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. 


  1. Thank you very much for this. It is a great trip to 'Boro!

  2. To call Tir Na Nog fey is like calling James Brown funky.

    I actually saw them play in November in a room above a bar in Chorlton, at a concert organised by Eva's former belly dancing teacher Sian, and attended by legendary folk producer Bill Leader, who helmed their debut album in 1971 (still their finest hour). 

    Sentiments like "Our love will not mildewed grow" are all very well coming from a willowy raven tressed hippy romancer (and TNN wrote the book on wrthrs) but is it a job for a grown man? The jury is out on this one, and I'm still undecided, even after the gig. 

  3. Mike - I can confirm that you did dance on the table at The Coatham Bowl. I recall that you had the private pressing of the 1st Back Door album (Blakey Records if I recall rightly). You may remember that we had a band at St Marys, with Ged on vocals and flute, Steve Lillystone on drums, Paul ?? on Sax, and myself on bass doing a couple of Back Door covers and some Kinks and some of our our own tunes.
    I was talking to Terry Di Stasi via FBook last night, about Ged, and having not seen him since we were at Foundation Art course at Burlam Road 77-78, which led me to search for Ged and it brought me here!
    Btw: I have a lifelong obsession about Kraftwerk since the day you lent me the Ralf Und Florian vinyl at school!
    I hope this finds you well... I'm online at www.ambientcreative.com
    Take care
    Greg Marshall

  4. Greg, It's all a bit hazy. And Ralf and Florian obviously changed your life more than it did mine, because I shortly afterwards came under the influence of a charismatic older guy (still my best mate) who steered me in the direction of US roots rock and good old soul. It meant I wasn't quite attuned when punk struck. Did you go to Knebworth and relayed to me an enthusiastic report about Tim Buckley? Kinks and Back Door and originals! That sounds pretty hip. So who was I tussling with on the floor of the Town Hall Crypt? The occasion was a Kursaal Flyers gig. The band had just come back on for an encore, and I was wrestling with a classmate to prevent him chucking a glass at Kursaals singer Paul Shuttleworth. The reason? "This is the worst shite I've seen since Kraftwerk". Faulkie? The name Faulkie stirs something deep down.

  5. As I recall, the Back Door private pressing belonged to older brother Ant, but I have my own copy now, and I actually found another copy at an Oxfam in Manchester a few months back.

  6. No it wasn't me who went to Knebworth - that sounds more like Mark Faulkner (Faulky). I do recall the Kursaal Flyers gig in the Crypt tho... Doubt that was Faulky throwing glasses - he was/is a very chilled soul. Did you come on that minibus I organised to see Pink Floyd at Newcastle Odeon, DSOM tour? I remember Faulky, Gu (Eugene Carr), Terry Di Stasi, another Terry, perhaps Mike Hopper being on the minibus. I use dto go to all the Coatham Bowl/Town Hall gigs irrespective of who was playing.

  7. Unless it was Gu at the Kursaals. He's the only one I've seen much of since. Faulky, now. He was a longstanding source of recrimination between myself and brother Ant because he loaned Ant's Gryphon LP (the first) and wouldn't give it back. Somehow I got the blame. Yes, I did go see Pink Floyd at Newcastle, but I remember it as the Wish You Were Here tour, not DSOTM, and I remember being bored. Craig, yes, I think I've placed you. No use asking if I played you my Genesis LPs because I did that with everyone, but did we once have a Santana Caravanserai afternoon, with me more positive than you? Possibly only an exchange of contemporary photographs will settle this.

  8. Oh, and I was in a band with Terry Di Stasi, briefly.

  9. yes I think it was the DSOM/WYWH tour - in fact it was the one where they binned the album due to bootlegging. I always disliked Genesis, even Lamb Lies Down which had been 'Eno'd' in part as I recall... I remember coming round to yours on several occasions and listening to various stuff. Long long time ago... Faulky / Gryphon - I think I now remember that whole recrimination thing. I've never seen anyone apart from Terry D and then weirdly Faulky for a short while a couple of years ago - a long long story of tragedy and being too trusting a person... way too long to relate here. my email btw is greg@ambientcreative.com

  10. Does anyone know where I can find the lyrics of the song Teesside by Tir na Nog? Thanks!

  11. From a quick trawl, it's easier to find the chords of 'Teesside' than the lyrics. For the record, G, D and Dm. Could you try transcribing yourself? The song is readily available on the net.


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