MORE THAN WORDS: with Chief music writer, Phil Sutcliffe

The blog has featured some people who stuck a flag in the ground for the North East – Chris Phipps, Chris Cowey, David Wood, Colin Rowell, Ian Penman and Rik Walton for the pix.

The latest addition to the squad is a man who used words to create a colourful landscape and painted pictures in the minds of thousands of teenage music lovers.

London born Phil Sutcliffe, looks back on 40 years of music journalism for Sounds, Q, Mojo and The Face.

He interviewed a world of musicians including Stewart Copeland, Joni Mitchell, Nick Cave, Sheryl Crow, Eric Clapton…

Thom Yorke for Los Angeles Times and for Mojo, 15 minutes on the phone with Dolly Parton, truly that can set you up for a year or two.

Where did Sutcliffe find his love for words, and what’s his connection to the North East ?

I always wanted to be a journalist so in 1969 when I finished my A-levels and had a degree in English & American Literature from Manchester University, I applied for journo jobs and got a training course followed by an apprenticeship at Newcastle Evening Chronicle.

That was in the new training centre in an office above the Bigg Market doing just about everything – local councils, sports desk, feature writing, a spell as a columnist, the subs desk, and in court where the 15-year-old kid who pleaded guilty to burglary and asked for 153 other offences to be taken into account.

There was stints in district offices – Gateshead, Consett and North Shields – ah, the morning fishing report of how much, by weight and type of fish each boat had landed! From the outset writing heaps, hard, fast and fascinating all the time.

How did the job with Sounds come about ?

I’d always said I wanted to work freelance but it happened sooner than intended. After three years mainly on the Chronicle I did the usual thing of trying to get my second job, 175 rejections later I went freelance.

September 1974 I was 27 my first marriage had just broken up, a bit late to start writing about rock’n’pop so not much in the way of a plan, but thought maybe I could earn part of a living on one of the five weekly rock/pop papers – as ‘our man in the North East’.

While still doing a bit of local news for Newcastle papers and Radio Newcastle, plus a couple of non-musical feature items for Woman’s Hour! I wrote off to NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and Record Mirror.

With so many band tours starting in the North East you could get the first review in, and I got a sniff from Melody Maker, but really hit it off with Sounds.

Within the next year I started doing feature interviews and making a slightly more decent living – Gentle Giant might have been the first as I tended to get ecstatic about their wild prog adventures.

But my first rock interview I think was Sparks backstage at Newcastle City Hall for Radio Newcastle’s late-night programme, Bedrock. The show was DJ’d by my friend Dick Godfrey with a strictly non-rowdy zoo of other voices – Ian Penman/Ravendale, Arthur Hills, the Out Now fanzine team, me, and other enthusiasts, all of us unpaid but enjoying ourselves meeting stars.

Also dozens of local bands from Sting’s Last Exit to Bob Smeaton’s White Heat, the veteran Junco Partners, Southbound, Gale Force Ten (with singer-saxist Joy Askew) and Wavis O’Shave.

There was a lot of local stuff about and loads of it good in what might well have been a culture – Tyneside pub rock. Very diverse, and not what Londoners called pub rock – Ducks Deluxe, Chilli Willy and such, Brit R&B-rooted – but it did happen in pubs quite a bit.

The Cooperage, The Bridge, The Gosforth – Last Exit every Weds if I recall. That one out in Heaton, Andy Hudson’s wine bar for a bit, a cellar near the Civic Centre – he played trumpet for the Grimethorpe Colliery Band when he were a lad you know, and then the more obviously culture-centred Jesmond Theatre.

We met on a Saturday lunchtime in a pub near the Tyne river and chatted and plotted, me and Dick Godfrey, promoter-musos like Chris Murtagh and Angus, er, sorry lost his surname but nice bloke with a moustache.

Even the odd sympathetic older star like Hilton Valentine from The Animals who could show us all a thing or two, though I can’t remember what. It was good.

Angelic Upstarts pic. Rik Walton.

Once in a while the Guildhall down by the Tyne river, scene of the Bedrock festival that spun off from the radio programme – all of this encouraged by a loose collective of bands and fans.

Putting the Angelic Upstarts on before Neon at the Bedrock festival proved to be a misjudgment as a huge fight ensued, a rather one-sided affair given Neon fans were student’ish and Upstarts fans were from South Shields.

I jest in retrospect, but it was a shame and in part my fault thinking in a hippie way that music brought us all together. We didn’t do that again.

However, the Upstarts – and their fans – were fine on their own territory which is where I met them generally, starting with a gig at Jarrow Town Hall when punk had reached the North East and they’d released their single, Who Killed Liddle Towers?

Which was a drama and a campaign in itself, with police brutality played out by cop-hatted singer Mensi, going at a real pig’s head fresh from the butcher with a bloody great axe. That was a night.

Also a double-page spread in Sounds, Mensi and Mond had plenty to say for themselves and we got on, up to some point where me coming from another planet got unfeasibly less brotherly. I always liked them.

My Sounds colleague Dave McCullough didn’t though and he invented a great word for the rolling profanity Mensi deployed – fuckverballing. What came in between worked pretty well though, speaking for a life much harder that most rock writers knew anything about.

I did cover heavy metal/hard rock quite a lot, but missed the North East bands, but pretty sure Ian Penman did a feature.

(Penman writing as Ian Ravendale in Sounds, May 1980, featured the North East New Wave of British Heavy Metal with interviews from Mythra, Fist, Raven, White Spirit, Tygers of Pan Tang).

Penetration feature in Sounds 18/6/77

My other ‘discoveries’, as we used to say were Penetration, a quite brilliant sophistopunk band from Ferryhill, dazzling in every way with a natural star singer, Pauline Murray.

Great ideas men in Gary Chaplin and Robert Blamire, plus drummer Gary Smallman and out-there’ish guitarist Fred Purser. They almost made it. As did the rude theatricals, Punishment Of Luxury, with their panto villain frontman Brian Rapkin and his small band of wild-witty anarchs.

Reading festival 1979 line-up with Punishment of Luxury and headliners, The Police.

Meanwhile, I loved Last Exit to bits, jazz-rock and soul and their own stuff, often saw them twice a week, and eventually got them in Sounds. A big feature on Geordie boys trying the London move – and this despite editor Alan Lewis saying “God that singer’s awful” when I played him a cassette.

But this was just after I happened to introduce Sting to Stewart Copeland, passing through as Curved Air played the Poly in ’76 – he had a lightbulb moment all right and somehow persuaded Sting to give up the music he loved, come to London and play the music he hated – punk – until it freed him to find reggae and write, Roxanne onwards.

Stewart and Andy Summers played to their optimum pop potential and they become the biggest band in the world for quite a while.

Read part two featuring Phil’s memorable interviews, books on The Police and AC/DC and a Springsteen biography.

Thanks to ‘Soundclips’ on twitter for the articles from Sounds Magazine 1975 – 1980, archivist, Steve ‘Stig’ Chivers.

Interview by Gary Alikivi  September 2021

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