Meet the urban spacemen: close encounters with the stars

tremeloes plunge

The nitty gritty of everyday life as a North-country journalist in the 1960s does not pan out into the ‘Swinging’ scenario which, superficially at least, is taken to characterize this decade. Your reportorial life on a North-country weekly newspaper is focused on the three universal components, hatch, match, dispatch…. birth, marriage, and death. In this connection my daily mantra spelled out by veteran News Editor John Brocksom, is simple: “Never forget that you’re writing for Mrs Brown Down The Street”.
I’ve met a lot of ‘Mrs Browns’ on my rounds as a district reporter. One of them goes by the name of, “Freda Doughty, of Ellershaw Youth Club Ladies’ Section who asks us (the SYT) to bring to readers’ notice a weekly Beetle Drive held at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays”. Another Mrs B. was present when her daughter is decked out like a dozen others in guipure lace and freesia for her wedding (as described in the latest issue of the SYT (order 12 copies and get your wedding portrait published free). Yet another sold her aborted two-headed foetus to be displayed, pickled in formaldehyde, in a Bridlington curio arcade.
On the other hand, the son of a Mrs B. may have turned out to be John Michael Hawthorne, the UK’s first World Champion Racing Driver in 1958, born in Mexborough; or Edward James Hughes, world famous poet, who attended Mexborough Grammar School in his formative years, and who, a farseeing dickie bird tells me, is to become Poet Laureate; or TV’s ‘Z Cars’ star Brian Blessed, born in Mexborough Montagu Hospital in 1936, a future date with Everest unforseen.
And there’s always a Grandpa Brown, lately deceased, suspected cause of death ‘bird flu’, who had never, during the past forty years, missed Pigeon Fanciers’ Night at t’Eagle And Child. In respect to that Conisbrough hostelry, it is worth noting that Gomer Davis, landlord, grew more and more to resemble his border terrier every time I set foot in the place. Maybe it was the booze wot clouded my vision, or perhaps Gomer’ll get struck down by distemper.
At least two evenings each week are devoted to attending local Urban Council meetings, all Labour controlled in this mining area, covering five townships. Hot air abounds, good sense does not, but the agenda is not always as stuffy as one might imagine: “Alf Hall, 42 Petunia Ave. applies for erection in garden”, elevates the tone, and there’s one session of the Council planning committee meeting in Wombwell that sticks in the mind. Planning Officer: “Why not brighten up the park by installing a Gazebo?”. Councillor Cooper: “Bugger that. We’ll ‘ave a pair, an’ breed wi’ ‘em”. Mrs Brown was quite amused. Occasionally I escape from this five-ring circus as on….
November 2nd, 1963: When I journeyed sixteen miles in a south, south westerly direction to my home town Sheffield, with two hot tickets in my possession, granting admission to the City Hall to see The Beatles, and Roy Orbison in action. My girlfriend for the night was Susan, clerk to Penistone Council, who I intended to impress by treating us to twenty posh Passing Cloud cigarettes, luxuriously packed, and exclusively oval in shape. So it was that Susan and I shared a fab view of the Fab Foursome’s rear ends, our tickets affording us seats at the back of the stage, a facility no longer available.
The Beatles played a 10-song set: I Saw Her Standing There, From Me To You, All My Loving, You Really Got A Hold On Me, Roll Over Beethoven, Boys, Till There Was You, She Loves You, Money (That’s What I Want) and Twist And Shout.
For the record, I never again met up with my blind date Susan. She was a sweet, attractive, girl, with the cut of a farmer’s wife about her, and was not the slightest bit self-conscious about a slight speech impediment that may have been with her since birth, or was evidence of some developing affliction. That wasn’t why the affair never developed. I’d not long back been dumped by my supposed fiancée, so was now gallantly throwing myself into my work. Girlfriends didn’t last. Sob, sob. Susan and I had been set up for the night by the SYT’s Penistone reporter, one Harry Cooke, who was a top-class journalist, the best around, rumoured to be destined for the Daily Express ‘ere long. Harry ran on high octane fuel, with explosive results occasionally, as when I led him into a pub lounge in which a splendidly ornate wedding table had been set, prompting Cookie to launch himself head-first along the length of the trestles, which disastrous results. Luckily the landlady was a mate of mine.
November 5th, 1966: It wasn’t as a mere spectator that I came to touch base memorably one evening with rising star pop/rock group The Tremeloes, when they came within my South Yorkshire Times purview. I was mates with Les Slater, a darling little guy who ran the promotions for Rawmarsh Baths Hall, where the pool was covered over come Saturday night, and Les booked loads of top acts to strut their stuff. Tom Jones and Lulu had already appeared there, when The Trems hit town for the night.
With Brian Poole as their lead, having met up at secondary modern school in Barking, Essex, they had already ‘charted’ in the UK with ‘Do You Love Me’ in 1963 and ‘Someone, Someone’ the following year, reaching 1 and 2 respectively in the Hit Parade. But the four lads, lead guitarist Rick West (born Richard Westwood), rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Alan Blakley, bassist Alan Howard, and drummer Dave Munden, were to split with Poole, who was busy appearing on Juke Box Jury on the night the rest of the band came north, Saturday evening, Bonfire Night, when I witnessed their very first solo gig.
After the show they wanted somewhere to chill out, so we all tumbled into Les’s council flat in the early hours of a Sunday morning, sprawling out on the floor supping beer and telling smutty, daft jokes. They revealed how their big break came when auditioned by Decca alongside another ‘promising Beat Band’. The Trems were preferred and signed up. The other band? The Beatles, left to beat their own path to immortality.
September 1968: I had another close encounter of the Hit Parade variety when detailed to interview an unlikely bunch of toffs from ‘Down South’ who were entertaining the denizens of a North Country night club. This worthy establishment is splendidly entitled The Ba-Ba Club, located in the earthy metropolis of (three guesses) ….Ba…Baa…Barnsley. The six likely lads are The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, whose rendition of “I’m An Urban Spaceman Baby” has soared to Number Six in the UK singles charts, a totally unexpected windfall for a band created by a group of British art-school students, combining elements of music hall, trad jazz, and psychedelic pop with surreal humour and avant-garde art (it sez ‘ere).
Vivian Stanshall, their leader, is approached by this upwardly mobile hack, inquiring, “What message do you have for you fans Viv?” Stanshall draws a deep breath, swigs his beer (little finger tastefully raised), grins and replies, toffee-nosed style, “Tell them we’re awful”. And I did, in a sense. But they weren’t, in any sense, rubbish. Yes, t’was I gingerly probing for a memorable word or four to pass on to those who purchased 46,320 copies of our century old weekly newspaper, price Fivepence.
It was a memorable night for me and for Barnsley, a town from which my grandfather Herbert had made his escape, preferring to take part, with other member of the Royal Field Artillery, in World War I. Fifty years later here was his grandson witnessing the fallout from a far different sort of world-wide cataclysm triggered when Bill Haley, Elvis et al.
Bonzo Dog are not bone fide rockers, but they are an integral part of a generation liberated by the rock’n roll revolution. The words of Vivian’s ‘Urban Spaceman’ hit, co-produced by none other than Paul McCartney, could well be that era’s anthem: “I’m the urban space man, baby, I’ve got speed, I’ve got everything I need. I’m the urban spaceman, baby, I can fly, I’m a supersonic guy”.
On a personal level, supersonic was not in my job description. My shorthand was a bit ‘iffy’ and my hearing not so hot as a result of mumps contracted as a child. I tended to fly on a wing and a prayer, as when approached by the Bonzo Dog Band at the end of their ‘set’ inquiring as to where they could chill out, let their hair down, let the good times roll etc. after the rigors of performing. This being Barnsley in 1968, options were limited, yet ingeniously I recalled a posh country club some way out in the West Riding wilds where such free spirits might live it up.
Forgive me if my memory is pretty foggy as to what happened next, but to the best of my knowledge this intrepid reporter led the band to my rented Mini Van/Passion Wagon, into which one or all may or may not have been crammed, principally Vivian Stanshall, and drummer “Legs” Larry Smith, with the rest following on in their own transport. What I clearly remember is sluicing up the pebbled driveway to The Five Acres Country Club, blagging our way in, aided by a flash of my Press Card, and settling down for a session at the bar. After that my mind goes blank.
The thing that strikes me most about the ‘Swinging Sixties’ is that music, the fashions, the way-out behaviour are accessible, so part of everyday life. More than that, the hits made stars of ordinary blokes, and women, people you might well have grown up with, like that funny looking lad with a big nose and a weirdish name, Richard Starkey.
Ok, different stroked for different folks. All they need is talent.
Viv Stanshall, though teasingly styling himself as a sort of toffee nosed type, came from humble beginnings, born in Walthamstow in ‘43 while his father served with the RAF. Growing up, he odd-jobbed around East Coast resorts, once as a bingo caller, spent a year with the merchant navy ‘as a very bad waiter’, but eventually enrolled at the Central School of Art in London, from where he and his mates booked their ticket to stardom. It could only happen in the Swinging, or should that be Swingeing Sixties….couldn’t it.


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