Crying ‘Wally’ in the dark…

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September 15th 1976, Sheffield city hall: my first ever major rock gig; I went to see Hawkwind play.  There was a group of us, mainly friends from the band I was in at the time, called Nightmare.  The evening was a revelation to me, an introduction to the etiquette at these really big events.

I’d been to gigs before, of course, as I have described in other postings- I had seen Son of a Bitch (soon to be reborn as Saxon) several times; I had seen various other  local and national bands playing at Barnsley civic hall. But nothing matched the Sheffield gig for scale and showmanship; this was also the biggest named band I had yet to see.  I had been introduced to them by the gorgeous Diane at my school- and still decades later she and Hawkwind are intertwined in my memory.

We sat in the darkness, gazing in awe and jealousy at the equipment and fantasising about the day when our band might have that many lights and speakers.   We wondered if we dared go to the bar.  We checked out the cool older kids and their clothes.  We heard people around the auditorium shouting out ‘Wally.’  Endlessly, circulating, pointless, ‘Wally.’

Why? It was a thing you did.  It was like a round, repeating, interminable, initially amusing, then boring, then almost blanked out.  We joined in, to show we knew what to do, how to act.  ‘Wally.’  Where was Wally? Who was Wally?

Well, by that date Wally was dead.  Wally had been dead a year.  Wally was Wally Hope, founder of the Windsor and Stonehenge free festivals;  he was a significant figure of the seventies free festival movement and friend of Penny Rimbaud from Crass.  Wally’s vision was  “free music, free space, free mind.”  For a brief window from the mid-seventies until the mid-eighties, that was almost realised. I caught a tiny glimpse of this myself at Stonehenge in June 1980, unknowingly connecting loose threads of my previous (and future) existences.

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Wally was really called Phil Russell and his life and achievements are recalled across the internet and in print (see for example The story of Crass by George Berger or the generally excellent and inspirational Senseless acts of beauty by George McKay).  We teenaged boys in that crowd unwittingly recalled and celebrated him by daftly calling out his name in the wait before the band came on.  If we had but known it, it was a tribute to an ideal, to a lifestyle and a style of politics that was ever to be marginal and endangered.  Crying out ‘Wally’ in the dark was- had we known it- a small act of rebellion, a tiny self-assertion, a microscopic claim to liberty of thought and conduct.  But we didn’t know- we shouted because everyone else was shouting- the very antithesis of the idea.

In more recent decades this cry has deteriorated to cries of ‘bollocks’ as later generations seem to have tried to make sense of a meaningless word.  I have heard it echo across the tented wastes of Glastonbury festival at night.  Perhaps it’s just as well it’s changed; the Glastonbury festival that carries on today is mostly so far from Wally’s vision as to be unrecognisable to him, although I am sure that in corners of the Green fields there are individuals who remember him and who still harbour those seventies aspirations, an agenda (arguably) that still has meaning and potential today.

Wally

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The marvel of The Mekons

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If I had to choose one group from the post-punk era to represent all that I loved and aspired to most about the music of the eighties, it would be Leeds band The Mekons. Here’s my brief paean to some less well remembered Yorkshire musicians.

I’m not sure how I first discovered the band.  I suspect it may have been my theory of “good album cover = good album.”  This may seem like a dodgy way to determine how to invest £2.99 of your student grant, but I often relied upon it as a good guide to purchases. If the record company couldn’t be arsed to invest in decent design and printing, I reckoned that the product within was not likely to be worth the listen.  On the other hand, good quality card, artistic imagery and expensive colour reproduction suggested interesting music within.  Naive, perhaps, but it usually worked.

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I saw The quality of mercy is not strnen and loved the Shakespearean concept and the joke.  I bought the album in an indie record shop in St Mary Street, Southampton and, when I got home to my turntable, I was not disappointed.  These were songs of ordinary teenage life in a Yorkshire town.  I knew exactly what they were going on about- and they sang in my language.  The romantic sufferings and teenage traumas they described were the stuff of my South Yorkshire teens- as I have described in my two semi-autobiographical stories, Freak or smoothy? and in punk rock focussed Feeling called love.  Down the road from Leeds in my hometown of Barnsley, I had gone through the same tortures, the same ecstasies that those early tracks described.

I adored the slightly shambolic structure to the songs which was yet highly virtuoso; I liked the fact that the vocals were a bit strained and reedy and wobbly.  I was hooked.  I bought the Fast Records compilation album which included some early singles and which also introduced me to 2.3, another fine Yorkshire band- and hailing from Sheffield (which for a Barnsley lad seemed more like ‘home’ than Leeds- which of course is in West Yorkshire…).  See my soundtrack to Feeling called love for a sample song.

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I embarked on a musical adventure with the Mekons.  They slowly moved away from the basic-sounding punk of those initial releases to something more new-wavey.  Their second album The Mekons was no longer the thrashing punk of their first compositions; there were hints of the loose reggae style inspiration of The Slits.  I still adore the song, ‘Another one’ for its instrumentation and its lyrics.

2nd album

Then they surprised us all and became a kind of mutant country and western band.  The tracks ‘Fear and whiskey’ and, above all, ‘Hello cruel world‘ are at the top of my list of all time faves.  Even in this phase, though, there was a reassuring Northern-ness to their music, with references to Armley jail and to the train ride from Leeds to Sheffield- a lyric from ‘Beaten and broken:’

“I caught a train to Sheffield, but in my mind, I was already in hell.”

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The Mekons have remained a source of uplifting inspiration since.  I have two great regrets: one is that I never saw them live.  They played Birmingham once when I lived there, but the Sunday night gig clashed with me having to be in Hastings for work. Worse perhaps was that one of their members used to live next door to an ex-girlfriend of mine in Mile End- but we never got to meet…..  Nevertheless, I have still have the records on my turntable (yes, I mean phonogram) and the songs in my head which, ultimately, is what really counts.

“The best times of your nite life”- Barnsley nightlife 1975- 1979

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In this posting, I want to explore how and where Barnsley people were entertained during the late 1970s, especially at the weekends and especially in nightclubs.

This post is an expanded version of an article published in Memories of Barnsley magazine for autumn 2017.

Pubs & bars

One obvious answer to this, of course, would be drinking in the pub.  This was a time honoured and traditional pastime, seemingly for all those over the age of about 13.  Numerous pubs thrived, which today have been converted to flats or convenience stores- the Wilthorpe and the Redbrook are examples close to my childhood home.  I joined the culture of underage drinking at fourteen or fifteen, thanks to the relaxed policies of the bar in the Centenary Rooms, and took the ready availability of alcohol for granted. It was at this venue that I learned to drink, I learned many painful lessons of love and romance, I saw Saxon/ Son of a Bitch play and I first performed in a band on stage myself, as I have described in posts and elsewhere.

The authorities had a different view, however.  The chair of the licencing justices complained in January 1979 at the rise in offences over the preceding year: 92 under-seventeens had been convicted of drinking offences, including girls as young as fourteen.  “There appears no doubt that drunkenness- together with the accompanying deplorable behaviour which must be tolerated … is on the increase.”  I was an offender just as much as those unfortunates who were caught- and many of those who have shared their reminiscences of venues were similarly present illegally.

Turning back to legitimate forms of fun (!), what is impressive is the sheer number of clubs, pubs and discos that were available, just within the boundaries of South Yorkshire and in smaller towns and locations where you would not expect them.  I presume that this must be explained by the increased mobility of young people: they could afford cars and they could afford the fuel to travel to venues.  At exactly the same time, though, they were not inclined to go very far.  Why go to Leeds or Sheffield when you only had to go to Mexborough in your search for a good time?

Across the area working men’s clubs offered bars, discos, live bands, comedy and bingo.  Weekly events were advertised consistently at the clubs in Greenside, Shaftoe, Swaithe, Kexborough, Staincross, Jump, Mapplewell, Ward Green, Dodworth and Worsborough.  Large employers provided similar attractions, for example the NUM and the Yorkshire Traction social club, which offered strippers with your Sunday roast lunch.  The aforementioned Redbook staged dance nights on Tuesdays in the mid-70s, with Maisie on organ and Johnny on drums.   

Cinemas

Another traditional place of entertainment was, of course, cinemas.  You did not only see films at the Barnsley Odeon, but also at a council run screen in Penistone and at the Futurist in Elsecar.  The latter, at the start of the period, was a general cinema showing the usual spread of family and over-eighteen films.  Fairly quickly, though- perhaps because of competition and waning attendances- it became rather more ‘specialist’ in its programming.  Sample saucy offerings include When girls go to bed, Carnal knowledge, Do you believe in Swedish sin? and Prickly problems (not, I assume, about cacti).  Bizarrely though, amidst the X-rated fare, the odd Disney cartoon still appeared at matinee.

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Nightclubs

Young adults after something other than The ups and downs of a girl on holiday still had plenty of swinging venues to choose from.  Within Barnsley town itself there was the YMCA, offering a ‘Top of the Pops’ disco on Wednesdays for 20p; Changes at 2, Sheffield Road, was a pub mainly putting on local heavy metal bands, but with Lynn the go-go dancer at weekends; the Stables Club in Peel Street, is remembered with affection, but is generally described as ‘grotty,’ and Jim’s Inn on Doncaster Road, was a private members’ club that offered cabaret and dancing.  The Inn was named after a popular TV series of the late 1950s and catered for an older and more affluent clientele than some night spots.

The leading venue in town was probably Baba’s disco in Queen’s Road; it claimed it was Barnsley’s “biggest and best disco scene.” It was popular with hen nights, works parties and footballers, but it also staged live acts, including Geno Washington and Bilbo Baggins in early 1976 and, in January 1974 Heatwave, who were unfortunately promoted to the locals as a “coloured American song dance group.” The venue was acquired by Granada Theatres early in 1975.It was closed for refurbishment later in the year, reopening in late November with a new sound system and light effects.  The new owners had spent £10,000 (£59,000 today) on 700-watt amplifiers and sound to light equipment copied from Paris, Oslo and Geneva.  There was also new décor and furnishings and the ability to show films.  The emphasis remained on dancing, although rock music was also promised.

Club Baba closed again for refurbishment in mid-1976 but had reopened by early 1978 as Rebecca’s, with “new super sound, new décor and new sophisticated lighting.”  Admission to all of this was just 75p before 10pm (about £5.75 today) and they offered regular drinks promotions (spirits 20p all night); themed nights such as St Trinians, Treasure Island and Pink Panther, and annual ‘Miss Rebecca’s’ competitions.  The disco claimed, in slightly sinister terms, that it was “where one could meet one’s match.”  I think we know what they meant.

Still within the wider Barnsley area, there was a remarkable choice of venues.  The Pinfold Hotel, Cudworth, put on Friday night discos; the Londoner, Lamb Lane, Monk Bretton, was a former casino that claimed it was “the most exciting disco pub in town” with dancing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights; in Royston was Tassel’s Club, a dance school that also presented live bands such as Middle of the Road, of ‘Chirpy, chirpy, cheep, cheep’ fame.  In Kings Street, Hoyland, stood the Birdcage, where “everybody meets.”  It offered the area’s “number one nite scene” from 9pm to 2am- and for only 60p on the door.  A tie was not necessary to get in, but style definitely was, the adverts advised: they pictured a young woman in shorts, boots and bra-less in a short, unfastened waistcoat.  The club featured palm trees inside and is most memorable for the fact that, if a beer barrel ran out, the cellar was only accessible through a trap door in the middle of the dance floor, which necessitated clearing the dancers for a time.  Bands played the Birdcage too, including circuit regulars Ponder’s End and Bitter Suite.  Copied by Rebecca’s, the club organised an annual Miss Hoyland competition.  For a while, at least, the Cage extended to the adjoining premises, opening as Cupid’s, “Hoyland’s new superscene”- just in case the Birdcage had failed in its promise to deliver “the best times of your nite life.”

If this wasn’t enough, South Yorkshire’s pleasure seekers had plenty of attractions only a short journey away.  In Wakefield, the Theatre Club staged live acts such as the Nolan Sisters, the Three Degrees, The Jacksons, Osibisa, Alvin Stardust, Gene Pitney and Charles Aznavour.  The Golden Girl Nightclub in the same town also offered bands, such as Paper Lace in January 1979.  Heading south, the Fiesta in Sheffield booked names like the Drifters and the New Seekers, and there was dancing at the Top Rank Suite and Crazy Daizy at the Mecca.  Still feeling jaded?  Then you could try Tiffany’s in Rotherham, Wordsworth’s Ballroom in Pontefract- which featured bands and discos- or Jesters in Mexborough, where the Drifters appeared in November 1976.

For sheer bizarreness, Kiko’s in Pontefract has to be mentioned.  It advertised itself as the town’s number one exotic Polynesian nightclub.  “A splendid time is guaranteed for all” in “breath-taking surroundings” the adverts promised.  The venue was famed for its plastic palm trees and was immortalised by John Godber in his play Bouncers.

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Northern soul venues

Parallel with the regular clubs, there was the sub-culture of Northern Soul.  The Londoner in Monk Bretton offered Northern Soul nights on Monday, which were a big draw for local youth, including a high proportion of under-eighteens. The Portcullis Club put on an all-dayer for over-eighteens in May 1975.  The event ran from 2pm until 11pm; the entry fee was 75p, with a bar and food provided.

Wordsworth’s had Northern Soul nights; so too did Bailey’s in Doncaster.  The latter’s adverts featured drawings of typical 1970s ‘dolly birds’ dancing to the latest sounds, but the club established a firm reputation as one of the venues on the all-dayer and all-nighter Northern Soul circuit, competing with Cleethorpes, Blackpool and Wigan. It drew audiences from as far afield as the East Midlands and East Yorkshire and offered twenty-four hour marathons on Sundays.  Finally, there was Raquel’s in Wakefield, which had two floors of music: Bowie and Roxy Music upstairs and soul classics such as R. Dean Taylor and Gloria Jones downstairs.  It drew coach loads of soul fans from a wide area and the 50p entry even included a meal.  Once again, the club had a large underage clientele: one weekly regular recalled doing his homework under the tables in the bar during the midweek soul sessions.  Raquel’s even offered hard-core devotees an all-nighter on December 25th 1976- a radical new approach to ‘keeping the faith.’

Northern soul was often blighted by its association with dance floor drugs.  Witness of this was Barnsley magistrates’ refusal in April 1975 to licence an all-nighter at the Civic Hall.  Although the applicant had run events in Cleethorpes and Doncaster without incident, the town police objected because of the likelihood of drug use and ‘trouble.’  Of course, this is of a piece with the overreaction to Barnsley’s only ever punk gig– see my two posts on this- and the rather more legitimate concern about underage drinking.

Too much fun?

If none of this sufficed, though, there was still Antoinette’s Luxury Nightspot at Brierley Gap, Hemsworth.  There was dining and dancing on Fridays and Saturdays and sometimes male strip tease compered by a drag act- “See it all for 40p.”  This rather remote venue had formerly traded as ‘Eight miles out,’ which described itself as “a bistro, a disco, a country club- and very, very different from anywhere else you’ve ever been.”  It offered a northern soul night on Thursdays: “Keep the faith! Come early and often!” was the slightly plaintive slogan.  The venue seemed desperate to attract clientele: February 1975 also saw a ‘knicker party’ with ‘knicker bar’(?) and March a ‘stag show’- “girls, girls, girls- and comedian.”

The sheer choice, cheapness and quantity of night life in this period are impressive and even make you feel rather envious of days gone by.  Sadly, many of these venues have disappeared now: for instance, the Birdcage burned down in the 1980s and was replaced by flats; the Londoner also burned down whilst the Futurist closed in 1985 and became an auction house.

 

 

 

 

“England was thine- and it owed thee a living”

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I went the other night to see England is mine, the newly released film biography of Stephen Patrick Morrissey.  The cinema was full of people of a certain age, all summoned to the stalls by nostalgia.

I enjoyed the film, but I’d say it’s definitely one for existing fans of The Smiths.  The film ends with Morrissey and Johnny Marr meeting for their first song-writing session: you have to know what follows, and care about what follows, to engage with the story.  If you’ve never heard The Smiths, if you don’t like their music, you’re not going to be inclined to invest in the film’s account of events.  Nothing much happens- Morrissey has a crap job, he is briefly in a band, he gets depressed and is put on medication, he stays in and types a lot; what gives all of this meaning is the awareness of what is to come.  It helps too to know something about the other characters- that ‘Billy’ is Billy Duffy who becomes lead guitarist of The Cult and that Linder Sterling designed the covers for Orgasm Addict and Magazine’s Real Life album.  In other words, you have really to be of a certain age group and musical persuasion (and to like Keats, Yeats and Wilde perhaps…)

A couple of complaints- and if you are of said age group, you may well have rankled over these things too.  There was some carelessness over period details in the film, I thought:

  • no-one in 1976 went to a gig and asked for “a beer” at the bar, then to be given a glass bottle.  Huh?  It was a pint or half of bitter in a dimple glass, surely!
  • definitely no-one, especially a middle manager of middle age at the Inland Revenue, would have said in 1977 “get your shit together, Stephen.”  The phrase did not exist in our language then.  “Pull your socks up,” would have sounded right for a man of that generation and background;
  • likewise, “I don’t need this” when Stephen’s first friend can’t take his negativity anymore.  These are Americanisms which would have meant nothing to us then- and sounded wrong now.

There was plenty of humour in the film.  It reminded me too of Morrissey and Marr’s musical roots.  Both were fans of Motown, Morrissey in particular having a high regard for the sixties soul groups and female singers in particular.  We see him perform one song in the film, and that is a cover of ‘Give him a great big kiss’ by the Shangri-Las.  Often now, there is a taint of racism lingering with Morrissey’s name, but this early love of his for the Tamla bands gives such rumours the lie.

For more detail of the facts behind the film as well as the career of The Smiths, see Johnny Rogan’s book Morrissey and Marr- The severed alliance.

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The Skids live, 2017

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I’ve written previously about the Skids’ fortieth birthday tour.  Here are a couple of reviews of the actual gigs.

Firstly a review from the Scotsman,  by Fiona Shepherd, who gave their Glasgow ABC gig fur stars:

“When I’m up here I feel like I’m sixteen, but afterwards, the limbs…” For all his understandable apprehension around The Skids becoming part of the creaky punk heritage trail, lurching dervish Richard Jobson looked to be having a ball as the much-loved Dunfermline band embarked on their 40th anniversary reunion.

For justification, he need only have registered the reaction in the rammed venue – pints aloft from a sea of men of a certain age, exactly the sort of constituency.  The Skids represented with their meaty, politicised rabble rousing anthems such as debut release Charles, its bouncy bass-line propelling an ode to a factory worker literally ground down by the job.

Four decades on, The Skids are far from ground down. Even with the quickly acknowledged absence of Jobson’s wing man Stuart Adamson, lost to suicide 15 years ago, the band sounded in peak condition. Original bassist Bill Simpson and drummer Mike Baillie were the rock solid engine room, augmented by no better custodian of Adamson’s legacy than his former Big Country cohort Bruce Watson to provide that distinctive ringing, melodic lead guitar so admired by peers such as U2 and Siouxsie & the Banshees. The set was a pretty comprehensive romp through the singles and album standouts, with the pugnacious Working For The Yankee Dollar and turbo-charged The Saints Are Coming providing early highlights, fist-pumping chants Charade and Masquerade firing up the masses and the daft nosebleed roll call of TV Stars rewritten to name check the day’s political figures.”

Secondly, a review written by John Robb for Louder than War of the Manchester Ritz gig:

“Well, that was pretty fucking special.

The triumphant return of the Skids worked on so many different levels that it’s hard to believe they ever went away. The band, who emerged in the punk wars, are further proof of the strength in depth of that musical wave – a time when perhaps 40 odd bands all had a whiff of greatness about them. Some of them crashed and burned, some of them soldiered on to their never ending victory lap and some like the Skids seemed destined to never return.

… a rock solid rhythm section makes the band super-tight, serving the songs up with a real care, with all the shape shifting rhymes and rhythms and clever constructions in place and perfect for charismatic frontman Richard Jobson to project his still powerful voice over.

The last of the classic punk generation bands to reform the Skids hit the stage to a rapturous reception. They have, of course, got back together a couple of times before – a 30th anniversary thing in their home town of Dunfermline but this time it’s serious – a whole tour and some festival action.

Jobson is on fire fire tonight – a great frontman with charisma to spare his autodidact intelligence and powerful stage presence is still in place even if he amusingly complains of being knackered from jumping around in the songs like his youthful self complete with his trademark one legged scissor kick dance which he takes the piss out of for his lack of cool. Jobson is an engaging and powerful presence and he commands the stage with his voice delivering a series of songs that like so many of these classic bands sets is full of long lost album gems that fly back at you from over the decades.

The hits are, of course, here Working For The Yankee Dollar is still a timely reminder of the world order and catchy as fuck with that guitar lick ear worm, Masquerade and Charade are both anthemic, The Saints Are Coming is huge with that football stadium chorus and Into The Valley is a thrilling rush – one of the great songs of the period, they even play early favourite Charles and even throwaway b side Albert Tatlock and a new song which augers well for the new album. It’s hard to believe that the last time I saw them play was in 1978 supporting the Stranglers at Lancaster University when the band was drowned by a storm of spit. Decades have come and gone and all the young punks are now old men but still filled with the fire and passion of musical adventure.

The set only underlines the Skids unique position in the culture – a band born out of punk with huge ambitions, a band who were in a creative rush and helped laid the bed rock for eighties rock – time and time again you wonder how much of a debt U2 owe them soundwise and the band’s innovative and highly intelligent take on punk rock was rewriting the rule book as it went along.”

Tonight the Skids are fantastic and leave you hoping that this is more than some short term comeback but a full time concern – they will rule any festival they play and need to be embraced by the Beautiful Days/Bearded Theory festivals as well as the post punk ATP set. Their futuristic vision has served them well and they sound far from dated – unique and timely and hungry.”

Reassuring news for a ‘man of a certain age’ that the band and the period I chose to immortalise in my novel Feeling called love are still capable of inspiring excitement and dedication!

 

Saxon at Steelfest

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Last week I had to help by daughter move home in Cardiff.  Stopping in an AirB&B between flats, I was looking at the 2017 Welsh Tourist Board brochure.  What’s on for July included Steelfest at Hafod y Dafal, Ebbw Vale at which Saxon are appearing.

The brochure asked (cheekily, you might think):

  • are they actually still going?  The answer is, of course, loud and strong.  The band recently released a 14 disc box set (Solid book of rock), a live album, Let me feel your power (2016) and there’s another album Thunderbolt due; and,
  • are they still wearing those trousers? The brochure answered yes; my feeling (my hope, for men approaching 70) is no.  I’ve featured this picture before, but here they are- the monsters of rock at Castle Donnington- just to remind you what was being referred to…

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In the meantime, I have continued to add to my history of the origins of the band as Iron Mad Wilkinson, Coast and Son of a Bitch in Barnsley during the early and mid-1970s, updating my posting as I find further material in the archives.

From Son of a Bitch to Wheels of Steel- the origins of Saxon 

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New Wave of British Heavy Metal pioneers Saxon are currently reaching the end of their fortieth birthday world tour.  Coming from the same South Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley, I here reflect further upon the band’s roots.

From the 1960s into the 70s there was a thriving music scene in the South Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley.  A variety of venues, from council premises through to pubs and working men’s clubs, put on national, and even international, acts from a range of genres.  These included names like Brian Eno, Mud, Alex Harvey, The Real Thing, Nazareth, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.  This is an impressive roster of names for a moderate sized town sitting between the major concert venues of Sheffield and Leeds and with many other smaller venues in between.

Not only did Barnsley residents listen to music, they responded with their own and the many clubs and pubs were always on the lookout for acts to fill their schedules.  Bands could get plenty of live experience, then, and, as a result, Barnsley produced a wealth of live acts and two groups who went on to gain national and international status of their own: Son of a Bitch (who subsequently became Saxon) and goth band Danse Society.

Formation

Son of a Bitch, as is often the case, went through several configurations and name changes before they came together in late 1975 in the first line-up that would be recognised by later Saxon fans.  Members had been playing together or in other local bands since about 1970, performing as Coast, The Iron Mad Wilkinson Band, Son of a Bitch, Pagan Chorus and Blue Condition.

Peter ‘Biff’ Byford was originally from Honley, West Yorkshire.  After a spell down the pit at Flockton, he started playing in rock bands as a hobby, first as guitarist, later as bassist and then vocalist.  After leaving the seven piece Iron Mad Wilkinson (who supported Suzi Quattro in Barnsley in 1973), he formed three piece Coast with guitarist Chris Morris and drummer Dodd. Morris the guitarist had formerly played in a nightclub cabaret band called Dusty in Huddersfield, but had grown tired of endlessly playing the Four Tops.

Coast were ambitious and they had a keen eye for self-publicity.  On January 30th 1974 the pub venue Changes in Barnsley announced the “return of the sensational Coast.”  The band appeared again “by popular demand” within a week and played there eight times during that year.  They also found slots supporting Cockney Rebel and Be Bop Deluxe at the town’s Civic Hall in June, at an outdoor festival in Sheffield’s Parson’s Cross Park and supporting Be Bop Deluxe again at the Civic in December.  Coast played several solo gigs around the town as well.  Their live appearances always got good reviews.  For example at the Cockney Rebel gig the band were complimented on their vocals- “unusually high quality, smooth and refined, not gritty and tinny.”  They made a “triumphant return” in front of a “jubilant crowd” at the Barnsley’s Centenary Rooms in September, assailing the audience with “a mind blowing barrage of light and sound.” (NB The support at this gig was from Trace, whose rhythm guitarist was Tony Whitaker.  His younger brother was to play guitar in Nightmare and Trace’s first gig at Broadway School’s main hall is recalled in my novel Freak or smoothy?)

The future looked promising for Coast during 1974.  They won the semi-final of the Tetley brewery Sound of the North contest in March and proceeded to the final hopeful of the prize of £600 of equipment and the chance of a recording contract.  As it turned out, they came fourth at the final, although Morris won £50 in recognition of his guitar skills.  The competition had been good publicity, though, and another feature appeared in the local paper in which the band announced that they were seeking a manager to handle their bookings.  They were touring colleges and universities nationally, as well as their ‘resident band’ status at Changes, and  they had a tour of Holland lined up; they needed someone to handle all the admin work.  Despite this plea for help, it’s obvious that someone in Coast had very good contacts with a local journalist and knew what could make an interesting story which would get coverage.

However, there was a set back.  Morris left the band in July and a replacement had to be recruited.  Byford had met guitarist Paul Quinn after the latter’s band, Pagan Chorus, had played Club Baba in Barnsley (the town’s premier night spot). Chorus billed themselves as ‘cabaret style pop’ (whatever that genre entailed) and having heard them Byford suggested to Quinn that they could both do better.  He joined Coast.

In February 1975 the Barnsley Chronicle reported that Coast had been recording a new cassette of songs at Holy Ground studio in Wakefield (this was owned by Bill Nelson of Be Bop Deluxe and the band had plainly built upon the friendship forged when they had supported them in Barnsley).   To promote this they were issuing badges, t-shirts and posters bearing the logo ‘Bap shoo ap’, the title of one of their most popular songs. Things did not work out as hoped, however.  By April the newspaper was announcing that a new band called Blenheim had been formed, featuring a former Coast member and three ex-members of Trace.  The result was that Biff and Paul had to spend the next few months auditioning new members.  However by early August they announced the new line up and its first gig at the Victoria Hotel, Cudworth (a former Coast venue).  They promised new songs and revamped oldies.  A further gig at the Centenary Rooms took place on October 3rd.

Finally, late in 1975, Byford and Quinn teamed up with Graham Oliver and Steve Dawson from local rivals Son of a Bitch.  The previous line-up of Bitch gigged very regularly in Barnsley.  The pub Changes, situated on the edge of the town centre, offered live bands at least once a week and “SOB” played the venue nine times in 1974 and eleven times during 1975.  I assume that the capitalised SOB was a discrete abbreviation of the band’s name (certainly the local paper preferred to avoid giving offence by using it).  The band hailed from Mexborough and were described after one Barnsley gig in July 1974 as a “good tight, noisy band” who “belted out good solid rock… great.”  This was perhaps not the greatest of endorsements, but the reviewer went on to suggest that SoB could “mellow into something really good.”  Whether the transformation into Saxon counts as ‘mellowing’ I’m not sure.

In January 1976 Metro Management advertised that “out of the ashes” of the previous bands had come a new Son of a Bitch, who were booked to play their first gig at a small civic venue, the Centenary Rooms, on February 6th 1976.  The choice of venue indicates that they were still unsure of their audience, but the band members all had solid live experience and they were confident enough to return within a month (with Fix as support), albeit for only 50p (now about £3.80) on the door.   Aged 15, I first saw the band playing at one of these two gigs- I have forgotten which, but it was my first experience of live rock and I remember it as being packed with grown-ups and being smoky, beery and very loud!  It felt like my first taste of an exciting, adult world.

The band played their home town regularly after that, although they graduated to the main auditorium of the Civic Hall from June 1976, playing a gig that promised to “make your feet steam” for a mere 65p.

The band appeared in Barnsley nine times over the next thirty nine months.   This averages one appearance every three months or so, but in fact five of those gigs were during the first year.  It seems apparent that the strategy was to establish a core local audience and to hone the group’s live skills and set at minimal expense, before gambling time and resources on unknown audiences further afield.

sax 3

Chasing a deal

Bitch were hungry for public exposure as well as live experience and accordingly they agreed some odd appearances and pairings.  Usually the band were supported by other local rock outfits- for example, in November 1976 support was provided by Heaven’s Above from Cudworth and Weasel from Mexborough.  This was not always the case, however.  In July 1976 Bitch again played Barnsley’s Civic Hall, this time (bizarrely) as part of the borough’s ‘Youth Dance Week’.  Support surprisingly came from Manchester’s Afro-Caribbean soul band Masterpiece; on another occasion Bitch were supported by a white soul outfit, Kokomo, and at another gig films were shown instead of a live guest act, one being of a live performance by avant garde experimentalist Eno.

The local paper, the Barnsley Chronicle, announced that the July gig proved that “rock lives” (in the face of the birth of punk, presumably).  Bitch, “arguably Barnsley’s foremost rock band,” had played to an audience of 300 and had provoked “wild scenes, pandemonium, chaos and cheers.” The report listed the set- it included Freeway, Lift up your eyes, Envy, Taking in the dollar and longstanding favourite Bap shoo ap.  The favourite that night, though, was a ballad called Anne Marie.  I recall this song, even today.  It was a certainly a fave of me and my friends who were in attendance that evening and- at a push- I think I could still play the opening riff, even after four decades.

When the band returned again in November that year the paper declared them to be “possibly the town’s leading band at the moment” and “well on their way to ‘making it’” as they had just distributed demo tapes to record labels.  It was, however, to be another two years before Bitch finally found a recording contract.

You can trace the band’s steadily rising profile directly through the pages of the Chronicle.  SoB (as the reporters discretely liked to call them) were a local success story the paper was happy to feature, whilst the band plainly recognised the benefits of guaranteed press coverage.  Today, acts can promote themselves directly to fans through Facebook, Bandcamp and the like.  During the seventies you had to work harder for publicity, but the local paper was very willing to fill column inches with praise.

Another route to recognition, now as then, was through competitions.  In late September 1977 Bitch won a local ‘battle of the bands’ heat in Sheffield and were headed for the semi-finals of the US Sound Spectacular in Manchester in October.  Perhaps to capitalise on this success, another Barnsley gig was announced and the band set about recording further demo tapes.  Nonetheless, it must have been galling and dispiriting for them to see brand new punk outfits getting signed within months of forming whilst SoB– despite their considerable musical and live experience- were still gigging around the working men’s clubs and hunting for a deal.

The November 1977 booking was put in doubt by an event at the same venue in late October.   Barnsley’s one and only punk gig ended in an alleged riot and a police raid.  In response, a review of the council’s bookings policy was initiated and SoB were caught by this over-reaction.  As vocalist Pete Byford told the Chronicle, the “antics of the punk rockers” had threatened all live performances in the town and, before the concert could proceed, the band had been obliged to provide legal undertakings to pay compensation for any damage wrought by the audience.  As it was, the gig passed off peacefully, perhaps because the heavy metal fans restricted themselves to drinking Barnsley Bitter and head-banging rather than pogoing…

Sax 1

Recognition

In mid-1978 the Chronicle announced that SoB had finally secured a recording contract.  They had been flown over to Paris to sign a five figure deal with Carrere Records and were to begin recording their first album in the near future.  Everything seemed promising: in mid-September the local paper reported that the album would be released by Christmas.  That said, it had no title, as yet, and there was also talk of the band changing its name too.

A triumphal return to Barnsley Civic Hall took place in December 1978.  This gig is memorable for two reasons: firstly, we learned that, like Tony Iommi, the lead guitarist had nearly severed the tip of his left index finger, imperilling his ability to play; thankfully he was still able to riff and solo as well as he had ever done.

Secondly, and most significantly, Biff, the vocalist, told us that the band had signed a record contract (roar of approval) BUT that the record company had insisted that they change their name (boos- but perhaps not altogether surprising in the circumstances).  From thenceforth they were to be known as Saxon, but (Biff assured us) to the loyal fans of Barnsley they would always be Son of a Bitch.  For many of us in the audience, there was a sense that this success was cursed.  It had been endangered by the guitarist’s injury whilst it had been bought (it seemed) at the price of their true identity.

In fact, (with shades of Spinal Tap) the appearance of the new album was further delayed- doubtless in part because of the name issue.  Recording took place at in Barnet, between January and March 1979, and the album ‘Saxon’ was eventually released on May 21st of that year.

The advent of Saxon

In that same month the band returned home for a special thank you concert for local fans (support was provided by another local band, The Diks).  Pete Byford told the Chronicle:

“A lot of people criticised us, but a lot of people stuck by us and gave us their support.  They believed in us and helped us to believe in ourselves.”

The gig was preceded by an album signing in the local record shop, Scene and Heard.  Thereafter, though, hometown gigs ceased to count.  The album release was backed up by a twenty date German tour, followed by appearances in Holland.

It seemed that at last everything had fallen into place for Son of a Bitch/ Saxon, except- they had secured their record deal just as the hard rock of the late 1960s and early 70s was becoming outmoded.  This change in tastes had a demonstrable impact upon their early career: there was the near cancellation of a gig after the punk ‘riot’ whilst it seems highly probable that the long slog to finding a contract – and then with an obscure French label- was a direct consequence of the shifting market.

Son of a Bitch had no inclination to reinvent themselves as a punk band (as some on the pub rock scene did).  They were a good ten years older than most of the emerging punk acts and they had grown up with a different set of musical role models.  To their credit, they remained true to these roots, and they were able cannily to position themselves on the crest of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, thereby launching a very successful career spanning four decades and over thirty albums.  Biff Byford and Paul Quinn are still members.

SoB2

The other original members, Graham Oliver, Steve Dawson and Peter Gill left the band in the mid-90s.  They reformed as Son of a Bitch and released an album, Victim You, in 1996.  Their debut gig was headlining the Isle of Man TT Festival.