Catherine Cookson. I was cast in the The Black Candle and had my throat cut about ten minutes into the film. My mam thought it was the best thing that I had ever done, and would watch on repeat my sad demise at the hands of some posh bloke.
Those Cookson’s were great and had really high production values and were a great source of work for a load of local actors. I am sure every actor in the North East will have a Cookson on their CV.
Another show filmed in the North East was TV detective show Spender, broadcast 1991-93. The programme starred Jimmy Nail who created the series with Ian La Franais, who also wrote Auf Wiedersehen Pet.
I played the part of a drug dealer in Spender, I think Jimmy Nail put me forward for that role. I still see Jimmy occasionally but we never talk about acting.
Like me I think his first love was and remains music, we talk about music and the sad demise of our football club.
I also did some Theatre work and my debut was in a play called Fur Coat and No Knickers by Mike Harding. This was at the Palace Theatre in Westcliff Upon Sea.
My opening line was “Hello I’m Mark Greenhalgh I’m as bright as the inside of a cows bum”. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was a good laugh.
Eastenders actor Ross Kemp was also in it. We became good mates, we also did The Wizard of Oz together. Me and telly hardman Ross Kemp in leotards playing munchkins was a sight to behold. I never really caught the theatre bug and much preferred television and film acting.
I did dip my toe back into acting when I finished working on the Beatles Anthology. Matthew Robinson cast me in Quayside a soap opera that was set on Tyneside.
The television audience hated it, and it got dropped after one series. I loved it and had a great time making it, the highpoint was getting to work alongside the great Joe Caffrey.
One time we were sat waiting to start filming and he was chatting away to me. I didn’t realise he was running the scene. It didn’t seem like he was acting. That was the difference between my acting and the likes of Joe, for him it was effortless.
I haven’t done any acting since Quayside (1997), the series was cancelled around the same time as my career as a director of music documentaries began to take off.
My first love was always music, but I was very fortunate to have experienced what I was like to be an actor and I really enjoyed it and I would ‘never say never again’.
I really miss performing and although acting will never replace the buzz of being on stage with a band I feel it works a similar muscle. Performing is in my blood and I would like to think both of those doors remain open.
When I released my book someone got in touch and suggested trying to make a film of it and that I could play the role of my dad. Anyone who has read the book would realise me and my dad had a difficult relationship, but maybe playing him might have helped get rid of some demons. Also I would have got to get up and sing a bunch of Tom Jones songs.
YOU BETTER YOU BET
The year before the pandemic struck I broke my knee-cap and I was out of action for six months. I was finally back up and running at the start of 2020, then the pandemic struck.
I have been very fortunate to have been kept busy during this past year. I finished a documentary about the Who Sell Out album just before Christmas, this is due to air on Sky Arts around the end of April.
At present I am in the process of finishing a film about a big American band, I’m not at liberty to say who it is, it should hopefully get a cinema release later this year and will also screen on television.
GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE
As we have not been able to get out and do much socialising, my evenings have been spent working on some new songs and practicing my singing and guitar playing. It would be great to get the songs recorded.
I am also pondering the possibility of getting out there and doing some gigs once the restrictions are lifted. I am not sure what form the gigs would take but I am keeping my options open.
But I have always said that it’s as big a buzz playing to twenty people as it is to two thousand.
Bob Smeaton’s memoir – From Benwell Boy to 46th Beatle…and Beyond
is available now through Newcastle Waterstones and Amazon.
Here in North East England the Wearside Bloc has given up stories from experienced musicians Ian Munro and Field Music, Sunderland punk Steve Straughan and metallers Spartan Warrior.
Now the blog has more road stories from the Houghton le Spring contingent – The Carpettes.
‘Our first North East gig was in June 1977, then we went on to headline gigs with both Angelic Upstarts and Punishment of Luxury opening’ remembers Neil.
The band first featured back in May 2020 with Thompson talking about releasing two singles on the Small Wonder label, moving down south to London in ’78, and signing a record deal with Beggars Banquet – that brought a further four singles and two albums, Thompson looks back at those days.
Just after we finished recording our first album I made a phone call to Nick Austin, one of the bosses at Beggars Banquet, he told us fantastic news – we had a residency at London’s Marquee supporting The Lurkers every Wednesday in November ‘79.
I still remember Honest John in one of the soundchecks giving me a fiver to go to the off-licence to buy him a bottle of red wine.
LEAVE THIS TO HARVEY GOLDSMITH
Our drummer Tim was from Oxford and after a few London gigs he had this idea that he’d book a couple of gigs in Oxford as he knew the venues.
The first one was in February ‘79 at The Cape of Good Hope which if I remember was upstairs in a pub, and it was terrible. Hardly anyone there and it was a disco crowd – we didn’t get an encore.
The next one he booked was in March ’79 at The Corn Dolly this was an established venue. It was just so depressing, horrible and dark. They put an ad in the NME advertising the bands and we were ‘Ta Carpets’. Only a few people scattered here and there and it was a total waste of time, again, no encore.
So I picked up the NME and thought ‘leave this to Harvey Goldsmith here’. There was an Oxford pub in the gig guide called The Oranges and Lemons and they had The Ruts on that week. Perfect, a pub that has punk bands on.
I phoned them up and got a gig straight away on Friday, 1st June 1979, our 50th gig.
On the night it was packed. Me and George were talking to people outside who had come from Sheffield to see us – we rarely played outside London in them days. We went down a storm and got an encore. I felt like telling Tim ‘leave it to me from now on mate’.
A QUICK WORD WITH DAVE
The boss of Warners UK when The Carpettes were being handled by them was none other than ‘60s pop star, Dave Dee. When I was a kid I loved Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.
When we were on Beggars Banquet, one of the bosses, Martin Mills, the other was Nick Austin, eventually took us to the Warners office in June 1980 which was just off Berwick Street in London’s West End.
We were told there was a gym there. There was also a sauna and table tennis, all free to use – Angelic Upstart singer Mensi was always in that gym.
Now and then I used to go in the office to talk about The Carpettes to Sharon Wheeler who was press officer, but unfortunately I never saw Dave knocking about.
Fast forward 23 years to June 2003 and I’m in Camden Underworld to see the reformed Heavy Metal Kids. Dave Dee was there. He was the one that signed them to Atlantic in the ‘70s.
I watched the band and when they finished the punters were leaving but I still had a lot of my pint left and Dave Dee was standing nearby so I went over for a chat. I’d always wondered what he thought of The Carpettes and now was my chance to find out.
‘Hi Dave, I loved your band in the 60s’. ‘Aah thanks mate’ – he then goes on to talk about his band for a short while.
I tell him ‘I was in a band and we were on the Beggars Banquet label same time as Gary Numan’. So he talks about Gary Numan for a while. I’m thinking when he has a bit of a pause I’m gonna mention the Carpettes.
The next thing I hear is ‘Come on you – let’s have your drink’. I looked up and there was this big bouncer ‘Come on mate, out. We’ve got to get the club ready for the nightclub’. ‘I’m just having a quick word with Dave here. I’ll not be long’.
‘DIDN’T YOU HEAR ME – GIVE ME YOUR GLASS AND GET OUT’. So I never found out what Dave Dee thought of the Carpettes and sadly six years later he died so I’ll never know.
IT COULDA BEEN A HIT
We nearly got in the Top 100! When we signed to Beggars Banquet they were being distributed by the mighty WEA, and they were up to some dodgy business. They had hyped The Pretenders single Brass in Pocket to number 1 – I’m not saying this record didn’t go on to sell loads but it needed WEA’s help to kickstart it.
So they got our label, Beggar’s Banquet, interested in this idea – and it was a strange one that worked sometimes. Gary Numan & Tubeway Army released their first single Down in the Park. WEA had an idea they would use this single to get the public used to the band and then whoosh – push the follow-up into the charts.
Well, it actually worked – Down in the Park wasn’t a hit but the follow-up – Are Friends Electric got to number 1. So, what happens next ? They try the same with us.
Our single is released and is a warm-up for the next one that they thought could be a hit single – the problem is that the first one didn’t take off. It was played on daytime Radio 1 but WEA didn’t want it to be a hit so it wasn’t a hit.
The next release Johnny Won’t Hurt You – this is the one that’s pushed and hyped by WEA, it creeps into the chart at number 123. But it wasn’t getting any airplay – surely they hyped the wrong one. The next week it shoots up six places to 117 and the next week it’s out the charts altogether.
So that was that as far as WEA were concerned, we’d blown our chance. The follow up – Nothing Ever Changes, was a blinder and could have been a hit, but it was no good cos even though WEA agreed to distribute it, they’d given up on us.
The Teesside Bloc of Stockton, Middlesbrough, Billingham and Redcar have given up plenty of stories from Emma ‘Velvet Tones of Teesside’ Wilson, Mark Berry from power metallers Millennium, and songwriter & producer Steve ‘Godfather of North East NWOBHM’ Thompson.
Last month we heard from Hartlepool vocalist & guitarist Paul McCarte (link below), this post features another interview from one of the Hartlepool contingent.
I asked Procession drummer Mark Lloyd, did you think you were going to have a career and lifetime in music of going on tours, playing festivals and recording albums ?
That was the dream, and we gave it a good shot, even going self-employed as a band on a government scheme. Bad luck with vans scuppered our ability to gig, and we lost our long term rehearsal space which only enhanced the scupper. The pressure got too intense, and we imploded.
Looking back, we did achieve a lifetime in music because we are all still playing. It wasn’t what we all hoped for as idealistic twenty-somethings, but it was great fun.
GIMME THE GIG
I have no musical background or family musical connection – so I chose drums. I could hardly play and also started my apprenticeship as a goldsmith living in bedsit land. I helped out sound-checking the drums for Procession at a gig and got to know them all.
Paul McCarte (vocals/guitar) came to visit me and invited me to audition. I think I was the worst audition, but the best fit, so I was in. Happy days.
LONDON & THE HORN
In 1992 Procession went into Sarm West studios in London and recorded a session for Trevor Horn’s label ZTT – but didn’t travel up the M1 with a record deal.
The A&R man came up North to our rehearsal space and it felt like a step up the ladder was about to appear, he loved us and invited us down to London for three days recording at ZTT.
For my part, I had never played to a click, and any drummer who hasn’t will find it difficult, especially under the pressure of a chance like that in a huge studio environment.
Back then, drum machines had just become commercially available, and it was the first thing I bought and taught myself how to use and play in the aftermath.
I guess it’s like most things in life things do not always turn out how you would like, and in hindsight, he could have prepared us better for the experience.
THE BIG H
We didn’t get past the three-day interview because the recordings didn’t capture us doing our thing like we could live. Maybe if they had recorded the band live as we had in every other experience of being in a studio, the result might have been different, and we may have met the main man.
It’s not that we were opposed to being worked with – it was more like we didn’t want to be pulled apart and reworked without any foreplay.
END OF THE PROCESSION
We had no van, no rehearsal space, no money. It was like a slow-motion collapse. We tried to get funds by running a successful club night in a hotel that gave us rehearsal space. It was good but not enough to pay all our wages.
The pressure to return to jobs and get lives back on track was ultimately too great. We did manage to stay friends even though it was a painful time and continued to make music together in various guises over the years.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO GLASTO
Moving on from Procession we formed NEEB, the members were Andrew Wain from Procession on keys as the mad scientist, Peter Casson on crazy guitar, Tony Waite ‘basslord’ a fantastic bass player and studio wizard who has played in many bands since the ’70s. Completing the line-up the one and only Mark Hand on Rhodes, Moog and other vintage keyboards.
NEEB enjoyed a successful gigging period and released tunes on our record label Experiment Collective Intelligence, alongside Hartlepool band Hidden Agenda signed to Goldie’s label Metalheadz.
We played many festivals such as Glastonbury and Solfest, Scotland, we were in the Dogs in Space tent, an amazingly visual tent and a fantastic funky full-house gig. We played with our female vocalist, Vicky Jackson, and a guest singer Paul McCarte, enjoying a very colourful evening.
We also signed with a Japanese record company that sold lots of our music as downloads for phone ringtones – we like to think we were big in Japan!
LIVE, LOUD & NAKED
Touring around the country in a small van, squished like sardines, the gigs all melt into one, and the gigs you remember are mainly the ones that had a good crowd who got behind you.
Definitely, the most memorable gigs are the ones that hit that spot with the audience. The feeling it gives you on stage is far better than the gig location.
With Procession we had some fantastic responses in the Newcastle Riverside and The Arena in Middlesbrough. Later on the dream was to play Glastonbury.
I achieved that with NEEB playing on a sunny Sunday afternoon in 2000 on the Avalon Stage. A naked streaking singer being one of the highlights – yes, he was our singer, the infamous Ian ‘Ish’ Monaghan.
I have just moved my successful goldsmithery business into new premises, and building a new rehearsal/studio space in the vast loft space.
My music playing now involves nights of jamming with most bandmates mentioned earlier, not necessarily under a band name. The latest NEEB incarnation, called Subliminal Vineyards, is me, Tony and Wainy with guitar from Mark Folland, a former member of Hartlepool band Brethren.
My plan with the new space is to create a music hub for us all to enjoy. It will be somewhere to jam, record the music and film live video streaming on a blue screen background – just enjoy the simple pleasure of playing music with my friends, not for money, fame or ego, purely for fun, ad infinitum.
Interview by Alikivi March 2021.
Links to interviews with Procession vocalist/guitarist Paul McCarte: