LOUD AS HELL  – The North East connection from Venom to Megaforce U.S.A

The last post featured Jon Zazula and his latest book Heavy Tales. Zazula and his wife Marsha founded Megaforce Records in 1983 in New Jersey, USA, and released one of the most important albums in Heavy Metal history – ‘Kill ‘Em All’ by Metallica. This post looks at the North East connection.

The couple also ran Rock n Roll Heaven, a record shop selling the latest NWOBHM imports from bands like Venom, Raven, Iron Maiden and Angel Witch who were heavily in demand. Their customers would read Kerrang then ask for the latest releases from bands featured in the magazine.

Jon’s wife Marsha used to buy the records from distributors and pick up extra albums by Girlschool and Motorhead that she thought customers would like – and they did. The couple also bought in records from American bands, The Rods, Y&T from California and New York’s Twisted Sister – ultimately creating a vibrant metal scene.

Over in the North East of England, Venom were rehearsing in a church hall in Newcastle and after releasing a demo through Neat records, exploded onto the scene.

Back in 2017 Venom drummer Tony Bray told me “Before we started there was no Slayer or Metallica. We were in front of all that. We heard Motorhead and knew we had to be louder and harder than them”.

“Venom had its own momentum, we were blasphemous, over the top, trying to get banned – and it kept working”.

Pic of Venom from the book ‘Heavy Tales’.

Megaforce got in touch and brought them over to the east coast where they played shows with Metallica opening for them.

“This all happened in one big wave. We played our first proper gig in Belgium, it got massive reviews” said Tony. “Next we went to New York and Metallica opened up for us. We did two nights on Staten Island, New York but got our gear impounded, we were due to play the Aardshock festival in Holland with King Diamond and Raven”.

Read the full interview with Tony Bray:

HEBBURN OR HELL – Venom Inc. drummer Antony Bray decides… | ALIKIVI : NORTH EAST UK (garyalikivi.com)

Heavy Tales also details the story how Megaforce were responsible for managing and releasing important Heavy Metal albums by Anthrax, Ace Frehley, Testament, Kings X and many more. The book includes over 100 photographs taken by friends and from the Megavault.

Heavy Tales: The Metal. The Music. The Madness. As lived by Jon Zazula out now on kindle or paperback.

Gary Alikivi  June 2021.

HEAVY TALES – new book by Megaforce Records founder, Jon Zazula

Jon Zazula

Heavy Tales is the story of how one American couple who ran a flea market stall, helped create the golden era of Heavy Metal and released the most important albums in its history.

Marsha Zazula and husband Jon founded Megaforce Records in New Jersey, USA in 1983, and were instrumental in the careers of Metallica and Raven.

By the early ‘80s Raven had released two albums ‘Rock Until You Drop’ and ‘Wiped Out’ on the Neat record label based in North East England. But when Neat got a call from Zazula, Raven knew their future was Stateside not Tyneside.

Zazula has documented the story in his new book where he remembers listening to Raven’s first album Rock Until You Drop.

‘That album was recorded for about 1,000 pounds with a group of the greatest fucking musicians. You’ll hear the greatest jam, grooves and change up’s. I saw a number on the back of the cover and called David Wood, head of the label’.

I asked Jon if he can remember meeting Wood.

‘Yes the mastermind. This man had the key to the pulse and Neat records was his Kingdom. He came to the US and stayed at my home and we discussed the breaking of Raven and Venom in America’.

‘Venom were a crazy lot. They stayed with me in the States. Abaddon burnt down my kitchen and Cronos ate my glassware. There was blood and glass in my sink from when he spit it out. Mantas was quiet but always held the centre. No Mantas no Venom. But he had two maniacs at his side’.

Raven and Metallica.

Around this time, Zazula unexpectedly received a demo tape from an unsigned band.

‘As soon as I heard it I was blown away. I thought this was America’s answer to the NWOBHM. When I came upon Metallica it was like mounting a lightning bolt’.

We also worked with Raven on releasing their album and had them headlining a summer tour with Metallica. When Raven hit the stage nothing can compare. They tore it up. I can honestly say that Raven were heavily on the rise. When they toured with Metallica as their opener, they were still able to maintain headline status every single night’.

‘The Raven/Metallica tour was a success. We sold a lot of band merchandise and people took notice. Raven and Metallica played an amazing show in Chicago which we filmed in case they would ever use it for promotion’.

‘I spent some time in Newcastle. I stayed in a flat with Raven drummer, Rob Wacko Hunter. I was fortunate to meet John and Mark’s (Gallagher) parents. They were wonderful people’.

Zazula remembers offering the bands a place to stay when they were out on America’s east coast gigging.

‘There was a point when Raven, Venom and Metallica were all hanging at Casa Z ! I was trying to work in the basement with my desk surrounded by sleeping bodies snoring away’.

In 1983 Megaforce released Metallica’s debut album Kill ‘Em All and became the label in America for Heavy Metal. The book also includes stories of managing and releasing albums by Anthrax, Ace Frehley, Overkill, Ministry and more.

HEAVY TALES: The Metal, The Music, The Madness. As lived by Jon Zazula – out now on kindle or paperback.

As a mark of respect this post was held back due to the death of Marsha Zazula, on 10 January 2021. Rest in Peace.

On line interview and book extracts by Gary Alikivi  December 2020 & June 2021.

MAKING TRACKS #2 with songwriter & producer Steve Thompson. Impulse studio/NEAT records

In the second part of an interview with Teesside based songwriter & producer Steve Thompson, he talks about his time as in-house producer at Impulse studio/NEAT records and crossing swords with Northern metal maniacs Raven, Venom & Tygers of Pan Tang.

Raven

METAL CITY

The basic idea at Impulse was to have an in-house producer. Some places just had an engineer but I would be on hand to help in song construction, production and putting product out on vinyl and releasing it.

There was quite a scene with muso’s getting together in some bars on the North East coast of England. Part of the scene was a club called Mingles in Whitley Bay. This was the place I checked out Raven, they were due in Impulse studio so I wanted to get a feel of what they were about. I’ll never forget the first time I met bassist John Gallagher.

I was standing at the back of the room with my back against the wall watching the band on stage, which must have only been six inches high. John took his bass and pointed it at me like a javelin, he raced toward me and only stopped right at my throat. I didn’t flinch. He gave me a wink as though to say, yeah you’ll do for us.

CRASH, BANG & DON’T FORGET THE WALLOP

Producing their album was an intense but rewarding experience. When I agreed to produce the album it was only on a three-day week basis. I figured I would need time out to recover from the sessions. I’ve heard these guys described as ‘athletic rock’, and that’s just about right.

In fact they were so energetic that I was obliged to gaffa tape the headphones to their heads otherwise they were just bouncing off as their heads where banging ten to the dozen as they recorded.

When I first heard them I thought yeah this is heavy as hell, not what I’m writing at the moment but it was constructed, well thought out and clever with a huge sound for a three piece.

You know some studio work is psychology, getting the best out of people. For instance the harder I pushed Raven the better the output was. Some people you have to be gentler with and try not to make a mistake. Most of the time humour was what worked best. They have since said one of the things they remember about our time in the studio was how much they laughed.

THROW THE KITCHEN SINK AT IT MAN

We experimented a bit, we decided we wanted a marching sound to bring in the Rock Until You Drop track so we mic’d up the toilet floor next to the studio and went in there and marched. It wasn’t right though.

I took a coffee break to ponder the problem and then it struck me. The disposable plastic coffee cups had just that crunch factor we needed. We spread a hundred or so and stomped on them. We then did several takes but had to keep replenishing the cups. In the end we used the entire supply of three thousand.

Venom

SEDUCED BY THE DEVIL

I remember being in the studio when our tape op was a young guy called Conrad. It was his job to fetch and carry, make coffee, thread the tapes onto the machines, make tape copies and cassettes. Conrad fitted in well.  He was a good tape op and got on well with everyone. He was always going on about his own band.

It seemed they saved up for about three months until they could afford enough pyrotechnics to blow up half a city, then had to save up to do another show. Conrad said very little about the music, it was mostly about the explosions. Nearly forgot to mention, Conrad’s band was called Venom.  And what about the time I gave Venom the Devil (laughs).

The Devil is a nick name for a musical interlude called the Tritone. And it’s heavily discordant if you crank the volume up, basically the sound of The Devil. I remember in the studio I loaned them my bass and Conrad played it through a Marshall stack and a fuzz box. Apparently the loan of that bass gave birth to Black Metal. I’m responsible. Sorry.

They were very unrefined but had absolutely bags of enthusiasm, but that was the last thing I recorded there. I never took a production royalty, just said ‘There’s the tapes lad’s, I’m off’.

Eventually I sold Conrad that bass – a Gibson EB3. I said ‘I have no use for it now but you must take care of it’. Next I saw it had an upside down effigy of Christ nailed to it and holes drilled through it. Some years later I asked him did he still have it, he replied ‘It died in L.A.’

Tygers of Pan Tang

A BIG TIDE AT TYGER BAY

One of the earlier times in Impulse, Dave Woods – NEAT label owner – came in and said there’s a band out there making a big noise why not get them in and sell a few records? So in came Tygers of Pan Tang to cut three tracks. Incidentally it was to be the third single I’d produced for NEAT – the first two releases were not heavy metal.

We recorded their first single Don’t Touch Me There, now we know it was the start of what is known as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), and the tide was coming in that very evening (laughs).

Anyway we put it out and it started to really sell. MCA got interested so they picked it up, re-released it and went on to do their first album. Our paths parted then, but sometime later I was looking for somewhere to live, and the Tygers had a spare room for me to move into.

Next up read Making Tracks #3, where Steve talks about song writing & recording with Tygers of Pan Tang.

Steve’s latest album is available on Cherry Red  www.thelongfade.xyz

For more details check the official site:

The Steve Thompson Band – Steve Thompson: Songwriter (steve-thompson.org.uk)

Interview by Gary Alikivi  June 2017

MAKING TRACKS #1 with songwriter & producer, Steve Thompson. From Consett to Wallsend.

Teesside based songwriter & producer Steve Thompson has had a hell of a career in the music biz, from producing heavy metal bands Venom, Raven and Tygers of Pan Tang, to mainstream artists Sheena Easton, Elkie Brooks and Celine Dion recording his songs, plus working with Pete Waterman, Gus Dudgeon, and The Hollies. Here he talks about his early influences and forming Bullfrog.

A BIT OF BULLY

Records I was fond of in the ‘60s were The Beach Boys. Brian Wilsons skill in making records was unbelievable. I used to listen to the radio and they were so far away like gods playing this music. But the thing that got me into playing guitar was seeing everyday guys around town playing guitars, just ordinary people.

Like all kids in my town, I went straight from school into Consett Steel Works. With three other steelworkers we formed a band called Bullfrog, and served two apprenticeships. One of them by day working in the steelworks, the other by night playing the pubs and clubs of North East England. That was my first stab at the music industry.

Bullfrog supported a lot of bands like Vinegar Joe and Edgar Broughton. On October 10th 1974 I got a call from our manager to say there was a gig going that night supporting Wishbone Ash at Newcastle’s Odeon Cinema and could I get the band together. When the call came in I had been dying my cream coloured platform boots, I fancied green. But because I was in a rush, I turned out on stage that night with one green boot and the other still cream.

Steve (in blue) in Bullfrog.

I’VE GOT A PLAN, MAN

When Bullfrog were in Island Studios in London our first producer was Roger Bain, he also produced Black Sabbath. I was introduced to his friend and record producer, Gus Dudgeon of Elton John fame, later on I did a lot of work as a songwriter with Dudgeon.

The whole process of studio and song writing really intrigued me so I knew where I was headed. I wrote a few songs put them out and a guy called Dave Wood heard about me and found a slot at Impulse Studio in Wallsend.

Next up read Making Tracks #2, when Steve is producer at Impulse Studio in Wallsend, home to New Wave of British Heavy Metal label NEAT records, and crosses swords with metal maniacs Raven, Venom & Tygers of Pan Tang.

Steve’s latest album is available on Cherry Red  www.thelongfade.xyz

For more details check the official site:

The Steve Thompson Band – Steve Thompson: Songwriter (steve-thompson.org.uk)

Interview Gary Alikivi  from June 2017.

NEAT RECORDS STORY with songwriter & producer Steve Thompson

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’.

Steve’s latest album is available on Cherry Red  www.thelongfade.xyz

For more details check the official site:

The Steve Thompson Band – Steve Thompson: Songwriter (steve-thompson.org.uk)

Gary Alikivi  March 2021.

GOODBYE CONSETT – with songwriter & producer, Steve Thompson

Consett born Thompson features a couple of times on this blog. He digs out interesting and amusing stories from his musical memory box stretching over 50 years.

He talks about recording the first single for Tygers of Pan Tang in Impulse Studio, Wallsend, and being at the forefront of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal at Neat Records.

He also recalls working in studios with Raven, Gus Dudgeon, Rodger Bain, Sheena Easton, The Hollies and Venom. Check out the links at the end of this post for his stories.

Recently, Steve got in touch and brought me up to date with what he has on the boil….

Covid put the mockers on much of my creative output in 2020, so for this year my aim is to generate output in spite of the virus. First to come is an excerpt from my book I’m writing ‘Stories From a Songwriters Life’.

Life has provided me with tons of stories which I need little encouragement to tell. For years people who’ve heard and enjoyed these stories have been saying “write a book”. I’ve resisted this for a couple of reasons.

First of all, I’m embarrassed to do something as egotistical as writing about my life. The second reason is the idea of writing something ‘long form’ worries me. I’m a songwriter, a storyteller. Everything I do is short form: a three-minute pop song, a short anecdote. How could I maintain interest over several thousand words?’

pic. Kev Howard

Good news is that Steve has decided to take all the anecdotes and life stories and patch them together.

‘If I can make this flow in a coherent way, maybe I’ll have a book’…said Steve.

He’s making the early chapters available free to read on download and I’ve had a look at some stories including these from his youth….

‘Apart from trying to write songs I had taken a few stabs at getting a band together but they all came to nothing. I became a weekend hippy. Tie dye, long hair, the lot. Overalls during the week and tie dye at the weekend. I was so into music and yet I’d not yet seen many live bands.

I noticed in Melody Maker that a pop festival was taking place over two or three days. So, that summer when I was just 18, I donned my safari boots and my homemade tie dye T Shirt and hitch hiked to Staffordshire with two bob in my pocket.

The 1970 festival featured among others: Free, Black Sabbath, The Grateful Dead, Traffic and Ginger Baker’s Air Force. I ate nothing for three days, smoked dope for the first time and ended up sleep walking around Stoke on Trent. Far out man!’

Steve (in blue) in Bullfrog.

Steve writes about his time as an apprentice in Consett Steel Works and how it made a lasting impression on him….

‘At the Steel works I remade the acquaintance of a guy from school, Robin Hird, who played guitar. We got talking and said he would give me a bass guitar if I would form a band with him. I readily agreed.

A few days later he turned up at my parents’ house with a drummer called Mick Simmons. I played them some songs I was writing, and Robin said “see, I told you he was talented”.

And that was that. Neither of them saw fit to inquire if I could play bass.

With the inclusion of Mick Glancy a few days later on vocals we had a band. My interest in being a steelworker declined. I was surely bound for rock stardom!’

Read the stories from Steve’s schooldays, starting work and beginning of his musical career in ‘Goodbye Consett’ which is free to download from Friday 8 January 2021 at

www.steve-thompson.org.uk/book 

Gary Alikivi   January 2021

THE GODFATHER of the North East New Wave of British Heavy Metal | ALIKIVI (garyalikivi.com)

Guardian Recording Studio stories #3 | ALIKIVI (garyalikivi.com)

IT WASN’T ABOUT BECOMING ROCK STARS – in conversation with songwriter & producer Steve Thompson | ALIKIVI (garyalikivi.com)

SMELLS LIKE TOON SPIRIT -A new book ‘Closest Thing to Heaven’ captures the atmosphere surrounding Newcastle ‘70s & ’80s music scene has been produced by MiE Fielding and Simon McKay.

The 96 page book is a photographic montage of fashion, faces, venues, record shops and home-made flyers – and readers of this blog will be familiar to some of the bands featured.

‘We refer to Newcastle having more of a ‘village’ feel to it back then as everyone seemed to know everyone else. Thing is, how were those gigs organised as they were often well attended. There are faces that I’m sure will be remembered, and not a tattoo or mobile phone in sight…explained Mick.

The main focus of the book are black & white photographs of North East bands Raven, Danceclass, Venom, White Heat, Angelic Upstarts and Tygers of Pan Tang tightly packed in with The Fauves, The Carpettes and Punishment of Luxury.

Mick added…As well as established acts playing in front of large audiences we tried to reflect the increase in energy as punk, new wave and electronica caught hold. What unites them all is that they were performing in Newcastle in an era that has to be the most creative in the city’s illustrious history’.

There’s even a couple of early shots of Prefab Sprout in a pub in Jesmond, a young Jimmy Nail before TV fame as Oz in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and is that a snap of Neil Tennant pre Pet Shop Boys?

How did the idea come together Mick?

Closest Thing to Heaven was very much a side project as it’s not the kind of thing I generally get involved with as I’m heavily into the avant-garde in both music and art. I’m a member of dumdum SCORE previously known as Ju JU Pell Mell pictured in the book. Simon was a member of the band The Said Liquidator and runs the fanzine Eccentric Sleeve Notes, he also DJ’s on Post Punk Britain.

I put the idea of a book forward to Simon who I’ve known for many years and he agreed to get involved immediately. We needed a ‘reason’ to do the book and decided we’d like to raise money for a music charity.

That lead me to fellow Northumbrian musician Kathryn Tickell who had set up the Young musicians fund with the aim of providing money for instruments for kids who couldn’t afford their own. So it was arranged that our royalties would go directly to the fund.

What was the inspiration behind the project ?

Like Simon I was part of that Newcastle scene, plus I had a number of 35mm negatives and photographs that were taken during the late ‘70s and ‘80s. I knew Simon was also a meticulous collector of artefacts of the time. He saw the importance of stuff back then so he also came up with a treasure trove of related material.

Once we’d put our collective resources together it was a case of trying to contact other musicians who had been active during that period – many are still going – and asking for help. Luckily everyone was extremely helpful including rock photographer Rik Walton.

How long did the project take ?

The book came together over a period of around 18 months in which time a lot of the pictures needed restoration so I spent many hours on photoshop.

The next problem was how to present the book whilst avoiding the need for accuracy of names of band members as we soon realised that including individual names would be an impossible task after all these years.

What are your aims for the book ?

I think we’ve done a pretty good job in reflecting the Newcastle scene around that era and hopefully it will bring back some great memories for people as it did for Simon and myself, and above all it will raise cash for the Young Musicians Fund.

Looking ahead, the book was to be launched with an exhibition in Newcastle City Library, and an event featuring some music and associated art. However like many other things of 2020 they had to be cancelled but hopefully we’ll have a proper launch in the Spring of 2021.

The book was available from 3rd December 2020 in all high street shops, and available online through Amazon or direct from Tyne Bridge Publishing at Tyne Bridge Publishing | Newcastle City Council

Note that Tyne Bridge (Newcastle City Libraries) operate a skeleton staff because of Covid. To date they have shipped 100+ advanced orders, any potential buyer would need to be patient if ordering direct from them.

To contact Simon McKay go to the following links:

Home | Eccentric Sleeve Notes | Post-Punk Interviews, Photos & Music

Post Punk Britain | Free Listening on SoundCloud

Interview by Gary Alikivi  December 2020.

METAL TOON, METAL CITY – video filmed in Newcastle for new single from Chief Headbangers, Raven.

On Tyneside during the ‘70s and ‘80s rock music was heard from Sunderland to South Shields, bounced over the river Tyne to Whitley Bay and Wallsend – the vibrations were felt in Newcastle. A North East New Wave of British Heavy Metal was coming in.

Riding the wave were Fist, Hellanbach, Mythra, Tygers of Pan Tang and Venom pushing metal to its limits and discovering a new energy. Another of those bands was Raven.

Now based Stateside, but originally formed in Newcastle in 1974, early gigs saw the trio cutting their teeth on North East live circuit of working mens clubs. Headline gigs at Newcastle Mayfair and Dingwalls gained the band a solid live reputation. The gates were opened, and the band went onto UK support slots with Iron Maiden, Ozzy and Whitesnake.

By the early ‘80s two albums ‘Rock Until You Drop’ and ‘Wiped Out’ were recorded in Wallsend’s Impulse Studio on the Tyneside label, Neat Records. Then a call came in from America.

Raven were at the forefront of speed metal spawning the big four beasts from the United States – Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax and dragging Metallica out on their first, and scorching, tour across the USA. We know where they ended up. These were life changing moments. Raven knew their future was Stateside and subsequently signed to Megaforce and then major label, Atlantic.

Fast forward 40 plus years and the band are still hitting it hard with new single ‘Metal City’ from their forthcoming album. The music video was filmed on Tyneside capturing iconic structures like the Angel of the North, Tyne Bridge and even St James’ Park home of Newcastle United. I asked bassist and vocalist John Gallagher did filming stir up any memories when you were at the locations ?

It definitely stirred up some memories especially with one part of the shoot. We were driving to one of the locations when I mentioned “I grew up down that street there” and our video guy Paul said “Then let’s check it out!” So the footage with me playing the bass is in the backlane in Benwell where we played football as kids.

After ‘Top of the Mountain’ this is the second track released and both are very strong opening singles, I asked John are the band putting down a marker for what the listeners can expect from the rest of the album ?

Very much so. Top was the perfect choice as the first song as it sounds like one of our early songs dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century!! And Metal City is not only the title track but it’s a real anthem type song.

(Yep, added to trademark Gallagher scream, check out the geet big chorus!)

The rest of the album runs the gamut from crazy fast songs like The Power, and a tribute to Lemmy in Motorheadin’. Added to super aggressive tracks like Human Race and Break plus a bit of an epic in When Worlds Collide. So there’s variety, and all heavy with ‘all killer, no filler’.

How do you look at this album compared to previous releases ?

This one is a belta! We actually think this album is the best thing we’ve ever done, for a band that’s been around the block as long as we have that’s really a case of laying down the gauntlet to many of the other bands of our era who are putting out ‘ok’ albums.

The band have just released new European tour dates, when was your last gig pre – covid ?

Our last shows were on the Monsters of Rock cruise which departs from Florida. We did the pre-party show in Miami and a show on the cruise. Always great fun, and we actually did Chainsaw for the first time in about 30 years. We can’t wait to test drive these new songs on stage!

Watch the video on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtKKmm6ibOM&list=RDjtKKmm6ibOM&start_radio=1&t=20

Check official website for tour dates and album release:  https://ravenlunatics.com/

Interview by Gary Alikivi September 2020.

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.

THE FIXER – in conversation with former Impulse Studio and Neat Records owner David Wood

The next person to feature on this blog was owner of probably the most influential independent heavy metal record label in the 1980’s, a label that spawned Chief Headbangers Raven and Venom, who were major influences on the multi-million selling Americans, Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeath.

So what was he like ? Was he the Don Arden of Tyneside ? Am I to be flown out by private jet to a yacht on the French Riviera or picked up by a chauffeur driven Rolls Royce and driven off to an exclusive restaurant ? Sadly no, it was just a misty September morning when I nipped on a ferry, crossed the river Tyne and taken to a café in North Tyneside by a man wearing a fez.

What or who inspired you to start Impulse Studio ? When I left school I ended up as a Park Keeper in Wallsend Park then found a half decent job as a Technical Assistant at Proctor and Gamble. I was there for 3 year, it was well paid at £11 a week so I had a few quid to go out on a Friday night with me mates, but I couldn’t see myself staying there. For a 21st birthday present off my parents I was given a ticket to go to America on the Queen Mary.

While sightseeing in New York I came across this recording studio called Talent Masters. I went in and got talking to a guy who worked there called Chris Huston. I found out he used to be guitarist in The Undertakers from Liverpool. They had a hit record but he left the UK to be a tape technician in the studio. I’d always liked music, my instrument is the piano while not much of a player, but was really interested in this studio.

So when I returned home on the Queen Elizabeth ship I began to play around with a bit of sound recording. At that time a teenagers club was open in The Borough Theatre in Wallsend called The Manhole. This was around 1966 and people were listening to The Beatles and locally The Animals had made their name. It was a great meeting place was The Manhole, graphics painted on the walls, flower power you know, and a lot of good bands played there.

That’s where I really got interested in the music scene. There was a similar place in Tynemouth called The Cave which was underneath The Gate of India Restaurant.

(There was also a teenagers club in Beach Road, South Shields called The Cellar Club run by Stan Henry and his mother. Stan later opened The Latino and The New Cellar Club where Cream and Jimi Hendrix played).

cellaradvert

Advert for the opening of The New Cellar Club, South Shields. Taken from The Shields Gazette December 1967.

Yes I used to go to The Cellar. I’d drive to the ferry at Howdon, get on there with my car, you could in them days, then get off at Jarrow. It was a great building I think it was in the basement of their house where Stan’s mother ran the club. South Shields and Sunderland had their own places to run music from, it was great. I ended up doing some work for Stan, we ended up doing his sound equipment and for a lot of other people to keep the business ticking over.

In the Manhole club I met a band called The Chosen Few, and in them were Alan Hull, Alan ‘Bumper’ Brown on bass, singer was Rod Hood, guitarist I think was John Gibson and keyboards was Micky Gallagher who eventually played for The Blockheads, and he’d also played in The Animals when Alan Price left. They were really good and had a recording contract with PYE records. They recorded down in the West End of London at Radio Luxembourg studios. They put a couple of singles out.

Going back to The Manhole Club, that just shut one day and never reopened. I don’t know why maybe someone out there knows something about that. The Borough Theatre was built in 1906, it was a music hall at first, then a cinema, then a bingo hall. I got to know the manager and asked him for some space to run a studio. The studio was in the dressing room and the entrance to the studio was through the old stage door. There was a little booth where the doorman would of sat, well before our time (laughs).

How did you develop the space into a recording studio ? Literally built it up from scratch Gary, it took years to get it all done. At first we used egg boxes for sound proofing then bricked up all the windows. Anything was used for padding because we never had enough money then and at first we only had a mono then a stereo studio. We then purchased a 4 track, then an 8 track, eventually a 24 track machine but this was done over 10 or 12 years.

This was all by the 1980’s and by then we had the run of all the building and moved the studio to the top floor, which wasn’t very popular with the bands as we had no lift. Eventually Impulse Studios were on all 3 floors.

What bands did you record and who did you get in as sound engineer ? One day I bumped into Alan Hull (Lindisfarne) by then The Chosen Few had split up, he was working as a nurse at St Nicholas Mental Hospital and still writing songs so I invited him down to record some. Impulse at that time recorded local bands.

We were a progressive studio and probably recorded most people in the region who sang and played at one time in their careers. Everything then was recorded onto quarter inch tape. At that time we started to organise pressing records.

Sound engineer was Micky Sweeney, a great character, really popular with everyone. I used to do some recording as well. Micky ended up working with Lindisfarne who were born in the studio because it was there that Alan Hull got together with various members of Downtown Faction. They played together and got to know each other and it all came together.

You recorded an album with North East comedian Bobby Thompson, how did that come about ? I knew his manager Brian Shelley and he said Bobby is doing really well around the clubs do you fancy recording him ? I thought yeah we’ll give it a go. So we recorded him in Rhyope Poplars Club and Newcastle Mayfair. This was around 1978. It was around an hours recording that we put out and got Vaux breweries to sponsor it, ironically Bobby didn’t drink then and there he was on a promo poster with a pint of beer.

Soon as we put the record out it took off, they couldn’t get enough off it, straight to number one in the local charts. Every shop was selling bucket loads. It was phenomenal. Nobody could of appreciated the way it took off like it did, he even appeared on the Wogan show. But his humour didn’t travel well, he was shy of being in other places but up here in the North East he was absolutely fantastic. He could relate to the man in the street up here – the debt, the poverty, the wife and the war, he was incredible really.

With the label doing well, was Bobby responsible for Neat records ? Ha ha well with the profits from Bobby the studio came on in leaps and bounds in no time at all, so yeah we’ve got to thank him for it. We started Neat records as an alternative to what we were doing. A couple of early singles and one by a band called Motorway which was pop, not heavy metal, then a song by Jayne McKenzie written and engineered by Steve Thompson.

Then Tygers of Pan Tang, Raven and Fist came along and suddenly we’ve got what became a New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Venom added to that and before we knew it we’ve built up a library of metal records.

Was there any rivalry between the top four North East metal bands – Fist, Raven, Venom and the Tygers ? Ha ha yeah they probably hated each other. No, listen, musicians are very much their own people you know. I don’t blame them. If they are the guitarist they are a ‘great guitarist’, you can’t perform in front of a dozen, hundreds, or thousands of people if you haven’t got an ego. You couldn’t stand on stage if you are a wimp, you’ve got to have something about ya – and they all do.

For Venom, first gig they played was at a church hall in Wallsend and they decided to have pyrotechnics and smoke. That all went off at the start and that’s the last we saw of the band for the whole set – they were playing behind a screen of smoke.

Did you deal with any managers or did the bands represent themselves ? I dealt with Raven directly but some of the bands had managers. One of them was a butcher (laughs) then Venom ended up with Eric Cook who really worked hard for them.  He was very enthusiastic and got a lot of things going for them.

Thing was he had no experience but nobody else did really with this New Wave of Heavy Metal, it was all new. And that is something to remember about that whole scene, they were trying to play and we were trying to market, we (Neat) were all on the same level. We were balancing the recording, arranging tours, marketing, it was all interesting times, sort of in development, and some nightmare situations.

How did recording on the Neat label work for bands ? We did singles at first and they were tasters trying to get some interest, get picked up by bigger labels, that sort of thing. Some of them would end up on compilation lp’s later and some of the early Neat stuff were the demos. The first Raven album went into the national charts which was a surprise to all of us. But that was the progress we were trying to make.

How did Tygers of Pan Tang end up on MCA record label ? MCA were interested in the Tygers first single and put it out on their label which put the Tygers in a position to sign an album deal. Through their enquiries I got to know Stuart Watson who was head of A&R so I took the whole Neat project to MCA. They ended up recording albums by Fist and White Spirit. But MCA didn’t get their teeth into what we were doing so it all came back to us.

It could have gone further but major companies are looking for big numbers, they didn’t want to sell 5,000 albums they wanted to sell 50,000 albums. We would have been happy to sell 1,000!

If you did sell that many how would the profit be used ? It would all go in the kitty, we wanted to progress the studio and the label – but we didn’t have any Lamborghini’s you know.

How did the label work for Raven ? We ended up doing 3 albums with them and took them to America and worked with Johnny Z at Megaforce Records based in New Jersey. They did some touring over there and Neat were managing the band at the time, paying them a retainer every week. When they came back the band had signed with the Americans. ‘Thanks for telling us’ I said, but hey that’s all in the past and we came to an agreement to release I think a live album over there.

Was that the bands natural progression to go to a bigger label ? Yes I suppose that’s fair comment to say that. We had gone as far as we could as basically a smaller outfit. I liked the band, I liked the idea of a 3 piece because it makes it easier to ship around. A 5 piece band can be much more challenging to get around on tour and in the studio.

Did the label have contacts to sell records in other countries ? We tried to get like-minded people in European countries, Holland, Italy etc, to do that but sometimes it was hard. A lot of time was spent trying to get it up and running but perhaps the label never reached it’s full potential. We sold to local record shops in the North East but a good outlet was actually mail order.

How does it work for a band if they released a single in say 1980 and the track ends up on a compilation album years later ? All the contracts were given over to Sanctuary and they had a section to deal with all the necessary releases.

What were Neat paying for as in terms of recording and tours ? We would put money up for tours and we once bought a tour bus for Fist, which was a big mistake cos it got wrecked inside. Their first single was ‘Name, Rank & Serial Number’ and ‘The Wanderer’ came much later, Status Quo ended up doing that, sounding very similar. Doing a more commercial song is a way in. Again I liked Fist and thought they had great potential, Keith Satchfield is a great singer and songwriter.

But just managing it all, controlling it all was a nightmare. There wasn’t a bottomless pit to fund it and you just try your best with the resources. What was surprising about bands playing in the UK was there wasn’t many chances to play on the big festivals, England was a hard place to play. America and Europe was mainly where the market was. I remember Holland was a good place for the bands to go.

Neat released a lot of singles would that have put the label in a good position ? Yes it helped the studio, marketing etc when the next single or album come along to record and promote.

Was there a time when Neat weren’t in a good position ? Yes often, I remember one time a band wanted to go on tour and it was £4,000. A lot to lay out because you don’t get it back cos the band don’t make much playing live. There was a lot of costs involved with going on the road.

When did Neat records fold ? Jess Cox (former Tygers of Pan Tang vocalist) got involved and we set up a separate label called Neat Metal, we put a different catalogue together, started licencing from different labels – a different approach to it. At one time we didn’t have any of the original Neat stuff on the catalogue. Eventually Sanctuary Records came in for the label and did some re-releases. A lot of independent labels have been moved around over the years.

With that I checked my watch and time was getting on so we agreed to meet up again soon where Dave will tell more stories about Impulse Studio including Cilla Black, Joan Armatrading and Sir Lawrence Olivier.

Interview by Gary Alikivi  September 2019.