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.

EURO GOES POP in conversation with David Ducasse from pop band Scooch

A previous blog made a link from South Shields born jazz musician Kathy Stobart to Radiohead. This time trying a bigger stretch from South Shields to Swedish Kings and Queens of goth pop ABBA….

Well there was two boys and two girls (laughs). We were more like STEPS than ABBA….tho’ I wish we’d won like Abba !

What happened after Scooch had been selected to represent the UK ? Well it was just mad, I wouldn’t say it was scary, just full on. When we were chosen things were never the same. The last UK entrant to win was Katrina and the Waves in 1997 and she was brilliant. It’s almost like a Eurovision family once you’ve done it.

We’ve done quite a few gigs around the Eurovision night and you all perform on the same shows, your paths cross. It’s because you have achieved something, a milestone in your career, it was a moment in time for us or you can get unbelievable success like ABBA.

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In 2007 Eurovision was held in Helsinki and the UK representatives were pop band Scooch including South Shields born David Ducasse. The song Flying the Flag reached number 5 in the UK charts, unfortunately didn’t do as well in the competition…. We came second to last but the experience was the closest we got to huge exposure. It was something we never imagined, just to have that opportunity. Sometimes it feels like five minutes ago and other times it’s like Did that really happen ?

Not many people get to represent their country at anything… Yeah that was the lovely thing about it, almost having a second life with Scooch because we had done stuff in the ‘90s and the demise of the band then felt like the rug was pulled under our feet. Our lead singer Nat got pregnant and of course needed time off, and sadly Russ and Caroline just went separate ways and we all chased very different dreams.

We thought why get back together and pursue something which was really hard work and we were at that point where it was make or break. Coming back for Eurovision ? We just didn’t see that coming.

How did the Eurovision entry first come about ? Russ had been in the audience of Eurovision with his friend James Fox (UK representative 2004) and at the end of it they were talking to the producer Dominic who he had met years before when he was a runner on a show called Liquid TV. Dominic told Russ he can remember Scooch and asked him what are you doing now sort of thing, well Russ being a chancer just said ‘How do you think we’ll go down on this show ?’ Scooch still gigged now and then and within a few months of that conversation we got a call saying ‘Would you like to give it a go ?

We never thought it would happen but I remember it was on a Valentines Day 2007 and we were in ! An old Scooch song which we demoed but never done anything with, was submitted but Dominic said it was too good.

Too good ? What did he mean ? The entrants for that year were all blasts from the past, remember we hadn’t got to the actual Eurovision yet this was the selection process to find who was going to represent the UK. It was all people who had done something before like Liz McClarnon from Atomic Kitten, you had Brian Harvey from East 17, Justin Hawkins from The Darkness was thrown in as the wild card at the end.

So you had your own niche like R&B, a ballad type of thing, rock, and for want of a better description we were the cheesy act. This was a new label for us although we had been around in the ‘90s as a pop group.

Dominic asked if we had anything else. Russ was doing some work in film at the time and he was working with two songwriters, Morton from Sweden and Paul Tarrie, they were writing a song for an animation movie featuring aeroplanes. One idea was around the inflight announcements, they went with that and Russ had the bap de da bap chorus, they asked for more but it didn’t exist then !

Meanwhile we got to a studio in London where Morton and Paul were writing the rest of the song, we put it down and then left them to craft it all together for what became Flying the Flag.

Originally, how did you join Scooch ? The manager Steve Crosby was a former DJ, he put STEP’S together and wrote their big hit 5,6,7,8 with Pete Waterman. But he was ousted from there so put together Scooch as a big two fingers up to Waterman, that’s why he went to Watermans former partner in the record business Mike Stock.

What happened was Scooch had just lost one of their members so put an advert in The Stage newspaper and I sent my cv and demo in. Natalie, Caroline and Russ liked me so I went down and hung out with them in Surrey where they were based, just got to know each other, and got on really well. Steve said go back to Newcastle have a think about it and so will we and we’ll speak soon.

Next day the call came… ‘You’re in’. I was already in development with a boy band called Northern Line but they didn’t seem as settled, a few members came and went, so I jumped ship to Scooch.

When was this and did you move to London ? Around late 1997 cos it wasn’t another 18 months until we got the deal. No I didn’t move straight away, every so often I would go down rehearse, record a vocal , learn a routine. I used to clean Kirkpatricks pub in South Shields to pay for my train ticket.

Then Mike Stock got involved and re-recorded one of our songs, he put his magic on it and Steve started knocking on doors of record companies or they would come round to a rehearsal. On one day you’d have a couple of A&R from a company coming at 1 till 2pm, then another like Polydor at 2 till 3pm.

We’d sing When My Baby, Syncopated Rhythm, a cover of You to Me are Everything then When My Baby acapella to prove we could sing. Then we’d sit down and they’d ask a few questions, they always asked would I move to London. Which I did eventually in May 1998.

Where did you live ? Our manager Steve had a record shop in Stoneleigh and he lived in the flat upstairs, then he moved out and Russ and I moved in. I think it’s an Italian restaurant now. Thing was then, I was 22 years old but I always had to remember my Scooch age in interviews. We played it a few years younger than we really were.

Who were the songwriters for Scooch ? The majority of the songs were Mike Stock and Matt Aitkin, Morton a songwriter from Sweden also wrote some. We had a development deal with Mike Stock and part of that agreement was that we were to write some of our own songs and Morton was the guy to help us develop those skills. It was a nice team we all knew and trusted each other.

What studio did you record in ? For Flying the Flag it was Mortons house in Fulham but back in the day it was 100 House, the home of Love This records run by Mike Stock. It was an incredible place to be, it had the recording and dance studios, with amazing choreographers working there.

One day was Diana Ross rehearsing for Top of the Pops next day Atomic Kitten and Christmas parties with everyone turning up. Basically it was pop heaven seeing all the artists in the canteen and their records on the wall, people I had grew up listening to. Yeah it was a great experience.

What was your experience of dealing with the record company ? Basically the record label are like a big bank so you get a budget for whatever deal they give you. We were at EMI on their pop division label Accolade records, and they just liked us.

Our first deal was a single and they gave us x amount of thousands of pounds to promote the single. They said ‘Let’s see how it charts and then we’ll see where we go’. We got a second single out with an option to a third and our second release More Than I Needed to Know hit number 5, a great success. The record company said ‘ok let’s do an album’.

But being four naïve youngsters we never made any money from ‘90s Scooch. Every hotel you were staying in you were spending your money, you had to make money back before seeing a penny. I spent a lot of time with the management and asked them ‘Why are we staying in the Malmaison with four separate rooms? Why do we have four separate cars ? I cottoned on.

I went to the band and said we need to get clever here, get some endorsements, we only got an advance of around £2,000 between us. So how do you pay your rent in London ? We had to wise up a bit and find ways to cut costs.

I loved our manager Steve as a friend, but as I was spokesman for the band we would also have business conversations. One day he said he was putting his expenses in and I asked him what expenses ? He said ‘When we’ve went for a meal or I’ve paid for your train ticket to Newcastle’.

I needed to investigate further, we were learning as we were thrown into it, because with the record deal came lawyers and who was paying them ? When we done the two singles and looked to the album we were potentially going to do more work, that was another expense so we needed to look after our side of things.

How did you survive in the business ? Just things like when we done Top of the Pops, this was our third time, I told Steve we had to wear something different from the music video we had filmed for the single. Top of the Pops wanted us to film three versions for different episodes of the show so we borrowed outfits from the All Saints girl band, then Steve got £50 off the record company to buy new outfits.

Russ and I were due to sign on the dole in Epsom on the afternoon when we were supposed to record the show. So I rang up the dole and explained why we couldn’t make the signing on time…

’Cos we’re doing Top of the Pops’. He didn’t believe us at first ‘Can you prove it and are you actually seeking work ? I said ‘Of course I can prove it our faces are on cd’s, it just doesn’t pay well that’s why we’re signing on’ (laughs).

They agreed we could sign early, so when we went there we signed autographs and had our pictures taken, then made our way to the TV studio. We still got our Job Seekers Allowance because we really needed the money for our rent in London.

Our biggest earners where sponsorship deals, we were paid ambassadors for the Children’s Health Authority and the Rugrats DVD things like that. Touring is the best way to make money that’s why Little Mix go out twice a year.

Looking back to your time in Scooch where there any moments that stand out ? You can’t get better than the live Eurovision audience, knowing that for three minutes everyone will hear something you’ve worked really hard at.

Although I did have two nearly pinch myself moments. One was meeting the Prime Minister Tony Blair in the corridor at GMTV and he shouted ‘Look it’s Scooch!’ and getting to press the button on the National Lottery draw ! Yes easily pleased (laughs).

Was there a moment when you thought this is it I’ve made it ? I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way as a performer because I’ve always viewed each job as a role or a stepping stone to where I always wanted to be – an actor. My dream job would be a six month stint on Emmerdale – so I can get home on a weekend!

What’s next David ? We have something planned but can’t tell you just yet. Watch this space.

Interview by Gary Alikivi  January 2020.