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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WRITING ON THE WALL – in conversation with North East music journalist, broadcaster & producer Ian Ravendale

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Ian Penman has been a television and radio presenter, researcher, producer and journalist for more than 30 years, generally writing as Ian Ravendale to avoid confusion with the Ian Penman formerly of the NME.

He returned to music journalism (and Ian Ravendale) seven years ago writing for Classic Rock, Classic Pop, Vintage Rock, AOR, Vive Le Rock, Iron Fist, Blues Matters, American Songwriter, The Word and many more. Ian has interviewed literally thousands of musicians from multi-millionaire rockstars to local indie bands on the dole…

‘I worked in television for Border, Tyne Tees, Channel 4 and also ran River City Productions an independent production company based in Gateshead. In addition to making lots of local programmes I also worked on national music shows including Get Fresh, Bliss and (to a lesser extent) The Tube. The Tube was shot at Tyne Tees Television’s Studio 5 on City Road in Newcastle. The site is now a Travel Lodge!

It was interesting going to the canteen on recording day for shows like shows like Razzmatazz  and The Tube and seeing who was in. I remember standing behind Phil Everly as he got his cod and chips!’ 

‘The music programmes I worked on were mainly produced by Border Television in Carlisle. I spent a lot of time there in the 1980’s. At Tyne Tees I worked mainly in the Arts and Entertainment department. Anything different or off the wall it would usually be me doing it.

We produced a program about rock poetry, presented by Mark Mywurdz, who at the time was a Tube regular. For some reason Mark wanted to present the program just wearing a raincoat. Nothing underneath! After we finished recording the show one of the camera men came up and congratulated me; ‘That was the biggest load of rubbish I’ve seen in my life!’  I did a lot of alternative stuff. Some was challenging but none was rubbish!’

Talking about alternative stuff, can you remember Wavis O’Shave ? ‘He had a number of names – Wavis, Fofffo Spearjig, Rod Stewart, Pans Person. When I was writing for Sounds he saw me as a way in as the paper liked the off-beat stuff. He was a great self publicist. And still is! He once told me about getting £1,000 out of the News of the World for a tip-off about a forthcoming witches coven scheduled for Witton Gilbert-or wherever Wavis said it was!’ 

What can you remember about working on Get Fresh ? (kids 1986-88  morning weekend TV show produced by the regional ITV companies taking it in turns for Saturday and Border producing all the Sunday editions). ‘For Get Fresh and Bliss, Border’s 1985 summer replacement for The Tube, most of the guests came up to Carlisle the night before so I’d take them out. People like Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible from The Damned. We’d go into the music pubs and clubs around Carlisle and people would love seeing them there. Rat got up a few times to play with some of the local bands. When I met him I said ‘What do I call you?’ (His real name is Chris Miller). (Adopts cockney accent) ‘Just call me Rat’. So I did. Nice guy. At the time he was really hoping to get the drum job with The Who, as Keith Moon had recently died. Didn’t happen, unfortunately.’

me fringed jacket crop.

Bliss was presented by Muriel Grey and produced in Carlisle by Janet Street-Porter. We featured live bands, got them to play for half an hour, used two songs on the weekly show, then repackage the 30 minutes for a Bliss In Concert special. There wasn’t that much going on in Carlisle at the time so we had no problem getting local kids in as the audience.

One week we didn’t have a live band and I’d got an advance copy of the famous animated video for Take On Me by A-Ha, who at that point were totally unknown. Graham K Smith, the other music researcher and I thought it was really good so I rang their record company to see if A-Ha were available and importantly if they could play live. A resounding ‘Yes, they can do it’ was the answer. Bliss was aimed at a teenage audience so A-ha would have fitted in perfectly. Janet-Street Porter comes in and looks at the video and goes (adopts cockney accent) ‘Oh no, that’s art school stuff, it’s boring. Draggy!’ 

Border TV could have had half an hour of A-Ha playing live in concert for the first time in the UK. But no. The band she booked instead were King Kurt, a well-past their sell-by date punk band. So up they come in their ratty old bus with dogs on pieces of string and a stage act that consisted of throwing slop at each other. We – or rather Janet – turned down what became one of the biggest bands of the eighties’.

When you were reviewing gigs in the early 1980’s for Sounds were there any bands that surprised you or were disappointed with ? ‘It took me a while to ‘get’ punk. I was never into the boring British blues bands and prog acts which still show-up on the BBC’s compilations of 70’s rock. With the exception of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band who I liked. When punk came along it started to make more sense. I was also into what is now classed as Americana. Along with more-left field bands like Sparks and Be-Bop Deluxe.’

I’m reading the book ’No Sleep till Canvey Island -The Great Pub Rock Revolution’ the book mentions the early careers of Joe Strummer, Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello…’There were bands that were like a doorway between punk and the boring rock bands and Brinsley Schwarz, with Nick Lowe were one of them. I saw them play Backhouse Park, here in Sunderland. Dr Feelgood were another. I saw The Damned support Marc Bolan at Newcastle City Hall and it was a short, sharp, shock. And I thought; ‘OK. What was that…?’ Phil Sutcliffe, my predecessor at Sounds did an interview with The Damned for Radio Newcastle’s Bedrock show that we both worked on. It was 30 seconds long and finished off with someone shouting ‘Oi! Who put duh lights out’!

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The big article you wrote for Sounds in May 1980 featured local metal bands Mythra, Fist, Raven, Tygers of Pan Tang and White Spirit. How did that come about ? ‘I was freelancing at Sounds, writing articles and reviewing gigs, some of which were of local bands. I was also working on the Bedrock program and one of my co-presenters was Tom Noble who was managing the Tygers. I’d already written individual articles about the Tygers, Fist and Raven and Geoff Barton, the assistant editor at Sounds asked me to source a few more bands for a 4,000 word article. The North East New Wave of British Heavy Metal’ was born!’

NWOBHM had Iron Maiden in London, Saxon in Barnsley and Def Leppard in Sheffield…. ‘Yes. As a reviewer I went as far as Redcar. A lot of the local bands I reviewed were from here in Sunderland, Newcastle and South Shields. Sounds also had a guy called ‘Des Moines’, a pseudonym for a writer from Leeds called Nigel Burnham who is now an agricultural journalist and Mick Middles, based in Manchester. Between the three of us we had the north covered.

One time the Tygers of Pan Tang were supporting Saxon and I’d gone along. I’d previously written a review of Saxon which included something along the lines of ‘in six months time they’ll be back playing social clubs’. At the gig Tygers’ guitarist Robb Weir came up and said ‘Biffs lookin’ for you!’. Fortunately he didn’t find me….Not yet, anyway.’

Was there any conflict between watching a band that you weren’t a fan of and writing something positive about them ? ‘Geoff never said to me, ‘We’ve got a big metal readership here can you go easy on them?’ He never wanted me to do that. But I found metal bands easy to take the piss out of – and I did. This stimulated very angry letters like ‘How dare Ian Ravendale slag off Ozzy. I’ve seen him and he was great’. I remember my opening line of a review I did of Ozzy, ‘What I want to know is how is Ozzy Osbourne so cabaret’. I interviewed him a few times for Bedrock but my interviewees tended not to click onto the fact that ‘Bedrock’s Ian Penman’ was also sharp-tongued Sounds scribe Ian Ravendale.

One time a few years after the Sounds ‘cabaret’ comment I was working at Tyne Tees and on the Friday Ozzy was playing The Tube. The Arts and Entertainment office was next door and I saw him in the corridor looking lost.  So I went up to him and said ‘Hi Ozzy, The Tube office is just over there’. He thanked me and then said ’I’ve met you before haven’t I’. He still remembered me from the radio interviews we’d done’.

How did you get interested in writing ? ‘As a teenager I was a huge music fan and also into American comics. I wrote for a few comic fanzines then published some of my own which occasionally still turn up on Ebay. That gave me an insight into writing for public consumption’. 

Bedrock pic

The Bedrock team with Ian sitting on the right.

What about radio? You were involved in Bedrock for nearly ten years…‘Dick Godfrey was producing a program called Bedrock for BBC Radio Newcastle which featured interviews from national and gave local bands exposure which was otherwise very hard for them to get at the time. I had always been interested in the nuts and bolts of the music industry and how it all worked and listened to programs like Radio 1’s Scene And Heard.

Dick had a feature called Top Track where each week a different listener would come in and play his favourite track and talk about it. ‘Some Of Shellys Blues’ by Michael Nesmith was my choice. This went down well with Dick so I asked if he’d be interested in me contributing features. ‘Yes but there’s no cash involved’. Nesmith was soon going to be playing in the UK and I was going along to the gig so I asked Dick if Bedrock be interested in me trying to get an interview with him. ‘Definitely’ replied Dick. So I phoned a record label I’d heard Michael was about to sign to and they gave me his hotel number. As ‘Ian Penman from BBC Radio Newcastle’ I arranged an interview, which I did a couple days later in London, the day after the gig. That was my start in radio’. 

How did you start with Sounds? ‘Phil Sutcliffe, who was the North East correspondent for Sounds, was a friend of Dick Godfrey and also worked on Bedrock. When Phil moved to London he recommended me to Geoff Barton, Sound’s reviews editor, to be his replacement. Phil wrote a lot about the Angelic Upstarts, he liked the music but also had a sympathetic ear to what they were doing. He wrote the first articles about them. Same for Penetration, Neon and Punishment of Luxury.

I’d also been involved in the music fanzine Out Now which Tom Noble had produced, so I was becoming pretty proficient at interviewing and writing reviews. I was out at gigs four nights a week and was known enough to be able to walk straight into Newcastle City Hall via the stage door. This put me in touch with Tyne Tees TV and when a researcher vacancy came up I applied for that, got it and carried on at Sounds for a short while. I also wrote a few pieces for Kerrang, which Geoff Barton had moved across from Sounds to edit. I wrote the first article on Venom. Yes, I’m responsible for Black Metal (laughs).

Then as now, my attitude was regardless whether I liked the music or not if I could write something positive about local bands, and it was a entertaining ….I’ll do that. If you write something negative about a local band you could do them major harm. Also, a person in Aberdeen doesn’t want to know whether a band from South Shields are crap. Why would they?’

For the work that you were doing how important do you think research is? ’Some writers think of an idea then write a piece in support of that. I don’t do that. For me it’s about the facts and information presented in an interesting way. Opinions and personal taste are what they are. Maybe you like a band that I don’t. That’s fine.  But facts stand. I do my absolute level best to write as accurately as possible. It’s really important for me to do that. Sometimes information comes from two or three sources. And if the information is contradictory, I’ll say that’. 

Any memorable incidents in your career ? ’I interviewed Debbie Harry at Newcastle City Hall when Blondie had just broken big. We were in one of the really small dressing rooms. It was tiny. The record rep said ‘Ok Ian you got seven minutes’. He introduced me to Debbie who was standing with her back to me. She was leaning on a shelf writing stuff down. I said ‘Writing out the song lyrics ?’ She replied ‘Yeah, well I don’t really know them from the new album yet’. It felt a bit awkward. I literally spent the next three minutes just watching her writing with her back to me, stunning in her jumble sale collection of clothes. Eventually she sat down and off we went.

All of this was fairly new to her, she had just been playing CBGB’s (small club in New York) and now it was to gigs with 2,000 fans like the City Hall. She was trying to get used to all this Debbie-fever that was going on around her. By minute seven we were finally getting somewhere and she was opening up when the record rep walked in ‘Right Ian. Times up!’

I did actually interview the solo Debbie on the phone for Get Fresh nine years later and she was much more forthcoming.  (The  City Hall interview is on Rocks Back pages if you fancy a listen. RB is a paysite but there’s lots and lots of great stuff up there).

For more information contact : http://ianravendale.blogspot.com

Interview by Gary Alikivi July 2018.