Just when we thought this year’s High Fives had run out of steam, this one appears out of the Northern mists from our regular contributor Steve Jenner celebrating ways of not retiring, a subject Allan knows a lot about as well. They were both bitten by the music bug at an early age and the infection seems to be getting worse with each additional year they put on the clock. Here’s Steve’s take on things to celebrate from 2021.

Well, what a weird year and a very personal set of High Fives to match. I must be one of the very few people in the broad and massively varied ‘church’ that is the music ‘industry’ who has done quite nicely out of lockdown, thank you very much. I don’t feel terribly comfortable about saying that knowing how many of my fellows of all ages have had whole futures trashed, but the truth is the truth and I can’t pretend anything else. Without a penny coming my way via the government, I’ve had, paradoxically, the most fulfilling broadcasting year I’ve had for ages. Here’s why/how.

Home broadcast studios. In the right hands, a few hundred quid’s worth of kit which is just about OK to knock out the odd dodgy podcast, can be transformed, with admittedly hours of work on jingles / production components / music sourcing and working on such fascinating subjects as mixer pre-sets, into a right little killing machine. In the space it takes for a school desk, in the corner of the spare bedroom. Do not omit the ‘hours of work’ bit though. With this, you only get out what you put in.

Retirement. Is lovely but isn’t quite so lovely when you can’t go anywhere or do much. And anyway, you don’t ‘retire’ from the ‘music’ ‘business’; if you stop before It’s Your Time, it gets back in touch with you. First part of the ‘memoirs’ have been written and 90% sold, and in recent times through the Radio Caroline bookshop. But the Devil Makes Work For Idle Hands…and the mind starts to wander. ‘So… I wonder how Radio Caroline recruits presenters? It might not be ‘conventional’ but there’s got to be some kind of… way… and lo and behold, after a while, I’m offered a gig on the ‘heritage’ channel of The World’s Most Famous Radio Station. Up till then I’d been doing a few shows for the local community stations and thinking, ‘well, that’s about it, then’.

The Radio Caroline Flashback SOS, 8AM–10AM Sunday mornings. The whole point of Caroline’s ‘Flashback’ channel is it plays oldies from the time before Caroline went to air in early 1964, as much of the stuff they played early doors was pre–‘64 anyway; lots of 50s, lots of pre-Beatles; through to the end of offshore broadcasting in 1990, with the focus on 60s and 70s pop singles so folks who remember and /or enjoy the Caroline ‘glory years’ have a chance to do so once again. The main channel plays both classic and contemporary/new album tracks, as Europe’s ‘first album station’, but that’s not my gig right now. And you kind of have to be a bit careful assaulting the ears of a generally more ‘experienced’ listener base at that time on a Sunday morning with too much ripped straight from Slade’s Greatest Hits et al. So, it takes a degree of subtlety to weave listenable audio textures and remain ‘pop’ whilst still delivering a show which has substance, heart and soul, and still rocks, albeit gently at times. And there’s no point delivering everything as if you’re ‘curating’, as far as I’m concerned; you’re given a great jingle package to play with, and if you set the studio up right with sharp–sounding software you can drive that thing hard, the way it was back in the day. So that’s what I try to do, and it is massively rewarding when it works. Suddenly going from being a local commercial radio presenter to receiving e mails and messages from listeners in over 20 different countries so far is mind-blowing. Far Out, Man, in a truly cosmic 60s way, in fact.

But, lovely though it is to do the Sunday morning show, I was only massively made up when I was offered a shot at a new 9PM slot on Friday nights as well, The Caroline Flashback Weekend Warm–Up. Yes please, I’ll have one of those. Because this meant I could play all those huge, thumping great upbeat hits from the years in question in a quick-fire, up and at ‘em Friday night style with pace and directness; just like you had to do when playing 45 singles on a boat at sea and armed only with a few old school cartridge tapes to squirt in amongst the vinyls to give the DJ a chance to breathe. Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. I get to the end of one of these and I’m absolutely worn out. They need energy, plenty of ‘front’ and in order to keep all the Caroline Flashback shows immediate and fresh-sounding, I record them ‘as live’ in one hour segments, straight through, no VT or other mucking about. And that focuses the mind somewhat.

And then the local commercial radio stations we sold in 2019 sold through again to one of the two major broadcast companies who now control the vast majority of UK commercial radio… who promptly networked them and gave them national branding…..thereby creating demand for a new, local commercial radio station on our ‘old’ patch… and so we set up Peak Sound Radio as an online radio station to carry on from where our old High Peak Radio service left off! And starting in September, I got the Monday breakfast show and the late-night Lovetown slot 6 nights a week, all of which recommences after the New Year Bank Holiday and the schedule changes which Christmas and New Year always brings.

Bring on 2022. Muso comment of the year? ‘Getting an extra hour in bed when the clocks went back this year was like getting a bonus track on a Black Lace album….!’ Push pineapple, shake a tree, pop pickers.

It constantly amazes me that I’m taking pictures of musicians doing their thing on stage. It’s something I love doing and takes precedence over anything else that might be going on in my life. It was a huge blow when lockdown was eventually announced in March 2020. We all knew it was coming, but it took a while to sink in properly. I was lucky in that I got to a few outdoor socially-distanced gigs in 2020 (including a Georgia Crandon gig on the coldest night of the year in December). So when things started to open up again in the summer of 2021, I was desperate to get back into action.

Rebecca Riedtmann @The Sound Lounge 30/06/21

This was a gig that should have happened in December 2020, when Rebecca was heavily pregnant but actually took place on June 30th this year and was her baby daughter’s first gig. There was enforced distancing and mask-wearing but it was still a proper indoor gig at the wonderful Sound Lounge in Sutton. You could sense that everyone in the audience was excited to hear live music again and Daisy Clark (who had played at the G7 summit in Cornwall) played a well-received support set. Rebecca and her band, as ever, looked like they were having a lot of fun. No signs of rustiness and many signs of a group of people who have a solid professional and personal bond doing what they love doing. The response to a storming set was heightened by the anticipation of the audience that had been starved of the live experience for fifteen months. Big shout out as well to Hannah and Keiron at the Sound Lounge for all of the work they put in to keeping venue alive. The shot above was from the soundcheck.

FAERS @The O2 Academy2 Islington 20/08/21 When I told my friend Al Stuart, a great gig photographer, that I’d been shooting at the venue, he asked if the gig was in The Desmond. I was puzzled until I worked out that upstairs at the O2 is known as Academy 2. Bit of a change in the rules for this one – evidence of full vaccination was required, but masks inside weren’t mandatory and no distancing was observed. It was also sold out. Honestly, I was a bit uncomfortable with that. Problem solved – although it’s a fairly small room, it has a pretty wide photo pit to accommodate the one photographer on that night – me. While everyone in the audience got up close and personal, I stayed in the photo pit to shoot ORDERS, Bandit and then the headliners FAERS. As a contrast to Rebecca’s Americana gig, this was a full-on indie rock gig; noisy, sweaty and crammed to the rafters. Great fun to watch from my sanctuary in a spacious photo pit. The night was completed when Stephen Anderson-Howard of FAERS jumped into the pit, climbed up the barrier and leaned over into the crowd creating the shot above this paragraph. Proper gig photography.

Dean Owens & The Southerners @Green Note

The first gig of Dean Owens’ last tour was March 13th 2020 in Edinburgh. The second was almost eighteen months later at Green Note in Camden on September 1st 2021. Again, there were sensible restrictions in place to ensure that Green Note (with a very small team of staff) wasn’t put temporarily out of business by the dreaded COVID ping – fill in an online form, provide proof of vaccination and take a lateral flow test within the twenty-four hours before the gig. I was happy with all of that (although some customers weren’t too chuffed). Dean and his two compadres Jim Maving (guitar and backing vocals) and Tom Collison (keys, electric bass and backing vocals) were totally up for the much-delayed gig and a great night was had by the restricted and socially-distanced audience. If you get a chance to see any of these guys, take it. They’re all great musicians and lovely people. And Dean’s songs are uniformly superb.

Various – Leek Blues and Americana Festival 30/09/21-03/10/21

I have a bit of history with Leek (the one in Staffordshire, not the Netherlands). I worked there for about two years in the mid-1990s and loved the experience. I was an outsider in a small, fairly remote town and I was made to feel very welcome. A few years ago Music Riot’s northern correspondent and very old friend of mine, Steve Jenner, moved to Leek and, in 2018, invited me to this festival. I took the cameras along on the off chance. It worked out because in 2019 I was back there as official guest photographer. If you want to know what that means, it means getting up on a Saturday morning to go and shoot the kids’ matinee performance (which was great fun) among other things. Obviously the 2020 festival didn’t happen but I was raring to go for 2021 and I wasn’t disappointed. The festival is mainly free events in pubs in the town centre (and there are a lot of pubs in Leek town centre) and paid events in The Foxlowe Arts Centre and other performance spaces. The whole thing is put together by volunteers who are, without exception, lovely people and total musicheads. I absolutely love it and always block out the start of October in the calendar every year. This year was quite strange in that I met up with a few people that I know from the London scene, which was all a bit strange, as well as all of the people I now know in Leek. I recommend it to anyone as a great mix of local and international artists. The shot above is the incredible Ian Siegal performing in The Foxlowe as Saturday night joint headliner.

The Black Mamba and Ru @Union Chapel 23/11/21

There were virtually no COVID restrictions by this time (and the ones still in place were being largely ignored). I’m still wearing a mask in enclosed spaces but, towards the end of November, I was in a minority. I was at the gig to photograph Ru, who was doing a short support set for her Portuguese compatriots The Black Mamba, who represented Portugal at Eurovision. Don’t let that put you off; they’re a seriously funky band. Also, I’ll grab any opportunity to shot at Union Chapel; it’s such a lovely venue. The shot above is Ru during her set. It was a special night, but the icing on the cake was guest performances during The Black Mamba set by Bumi Thomas and Omar.

There are a couple more honourable mentions as well. The second High Tide Festival in Twickenham, organised and curated by Eel Pie Records (big shouts out to Phil, Kevin and Lucy). The weather was perfect and there was a great selection of artists on the main stage and in various locations around the town centre. A great day out. There was also a lovely night curated by Success Express (thank you Lorraine Solomons) at Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston. Five very different artists played short but powerful sets on the night. Si Connelly, KT Wild, Russell Jamie Johnson and Lina Stalyte were wonderful but the night belonged to Cloudy Galvez who made her first live appearance since a long COVID diagnosis in 2020. It’s great to see her back on stage again. And it’s always good to end on a high note.

Photo by Pauline Felstead

Time for an apology here. Things have been so busy here at The Riot House that we misplaced this review for a couple of weeks. Steve Jenner went along to the traditional closing gig of the Leek Blues & Americana Festival and sent us this review of The Achievers and Greg Brice at The Foxlowe. And thanks also to Pauline Felstead for the shot of The Achievers and to JR Mountford and Dave Swarbrook for finding the photo at really short notice. When you read the first paragraph review you’ll see that it’s appropriate that it’s been published the day after the Lord Mayor’s Show. We’re looking forward to October 2022 already. Over to Steve:

It was last night of the proms for the Leek Blues and Americana Festival. It had also been a busy week in radioland; and not really feeling much like it in all honesty I headed for central Leek more in hope than in expectation. The main event had been a couple of weekends back and the town certainly had a feel of ‘After The Lord Mayor’s Show’ about it. However, the Festival had been a triumph over considerable adversity and the gig certainly deserved a show of support at the very least.

Which just goes to show, sometimes when you really can’t be…sometimes you should force yourself out. Just occasionally it pays and this was just such a gig.

Firstly, Greg Brice. Looking like a cross between a primary school teacher and Manfred Mann, an unassuming presence with vocals in the upper range and an absolutely lovely guitar sound, very mellow and ‘rounded’ but also with occasional sharp and genuine stabs of the blues in there. Very slick slide playing once he’d found the tube, and some of his own songs which stood up well. Definitely a class above what I could reasonably expect at this time of night.

And so to The Achievers. Radio 2 like them. Blues and Americana radio jocks are playing their records all over the place. A mixed bag in terms of presentation, they come from Stroud in deepest Gloucestershire and they look a bit like it. However, off we go and it is instantly promising, a situation helped by an absolutely crystalline sound, well done you knob twiddlers. Bit more volume needed for the excellent lead guitar picker for me, he’s good, don’t hide him away – but they sounded great. Really great, and that’s not always the case in small-to-medium venues.

Anybody who writes a song where the central premise is ‘everybody loves you when you’re dead’ is alright by me. The easy charm and twinkling humour of their frontman and lead singer Steve Ferbrache soon wins over the battle-weary and we’re definitely off and running.

And what a vibe they have. It just rolls. Rhythm section is light and tight and they keep lobbing in sub-Motown fills here and there which are delightful to observe. Songs about unrequited groupies and what it is that gets you out of bed. Tea, apparently, in Leek, according to a significant percentage of the assembled. A few songs are lobbed in taken from their latest album ‘The Lost Arc’. They’re funny amusing, and also a great dance band, which is a trick and a half to pull off.

But is it the Blues? Nope, by their own admission. Does it matter? Nope, this is the closer for the Leek Blues and Americana Festival. But is it Americana, then? Well, in bits. There’s the aforementioned Motown tricks and occasional Gospel-style (I kid you not) outbursts and twangy great country slices here and there and a harp blower of considerable elegance, and Lindisfarne keep bursting through the door accompanied by Little Feat and Jonathan Richman but really, this is a classic slice of Britishana rather than anybody else’s ana. Despite the originality of their songs you keep hearing snatches and throwbacks from all over the place; was that the ghost of ‘Back In The USSR’ I heard somewhere in there…and why do I keep referencing Janis Ian part-way through another of their originals?

Had they been ‘around’ in the seventies, they would no doubt have had half a dozen hit singles along with a few top 50 albums and all the rest of it. And in fairness, in the context of a music industry that barely exists any more in conventional terms, they are, well…Achievers. And they are a bloody good night out. So good they kept me away from the wonderful Reefy Blunt and the Biftas who were playing across the road until very late in their set, who on the evidence of a brief visit before taxi time were brilliant fun, which is always the problem you are presented with as a punter during the Festival ‘proper’ but isn’t that a lovely problem to have? So, a brave and unusual way for the Leek Blues and Americana Festival to go out on for 2021. And if the organisers can make such a decent fist of it in this godforsaken year, then this time next year, Rodney…!  

Ian Siegal at the Foxlowe Arts Centre, Leek. Photo by Allan McKay (@allan_mainlygigpics)

Some time in the early nineties our Northern correspondent, Steve Jenner, was working in local radio in Nottingham. He interviewed a young blues guitar player and singer named Ian Siegal shortly before Ian set off for London as the next step in his career while Steve built up a local radio empire in Derbyshire and the Peak District. Flash forward nearly thirty years to the Foxlowe Arts Centre in Leek (Staffordshire, not the Netherlands) and the two are in front of a microphone again before Ian plays a Saturday night headline gig at the Leek Blues and Americana Festival.

So, what’s Ian been up to during that time? No spoilers, you’ll have to listen to the interview to find out. Let’s just say that Ian has a story or two to tell:

Steve Jenner and Ian Siegal at Foxlowe Arts Centre, 02/10/21

This interview was originally published in late 2019. Since then, we’ve all seen a few changes. We’ve given the site a bit of a spring clean and everyone and their sibling’s sharing archive material. We thought it would be a great opportunity to dust off some of our highlights and see how they’re looking (and sounding) now.

We’re kicking off with our first ever audio interview which we grabbed with Graham Parker before his gig at The Foxlowe Centre in Leek on a tour celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the release of his classic album “Squeezing Out Sparks”.

Allan McKay and Steve Jenner grabbed thirty minutes with Graham just after soundcheck and, as always, he was good value for his opinions and insights. The interview was edited for various local radio stations in the north-west but this is the full, uncut version. Just a warning, there’s one mild swear-word at about 9 minutes 15 seconds:

Allan and Steve meet Graham Parker

Strange the way things work out. This piece was programmed for publication today and by some quirk of fate it’s the same day that our long-time correspondent from ‘Up North’, Steve Jenner, achieved a lifetime ambition by starting his regular Sunday morning show on Caroline Flashback. Steve’s been in radio for many years, but he’s been a fan of live music for many more and 2020 has been a bit of a shock to the system. Here are some of the things he’s missed in this year of lockdown and its variants:

 

The Five Ritual ‘Live’ Things Missing from My Life This Year

 

Anticipation.

You get your ticket and as the date nears you start to think about it. What will the line-up be? Will they play my fave tune of theirs? How’s the new stuff going to play in a live setting? Will he/she be ‘on it’ or will it be a ‘routine gig’? Has it sold out? Will there be any proper beer?

Going in.

Milling about inside  the venue, eyes getting accustomed to the dark, checking out the bar and the bogs, staking out a space, hearing the noise levels rise as the pre-event music kicks in and the punters start to flow through the doors. Getting that ‘tingly’ thing you do.

 

Tension build-up.

Main act is habitually fashionably late and there is a palpable build up of tension / expectation in the crowd. There’s a bit of good-natured jostle near the front. Torches keep flicking on and off onstage and shadowy figures flit from mike to monitor and desk. The crowd starts a ‘stomping’ routine.

Bang.

On they come, first song’s just a sighting shot but the second one’s a biggie. The crowd are singing like a Championship football crowd at a home game and the bass player cracks a smile at the drummer. We’re in!

 

 

 

Off they go, and they’ve left nothing out there.

Mad stampede noises, roadie rushes to front mike and makes an adjustment and ducks away. Lights off, crescendo, on they come again and off we go into the best new album track, a Chuck Berry/Smokey Robinson/Insert name here followed by The Greatest Hit. Thangyewg’night!  And you stand there, bathed in sweat, half-covered in somebody else’s beer, feeling like you’ve been run over by a truck. Time to go home via kebab/pizza/chipper/insert food here.

 

Here’s to 2021. Hang on in there until it happens. Big respect to everyone in the industry who have somehow found a way to survive ‘silent running’ and deepest empathy to those who have not.

THERE AIN’T NOTHIN’ LIKE THE REAL THING, BABY

Now, I’m not much given to reviewing the telly; but on this case I’ll make an exception. The BBC 4 screening of ‘Everything – The Real Thing Story’ revealed an astonishing period piece and a real journey back to the most seminal year in my life, 1976.

I was an eighteen-year-old gigging jock working a balance of my own mobile gigs with Paul and agency gigs via New Junktion Discotheques, or NJD, probably the busiest and most prolific DJ agency in the East Midlands. We worked hard then; three gigs a day was not uncommon at the weekend, then lugging tons of vinyl around in clapped-out vehicles born in the sixties whilst wearing an evening suit in the middle of summer.

For me, it will always be the summer of an unloved sling-out single the other jocks didn’t want anything to do with but I loved; “Dancing Queen” by Abba – and a frantic charge to the top almost in spite of a total lack of cool. But it was also the summer of Jimmy James and the Vagabonds, Barry White, Billy Ocean, Philadelphia International…and in July, one single punched to the top on the dreadfully old-fashioned Pye Records, and stayed at number one for 3 weeks during that hottest of hot summers. Just like when Cliff finally got a handle on that authentic American rock ‘n’ roll sound with “Move It” back in the year I was born, finally, in 1976, a soul band emerged who sounded slick enough to be American and to this day I only think they made it to the top because nobody found them out until it was too late – apart from the fact it was a stonking tune, of course…and they were Scousers.

Scousers.

Let’s just give this some context here. This is a bona fide black British number 1 single during a year where singles sold in industry-defining numbers. And this at a time when casual racism of a different kind to that encountered today was absolutely endemic. If you were black British, it just wasn’t happening for you. And they did it. They got to number 1 in the UK and stayed there for three whole weeks.

The Real Thing. “You To Me Are Everything”.

Paul worked with these guys on a few occasions as did most of the working jocks I grew up with including the Legendary Barry Jarvis and many more besides. They will always remain fixed in our memories, though, for the time Paul and I were broadcasting from the Newark Festival site as Newark FM about 20 years ago, and they were on the bill and played an amazing set. But for me the follow – up, “Can’t Get By Without You” always sits within the piece of flint I call a heart because, at the time, me and the future Mrs J were parted for the first and so far only time in our lives so I could clear off and Get Clever Somewhere, and at the time we had no way of knowing if/when that would be coming to an end. (And the usual dribbling lust stuff about wanting to live together when you’re 18 and it is the mid-seventies and you both live miles apart, that sort of thing.)

They started life as The Chants and were spotted by Paul McCartney, who arranged for The Beatles to back them on a number of occasions. They became The VPs (Vocal Perfection; I know, not the best name you’ve ever heard) and were re-named The Real Thing after their long-time manager, Tony Hall, had an epiphany moment when looking at an old Coke advert strapline. They got on ‘Opportunity Knocks’ with the unlovely Hughie Greene, a sort of prehistoric ‘X-Factor’ for those too young to know, and won, and even had a minor hit, but the record business just didn’t know what to do with a black British act in 1972.

They dropped the covers, released another single, which scraped the top 40 and even got on ‘Top Of The Pops’ but Savile, ‘just for fun’, reversed the band and song name intentionally as a jolly jape and nobody clocked the name as a consequence and that was that. But the club scene was changing and so was music. They grafted away, making commercials and jingles for production hotshot Jeff Wayne who was working on a little album which did alright in the end…”War Of The Worlds”. Their voice parts were eventually dropped from the album but the meeting did lead to them being introduced by Wayne to teen heart-throb David Essex who was on a hot streak which started in 1972 with UK top ten ‘Rock On’. They backed him in the studio and on tour and were transformed by their American tour with Essex. They dropped the matching suits and dance routines schtick and started picking up credible column inches from magazines like Black Echoes and Blues and Soul Magazine.

But that don’t pay no bills.

A few more singles stiffed and they finally met producer / songwriting team Ken Gold and Mick Denne in the spring of ’76. They’d written this little tune called “You to Me Are Everything” in about ten minutes. Simple beyond belief, it just hits the spot as a song, written by a man, for a woman he just can’t do enough for and therefore knows he’s on the ‘vulnerable’ list.

And the rest, as they say…

It was released to no great fanfare on 14th May, 1976. The band, consisting of the Amoo brothers, Eddie and Chris, and their childhood friends Dave Smith and Ray Lake, were potless at the time. Chris Amoo was so broke that when the single broke into the top 40 a few weeks later, he couldn’t afford the bus fare to his manager’s office. The Jenner lads nipped down to Frank Sisson’s record shop in downtown Hucknall and invested in a copy. Chris Amoo now had his bus fare.

It climbed to number 22 on the UK chart, with a bullet, the next week.

My diary tells me that between us we played 8 gigs that week. That’s how it was. We played it every night. Clubs, restaurants, pubs, weddings, you name it.

Gathered round the radio on Thursday…it’s up to number 5.

Next week, it’s at Number 1. And it stayed there for three whole weeks in the face of huge competition. Should have been massive in the States but a truly horrible cover by Frankie Valli murdered the single’s sales potential there.

The follow-up, “Can’t Get By Without You”, was only prevented from going to the top by, you guessed it, Abba.

Home to Liverpool and here come ‘The Black Beatles’, which probably didn’t help much.

The first British Rock and Pop awards took place in November 1976. They won ‘Best New Group’.

Then they released their third single. It did OK enough to persuade them that writing their own stuff wasn’t a bad idea. But as American acts had learned over many years, just because you got to number 1 doesn’t make you exempt from ‘stop and search’.

Feeling increasingly straitjacketed by ‘the hits’, they produced “4 from 8”, as in Liverpool 8. And it was a whole bunch more funky and socially aware and less ‘poppy’ than ‘the hits’.

Pye spent a fortune promoting it and it stiffed. The gritty album sleeve was years ahead of its time for a UK album by a soul band and evoked the spirit of Marvin’s “What’s Going On”. The country would next hear from Liverpool 8 when Toxteth exploded in riots a couple of years later.

They admit they were a bit naïve. Radio playlisting is a binary choice. Play that. Don’t play that. That’s a hit. That isn’t. Programmers don’t spend ages losing sleep on the sociological implications of a song on popular music radio. Does it programme well? Is It A Hit?? Is pretty much the sum total of the consideration.

So, even though it didn’t do it at the time, “Children Of The Ghetto” became a slow burner, eventually getting the recognition it deserved and being covered by the likes of Courtney Pine and Mary J. Blige on the way to becoming accepted as the courageous ground-breaker it truly was.

“Whenever You Want My Love” got them back on the chart and on more familiar territory and that led to films like ‘The Stud’ with Joan Collins. This gave them a very dodgy disco hit with the truly awful “Let’s Go Disco” which to be the fair to the band they freely admit was just pish. I remember opening the envelope from the record company to find this in it, I played it once and binned it straight off. You’re better than that, lads.

A couple more minor hits and then another stonker, the stellar “Can You Feel the Force”. I’ve still got two 12 inch copies of this, one on horrible coloured vinyl and one being the exceedingly rare Jon Luongo remix version which would probably change hands for a few bobs given the right buyer. And then came the eighties, electro, new romanticism and suddenly they were yesterday’s news. And an astonishingly ill-advised tour of South Africa did their reputation No Good At All.

And then, a lifeline. One the likes of which has never been thrown to a band on this scale before or since.

Ten years after “You to Me Are Everything” was released, a ‘decade remix’ was issued. And, to the band’s astonishment, it went storming into the top ten.

The record company did the same with the band’s other old hits. Same thing happened. It was as if the summer of ’76 was being relived ten years later. Very weird. What wasn’t weird, though, was that by now, these lads were seasoned veterans who knew how it all worked and they weren’t about to make the same mistakes again. With the exception of original band member Ray Lake, who, struggling with inner demons which appeared to some to have roots in his early life in ‘care’, disappeared further into an abyss of drug-taking, eventually resorting to crime to feed his drug habit. He left the band in 1991, eventually succumbing to what some believe was an intentional heroin overdose nine years later. He was just 48.

The three remaining members, Chris and Eddie Amoo and Dave Smith continued gigging, gigging, gigging as The Real Thing; and as I’ve already mentioned, boy, did they play a blinder at the Newark Music festival when we were encamped there with Newark FM. It was also good to see fellow ‘Newarkee’, Leee John of Imagination, arguing their case during the documentary.

The film, directed and produced by Simon Sheridan, is played with a completely straight bat; it is an old school, unmessed – with documentary film with some cracking old footage and a melting pot of socio-musical wisdoms.

Sadly, older brother Eddie Amoo passed at the age of 73 shortly after the documentary was recorded. But Chris Amoo and Dave Smith are somewhere in the world right now being The Real Thing. Doing Everything. And That’s Not A Bad Thing, I would argue.

 

 

Just like you, The Riot Squad is going crazy at the lack of live music at the moment. We published a piece by Allan in February (just over three weeks before lockdown) celebrating the anniversary of his first gig in 1974. It was really popular and it was followed by a piece celebrating Steve Jenner’s first gig. After three months of musical famine we thought it would be good to ask some of our contributors and some of the artists we’ve reviewed in the past to write about a memorable gig that they saw or played. First out of the blocks was Danny Schmidt. We’re huge admirers of Danny’s work; he’s a gifted, erudite and passionate singer/songwriter (check out the review of his recent brace of singles “A Prayer for the Sane” and “2020 Vision”) and we’re delighted that he’s agreed to share this memory with us:

 

Danny Schmidt by Theo Looijmans

One of the most memorable live shows of my life was the night I saw Eric Johnson at Steamboat in Austin, TX on August 28th, 1990.  I remember the date distinctly because it was the day after Stevie Ray Vaughan died.  Having grown up in Austin, I was a massive fan of both Eric Johnson and Stevie Ray Vaughan.  They were two of my biggest guitar heroes, and I saw them live every chance I got from the time I was old enough to attend live shows.  And while their styles were vastly different, they were two branches descended off the same Jimi Hendrix-influenced tree.  And as I understood it, they were each huge admirers of the other’s work, if not close personal friends.

In 1990, Eric Johnson’s star was really ascending quickly, and he played two sold out nights, back-to-back at Steamboat, and I had tickets to both nights.  The first night was striking because Eric’s management team had upped the production value (and theatrics) of his live shows by having him enter the stage to a huge laser and smoke show, for several minutes, while he improvised riffs with his signature guitar tone, hidden from our view within the visual spectacle.  And the guitar built the crowd into a frenzy before the smoke cleared, leaving Eric in a literal star of lasers and a single blinding spotlight from behind, full-on Guitar God, shredding the room from his monolithic place at the center of the stage.  It worked my teenage self into an ecstatic state of guitar delirium.  That was how the first night of the two-show stand began.

Late that night after we’d all gone home and gone to sleep, in another part of the country, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s helicopter crashed, ending his life tragically, at the age of 35 years old.  We all learned of the news first thing the next morning.

The city of Austin was crushed, devastated.  The town was silent and shocked.  I felt hollow all day, in disbelief.  That night, I had to drag myself to Eric’s show, night #2 at Steamboat.

Instead of smoke and lasers and high drama, Eric took the stage silently, no lights, no effects, no roaring feedback guitar, no PA announcer welcoming him to the stage.  No one really knew the show was even starting.  Instead, he just shuffled to the mic, more of a fragile slumped human being than a guitar god.  And instead of shrieks of guitar, he gave a quiet, humble, candid, unrehearsed, vulnerable, heartfelt tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan.  He just told the crowd how much Stevie had meant to him, and how much his work had meant to him.  The speech ended when he didn’t have anything else to say.  He just stood in silence for an extra few awkward seconds, and then turned and picked up his guitar.

He then proceeded to draw fire from the strings, and fill the room with a whirlwind of sadness, madness, grief, angst, fury, exhaustion, all of it.  He brought Stevie Ray’s Texas flood to life inside the walls of Steamboat. 

Eric is truly a virtuoso.  His technical skills are legendary, and even the hyperbolic statements about what his fingers are capable of doing on the strings are understatements.  Some have questioned his musicality and the emotional connection to his songs, or the inaccessibility of his music sometimes.  But on that particular night, we all bore witness to what’s possible when a bon afide virtuoso is channelling a well of emotion from the depth of his broken heart to the tips of his mythical fingers. 

It was an experience that literally left us all speechless.  As much as I remember Eric’s actual playing that night, I remember the faces of my two best friends who were with me at the show even clearer.  Between every song we would look at each other and try and utter some sort of statement expressing how amazing it was what we had just witnessed.  And instead, we could only stammer nonsensical sounds at each other, unable to form actual thoughts and words.  And instead we would just hug or high-five.  And then Eric would fire up the next song.

To this day, I can’t properly articulate the power and energy which swirled around the room that night, emanating from the stage, from Eric’s guitar, from Eric himself, with no theatrics . . . just a true master and a room full of open ears meeting together to share a night of grief and celebration.  For me, that night set the bar for what’s emotionally possible throughs the kinetic power of music.

 

Aaaaaagggghhh!! My ears!!

AAAAAGGGGHHHHH!!!

That is SOOOO chuffing loud.

In an attempt to impress The Girlfriend (later wife, must have worked) I purchased two tickets with intelligent deployment of pocket money in December 1974 (could have been December ’63, why let the truth get in the way of a good yarn) in order to get to shake the dandruff to the latest and greatest exponents of your heads down, non–stop, mindless boogie.

AAAAAAGGGGHHHH!!!, again, I say. There’s loud and there’s 70s gig rock show loud. Nothing, and that’s nothing, prepares you for the onslaught of 70’s gig rock show loud.

The Beatles more or less ragged it in at the Shea because the weedy PA setups of the time meant they could hardly hear themselves play; but the lack of any intervention by local authorities – though it would soon come (see Paul in “Broadcast Brothers: On The Radio”) in terms of noise abatement meant that a wall of Marshall stacks = welcome to a life of tinnitus.

Very much still a ‘blues’ based 12-bar operation at the time, an investigation of the playlist from the tour reveals that they probably kicked off with “Junior’s Wailing” and featured “Railroad”, “Roll Over, Lay Down” and “Roadhouse Blues” before going off to a cross between a roar from the assembled male RAF greatcoat wearers (non-negotiable) and screams from the (largely) girls who had seen them a couple of times on Top Of The Pops – 1974 was indeed largely both sexist and tribal – before returning to chunder their poptastic path through the live DJ’s greatest fear, “Caroline” (‘oi, mush; play some Quo or I’ll do yer!!!’ – usually after the first slow dance of the night and ten minutes before ‘thengyew, gunnite’ and mains off) and “Bye, Bye Johnny”…

Coach down there, bunch of school mates and a few others can’t remember who, big, barn-like theatre (seemed like a cinema to me, but probably wasn’t) and possibly Snafu or Sassafrass in support but I can’t quite remember…Brushed denim loon pants wafting in the fan-assisted breeze…curtains of long, centre-parted hair tumbling over Telecasters…and LOUD. Very Loud Indeed.

Followed no doubt by the attempt to purchase alcohol whilst looking about 16 and sounding about 12. Fag smoke. Chips. 12 bar blues. Sort of 12 bar life. Back to school. Everybody has to sometimes Break the Rules.

Oh, I just don’t know where to begin…Accidents Will Happen. In late 2018, this venue played host to the early dates of an Elvis Costello tour which didn’t get much further. He was diagnosed with a form of prostate cancer and despite some lurid headlines, he recovered and here he is back treading the boards many, many years after angry young manhood.

So it seems a little impolite to, well…I dunno.

The support act kind of underlined the problem here. Singer/songwriter Ian Prowse was very hale, hearty, full of verve, vigour and twinkle, a combination of scouse/Irish wit and charm and poppiness. Clearly thrilled to be playing such a big venue with such a ‘name’ he claimed his eight-year-old daughter came out to see him in Liverpool on the first night of the tour; and that was ‘the first time she’d seen him’ which I don’t think is quite what he meant. He also offered to buy everybody a drink if they met him at the merch stand after his set…careful, Ian. Last time one of our lot made a similar claim it cost me thousands. Seriously though he was very listenable as were his fellow troubadours but the lack of a bass guitar can very rarely be compensated for by a keyboard, I reckon. The final song in the set, “Does This Train Stop on Merseyside” is a bit of a stonker as well. Keep eyes and ears open for Ian Prowse. A good listen.

Elvis, on the other hand…the tour is called Just Trust 2020, and we kick off with a ‘sighter’ from the ’81 ‘Trust’ album, “Strict Time”. I usually allow bands one or two to get settled and to let any gremlins work their way out so we won’t dwell on this one much, followed by “Clubland” and “Greenshirt” which, although intense seemed to be pretty much all over the place mix-wise. I know the venue has a bit of a reputation for wayward sound but this was a really wild ride, a sort of rumbling, grumbling mess. It seemed to these ears that the opposite of what should have been the case was the truth; they were playing like they’d only just met. And with former Attractions Steve Naïve on keyboards (lots of them) and Pete Thomas on drums and with a settled line-up in the Imposters, this took me rather by surprise.

And come the first of the ‘Hits’, the towering majesty of “Accidents Will Happen”, another problem seems to emerge. Occasionally in later life, singers will not be able to hit particular notes. But this doesn’t seem to be the problem here…his vocal range still seems to be there…but the timing is all over the place and sometimes he just seems to be ‘chasing after’ the song; which is a problem for the sharp, angular, quick-fire demands of many of his older hits. His singers/dancers throw themselves about all over the place to give the impression of concerted, rhythmic responses to the music, but they can’t throw me off the scent. I dig in for an evening of irregular but profound wincing. Great, great song, though.

And then “Better Watch Your Step” and a clutch of others…but I’m SO distracted by now. It isn’t just the timing…he’s Very Flat on occasion…then he’ll throw in one of those soooo Elvis vocal trills and you’ll forgive him…and then for the next 30 seconds he sounds like he’s in the wrong key…the mix is beyond muddy and…I’m not sure he can actually hear himself. Can he hear himself?

“I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea”. Love the song. She’s last year’s model. It’s a killer. Band layer it intensely but he’s chasing the song again…why? I can’t sing but I could probably read the lyrics so they’d actually ‘fit’ the song… all over the place…

…into one for the 2018 album “Suspect My Tears” and possibly because it was written when he was an older man, he does actually get this one to ‘fit’ and glory be, the mix slowly starts to get a bit tighter and more ‘approachable’. After which I’m treated to Elvis telling me he hates me in “Radio Radio” complete with bonkers ‘Farfisa’-style organ and intense and angst-filled playlist envy. Sorry Elvis. Just not radio-friendly, that one.

“Watching the Detectives” is, though. Backlit in eerie green, Costello as ‘spook’ comes to the fore and, at this juncture, it is important I mention the guitar playing. His various ancient and weird-looking guitars and barrage of foot pedals are no doubt very necessary for despite the barrage of keyboards Steve Nieve bounces around behind, there is only one guitarist and it is EC. And the guitar sound is universally excellent, very subtle and supple where required, very sharp and incisive in ways which the interesting but wayward voice now seems less than.

Sitting down at the piano we get the ‘country’ section of the show, including a quite rambling and off-key “Good Year for the Roses”. Always a broken heart/broken voice job, this seriously pushes the boundaries on that particular concept.

From that to another from the 2018 album “Look Now”, “Burnt Sugar is so Bitter” a song co-written by Carole King and this is a right old work-out on a song which tells one of the oldest stories in songwriting in a typically direct way. This worked really well, Steve Nieve’s rattling, empty ‘ice rink’ organ sound giving a hollow, almost ‘Northern Soul’ feel. And speaking of which…”High Fidelity”, a hit from the ‘soul’ album “Get Happy”, which once again, seems to leave his voice behind. Otherwise, just great. But…

“A Whisper to a Scream” jerks us back again to “Trust” and it is an intense delivery, which then melts in to the sublime “Alison” from the first album recorded for about six quid in 1976/7 depending on who you talk to. This is gorgeous and even though the voice does that wandering thing again there are moments within this when all is forgiven, just to hear it ‘live’ again; especially when that folds seamlessly into a marriage with Motown beauty “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”. Every tune is working to a crescendo now and it would be spectacularly unfair to point out that despite the compromising of songs by a meandering voice, the audience are really warming to this and 80’s FM radio A-lister “Every Day I Write The Book” arrives right on cue and as described in the brochure.

And then “Pump it Up” nearly blows the roof off the place. At the end of it, this guy is a showman. Nobody is going to leave this venue feeling like they’ve been short-changed, I will say that much. And as is the current vogue for encore avoidance, the band stay on the stage and soak up well-deserved applause for a strong and professionally-delivered set. Not their fault the old lad’s struggling to hold a tune on occasion now.

And our final tunes for the night are the “Give Peace a Chance” section of the show and who can blame him? Certainly not I when this commences with “Shipbuilding”. Written by Costello and long-time Madness producer Clive Langer, I have to say I FAR prefer Robert Wyatt’s tremulous, fragile version but I’m here tonight and I’ll take this….but he’s off wandering again and he can’t point at not being able to live with the pace of the song here…and it’s all a bit so-so until he finishes the song on a shimmering, jazzy ‘When we could be diving for pearls’ which just seems to hang in the air and really does force listeners to face the compromises we make with the world in order to be ‘of’ the world.

Which, of course, rumbles straight into a spirited, very ‘dashing’ rock ‘n’ roll version of “Oliver’s Army” which ‘only’ got to Number 2, combining fairly ‘confrontational’ lyrics with the sort of piano that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an Abba single. Part of our ‘Should have got to number 1; God, where were you?’ club repertoire, anyone would have been excused for thinking that was that, as it could well have been, but pacifist’s corner ended very appropriately and rather touchingly with Brinsley Schwarz’s “What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and that was indeed it, standing ovations all round the crowd no doubt shuffling off into a cold night warmed to the cockles by the memory of familiar tunes played stirringly….and how many of them would recall great acres of vocal creakiness the following morning?

Absolutely well worth going to see but an increasingly flawed masterpiece as the vocals struggle to live with the songs he’s created, I’d like to think he was throwing stuff about when he got off stage because he couldn’t hear what was going on or he’d just had an ‘off night’. But. Maybe it is Twilight Time.