For me being in a band is all about writing your own songs. When I started playing seriously I just couldn’t see a route to any kind of satisfaction or success playing other people’s material.
By mid ‘80s loads of musician mates were giving up on original stuff and going into the social club scene, I just didn’t see the joy in that. Being in a band actually cost me money and always has, recording studios were never cheap. I was skint most of the time.
What was your experience of recording in a studio ? The bands I was in were mostly original, so saving up and borrowing money to go into the studio became the norm. Anyone reading this will remember that recording demos could sometimes be an anti-climax before digital stuff came along.
For example you’d save up your money to go into say Impulse in Wallsend, have a great recording session, get high as a kite sitting next to producer Keith Nichol doing the mix, only to be met with utter disappointment when you got home and played back your cassette copy.
It just never sounded as good as it did through those big studio monitors.
My first time in the studio was around ’78, a great little place in the basement of a house overlooking Saltwell Park in Gateshead. It was a great learning experience, the owner and sound engineer was Ken Black.
He once said to me after a recording session, ‘you’ve got the makings of a really good drummer, but your bass drum foot needs some work’. It was both a confidence boost and criticism rolled into one, good advice for a 16 year old but started my love hate relationship with studios over the years.
What bands did you play in ? Zenith around 1981, a Rush rip off really, we recorded songs like ‘The Trees’ which Alan Robson would play on his Metro radio rock show.
It was my second time in the studio, Dave Shaw was on guitar, a great player who has played with a local band called The Force for years, a nice guy if I remember. But Zenith didn’t gig much.
Then in 1982 I was introduced to two brothers, Brian and Stuart Emerson, they were forming a band and needed a drummer. So we got together in Lemington Church Hall, Newcastle.
The melody and lyric ideas they were coming up with were far superior to anything I’d heard, so it felt quite exciting to be part of. Anyone around the Newcastle rock scene in the ‘80s eventually heard of Emerson.
With just the three of us at first we did a three track demo at Ronnie’s Studio with their in-house engineer, who produced a great result for us. It was a great little four track place in the basement of a drum shop on Newcastle’s New Bridge Street. The tracks sounded big, but we needed a keyboard player.
Dru Irving came into the band and within a few weeks we went into Impulse in Wallsend to record another demo, Keith Nichol was at the helm this time, again the tracks sounded good.
I remember writing to Dave Wood the owner of Neat Records to see if we could get some sort of deal but they weren’t interested in melody bands at that time, it was all metal stuff like Venom on the label.
Singer Sam Blewitt, who’s had a great career in music over the last 40 years, came in to the band and took over main vocal from Stu. He had that Steve Perry (Journey) sounding voice, so perfect for that era.
Sam had a mate called Charlie McKenzie, a great drummer who was far better than me. I could see the writing on the wall – I left before I was sacked.
They went on to record a single with NEAT Records called Something Special, or ‘nothing special’ as Brian often recalls. It got played a lot at Mayfair and Tiffany’s rock nights, every time I heard it I would wince.
What were your highlights with Emerson ? There was one show we did in Scotland in a massive aircraft hanger, the stage at one end and bar at the other half a mile away – what could go wrong?
The organiser said ‘it’s a bit echoey but there will be loads of people and a 4K PA to play through, so the sound will be great’. But none of those things were true.
When we got there it was actually two WEM speaker columns with 4K stencilled on the side in nicotine stained magnolia.
There wasn’t much of an audience but they were appreciative, even though it took a while for the sound of their clapping to reach us at the end of each song. When the gig finished, we were half way to the bar when they started applauding the last song.
Next was Vogue and Secret Sam. Me and a nice Blyth lad called Russ Thompson (guitar) were writing songs together, I don’t know how we met, music just brings people together.
Brian Emerson had left Emerson and joined London band Bronze around 1983. Then around 84/85 he called from the capital saying he’s quit and wondered what we were doing.
Somehow we put a great band together in no time at all, Brian on bass, Paul Swaddle and Russ on guitars, Mick White on vocals, Paul Bateson on keys and myself on drums, it was great.
We were in Impulse in no time recording a couple of new tracks thanks to Russ’s dad paying for it.
Guitarist Tim Jebb took over from Paul Swaddle and we soon went into Fairview Studio in Hull to record some great sounding tracks. Fairview is a top studio where bands like Def Leppard, Spiders From Mars, Robert Palmer, The Beautiful South have all recorded, it felt big time, and again thanks to Russ’s dad.
Did you have any management ? One night I was out in Whitley Bay and bumped into Colin Rowell, who at the time was Stage Manager at Tyne Tees TV for The Tube. I knew him from a few months back when I did a Studio 5 spin off show called TX45 playing for Jess Cox formerly vocalist with Tygers of Pan Tang.
The Tube was amazing for live music, and massive for the North-East at the time, but mention it to anyone under 50, and they won’t know what you’re talking about.
Anyway Colin was with Rob Weir who had left the Tygers of Pan Tang, the two of them were forming a management company called Emerald House Productions and looking for a band to sign.
We were playing Mingles in a couple of weeks, so I said why don’t you come down and see us?
Mingles was the place to play on the coast, some great bands built their following there, but they could be a tough audience sometimes, as we later found out.
A week to the gig, and there’s always something that goes wrong isn’t there. With no notice, Mick White left the band, went back to London and joined Samson, so we were stuck without a front man.
Luckily the singer from Hellanbach, Jimmy Brash fancied it, so he came in for the Mingles gig. Rob and Colin said they loved the band but not the singer, so that was a problem.
Jim was a great front man though, I remember there was heckling coming from the back of the room and he said ‘there’s people shouting f**k off at the back of the room, I’m sorry we don’t do requests’. I nearly fell off my drum stool laughing.
In order to take advantage of this lucrative management offer – he says with tongue in cheek – me, Russ and Paul on keys pulled a new band together, this time with Russ on main vocal, Mick McKnight on guitar – who I’d played with in the Jess Cox Band, and Mick Bettridge on bass.
We quickly signed a 25 year management deal with Emerald House Productions and we took the name Secret Sam – imagine if we’d made any money? Things happen quickly when you’re young and starry eyed.
The band got the full image treatment from design teams at Tyne Tees TV and we did a bunch of shows and TV work including TX45 and Get Fresh.
Russ and I helped out with things like screen tests at Studio 5, and other productions like Razzmatazz. It was great fun hanging around The Tube TV studio meeting all the big artists of the day that had come to appear every Friday night.
Get Fresh, the show produced by Janet Street Porter, had two small stages for the band to set up on, and attached them to fork lift trucks with cable ties or string or something. The thing would never pass a health and safety test today.
We thought we’d be playing on a big stage to a national audience, but no, they wanted to drive us around the car park on these makeshift stages miming to our latest song ‘She Keeps Running’ – what a laugh!
It was both embarrassing and brilliant, we felt like stars for the day signing autographs for the kids.
Read part two of how Paul joined Battleaxe, Skyclad, Tyger Tyger, and what he is doing now.
Interview by Gary Alikivi December 2021