The ’70s and ’80s saw bands playing every night around the North East at mainly workingmens clubs...
’Mostly it was two clubs a night with yer first set starting at 8pm. Then travelling to another club, loading in, setting up, playing a set and finishing for 2am.
Finally back home and bed. Before you know it yer ma was shouting up the stairs it was time to get the bus for work. Aye them were the days ha ha’….remembers Arthur Ramm.
Stories like these have been told many times before in smoky bars and clubs of the North East. But here we are sitting in The Word, a brand new cultural venue in South Shields.
A large circular building with huge glass walls and what looks like a floating staircase. As far removed as you can get from bingo, beer and bands.
The stories were pouring out from Les Tones and Arthur Ramm founding members of Beckett. A band which changed line up many times until they called it a day in 1974.
During their time Beckett had played countless gigs around the North East with stand out support slots with Rod Stewart and the Faces. There was a two week residency in the Top Ten Club in Hamburg, Germany.
They notched up 25 UK dates with Captain Beefheart, 33 with Alex Harvey and 25 with Slade. Signed with major labels Warner Brothers and CBS. Released a single and a self titled album.
They also found time to appear on BBC TV music show the Old Grey Whistle Test, and a slot at the Reading Festival.
We talked about music in general and the sounds travelling across the Atlantic – Elvis, Chuck Berry, Rock n Roll USA how they influenced a generation of British musicians. Turning on the Led Zepps, Deep Purples, Eric Claptons, who in turn put their stamp on the sound and British rock came out the other end.
Although they were referring to nearly 50 years ago, like a relay team passing the baton, stories from Les and Arthur still sounded fresh and told with good humour. Music really does matter.
When did you first get interested in music ?
Les: ‘My dad was a piano player, my uncles were keyboard players for the cinema. When I was 14 my brother and cousin had acoustic guitars and my sister played all the ’50s records. I’ve always had music around me.
I used to go to the local fairgrounds and there I heard Love Me Do and other songs by The Beatles. I just loved the sound and that changed my direction of what I wanted to do.
I got a guitar and I was approached by a fella called Tommy Stead who was in a popular blues band called The Jump. So I joined the band at 15 and learned loads from them’.
Arthur: ‘I was aware of The Shadows but I wasn’t really interested in that, like Les it was The Beatles that kicked me off. It was Paul McCartney, I loved the way he played, he sang, he looked. I just loved The Beatles music’.
When did you get your first guitar ?
Les: ‘I was serving my time as a sheet metal worker in Hebburn Palmers shipyard when I bought a Hoffner Galaxy on tick, a loan you know.
Then I exchanged it for a Burns guitar until my dad bought me a Gibson 335 for £150. That was great, wish I still had it’.
Arthur: ‘There was a shop called Saville Brothers in South Shields and there it was in the shop window with a card stuck next to it with £7 10 shillings written on.
Eventually after a few weeks of pestering my mother, she relented and gave me the money ‘But you’ll have to pay it back’ she said. That’s where I bought not a bass, but my first six string guitar.
We had no money for amps, so we first started with radios which had valves inside. That could amplify the sound and it had a speaker in, so we used the output.
But the 5 watts wasn’t loud enough cos when you were in rehearsal with a drum kit banging away you needed something louder.
So, we got what The Beatles and The Stones were using that was AC 30’s. They were the biggest amplifier at the time and then Eric Clapton started using a 50-watt Marshall.
That became the norm until Pete Townsend said he wanted bigger. He wanted 100watt because they were playing big places, and no one could hear them at the back of the hall.
Suddenly it’s getting bigger and louder with 4 x 12 cabinets and everybody’s ear’s getting used to that level of sound. I remember we were playing Annabels Club in Sunderland and to load the gear in you used the back stairs. We were loading in 4×12’s and they were so big you couldn’t see your feet’.
Les: ‘It was good having a full house and using all that gear at that volume because people absorbed the sound but if you had a venue a third full it was very different. But now a lot of people are returning to AC 30’s and using larger PA’s’.
Arthur: ‘I’m still using a Marshall now because I’m used to the sound and Les uses a Messa Boogie which is smaller in size but has plenty of power. The technology has changed over the years.
We were playing the Birtley club one time and I had just bought my Marshall 100watt head. We were loading the gear in up the steep stairs at the back and I think it was our singer Terry Slesser who said ‘I’ll carry that up for you’.
My brand new Marshall head slips out of his hand and goes boink, boink, boink, down the steps to the bottom. The side of the box fell away. I was distraught.
We got the gear on stage and thought do I switch it on? Will it go pop! Eventually I turned it on and it worked perfectly. When I got it home I used some glue to stick the side back on. Marshall amp’s are made solidly you know’.
Where did you rehearse and play your first gig ?
Les: ‘Around 1964 The Jump used to have house rehearsals at Tommy Steads and played on a Sunday at Aloysius Church Hall in Hebburn.
The church ran it and they had bands on every Sunday and served soft drinks. The atmosphere was brilliant we used to look forward to it.
When we played I used to push my amplifier up the street to get into the hall, we loved it. Tommy who is still playing today, was all genned up with the American music cos he had the records so we played a lot of soul and blues.
But then Tommy moved to London so I left the band and joined Hedgehog Pie. We were classed as an underground band. But yeah that’s how I started’.
Arthur: ’We got a school band together and I was playing sort of bass notes on the heavy strings of my six string guitar. Sounded nothing like a bass really but that’s what I was after.
So, I got one out of the local magazine for £35 and I was away then.
Then what changed for me was when I heard John Mayalls Bluesbreakers featuring Eric Clapton and I thought wow I want to learn how to play like that.
My first gig was at a wedding in Careme House in South Shields. It was for the guitarist’s cousin, and we done about half an hour of bluesy songs’.
How did Beckett form and where did the band rehearse ?
Arthur: ‘I was in a band called The Shadey Kases, who I joined around ’65 or ’66. I was the rhythm player, just a lonely strummer. One night Les was playing with his band in Sunderland with this great sounding guitar ‘Who is that playing, sounds fantastic’.I said.
I was normally a shy person but afterwards went up to Les and said how did you get that sound, you’re playing is excellent. He was so friendly and showed me the amp and all that.
We really got on because some people can be a bit stand offish. When Beckett started, he was the guy to ask to play guitar and he said yes’.
Les: ’I was in Societys Child and we used to get a lot of work at the Hedworth Hall in South Shields. Alf Josephs from there used to manage us. But the band split over the singer and keyboardist arguing over petty things.
The Hedworth Hall was a place all the bands would go to after a gig because it was open till 2am and we’d get in free of charge. There I met up with Arthur who had just left the John Miles band. ‘How would you like to join me and Alan’ (Craig, drummer).
So yeah we are the three founding members of Beckett. We got Bill Campbell in on bass. Rehearsals were in a pre-fab building near St Francis Church in South Shields. Alan Craig got it cos he knew someone from the church.
We used to go 2-3 times a week to rehearse, and we done some Kinks stuff, some Deep Purple’.
How did the name of the band come about ?
Arthur: ‘When we were talking about what we are going to call ourselves I said why not Becket ? There had been a film made called Becket starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole and I just liked the name. Sounds good. Just the one word.
So yeah we all went with that. If you look at Ringo Starr’s drumkit just the way they write the name Beatles, the style of the writing you know it just worked.
The two t’s at the end came about because Ted Hooper suggested we should write it that way. Ted was always hanging around and had a brother who was playing guitar in West One, another Shields band we knew.
Next we saw an advert for a gig we were doing at the Golden Slipper in South Shields and we were advertised with the two t’s. From then on in, it just stuck’.
Where did you gig and what venues did you play ?
Arthur: ‘We ended up being very successful starting off around the pubs and clubs. Usually there would be 2x 45minute sets. Early days we’d have lots of current stuff that was in the charts, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Beatles, Stones that sort of stuff.
A blessing was the Bailey Organisation because they had the Latino club in South Shields and they would get us to guest before the main artist came on like Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdink, whoever had been on Top of the Pops.
There were venues like Wetheralls, La Bamba in Darlington, La Ronde in Billingham, La Dolce Vita, The Cavendish Club there was so many. Only problem was it wasn’t till 2am when we finished then we had to get back home and we still had day jobs.
I was an apprentice tool maker and had to get up for the bus to work at 6.30am’.
Les: ‘The band used to play around the North East nearly every night of the week, quite often two bookings a night.
We’d be sort of living two lives cos we’d be in a bubble on stage, going down well and everything was great. Then I’d get in at 4 in the morning and my mother would be dragging me out of bed at 6.
Then not much later you’d be walking to work in the snow. The band was a job, we’d pay the stamp every Friday and get pay packets every Sunday.
Arthur would get a cheque off Mel Unsworth the promoter then share it out. We would only have Tuesday off cos we had girlfriends’.
Arthur: ‘Good thing was you’d have the extra money from the gigs so you could buy an extra pedal or better guitar.
One of our first gigs was at a nightclub in Darlington and the stage was big, we were right at the back and the singer was way out at the front. It was an area where all of the audience could see the artist.
The lights dimmed, we went on and played an instrumental first called Supernatural. Our singer Rob Turner came on twirling the mic stand, giving it everything and there was only a dozen people there but he got them clapping.
We were playing at the back in the shadows and were amazed because at rehearsals he’d just sit on a seat sort of crouched over and sing! When he was on stage his demeanour changed he was a totally different person. I always remember that gig.
But I always remember the day he died. We were playing a gig at La Ronde in Billingham and were just coming up to 2am. He said let’s do a blues thing, Les you just kick it off, so we started to play.
He started to sing ‘If I Knew You were Coming I would have Baked a Cake for You’ it was a blues song and that’s the last one he sang with us’.
Les: ‘I remember that gig, I remember as if it was yesterday. At the end he had a bit to drink and a girl with him. We had a policy of you go with the band you come back with the band. Then the day’s your own you know.
We said you’re coming back with us just take her number. Arthur and I went home as usual in the Hillman Minx, that was our bassist Bill Campbells car and all we talked about was Rob not coming home with us.
Next day was a Friday I got out of bed and went downstairs. My mam said someone’s been and left a message to phone Arthur it’s very important.
The nearest phone was at the bottom of the street, so I went down, phoned Arthur and he told me the bad news. I was shocked, we were upset and got the band together to talk about it. We went to see his parents’.
Arthur ‘We were told the weather conditions were very foggy that night and he was on the edge of the road near the pavement thumbing a lift. A few cars went by then he got hit.
By now the girl he was with starts to thumb as Rob is on the ground. But cars just passed by because it looked like a drunken couple. Eventually someone stopped and drove him to hospital but he had too much internal bleeding’.
Les: ‘He was only 24. The car just drove off. The person driving was caught because he put his car in a garage to have the windscreen fixed.
He said to police he didn’t stop because he thought he had just hit an animal. Reports said he was under the influence of drink and drugs. He never got put in prison, just fined’.
Did the band make the decision to carry on ?
Les: ‘Let me tell you it wasn’t an easy decision to make. But we had gigs lined up and we knew a singer already who could fit into the band. Terry Slesser was a roadie for the John Miles band The Influence, Terry had also formed a band called Zig Zag.
I had seen him a few times and thought he had a good voice. He was confident and had long hair. He joined the band eventually’.
Arthur: ‘Yeah he learnt the songs very quickly, and fitted in. We done some great gigs especially supporting the Alex Harvey Band. They were so tight, really impressed with them’.
What was it that drove you on ?
Arthur: ‘It was just that the gig was so important, it was a simple as that’.
Les: ‘The time Beckett was playing it was magic. When we’d play the workingmen’s clubs they were queuing out the door at 6pm to get a seat to see us. That’s the way it was.
We’d play Middlesbrough and go to a gig in Sunderland. We’d go in a separate car from the road crew who were in a van with all the gear.
When we went in the club you would see lots of faces who were at the first gig, they’d travelled up to see us. We really appreciated that’.
When did Beckett start songwriting ?
Arthur: ‘Les left the band, and joined Sandgate. We got a guy called Kenny Mountain in. He was in a band called Yellow with Vic Malcolm from Geordie. They had a single out but didn’t do much.
I rang Kenny who said he didn’t want to play lead, but he would still be in the band. That meant I had to up my game. Kenny came up with some songs and we ended up sticking a couple in the set, then adding a few more, then a few more.
That led us to meeting a guy called Geoff Docherty. He was a local promoter and saw us playing in Sunderland’.
Geoff Docherty was a very successful North East promoter with major bands including Pink Floyd, The Who, Rod Stewart and David Bowie.
One of the venues he promoted was The Locarno in Sunderland, a Mecca ballroom that held 3,000. For more information Geoff has authored two books ‘A Promoters Tale’ and ’Three Minutes of Magic’.
Arthur: ‘Geoff approached our singer, Terry Slesser. Geoff said he liked the band and said, ‘I can do something for you’. We had other offers, but the managers wanted too big a cut out of the money we were earning. It wouldn’t have left us with much.
So, we arranged a sit-down meeting with Geoff, he was straight talking. We were very impressed.
The clincher was when he said ‘I won’t take any money, not a penny from you until you are successful. I will have you backing people like Rod Stewart and Ten Years After’.
Not long after we started travelling the country playing gigs and what a thrill it was playing in London, especially the Marquee club. He was exact to his words’.
Did Geoff Docherty get the record companies interested in Beckett ?
Arthur: ‘Yes he got to know them all as he used to book the bands for the Top Rank Suite in Sunderland. He was very pushy. He’d tell them to come and see the band. His rhetoric and the way he put it over. Very convincing.
He got us a deal with Warner Brothers and then we went to CBS. We got a £10,000 advance from Warner Brothers. Think our Mercedes van was around £4,000.
But I had left before they made the album with Warner Brothers. They got Bob Barton in. The line up kept changing. All the original members had gone by then’.
By the time the album was released on Warner label Raft Records in 1974, the Beckett line up was Terry Wilson Slesser (vocals) Kenny Mountain (guitar) Robert Barton (guitar) Ian Murray (bass) and Keith Fisher (drums).
The Iron Maiden connection is a story for another day if one of the members can get in touch. As we were about to leave The Word I asked Les and Arthur one more question.
What does music mean to you ?
Arthur: ‘Well I can’t live without music. If my hands don’t work I don’t know what will happen. I listen to music all the time and I am in a band now with Les’.
Les: ‘When I’ve got a guitar I lose loads of time cos I can’t put it down. I’ve also been teaching music and I got into repairing and building guitars. I still play in a band now’.
Interview by Gary Alikivi March 2018.
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