PLAY IT AGAIN – on TV & Stage with music documentary director, Bob Smeaton

Smeaton first featured on this blog back in November 2018 talking about his time as lead vocalist and frontman with Newcastle bands Hartbreaker, White Heat and Loud Guitars. Over 17 years Bob played over 400 gigs, his last was in 1991.

Some say White Heat were the best band to come out of Newcastle who ‘never made it’. They signed for Virgin records in 1980, went on tour with Judas Priest and headlined London Marquee – they set alight to the Tyne, but sadly not the Thames.

Smeaton turned to acting on stage and TV, and like most North East actors was cast in an episode of Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

‘I was in the second series that was mostly filmed in Nottingham prior to them moving the action to Spain. I had known Jimmy Nail from when he used to come and see White Heat and had also met Tim Healy a number of times, as I had once worked with his wife Denise’ remembers Bob.

Nearly 40 years later the show about a group of British workers on a German building site is still being repeated on TV today. Even though some scenes have been chopped out – it still gets me smiling which is a hard ask at the best of times. I suppose it’s a great example of ‘feel good telly’ – and nothing comes close.

‘My role as shop assistant in a man’s boutique was very much blink and you miss it, and in fact it didn’t warrant a mention in my memoir. I’m sure that role could have been played by a hundred other actors. I was told recently that my scene has been cut from the re-runs on UK Drama but my name is still there in the end credits!

As chance would have it I was in a club in London a couple of years ago and a bloke came up to me pointed to my trousers and asked ‘Do they do the Italian paratrooper in your size’. Which was one of my lines from the scene. He then proceeded to run the whole scene with him playing the role of Oz and me reprising my role as the shop assistant’.

Fans of the programme still regard it with much affection and the interview with Auf Wiedersehen actress Lesley Saint John, is by far the most popular interview on this blog (link below). Lesley appears in ‘Hasta La Vista’, the episode that Bob appeared in.

It just goes to show what a brilliant series it was and how people still look upon it with great affection. I was also lucky to have been in a scene with Tim Spall, he is a genius and nothing like the character he played on screen.

Bob in his early days in White Heat.

TEENAGE DREAM

When my careers guidance teacher asked me what I wanted to do when I left school I told her I wanted to be an actor or singer. This didn’t seem like an option and she suggested the shipyards as a third option. As it turned out I have been fortunate to do all three.

Without doubt singing in a band was, and remains, the best thing that I’ve ever done. Nothing beats being on stage and performing to an audience. And my love of music was the springboard to my present job as a director of music documentaries. 

Even working in the yards had its upside, it gave me loads of material for song lyrics and made me realise ‘there must be more to life than this’.

Bob and Mick McNally shooting a scene from the Film on Four, Accounts.


STAGECRAFT

I always felt there was an element of acting in being in a band, you learnt your lines, put on a show and hopefully entertained an audience with a degree of honesty.
I first acted in school plays at junior school even though at South Benwell school we didn’t do drama. Therefore I would write plays and give myself the lead role. Often with a few songs thrown in for good measure.

When White Heat split I was very fortunate to be cast in a Film on Four called Accounts. The guy who wrote it, Micheal Wilcox, had seen me presenting a television show called The Colour Programme, and thought that I would be right to play the part of Andy Mawson.

The role had previously been performed on stage by Kevin Whately. Mike McNally played the role of my younger  brother, Donald. Mike and I have remained good friends and I look forward to getting up a doing a turn with him at ‘Jarra Tapas’ in the not too distant future.

15 MINUTES OF FAME

I thought that having had a lead role in a film would be the springboard to more acting work, but that wasn’t the case. I soon learnt that for every role there would be hundreds of actors going for the same part. I was up for roles alongside the likes of Robson Green and Joe Caffrey, great actors with more experience than I had.

As far as my acting career goes the thing that got me noticed most was an advert for McEwan’s Best Scotch. When it was broadcast I discovered what it was like to be famous for 15 minutes. The irony was I was recognised more for that ad than I did for being in a band. But I guess that’s that the power of television. It’s still out there on You Tube. And I can laugh at it now and it’s great to have a record of what I looked like all those years ago.

Like most local actors I did a Catherine Cookson. I was cast in the The Black Candle and had my throat cut about ten minutes into the film. My mam thought it was the best thing that I had ever done, and would watch on repeat my sad demise at the hands of some posh bloke.

Those Cookson’s were great and had really high production values and were a great source of work for a load of local actors. I am sure every actor in the North East will have a Cookson on their CV.

Bob during the time of making the McEwans Best Scotch commercial.

SCREEN TIME

Another show filmed in the North East was TV detective show Spender, broadcast 1991-93. The programme starred Jimmy Nail who created the series with Ian La Franais, who also wrote Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

I played the part of a drug dealer in Spender, I think Jimmy Nail put me forward for that role. I still see Jimmy occasionally but we never talk about acting. Like me I think his first love was and remains music, we talk about music and the sad demise of our football club.

I also did some Theatre work and my debut was in a play called Fur Coat and No Knickers by Mike Harding. This was at the Palace Theatre in Westcliff Upon Sea. My opening line was “Hello I’m Mark Greenhalgh I’m as bright as the inside of a cows bum”. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was a good laugh.

Eastenders actor Ross Kemp was also in it. We became good mates, we also did The Wizard of Oz together. Me and telly hardman Ross Kemp in leotards playing munchkins was a sight to behold. I never really caught the theatre bug and much preferred television and film acting.

I did dip my toe back into acting when I finished working on the Beatles Anthology. Matthew Robinson cast me in Quayside a soap opera that was set on Tyneside. The television audience hated it and it got dropped after one series. I loved it and had a great time making it, the highpoint was getting to work alongside the great Joe Caffrey.

One time we were sat waiting to start filming and he was chatting away to me. I didn’t realise he was running the scene. It didn’t seem like he was acting. That was the difference between my acting and the likes of Joe, for him it was effortless.

Bob on stage at the Palace Theatre doing Wizard of Oz. Ross Kemp and Bob standing either side of Dorothy.

TV EXIT

I haven’t done any acting since Quayside (1997), the series was cancelled around the same time as my career as a director of music documentaries began to take off. My first love was always music, but I was very fortunate to have experienced what I was like to be an actor and I really enjoyed it and I would ‘never say never again’.

I really miss performing and although acting will never replace the buzz of being on stage with a band I feel it works a similar muscle. Performing is in my blood and I would like to think both of those doors remain open.

When I released my book someone got in touch and suggested trying to make a film of it and that I could play the role of my dad. Anyone who has read the book would realise me and my dad had a difficult relationship, but maybe playing him might have helped get rid of some demons. Also I would have got to get up and sing a bunch of Tom Jones songs.

YOU BETTER YOU BET

The year before the pandemic struck I broke my knee-cap and I was out of action for six months. I was finally back up and running at the start of 2020, then the pandemic struck.

I have been very fortunate to have been kept busy during this past year. I finished a documentary about the Who Sell Out album just before Christmas, this is due to air on Sky Arts around the end of April.

At present I am in the process of finishing a film about a big American band, I’m not at liberty to say who it is, it should hopefully get a cinema release later this year and will also screen on television.

GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE

As we have not been able to get out and do much socialising, my evenings have been spent working on some new songs and practicing my singing and guitar playing. It would be great to get the songs recorded.

I am also pondering the possibility of getting out there and doing some gigs once the restrictions are lifted. I am not sure what form the gigs would take but I am keeping my options open. But I have always said that it’s as big a buzz playing to twenty people as it is to two thousand.

Bob Smeaton’s memoir – From Benwell Boy to 46th Beatle…and Beyond

is available now through Newcastle Waterstones and Amazon.

Link to previous interview:

THE BOY FROM BENWELL – with Film & TV Director, Bob Smeaton | ALIKIVI (garyalikivi.com)

Link to interview with Lesley Saint John:

TALKING PICTURES in conversation with actress Lesley Saint John | ALIKIVI (garyalikivi.com)

Interview by Gary Alikivi   March 2021.

LUCKY MAN – part one, with North Shields actor & musician Tony Hodge.

Leaving school and taking up a job as a Chef led Tony Hodge down a path that he couldn’t imagine

I’ve been very lucky as a chef, drummer, actor and company director plus a rocker in the famous ‘60s era of mods and rockers. Looking back they were great years, it’s been a blast. I’ve been a lucky man said 75 year old Tony.

Did you come from a musical family ?

My family weren’t musical as such, although my parents sang in the church choir and my brother plays guitar. When I was a chef in 1961 at the Park Hotel in Tynemouth, the hotel had a resident band with a drum kit. I had an urge to play and that started a career that spanned over 30 years. Mind you many wouldn’t class my drumming as musical. Then I went with Ray Laidlaw (Lindisfarne) to see Ginger Baker and Cream at the Club A Go-Go in Newcastle, that changed my style of playing – I became known as Animal.

Can you remember your first bands and gigs?

My first band, I was 16, we only played a few gigs then I joined Dominion Aces, then Turm with John Lawton singing, he later sang for Uriah Heep. Next was Arctic Rainbow with Kenny Mountain (Beckett) and Micky Balls on guitar. Venues included the famous Rex Hotel, Whitley Bay and the Cellar Club in South Shields.

Then there was Tex Leon and the Tynesiders and finally The Piranha Brothers who had a huge following and never stopped filling clubs for the 10 years we played in the North East. We had a four part singing line up in many songs and some of a set at the Birtley Rex is on my You Tube page.

The Pirahna Brothers line up was two lead vocalists in Geordie Scott and Allen Matthews, lead guitar & vocals from both Paul Simmons & Mac Norris. During their time they had three bass players – founder Bill French, then Paul Allen and finally Dave Wightman. On drums was Tony Hodge.

Where did The Piranha Brothers play ?

Venues were mainly social clubs as they were hundreds around then and all the agents used them. We weren’t a typical social club band though, as our act was largely made up from our own songs written by Paul Simmons our lead guitarist. Most bands played covers as I had in the Tynesiders, but we had an act that worked in clubs and other venues.

One night we played Newcastle Mayfair with three other bands to a 3000 plus audience and The Piranhas played several open air concerts in the early ‘80s at Gypsies Green stadium in South Shields.

The most popular Piranhas venue was Heaton Buffs in Newcastle. Our Christmas concerts sold out the year previous. The original single night ended up as three nights, and we had guest bands playing along with the brilliant resident band Burlesque.

The Christmas nights were themed with ideas being thought up by our singers… ‘St Trinians’, ‘The Young Ones’, ‘WWII’ and the final one ‘The Nativity’ and Burlesque always joined in the game. I still wonder though how some of the guys always thought women’s nylons had to be included.

The guest bands never knew what to expect and one time a guest band was 747 with the late brilliant musician Dave Black. This band was really cool, all good looking and right up to date. We hired a topless dancer to come on stage mid set and serve drinks on a tray to the band.

Dave was singing in full swing and she was out of his eyesight. The rest of the band saw her and were laughing but Dave was oblivious. When she stood in front of him he was speechless – literally – and his face was a picture. The audience loved it though.

We often had many famous faces in the audience such as John Miles, Brian Johnston (Geordie) and Hylton Valentine (The Animals) so it must have had some appeal.

Pictured above is the Newcastle Mayfair competition final. The room was packed with over 3000 people. Two bands had the biggest following, that was Burlesque and us. All bands were great on the night but the audience were very unhappy when neither won. A riot erupted with plastic glasses being thrown and Alan Hull (Lindisfarne) could not provide the prize.

Alan and Brian, the Mayfair manager, asked if anyone from the Piranhas or Burlesque could try and do something. Paul from Burlesque and I went on stage to try and calm the audience down and the anger turned to cheers.

Alan Hull presented the prize with a bowl on his head to everyone’s delight. One of the judges, Chas Chandler (The Animals), invited us to go to Abbey Road studios and record our songs which we did.

Have you any memories from those North East gigs ?

Piranhas were known for the two main singers in Geordie Scott and Alan Mathews, pulling many stunts like pretend fights and blood capsules. They had funny routines without in any way being a comic band. This night to a packed room we counted four beats and the usual very loud intro to First Bite powered out. As always Geordie jumped up fists in the air and hit the deck, Alan started to dart around the stage.

This time however Geordie didn’t get up. This seemed ok, these guys were up for anything after all, however the intro was over and Alan wasn’t joined by Geordie. We played on but after a few more bars we realised something was wrong. It was…Geordie had dislocated his knee and ended up being taken to hospital in an ambulance. In the true showbiz style of the show must go on, Alan and the rest of us finished the night.

Another night at the Birtley Rex. A guy called Liddle Towers had recently died in police custody in Birtley and the police were none too popular.

(Liddle Towers was an amateur boxing coach who died in police custody, in 1978 South Shields punk band The Angelic Upstarts wrote a song about the incident The Murder of Liddle Towers).

This night our first set was our own material only, but second set we were finishing our final set with a couple of punk covers. A wedding party had been trouble through the night and a fight broke out. The police were called and a young Police Constable plus an overweight Sergeant arrived. When they entered the whole club erupted against them, chairs, tables, glasses all went flying.

A roadie got cut and I ran from the dressing room to the stage yelling to the police to run to the dressing room. The guys dragged them in and the glasses hitting the doors sounded like a battlefield. Suddenly there was silence and out of the tiny window was a wall of blue lights as far as you could see, police were everywhere.

Eventually, I ventured to the stage and the club was empty. Wrecked but empty. Never have I ever seen a club clear so fast.

Did you record any of your material ?

Yes I have a couple of singles they are in the attic collecting dust, unfortunately no turntable. I last heard one of them on You Tube as a fan must have uploaded it.

In 1979 The Piranha Brothers had a single on the Durham record label, Guardian. The song was called Too Much of Wanting You and studio owner Terry Gavaghan wrote that and Paul Simmons and Iwrote the b-side Dancing Time.

At one point Brian Johnston (Geordie/AC/DC) was a big fan. We recorded a single in his Newcastle studio Lynx, the song was called A Woman Like You. But it went to the USA and nothing happened. Chas Chandler (The Animals) got us recording in Abbey Road studio – but major fame alluded us.

Next time on the blog read the second part of Tony’s story, where he sees an opportunity to prolong his career in entertainment.

I didn’t think I could be playing drums in my 40s and 50s and I thought I would have a longer career in acting than music. It was a surprise because I never thought I would get as far as I did.

Interview by Gary Alikivi   February 2021.

SANTAS BIG BAG O’SWAG 2020

If yer looking for an original Christmas present to buy why not have a butchers at these from North East musicians who have featured on the blog.

Alan Fish former White Heat guitarist now in the Attention Seekers, got in touch….

In 2020 with all gigs cancelled, The Attention Seekers diverted their energies into recording.

We released three singles in total which are now available to download/stream….

The Girl With The Jukebox Mind (Fish), Chain Reaction (Fish/Smeaton) and Is It Too Late? / 21 and Wasted (Fish/Smeaton). Our albums The Curious And Deranged and A Song for Tomorrow are also available.

Visit our website the-attention-seekers.co.uk and check out the shop section.

With multiple vaccines within grasp in the words of Pete Townshend  “got a feeling twenty-one is gonna be a good year“. Here’s the link  http://www.the-attention-seekers.co.uk/band.html

Wishing all our friends who have supported us through the years a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and see you on the other side as life returns to normal.

Read more interviews on the blog from Alan back in September & November 2019.

Steve Hall former guitarist with East Side Torpedoes now in The Questionnaires, sent over some newspaper and radio reviews from the new album Atlantic Ridge….

‘As soon as people start listening to Atlantic Ridge, they’re going to fall in love with the album…. they’re absolutely going to fall in love with it’ – Dave Englefield, West Somerset and Sedgemoor FM

‘Sumptuous playing, Jane Wade’s perfect diction and wonderfully warm vocals combine to make both albums what I would describe as proper ‘adult’ orientated pop offerings. Chuck in exemplary self-production and this is, indeed, ‘music for pleasure’ – Pete Whalley, Get Ready to Rock

‘The cream of the crop of local musicians…. song-writing talent flows across an album that any true music lover should have in their collection’ – Brian Clough, The Northern Echo

‘Stunning vocals by Jane Wade. Impossible to pigeonhole but, if you must, file under ‘proper music’ – Stephen Foster, BBC Radio Suffolk

‘An accomplished, ultra-professional set of quality songs’ – Neil Vessey introducing Atlantic Ridge as album of the week on Folk Pilot, Deal Radio

The album is available to buy from: https://thequestionnaires.bandcamp.com/

Read interviews on the blog with Steve from March 2019 & October 2020.

Gary Alikivi December 2020.

HAVE YOU HEARD THIS ONE ? (#2)

Covid virus measures have prevented new face to face interviews so only a few are conducted by email or phone. Contacts and recommendations from previous interviewees have also helped to bring out some good stories.

Also, there are features where I dig up stories about North East photographers like Downey, Cleet and Flagg. Plus musicians who are no longer with us but have left their mark, Chas Chandler, Jack Brymer and Kathy Stobbart.

Chandler I knew about, but was interested to find out more. I hadn’t heard of Stobbart and Brymer, but linking Stobbarts career together and seeing Jack Brymer in The Beatles ‘Day in the Life’, video were great finds.

This month will feature HYHTO posts, basically ‘a best of’ compilation from the blog. So here’s some stories from musicians to tide us over till the next new one’s ping my email. First up is drummer Harry Hill from an interview back in March 2019…..

I remember playing Sunderland Locarno with Fist. That was a great Friday night gig. We played it a couple of times after that and done a few other venues in Sunderland. There was the Boilermakers Club and the Old 29 pub which was only a very long thin shaped bar. We never got much reaction and nobody clapped cos there was nowhere to put their drinks (laughs).

One Friday night we played the Newcastle Mayfair (2,000 capacity) with a 10,000 watt pa that we’d hired. We asked the sound man when the p.a. had to go back and he said not till Monday. Champion we thought, so we booked a gig for Saturday afternoon in the Old 29 pub. We knew there’d be a reaction this time. As we blasted out the p.a. in this little pub the audience were pinned against the back wall (laughs).

Full interview:

https://garyalikivi.com/2019/03/01/here-come-the-drums-in-conversation-with-harry-hill-drummer-of-north-east-rock-legends-fist/

In March this year Arthur Ramm (Beckett) sent in a few stories, this was one of them…. We used to play regularly at nightclubs in the North East. The stage area was usually upstairs and extra help was appreciated. At one particular nightclub as the band were setting up the gear on stage, a friend of the band wandered into the restaurant kitchen and noticed some uncooked beef steaks on a plate. He realized there were no staff present in the kitchen and removed some from the plate and hid them inside his coat. In the dressing room he revealed the steaks to the band, and they told him to return them to the kitchen immediately.

He decided otherwise, and wrapped the steaks up in paper towels. Well the band used to use Vox AC30 amplification, which were designed with an open compartment in the back of the cabinets. The culprit decided to hide the steaks in the backs of the amplifiers so that he could retrieve them after the gig. However, during the performance when the amplifiers started to get hot, the band members on stage could smell the aroma of cooking meat. Thinking this was coming from the kitchen, they thought nothing of it.

All was revealed when the amplifiers were put back in the van. The consequences for the band would have been quite severe if found out! He was never invited to any gig again. Who got the steaks? We don’t know. It put a new meaning to the expression ‘The band was cooking’!

Full interview: https://garyalikivi.com/2020/03/09/whats-cookin-with-les-tones-and-arthur-ramm-former-guitarists-with-north-east-band-beckett/

Sam Blew (Ultravox/Ya Ya) got in touch in May this year….One of my favourite road stories was myself and Vinny Burns getting a bit merry after a gig, we went back to watch Asia who were headlining, they had lots of dry ice, so we took it upon ourselves to crawl across the stage under the dry ice without being seen. It was all going well until we ended up behind Geoff Downs (the keyboard player) and couldn’t see where we were going but we managed to get back across the stage without being seen.

When Ya Ya were in LA to shoot a video with Nigel Dick, who also filmed Toto and Guns n Roses, we agreed to meet him at our hotel to have a chat. Ray the guitarist fancied a dip in the hot tub on the roof, we put a whole bottle of shampoo in the hot tub, we switched on the jacuzzi and he got in just for a laugh. Nigel pulled up and looked up at the roof, all you could see was foam sliding down the side of the building. He said you could see it about a mile away.

Full interview:

https://garyalikivi.com/2020/05/11/the-day-i-was-told-off-by-freddie-fing-mercury-with-singer-songwriter-sam-blue/

In September last year I spoke with Alan Fish (White Heat)….When we recorded at Townhouse Studio in Shepherds Bush it was the Virgin residential studio and there was another band there. It was the time just after Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne was getting Blizzard of Oz together.

Ozzy came in the studio to listen to one of our sessions ‘I love you guys you’re great’. He was with Sharon his girlfriend and manager, she was delighted that Ozzy had found someone to play with, not musically just to get him out of her hair (laughs).

We used to go out for a few drinks together, there were no airs or graces he just liked a good drink and a laugh. We’d go back to the residential and he’d be in the best suite, Sharon would be there and order in a Chinese meal cos she recognised we were skint and starving so they looked after us quite well. We used to distract them so we could pinch their booze out of the cupboard.

One morning Ozzy came into the studio and said in his Brummie accent ‘Ere lads we must have had a good session last night cos there’s no booze left in me cupboard’.

Full interview:

https://garyalikivi.com/2019/09/13/no-ordinary-joe-in-conversation-with-alan-fish-former-guitarist-with-white-heat/

On the same day I met Ray Laidlaw (Lindisfarne) in Tyneside Cinema Café, Newcastle….Lindisfarne had a break from 1973-76, we had a few successful one off gigs then made a new album in ’78. The opening night on the tour was Leeds University where The Who recorded their album Live at Leeds. We broke their attendance record that night. Two weeks later the fire brigade told the University ‘With the number of fire escapes you’ve got, you got to cut the capacity by 400’. So our record will never be beaten (laughs).

Anyway the opening night we had some pyrotechnics, we went a bit showbiz like, and they would go off at the end of the show – balloons and confetti cannons. The big ending you know. At that point the soundman was to mute every channel – and he forgot. So the sound went down every microphone, the monitors were like tissue paper, the speakers blew out as did the windows behind the stage. We weren’t invited back.

Full interview:

https://garyalikivi.com/2019/09/03/running-man-in-conversation-with-lindisfarne-drummer-ray-laidlaw/

At the end of July this year Derek Buckham (Tokyo Rose) got in touch….Me and some friends – Micky Duncan, Mary Downing and Micky Fenwick – took on Hire Purchase agreements to buy equipment for a band called Alcatraz. It was seven nights a week supporting the Bingo in working man’s clubs. One night in Hartlepool the Concert Chairman knocked over an amplifier and didn’t apologise. The bass player Mick Fenwick said Don’t worry I’ve dealt with it.

The Concert Chairman used a Bingo machine, it was a big plastic see through box and inside were ping pong balls with the numbers on, when he switched it on the balls were blown to the top by air and he would pick one out. Well I looked over and could see them floating about in the box – Mick had filled the Bingo machine with beer! The Concert Chairman turned on the machine in front of the audience – I’ve never heard a club laugh so much. In the end we were paid off and banned from Hartlepool.

Late ‘70s I recorded a track called Hang Jack about the Yorkshire Ripper who at the time was terrorising the country. The track was played in clubs throughout the country and one day the Police turned up at my house. I was interviewed and had to give a hand writing sample. My parents were also interviewed asking if I was ever away from home. Yes they said, He plays in a band and if he was responsible we would be the first to tell you.

Full interview:

https://garyalikivi.com/2020/08/03/turning-japanese-with-tokyo-rose-songwriter-derek-buckham/

Interviews by Gary Alikivi.

More stories on the blog with a full list of interviews on the about page:

https://garyalikivi.com/about/

THE DAY I WAS TOLD OFF BY FREDDIE F***ING MERCURY with singer & songwriter Sam Blue

When I was in Ya Ya we recorded some of the album at Maison Rouge in Fulham. Next door Roger Taylor was recording The Cross album. So we used to regularly meet the Queen guys. There was a bar in Maison Rouge – part of it’s appeal – and one night I was sitting there on my own with a drink and Freddie Mercury plonks himself down on the stool next to me.

He asks how it’s going, Brian and Rog said it was sounding great. I didn’t know what to say…it was Freddie ‘F***ing’ Mercury! So I just said I was a bit bored…’They’re working on guitar amp and bass sounds, so I had nothing to do’.

Freddie looked at me and said quietly, ‘Never ever say you’re bored, there’s always something to do and there are people out there who would give there left arm to do what you’re doing’.

I didn’t know what to say. I was being told off by Freddie Mercury.

You know what, I’ve never said I was bored since, because he was right. We had a drink and chatted about all things singing, which singers love to do, what a wonderful person. Turns out, he knew lots of people I knew and worked with, some of them part of Freddie’s inner circle – funny old world isn’t it.

To the tune of ‘Once in a Lifetime’ (Talking Heads) You may ask yourself how did a boy from Tyneside end up here ? Now living on a houseboat in Twickenham, west London, Sam Blewitt has great stories from his life in music including Ultravox, Dizzee Rascal at Glastonbury, hitting number 1 with Mike Skinner & the Streets and not forgetting his formative years singing in rock bands in the North East.

But first I asked him what got you interested in music and are you from a musical family ? I’m not really from a musical family, but my Dad played the guitar, he’s pretty handy on the keyboard now. What got me interested was my mates in Gosforth, where I grew up, we talked about music the majority of the time.

Also my Aunty Lily worked for a company who changed all the singles on the jukeboxes around Newcastle and Gateshead, she would drop by in her mini-van and drop off piles of singles.

This would have been around ‘68 or ‘69. Me and my sister would pile them up on the record player and listen to every song day after day. I loved the Beatles, Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Rolling Stones, Small Faces, The Animals.

We also used to watch all the Saturday night shows on TV, like Cilla, Lulu – I even remember the famous one where Jimi Hendrix starts Sunshine of your Love in the middle of Hey Joe.

There was music everywhere – or so I thought.

Can you remember your first gig ? My first proper gig was at the Cooperage near the Quayside in Newcastle with my first band Moulin Rouge. It was just a party for a friend of one of the band members. We had been rehearsing for a while and it was an ideal way of us starting out properly.

Moulin Rouge gigged anywhere we could to be honest – The Newton Park Hotel with Newcastle band White Heat, The Mayfair, the Old 69 and the Locarno in Sunderland and some workingmen’s clubs. I remember playing a few times in Whitley Bay sharing headline slots with The Tygers of Pan Tang and supporting Geordie at the Mayfair. The line-up changed a few times and we eventually recruited Rob Hunter on drums, who was also a great singer and songwriter. He left to join Raven.

I left Moulin Rouge to join Fastbreeder with Fred Purvis, Dave Drury and Andy Taylor – who later moved on to Duran Duran. They were a great little rock band and we did the Mayfair a couple of times and some workingmens clubs, but after Andy left it sort of fell apart.

 Did you travel out of Tyneside ? I joined a band in Cleveland called Axis, they were set up like a proper professional band, and we played a few gigs around the country. Once again a guitarist left, that was Mick Tucker he joined White Spirit.

I then joined Emerson, which included brothers Stu and Bri Emerson, Dru Irving on keys and Jon Sellers on drums, later replaced by Charlie McKenzie. We worked hard with writing sessions and rehearsals every weekend.

Once again we picked up gigs where ever we could like the Whitley Bay Esplanade and some cool ones supporting bands like Nazareth, Budgie, Robin George and Heavy Pettin’. We got quite a few slots in the capital at the Royal Standard, Dingwalls and the Marquee, this led to a lot of interest from the industry in London.

But the band started to break up after a year or two, Bri left and I started getting offers from bands in London. We kept the band going for a while with Norman Appleby replacing Bri Emerson. I eventually left and joined LA Secrets, after a short stint with them I joined Paul Samson’s Empire, that was fun but again only lasted a few months before I joined a band called  Ya Ya.

I spent 4 years with them and we were signed to Warner Brothers and released an album called Ya Ya, it got rave reviews. But unfortunately it failed to sell in great numbers. We released a few singles from the album which were fun to promote.

By this time it was 1989 and the band broke up. Looking back on my time in Ya Ya we had toured a fair bit and recorded with some great producers. We supported Roger Taylor’s band The Cross, for a whole tour of the UK, which was fun and got to meet all the Queen guys.   

Where there any offers after Ya Ya ? I worked as a session singer and songwriter for a few years, working with some amazing writers and producers, trying to form new projects. Then in 1992 I joined Ultravox and stayed with them until 1996. In that time we released one studio album Ingenuity, and one live album.

I then worked with Vinny Burns – who was the guitarist in Ultravox at that time – on his solo album The Journey. We then joined forces as Burns Blue, to write and record our own album What if.

Then came my time as a ‘hired gun’ session singer, I sang the Phat Beach/Naughty Boy version of The Baywatch theme I’ll Be Ready, which reached the top 30. Plus I sang for Mike Skinner & the Streets on ‘Dry Your Eyes’ which went to number 1 in the UK. This attracted the interest of many hip hop/grime artists and producers.

I sang with The Young Punx on their albums who were recruited to become Dizzee Rascal’s backing band for his 2009/10 tours and TV performances.

I was brought in to sing ‘fix up look sharp’, but ended up joining in with the band singing on most of the songs. We had Guthrie Govan on guitar, Hal Ritson on bass and keys, Alex Reeves on drums, Vula Malinga on vocals and a whole brass section – not too shabby.

I still collaborate with producers Hal Ritson and Richard Adlam on Young Punx, Avicci, Urban Myth and various other releases.

What was your first recording experience ? My first recording experience would have been with Moulin Rouge at Impulse studios in Wallsend. The line-up of the band was Me, Matty Rocks and Ian Wood on guitars, Ian Drury on bass and I forget the drummer’s name – it was a long time ago.

We done a 2 track recording for EMI records. They had seen us at a Melody Maker rock competition in Durham, and much to our surprise – we won, but they didn’t follow up their initial interest.

We were so naive, we didn’t really know what a demo was. The next time I recorded properly would have been with Paul Samson’s Empire, we had a day at the BBC Maida Vale studios in London, which was awesome.

Did you have a manager ? My first proper manager was Diane Wagg, when I first moved to London – we’re still mates now. Then Ira Blacker managed Ya Ya. When I joined Ultravox our managers were Simon Napier Bell and Sir Harry Cowell – a couple of real characters.

At the Jools Holland Hootenanny TV show in 2010 with Dizzee Rascal & the Young Punx.

What were your high points on stage – any magic moments ? My high points have been, playing on the Glastonbury Pyramid stage with Dizzee Rascal in 2010. I was his rock singer with his amazing band The Young Punx. We have no idea how many people were there, but something around 70,000.

In Ultravox we played some cool festivals too, one in particular in Bielefeld, Germany on the same bill as Roger Chapman, one of my musical heroes. One festival we played we were given a one hour slot to play, this was cut short, but we weren’t told and we hadn’t played any of the big songs like Vienna and Dancing with Tears in My Eyes, then we were pulled off stage by the promoter and stage manager after about 45 minutes. I don’t think the audience were too happy, we made the promoter explain the situation – still don’t know if he did or not. It happens.

Have you any road stories ? One of my favourites was myself and Vinny Burns getting a bit merry after a gig, we went back to watch Asia who were headlining, they had lots of dry ice, so we took it upon ourselves to crawl across the stage under the dry ice without being seen. It was all going well until we ended up behind Geoff Downs (the keyboard player) and couldn’t see where we were going but we managed to get back across the stage without being seen. It’s an old UFO trick, great fun.

When Ya Ya were in LA to shoot our video for When the World Cried with Nigel Dick, who also filmed Toto and Guns n Roses, we agreed to meet him at our hotel to have a chat. Ray the guitarist fancied a dip in the hot tub on the roof, we had put a whole bottle of shampoo in the hot tub, we switched on the jacuzzi and he got in just for a laugh.

Nigel pulled up and looked up at the roof, all you could see was foam sliding down the side of the building. He said you could see it about a mile away. The hotel weren’t too happy – it was only soap !

There was a time I was backstage at Glastonbury when Bobby Womack walks up to me and says ‘You remind me of that mutherfucker used to sing with Slade!’  Before I could answer his trumpet player declared…’No man, he remind me of that mutherfucker used to sing with Led Zeppelin!’….then they both walked of, it was hilarious.

Post soundcheck in Barcelona with The Project band in 2019.

Bringing your story up to date what are you doing now ? I’m currently singing with The Project Band, basically the guys from the Alan Parsons Project featuring Lenny Zakatek joint vocals, Stuart Elliot on drums, Laurence Cottle on bass, Richard Cottle on keys and Dave Bainbridge on guitar.

They’re great people and amazing players, just waiting for this pandemic to clear up and we can get back out on the road. I didn’t know much about the Alan Parsons Project, but local boy John Miles was heavily involved and I rate him very highly indeed.

I’m still working as a session singer, which I really like, you never know what they’ll throw at you next.

Finally, what does music mean to you ? Music has meant everything really. Hard work, fun, and a living. It’s a cruel mistress sometimes, some wonderful moments you never forget, days when you wonder what you’re doing there. I’ve met some fantastic people over the years, many great friends, lot’s of people to look up to. There’s always a challenge to look forward to.

Interview by Gary Alikivi   May 2020.

For more info contact the official website:

http://www.samblue.co.uk

LONDON CALLING: Nights at the Marquee Club

The heart of London’s music industry was the legendary live music club the Marquee, along with CBGB’S in New York, the club has been defined as one of the most important music venues in the world.

It would provide the catalyst to launch the career of many bands – The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin – the list is endless. A&R men used to regularly visit the club to watch out for the next big thing and with plenty of bands looking to make it, the best way was to be seen on the stage of the Marquee.

Tony Iommi explained in Iron Man his auto biog…‘I was in rehearsals with Jethro Tull for the recording of their Stand Up album and one night Ian Anderson took me to see Free play at the Marquee. He introduced me to everybody as his new guitar player, so I thought, this is wonderful. I felt like a pop star. From being a nobody in Birmingham to people at the Marquee taking an interest – it seemed great’.

Graeme Thomson wrote in his biog about Phil Lynott – ‘It was do or die. Thin Lizzy were £30,000 in debt. Money was borrowed for their showcase gig for Phonogram at the Marquee on 9th July 1974. It was so hot that night that all the guitars went out of tune, but they played well enough to confirm the deal, even if the advance for a two album contract only cleared what they owed’.

Mick Wall’s biog of Lemmy featured the time Motorhead nearly called it a day. Guitarist Fast Eddie Clark remembers ‘We found ourselves in April 1977 in the situation of breaking up’.

As a farewell gift to fans they would record a live album. Motorhead had a show coming up at the Marquee that surely would be the best place for them to bow out. But when they looked into the cost, they knew they had no chance. A farewell single was recorded instead.

‘The Marquee gig was one of the best we ever did’ according to Eddie. ‘Lemmy said the sweat was climbing up the walls trying to get out’.

Thoughts of it being their last were quickly forgotten about. Two weeks later they piled into a Transit van for the drive down to Escape Studios in Kent. They recorded the bones of 13 tracks, eight of which would become the album Motorhead.

Bands from the North East of England – White Heat, Angelic Upstarts, Fist, The Showbiz Kids, Punishment of Luxury, Raven and Tygers of Pan Tang, all travelled south down the M1 to the capital. Was playing London the catalyst for a life in music, or just a road too far for some ?

John Gallagher from Chief Headbangers, Raven  ‘The running joke was – c-mon lets git in a van and gaan doon t’London ! We did quite a few one off support gigs. It was in the back of the truck, drive down to London, play the Marquee with Iron Maiden and drive back straight after the gig’.

Harry Hill, drummer with Fist remembers…’We played the Marquee for two nights supporting Iron Maiden. We were going down an absolute storm, the place was packed. I’m not sure what the band thought about it but their manager was kicking off – You’re just the support band. You’re not supposed to go down like that –  We won him over in the end and he came into the dressing room with a crate of beer. Yep we gave them a run for their money’.

Residencies were part of the scene and a few North East bands got on the list including Dire Straits. This advert from March ’78 with admission fee only 70p.

Select dates for North East bands listed as playing the Marquee:

1976: Halfbreed 15 & 29th January & 3rd March.  Arbre 4th April.

Back Street Crawler 11 & 12th May with AC/DC as support. Cirkus 15th May.

1977: Penetration 29th June opening for Heron also 30th July & 1st August opening for The Vibrators.

1978: Penetration 21st June. Punishment of Luxury 3rd October.

1979: Showbiz Kids 3rd February. Punishment of Luxury 13th February.

Showbiz Kidz 21st April. Punishment of Luxury 7th May.

Showbiz Kids 19th May & 14th June & 14th July.

Punishment of Luxury 23rd August & 31st October.

1980: Raven 5th, 6th, or 7th November with Taurus or Diamond Head opening for Gary Moore.

1981: White Heat 29th April.

1982: Angelic Upstarts 18th February & 12th August.

The Marquee at Charing Cross Road finally closed it’s doors in 1996 after first establishing the club in Oxford Street, then it’s heyday in Wardour Street.

 Gary Alikivi  May 2020.

SPIRIT OF RADIO with DJ Paul Kirsopp

Nova Radio North East is a community based radio station based in Newcastle, North East UK. Broadcasting 24 hours a day they launched in 2007.

One of the programmes features local music and presented by Paul Kirsopp. I got in touch with Paul and asked him, what got you interested in radio ? Nova radio posted an advert on Facebook looking for local DJ’s. I made enquiries, completed a training course and then created my own radio show and named it North East Live Music Is Alive.

I wanted the show to be inclusive regardless of age or sex, to include bands past and present and include all genres of music to satisfy all listeners. The show would highlight original music and most importantly all singer/songwriters would have a North East connection.

Was focusing on original music a ‘must’ for the programme ? I am very passionate about original music, especially North East music, past and present. We have a wealth of talent in the North East and it is such a shame that many of our North East artists go unnoticed and fall by the wayside without the recognition they deserve.

I feel that my show can give them a platform to be heard and recognised locally at least, I have every respect for these people stepping out and having the courage to create original music.

58 year old Paul from Dilston Hall, Northumberland recalls the first time he heard music and it’s effect on him….As long as I can remember I have always been interested in music, listening to music, creating music and trying to sing and play an instrument.

From an early age I wanted to play the drums in a marching jazz band, however that all changed when my mother bought me an acoustic guitar for my 10th birthday. During my teens I fancied myself as a bit of a chanter and gravitated towards local musicians trying to sing and playing a little guitar.

Did you take your passion further and join a band ? In those days it was all about creating your own songs and taking the music to a local youth club and then when we became of age we would look for gigs in the local pubs.

At this time I began to watch local bands like White Heat at Newcastle Polytech and The Mayfair for their farewell gig in February 1982. Southbound at the Gosforth Hotel where they had a residency on a Monday night, Nato/Eldron at Balmbras Music Hall in the Bigg Market, these bands were all playing original music.

I began writing a few of my own songs and began to enjoy the creativity and fun during this process. But soon realised how difficult it was to write original songs, especially songs that punters would listen to and songs that people would pay to listen too.

Do you receive any support to your radio show ? Former White Heat guitarist Alan Fish contacted me to give me some advice, contacts and cd’s by local musicians. Obviously it’s a two way thing and as Alan is a local singer/songwriter my show benefits his music and I’m very grateful for his continuing support of the show.

I also receive regular contributions from local artists from around the North East – Newcastle, Northumberland, Durham, Darlington and Teeside. There is a hell of a lot of very talented singer/songwriter/musicians /bands out there and we need to support them.

There is regular contributions from local music promoter Steve Willis, who organises the very successful Crossing the Tyne Festival and who is very close to young up and coming artists in the North East, this benefits the show immensely. Plus a special thanks to Neil Owen Kipling, Dean Wears and all other staff at the station for making this show possible.

Where can musicians and bands get in touch ? If you have a connection with the North East and you’re writing and recording original music please get in touch on the contact below, and I will play your music on the show.

Contact Paul at https://www.facebook.com/paul.j.kirsopp 

or email pkirsopp@blueyonder.co.uk

Listen in to ‘North East Live Music is Live’ on

Mondays 2-4pm,

http://www.novaradio.co.uk   102.5fm    or www.mixcloud.com/hoppa25

Interview by Gary Alikivi  April 2020.

STOCKIN’ FILLERS

If yer lookin’ for a Christmas present to buy why not have a butchers at these books that featured on the blog this year. 2019 has seen nearly 100 interviews posted mostly musicians but also featured authors and poets like Keith Armstrong I was interested in people like Dylan Thomas, the rhythm of his poetry. Actors like Richard Harris, hell raisers like Oliver Reed – all good role models! Yeah in my early days I loved the old bohemian lifestyle of reading poetry and getting tanked up. Order direct from Northern Voices Community Projects, 35 Hillsden Road, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear NE25 9XF.

More than four decades after the BBC’s iconic TV series ‘When the Boat Comes In’ was first screened, ‘Jack High’ a novel by Peter Mitchell tells the story of Jack Ford’s missing years. ‘This is a man who has found a family in war. He interacts with union men, upper crusts, politicians….all he knows is how to survive and when he see’s a chance he takes the opportunity’. ‘Jack High’ is available through Amazon.

Some authors talked about growing up in the North East, like former White Heat front man now music documentary director Bob Smeaton I was working as a welder at Swan Hunter Shipyards at the time. When punk and new wave happened around 76/77 that’s when I started thinking I could possibly make a career out of music. The doors had been kicked wide open’.

‘From Benwell Boy to 46th Beatle & Beyond’ available on Amazon or can be ordered in Waterstones, Newcastle.

Earlier this year I read a great book ‘The Kremlin’s Geordie Spy’ and got in touch with the author Vin Arthey… Newcastle born William Fisher turned out to be a KGB spy, he used the name Rudolf Abel and was jailed for espionage in the United States in 1957. He was exchanged across Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge for the American U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers. The Tom Hanks film ‘Bridge of Spies’ tells the story of how it happened.

Contact Vin at varthey@gmail.com ‘I have a few pristine copies on my shelf but with p&p, it would come out at £10 more than the Amazon price’.

A big influence on my life was watching and being in the audience of ‘80s live music show The Tube, so when I got the chance to talk to former music TV producer Chris Phipps about the program, I didn’t miss the opportunity

‘As an ex-BBC producer I initially only signed up for 3 months on this unknown program and it became 5 years! I was mainly hired because of my track record for producing rock and reggae shows in the Midlands’. Chris released ‘Namedropper’ revealing backstage stories from the ground breaking show.

The book is available at Newcastle City Library or through Amazon.

 Gary Alikivi   December 2019.

FAMILY AFFAIR in conversation with North East songwriter Alan Fish

Loud Guitars Playhouse 4

The Loud Guitars live at Newcastle Playhouse (pic. Paul Hill).

Last time I interviewed Alan (Sept.13th 2019) he talked about his time in North East band White Heat who were signed to Richard Bransons label Virgin. After they folded in ’82, The Loud Guitars were born….

There was three of us from White Heat, me, Bob Smeaton, and Col Roberts, we decided to control everything. Fund the gigs our self and not look for management or deals. Because there was a dark cloud over the ending of White Heat we thought this self-containment idea would help clear it. Virgin eventually let us go so we had total control, it was very cathartic.

For recording we funded it all, brought in some really good players, professional and slightly younger so from a live point of view they super charged the band. We had Martin Campbell, brilliant rock guitar player,  Gary Cowey and Stu Haikney were involved early on as they had their own studio.

Bob and I had songs left over from The White Heat days and really it was a very important time for us to be able to do it independently. When I look back on what I’ve done I’ve always been happier when it’s independent.

We built on the legacy of White Heat and we put out new material with professional musicians who we paid. Now that sounds obvious to pay them but it is the correct way, the job is done well and it makes for a happier work place.

By the early ‘90s The Loud Guitars run their course then I made the decision that was it. From the recordings I felt we pushed the quality up from White Heat days as in that band I felt our studio output didn’t reflect what we were like live. However, we still weren’t getting a lot of radio play and I became obsessed to write and record music of a standard that would get radio play.

I took time out, this was when technology was advancing at a fair old rate and recording facilities were becoming affordable. So I invested quite a bit in new instruments, microphones and developed a skillset to record my own stuff. I set up my home demo studio where I could take the song to a certain point, essentially getting the song down in the right key, right speed, then taking it to my studio of choice, The Cluny Studios in Newcastle run by Tony Davis.

Tony is a fantastic engineer and a brilliant musician so we’ve developed a good relationship over the years where I might play a bit guitar for him on some of his recordings. A lot of North East bands would have recorded there in what is a highly competitive industry.

Att Skrs Cluny Studios with Tony Davis, Paul Liddell, Stu Haikney

In The Cluny Studio, Newcastle (left to right) Tony Davis, Paul Liddell, Alan Fish & Stu Haikney.

When did you put the Attention Seekers together ?  The concept has been around for 10 years now, it was to be primarily song writing and recording. I wanted a change from what I’d previously done because the main thrust of White Heat and Loud Guitars was live performance. In a way having the band has unified my family.

When I was song writing in the studio with Bob Smeaton on the record deal after White Heat had finished, I would only do it if I could bring my wife Viv down with me. I’ve seen too much destruction with musicians and their nomadic lifestyle (laughs).

We wanted to share this experience and enhance our life together but they weren’t happy so I walked away from it. A few days later I got a call saying ‘Ok bring her down but she’ll have to cook (laughs)’. Viv came down and we enjoyed the time together. It’s always been like that since those days. We bought a people carrier to get to gigs, my daughter has played in the band and Viv’s the road manager when we go out at gigs.

I didn’t trade on the back of previous bands because Attention Seekers were so different. We didn’t want people turning up to a White Heat rock gig and end up listening to 3 acoustic players. In fact our first gig’s were on buskers nights were we tried out new material and there was no pressure. My eldest daughter was becoming a proficient violin player so she came along, my brother in law had a nice voice and had never sung live so we eased him in and that added to the busker night.

Publicans were impressed after a few songs and asked us to return and do a full gig. This was around ’98 when we started getting around the pub circuit and we adopted a very low key policy of no individuals, no front men. This attracted really good musicians who liked the non-committal feel to the band.

I explained this wasn’t about a unit of a traditional band it was about bringing in the right people when they were available because they still had their main bands with regular gigs.

We were getting popular on the whole circuit, places like The Magnesium Bank in North Shields, The Smugglers in Sunderland and Tyneside Irish Centre in Newcastle.

Sounds like there was more emphasis on the song rather than a band ? Yes there was I had done the live band thing which I enjoyed but if I had something with a promoter or radio it would always be labelled as The Attention Seekers. There is a consistent feel that runs through the songs. I’ve found by taking this approach local radio play has increased significantly with Paddy McDee and Julia Hankin playing us on a regular basis. St James’ Park (Newcastle United) play us because some songs have a regional feel about them.

The album ‘A Song for Tomorrow’ has  overall sound of Crowded House/Waterboys with an acoustic version of the Boomtown Rats song ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ in the middle. A strange choice compared to the other songs ?

Yes playing original music can be a big ask to an audience and sometimes you’ve got to give them something back. Something familiar. We arranged it without the bombastic drama of the original with the ‘Tell me why’ sentiment slightly changed.  The audience realize what song it is by the second verse. It’s ‘Tell me why’ this is still happening because that song is nearly 40 years old.

It’s talking about mass shootings in America that happened and are still happening. It’s a very difficult situation for USA to solve because of the gun laws.

The American singer, Jesse Terry, gave the song another edge with his accent and we wanted to give the song an anti-gun feel. But from the beginning we know it is a very good Boomtown Rats song, the melody, the lyrics all fitted together so you knew it wasn’t going to fall apart.

How did American singer/songwriter Jesse Terry get involved in The Attention Seekers ?

I was watching the TV program Tyne and Wear live and the music show ‘Cookin’ in the Kitchen’ came on. There was a great performance from Jesse on there and I wanted to pass on my comments so tracked him down. It was like serendipity, he was looking for a UK based guitarist and had checked me out on You Tube – the upshot was, would I be interested ? And I was looking for a vocalist to record with Attention Seekers – you don’t turn away from these moments so a deal was struck.

The album ‘A Song for Tomorrow’ is the result of our coming together. Jesse has quite a following in the States and get’s the songs played out there.

For more information contact the official website:

http://the-attention-seekers.co.uk

Interview by Gary Alikivi  October 2019.

THE BOY FROM BENWELL – with Film & TV Director, Bob Smeaton

‘You can play a hundred gigs and reach a thousand people. You can do one television show and reach millions’

When White Heat broke up in 1982, Tyne Tees art show ‘Check it Out’ filmed a half hour special on the band which Geoff Wonfor directed (later at live TV music programme The Tube). The special was broadcast during February 1982 a week before their farewell gig at the Mayfair

’When we told Geoff Wonfor that White Heat were splitting up he told us that Tyne Tees should make a documentary about the band. Geoff was able to convince them that they should do it and that he should direct it.

We filmed our second last gig at the Gulbenkian Studios near the Haymarket in Newcastle. What a lot of people don’t know is that we mimed a whole set of songs from our album In the Zero Hour and then mixed that in with film from the actual gig. So we in fact played each of the songs twice.

After we had mimed to all of those songs I had almost blown my voice out. Even though we were miming I still used to sing the songs. All the audio that was used in the documentary came from the album, none of it was live. We also shot some stuff of me returning to the shipyards. One of the followers of White Heat has put it up on You Tube’.

White Heat. Circa 1978

White Heat (circa 1978)

The blog is heading for 50,000 views so a great way to mark this milestone is to feature Director Bob Smeaton. If you’ve ever watched the Classic Album series, caught a Hendrix documentary or any TV with big names from the music world on- Bob’s probably directed it. Along with being nominated three times for an Emmy as director of music and arts documentaries, he’s a double Grammy award winner. In 2017 he worked with fellow Geordie, and ex AC/DC vocalist, Brian Johnson for the Sky Arts series A Life On the Road.

Before working in film and television, Bob was lead vocalist and songwriter with North East rock band White Heat. Signed to Virgin records, the band toured extensively and released one album and two singles. This is his story…..

‘When I was around fifteen me and my mates became obsessed with guitars. I couldn’t afford a guitar so I became a singer, it was the cheaper option. All you needed was a mic and you were up and running. I was never going to be the best singer in the North East. But I had learnt a lesson that if you put on a show that helped hide any bum notes then you stood a fighting chance.

There were loads of great singers around at the time, Mick Whitaker, Dave Taggart to name but two. I was never going to be as good a singer as those guys and over the years rather than develop as a singer I was getting better as a front man’.

Who were your influences in music ? ‘My dad had a large record collection when I was growing up. The first records that I listened to were his. I would have been around eight years old at the time. He had records by everyone from Slim Whitman to Elvis Presley. I always loved songs that told stories and I used to love learning the words and singing along to their records.

I had no idea what any of the singers looked like aside from what I saw on the record covers. So as far as I was concerned there wasn’t a great deal of difference between the likes of Slim Whitman, Elvis and Tom Jones. They were just great singers who were singing great songs.

Then in my early teens I started hearing Tamla Motown on the radio and at my local youth club disco. Again great singers and great songs. But I still had very little idea of what the artists looked like as I very rarely saw them on television.

The big moment for me was when I started getting into rock music. This was the first time when the visual side became as important as the musical side. It all came together, the songs, the musicianship and the way the bands looked. Even though I hadn’t as yet been to see a live gig. Just the pictures I saw in the music press, Sounds, NME and the Melody Maker was enough to get me excited’.

‘The first band that I saw performing live that had an affect on me were The Showbiz Kids. I was working as a floor waiter at the Scotswood Social Club and they were one of the bands that appeared. What made them stand out was the singer, Rob Coyle, he grabbed your attention and demanded that you look at him.

Up to that point the audience in the club would pretty much ignore the bands until the end of the evening then they would all be up dancing. With Rob it was different, you had to watch him. He was like Mick Jagger. And he made me realise that if you put on a show you would get the audience attention. I think Rob Coyle is not only one of the greatest front men to come out of the North East, but one of the greatest front men, period.

I saw him a couple of years ago fronting Dr Feelgood and he was still brilliant. Rob was a massive influence on me. I remember meeting him for the first time and I was really made up that he knew who I was and had heard of my band’.

Was there a defining moment when you said ‘I want to do that’ was it watching a band or hearing a song ? ’Again this comes back to seeing Rob Coyle and the Showbiz Kids. But the moment when I thought ‘I could do that and be a contender’ was when I saw The Clash at Newcastle Polytechnic. Up to that point I had seen loads of bands, Zeppelin, The Who, Bad Company, all who had great singers but way out of my league as far as aspiring to be like them.

When I saw Joe Strummer I realised that with punk rock you didn’t have to be a great singer in order to make it. If you had the right attitude then you were well on your way. Strummer had attitude by the shed load and he looked great on stage, you believed in him 100%’.

When did you start playing gigs and what venues did you play. Was it in the immediate area or travelling long distances and did you support name touring bands ? ’I started doing gigs with my first band Hartbreaker around the mid 70s. The band were, me on vocals, Bryan Younger on guitar, Colin Roberts on bass and John Miller on drums. We didn’t want to play the working men’s clubs as we didn’t want to do cover versions and I wasn’t great at singing other peoples songs. Therefore, we started writing our own songs and began playing gigs on the Newcastle pub circuit. The Bridge Hotel, Cooperage, Gosforth Hotel and Newton Park.

At the time our goal was to be as good as another local band, Southbound, they were brilliant and we got a couple of gigs supporting them. They are another one of those great North East bands that never ‘made it’. I remember they once brought a demo that they had recorded to play to me when I was still living at home at my mam’s in Benwell. It was brilliant, if they had come from Alabama rather than Sunderland I am convinced they would have been as big as Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Hartbreaker built up quite a following, but it was still just a side-line to our day jobs. I was working as a welder at Swan Hunter Shipyards at the time. When punk and new wave happened around 76/77 that’s when I started thinking I could possibly make a career out of music. The doors had been kicked wide open. By then we had changed our name to White Heat and had added an extra guitarist, Alan Fish’.

What were your experiences of recording ? ‘Around 1976 we had acquired a manager, Brian Mawson, who also managed the record department of Windows music store in Newcastle. Brian got us studio time at Impulse Studio in Wallsend. I would nip up the road from the shipyards at lunchtime and lay down a vocal while in my overalls then head back to work.

I never enjoyed the studio as much as I did the live gigs. In the studio there was no place to hide any dodgy vocals. White Heat were much better live than on record.

Mond Cowie (ex-Angelic Upstarts) also worked in the yards and I remember him telling me that he was quitting his job to go full time with the band. I was really jealous. I hated the yards but it was something to kick against and a lot of my lyrics were influenced by working there and wanting to get out of the place.

White Heat released an independent single called Nervous Breakdown which we recorded at Impulse,  it was produced by Mickey Sweeney. Mick produced everyone who came through the door at Impulse, from the Angelic Upstarts to Alan Hull. He was a great guy and full of enthusiasm for the band.

The studio was run by a guy called Dave Woods. Dave like Mick loved the band and around this time set up Neat Records. I thought at one time we might have ended up on Neat Records but instead we released Nervous Breakdown on our own label called Vallium.

The record did really well in the North East and we started attracting the attention of the major record labels. I quit my job as a welder and became a full time musician. It was the best decision that I ever made. We eventually signed a deal with Virgin music publishing and Virgin Records. We toured with the likes of Judas Priest, the Vapours and did the odd gig supporting amongst others the Climax Blues Band, Gen X, Split Enz and the Tom Robinson band’.

By 1981 the band had released their 10 track album ‘In the Zero Hour’ and Bob looks back on that time…‘When we were recording parts of In the Zero Hour at Rock City Studios which is in the film complex of Shepperton Studios, James Cagney was there filming the movie, Ragtime. I went into the canteen one day and saw him sitting there having his breakfast. I asked one of the production people if I could go over and say hello to him. I was told he wasn’t feeling too good and maybe I should ask again tomorrow.

The next day he didn’t turn up. Ragtime turned out to be his last ever film. I wish I had got to speak to him as he died shortly afterwards. But it was great to see him in the flesh. If anyone ever asks me who my favourite film actors are I always used to say, Elvis Presley, Stan Laurel and James Cagney’.

Did the band have any help or supporters ? ’We we really lucky in that I became great mates with a guy called Geoff Wonfor who was a television director working at the BBC. Geoff would make film clips of the band and get these shown on the local BBC channel. This helped the band reach a wider audience and soon we were playing bigger gigs. By now we were playing places such as the Mayfair.

I loved doing television performances, just to see yourself on the telly was such a buzz. Nervous Breakdown did really well and we were hovering outside the national charts. If we had made it onto Top of the Pops I am convinced we would have been massive, but we only ever did local television.

In the TV documentary there is a backstage scene of the band getting together and shouting ‘Nice one’. Was that a pre-gig ritual or a set up just for the camera ? ’We used to have a roadie called Paul Elliott who when we came off stage would always tell us that the gig had been a ‘nice one’. Regardless of how good or bad we felt it had been, that always made us feel better. We adopted that line and it became part of our pre-gig ritual. It was a bonding thing, always raised a laugh and was a good way to loosen up the vocal chords.

We used to come on stage to the theme song from the James Cagney film, Yankee Doodle Dandy, that was because I was a massive fan of Cagney and he was once in a film called White Heat which was another connection’.

White Heat at the Marquee.

White Heat live at The Marquee, London.

Looking back what do you think of the Bob Smeaton then, and have you still got the white jacket you wore on the documentary ? ’I watched the Check it Out documentary when I was writing my book. I thought I came across like a right cocky bastard. But I was young and I was cocky and I thought I looked great. I even thought that the white jacket looked great, but not sure it quite went with the braces!!

I no longer have the white jacket. I threw it into the crowd at the end of the final White Heat gig. A bit like a cowboy hanging up his guns. I still get asked if I can still do the press ups that I used to do during the solo of Nervous Breakdown – and I can. But I feel a bit knackered afterwards.

If anyone looks at the Nervous Breakdown clip on You Tube they will notice that the performance is all captured in a single shot, there are no edits in it. Geoff Wonfor was on stage with the cameraman and I would push the the camera in the direction of where I thought it should be filming. That was all spontaneous and it’s a great clip. In fact, I would probably go as far as to say that Nervous Breakdown is the best song that White Heat ever wrote and that along with that video clip pretty much summed up what the band was all about.

It was a strange dichotomy with White Heat. I never wanted us to be considered a ‘local band’ I wanted us to succeed on a national level but so much of the success we did achieve was because of the following we had in the North East.

We did do a number of gigs in London but we really should have moved down there if we wanted to really grow a fan base. But we were all local lads and maybe the desire to make that big step wasn’t present within all the band members’.

Have you any stories from playing gigs ? ‘I have just written my memoir which is coming out in November and I have written about touring with the band. Those were the best days ever; they were not so much funny as really exciting. Touring is the best thing in the world. I have been fortunate to have made music my life, but nothing compares to performing with a band. White Heat went from playing to fifty people at the Bridge Hotel to selling out the Mayfair at our final gig playing to 2,000 plus.

I really miss performing live, the size of the crowd is secondary. It’s as good performing in front of a hundred people as it is two thousand. I have done both in fact we once played a gig just outside of London to eight people. That’s the smallest crowd we ever played too. The biggest crowd was probably around three thousand when we were supporting Judas Priest on tour and played Sheffield City Hall’.

After White Heat did any other bands enquire about you as their frontman ? ’After White Heat split I didn’t want to join another North East band I always felt that would have been a come down. I moved to London for six months and joined a band called Agent Orange who were made up of ex members of the mod group The Chords, along with Mick Talbot who used to be in the Merton Parkers and then later formed the Style Council with Paul Weller.

I recorded almost an albums worth of material with Agent Orange, the studio time was paid for by Polydor who The Chords used to be signed with. Polydor were keen to sign the band and we were in the process of arranging some gigs so that they could see the band live. But I bailed out as I missed being home in Newcastle. The lads in White Heat were my mates. The Chords were not really my mates. I wanted to ‘make it’ but not at any cost. Those days with White Heat were the best times and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Also I felt we split up at the right time’.

Version 5

What does music mean to you ? ’It sounds like a cliché but music changed my life. If I had not become obsessed with music I don’t know what would have become of me. I have been many things, an actor, television presenter and now a director of music documentaries. But this all came about through my love of music. It has been the gateway to everything that I have done.

I still love seeing live bands and hearing new records. There is so much great music around now, you just have to sift through it to find the gems. A good song and a good singer, that is still my yardstick’.

What are you doing now and are you still involved with music ? ‘I was really fortunate in that thanks to my friendship with Geoff Wonfor I got involved in making music videos. This led to working on a great number of music documentaries. For the past twenty-five years or so that is pretty much what I have been doing. I have been lucky to have worked with a number of the bands that I grew up listening too. The Who, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.

My background in music, and having played in a band has been a great help when working with those people. They realise pretty early on that when it comes to music I seem to know what I’m talking about.

If any young kids read this and are thinking about playing music, I would say go ahead and do it. You have got to get out of your bedroom and start playing music with your mates. Its one of the best feelings in the world. Even if you don’t ‘make it’ just to walk out on stage and perform in front of an audience is something that you will never regret’.

Bob Smeaton memoir ‘From Benwell Boy to 46th Beatle…and Beyond’ out now.

Interview by Gary Alikivi October 2018.

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