Tuesday 25 February 2014

10 Songs About Middlesbrough

1. I’m Gonna Stay A Long, Long Time - Back Door 

I often think of Back Door. Last night I dreamt I went to a Back Door gig again. I also dreamed that I was reading the obituary of Paul Rodgers, which proves that a) my powers of prophecy are rubbish (I hope), and b) Middlesbrough is on my mind

But Back Door now. They maintained a residency (this is the legend) in a pub in a remote spot in the Yorkshire Moors, namely Blakey Ridge, and in this splendid isolation created an entirely sui generis concoction of jazz and blues. The trio comprised Ron Asprey, a melodic yet tantalisingly skewed soliloquiser on saxophone(s), Colin Hodgkinson, who arrived at the slapping, plucking and strumming bass style independent of Larry Graham and ahead of Stanley Clarke, and Tony Hicks, who generated tight polyrhythms on the drums. 

With copies of a privately pressed LP as a calling card, they gained a slot supporting Chick Corea at Ronnie Scott’s and comprehensively blew the Spanish-tinged Scientologist off the stage. The subsequent buzz persuaded Warners Brothers to sign them. In short order the debut album was re-released in a gatefold sleeve, and the group were packed off to record in New York, where they received a tickertape parade welcome (actually a cheerful piece of pre-Photoshop got up for the cover of the second album, 8th Street Nights). 

In fact, Back Door belonged to Middlesbrough. And so did I. Our paths crossed at a very surreal venue, the Little Theatre, on a very surreal bill - a Back Door and Stephane Grappelli co-header - on a very surreal evening: a street theatre troupe diverted bemused music-lovers outside the place. The next time I saw Back Door was at Redcar Coatham Bowl, on the launch of their third LP, Another Fine Mess

No longer so sui generis, it’s clear (with hindsight) that they were in a line that extended back to Alexis Korner’s jazzy mid-sixties edition of Blues Incorporated (the one with Herbie Goins and Art Themen), and were kin to the likes of Colosseum and Dick Heckstall-Smith. Their new-found populism extended to honking ‘Dashing White Sergeant’ to a party rhythm. I was dancing on a tabletop at Redcar Coatham Bowl to this one. Honest! 

Always happy to welcome back a vinyl revenant, my heart leapt when, a few weeks ago, I came across a tattered and dusty copy of Another Fine Mess. Musically, I'd pegged it as inferior to Back Door and 8th Street Nights, and the judgement holds, but there are plenty of enjoyable moments. I’d completely forgotten the opening song, ‘I’m Gonna Stay A Long, Long Time’, which strays from jazz to pop, and celebrates the hometown where... 

... the food is really bland 
And the air is funky 
Back home in the 'Boro 

It’s more self-deprecating than not (“We’ve got nothing really special in the ‘Boro”), which is probably the safest policy for ‘Boro apologists.

This set me thinking about other songs about Middlesbrough. 

2. The Valley of Tees - Vin Garbutt

When I first heard this - quite early on, as my first paying concert was a triple bill of Iron Maiden (not that Iron Maiden), Vin Garbutt and Tudor Lodge at Middlesbrough’s Little Theatre around the time of Garbutt’s 1972 debut album, also called The Valley of Tees - the idea that songs could be written about places you knew struck me as incredible. This is a paean to the Cleveland Hills and beauty spots like Farndale, given implicit poignancy by the contrast to deprived areas like South Bank, where Garbutt grew up. It was also unusual to hear someone sing in a local accent, although Vin Garbutt’s delivery is so declamatory, and his phrasing is so gnarled, piling on embellishments with gusto and wildly stretching and modulating vowel sounds, I didn’t recognise the broad South Bank brogue. 

3. Ring of Iron - The Teesside Fettlers 

This, or the album of the same name, and The Best of the Seekers, were the only folk records in my dad’s record collection. It was doubtless purchased in a fit of local pride. The theme of 'Ring of Iron' is the same as ‘The Valley of Tees’, contrasting the blighted industrial landscape with the beautiful countryside nearby. The central image is arresting: the town, almost certainly Middlesbrough, is surrounded by a ring of iron that must be penetrated to break through to air and light. It was written by the late Graeme Miles, who specialised in songs of his native Teesside and was rewarded with a Gold Badge from EFDSS for his efforts.

A close relation is ‘The Chemical Worker’s Song’ by Teesside Fettler Ron Angel, which details the negative side of Back Door’s funky air. ‘The Chemical Worker’s Song' can be found variously on Ring of Iron by The Teesside Fettlers and The Young Tin Whistle Pest by Vin Garbutt. 

4. Teesside - Tir Na Nog 

Not what I expected. 

Leave your own sad Teesside 
My love is like an ebb-tide…

Very fey I should say. 

It comes from the 1973 album by the Irish duo, Strong in the Sun

5. They Don’t Write ‘Em Like That Anymore - Vin Garbutt 

This fine song, a folk club standard, was written by Vin Garbutt’s mate and fellow South Banker Pete Betts (that's Pete and Vin above). It first appeared on Garbutt’s Tossin’ A Wobbler album from 1978, and has since been subject to a grab from the North West, with covers by The Houghton Weavers and Hanky Pank. Indeed, I first heard ‘They Don’t Write ‘Em Like That Anymore’ in a Lancashire pub in a rousing interpretation by John Howarth of Oldham Tinkers. It remains quintessentially Middlesbrough, however, treating of scatology and booze as much as nostalgia for pre-rock 'n' roll songs. Scatology and booze are the big ‘Boro themes.

6. Stainsby Girls - Chris Rea 

A description of Middlesbrough schoolgirls from the viewpoint of a Middlesbrough schoolboy. It might fool outsiders, but anyone with first-hand experience of Stainsby Girls will know that Rea's song is absurdly romanticised. Stainsby Girls were as scary as anything from St Trinian’s. Having said that, my brother reminds me that both his ex-wife and her sister were Stainsby Girls, so I shall draw a veil over the subject. 

7. Smoke of Home - Megson  

Debbie Palmer of Megson comes from Middlesbrough whilst her partner, Stu Hanna, was born in Stockton - in North Tees Hospital to be precise - and lived in Billingham, so, strictly speaking, County Durham is his county. Yet Durham is closer to Teesside than to Newcastle, and, I noticed last time I was there, that Durham University seems to have colonised all of Stockton. After this justification for entry, 'Smoke of Home’, the title track of their 2007 debut album, concerns Mary who leaves her parents’ home in Billingham, catches a bus to Stockton and a train to Waterloo, and then on to the Continent, only to find disillusionment on the streets of France. Broke and homesick, she longs for “the smoke of home”.    

8. The Procession - Graeme Miles   

'The Procession' tells how a (fictitious) royal visit to open a new wing of Middlesbrough General Hospital turns into a riotous pub crawl, with lots of evocative references to Middlesbrough places and pubs - St Mary's, Ayresome, Baltic Tavern, Cannon Street (see below) - which are as obsolete now as evaporated milk (also name-checked). ‘The Procession’ can be found on The Teesside Fettlers' 1975 album, Travelling the Tees, and on a 1977 cassette, The Smokestack Land, by its author, Graeme Miles. Securing Miles' credentials as the Godfather of the Teesside Tradition, Travelling the Tees also contains 'The Moulder's Wedding', “a parody of cloth cap festivities” and his ‘Blue Sunset’ about the unexpected beauty of industrial pollution. The Smokestack Land contains ‘The Banks of the Tees’ (“waiting for the ferry at Middlesbrough”) and ‘Old Middlesbrough Market is Being Pulled Down’. Other ebullient accolades to Middlesbrough, this time by erstwhile Teesside Fettler Richard Grainger, are ‘Teesside and Yorkshire’ (yet more local pride from Travelling the Tees) and ‘Middlesbrough, The Klondike Song’, which tells of the goldrush that created the town after iron was discovered in the Cleveland Hills in 1850, as every Middlesbrough schoolchild kno. 

9. Steel River - Chris Rea 

If ‘The Klondyke Song’ is the beginning, 'Steel River' is the end. Guaranteed to break the heart of every Teessider, this evokes a Middlesbrough upbringing (the line about making love with a Carole King LP playing - presumably Tapestry, every home had one - is a nice period touch), and treats of the death of the steel industry and the dispersal of a generation. “Say goodbye, Steel River”. It’s the 'Boro’s answer to the Springsteen blue collar tragedy ‘The River’, and every bit as good.

10. My Brother Jake - Free 

This might be pushing it, but I wouldn’t like to leave out Middlesbrough’s most famous son. I might also mention that I went to school with Paul Rodgers’ brother, Ged, and I once went around to his house in Saltersgill. Paul had moved on by then, although his traces could be detected in a record collection that contained every LP made up to that point by The Band (the first I was aware of them), alongside white label demos of early Free efforts. I always associate the song with Ged - it's a reasonable character study of the lad I knew - and might even substitute ‘Ged’ for ‘Jake’ if I sing it in my head. Perhaps because of the rough and ready piano, 'My Brother Jake' is the most offhand of all the Free classics, and hence the most soulful. The last time I saw Ged, he was enthusing about a new band he’d just seen called Dexy’s Midnight Runners, which tells you how long ago it was. 

Note, the Top Ten omits ‘The Stars Fell on Stockton’. I relaxed the nothing-outside-Middlesbrough rule for Megson, but wasn't minded to do the same for The Shadows. ‘Alice in the Streets of Darlington’ by Claire Hamill is excluded for the same reason. Hamill’s One House Left Standing isn’t a song but the title of her debut LP. This is a pity, because now I can’t discuss the demolition of old Cannon Street or Record Tony’s theory that the true Middlesbrough accent (i.e. Record Tony’s) was special to Cannon Street residents and is now virtually extinct. So no go, even if the cover of One House Left Standing depicts Claire as a Victorian urchin surrounded by Middlesbrough iconography like wagon wheels, heavy cranes and the Transporter Bridge (especially the Transporter Bridge).

And ‘Middlesbrough Man’ by Maximo Park simply transposes the lyrics of Mark E Smith’s ‘Edinburgh Man’, so doesn’t count, at the risk of further jeopardising the North East-North West connection. 

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