In retrospect, it’s all about that sweet soul music, 2014

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MY favourite band are playing their annual hometown Christmas gig on Monday, December 29, at the Rolling Mills Club in Darlington. Here’s who they are, and what they do. Gig details at the end of the article.

First published in Darlington & Stockton Times, December 2014

A SOUL band that can trace its roots back more than 35 years is marking Christmas with a new CD and a home town gig.

The Smokin’ Spitfires have been performing their unique combination of soul and rhythm ‘n’ blues originals and covers of Stax and Atlantic classics since 2003.

But the band can trace its origins back to 1978 when the still-remembered East Side Torpedoes played their first gig in the upstairs room of the Travellers Rest in Darlington and set off on a journey that saw them get very close to the music business big time.


The Smokin’ Spitfires 2014. Back, from left, Alan Thompson (sax), Bob Garrington (guitar), Ian Rigby (bass). Front, from left, Gary Cain (drums), Mike Hepple (keyboards), Steve McGarvie (sax), Terry O’Hern (trombone), Neil Hunter (vocals). Picture supplied by the band (copyright unknown).

Then, as now, the lead singer and songwriter was Neil Hunter. The East Side Torpedoes started as a five-piece, adding players until there were eight or 10 on stage, often including a four-man horn section. Terry “Ernie” O’Hern on trombone is the other constant in the two bands.

The East Side Torpedoes recorded an album called Coast to Coast, produced by Chas Chandler, formerly of The Animals. They were played on radio by John Peel and John Walters and a single featured as the weekly powerplay on Radio Luxembourg, then a key pop station. They appeared at the Knebworth festival and Tyne Tees TV made a 30-minute film about them.

Along the way they were the first band to play at Darlington Arts Centre, in what would become the Garden Bar. In July 2012 the Smokin’ Spitfires were all but the last band to play there before the centre closed.

The East Side Torpedoes split ­- “gave up” according to Hunter – in the mid 80s. He and O’Hern stuck together in North-East bands the Blue Sharks , the D7s and, for a while, a re-formed East Side Torpedoes before forming the Smokin’ Spitfires.


Retrospective features ten tracks from the Smokin’ Spitfires

The new ten-track CD which was made available at the Spitfires’ monthly Sunday gig at The Cluny in Newcastle a couple of weeks ago is called Retrospective.

Hunter explains: “In the early days of the Spitfires we decided we would release some CDs of original material, five CDs of five tracks each and we called them Five for a Fiver.

“The original idea was we’d release them over about ten months. It took closer to 10 years. We still get asked for them and there haven’t been any to sell for a long time. We felt we needed something for those people who wanted it so we looked at what we had and polled the band on their favourite two tracks from each of the five CDS. Retrospective is what we’ve come up with.”

Producing the CD was a task for the band’s youngest member, tenor sax player Steve McGarvie. According to Hunter: “He reckons I’m old enough to be his granddad.”

“Steve got hold of what was left of any masters and went to work,” says Hunter. “He’s done a pretty good job really, considering what he had to work with. Then Gary Consiglio, who has done the artwork for CD, has come up with some new branding that’s so much better than anything we’ve had in the past.”

The Spitfires are a band happy in their work, which shows on stage. “Everyone in the band gets on so well together,” says Hunter. “The age range doesn’t matter. If you love the music and love what you’re doing anything else is irrelevant. We’re happy as a band, we’re a good band. I think it’s like BB King says, it’s 60 per cent personality, 40 per cent musicality.

Many musicians have passed through the Smokin’ Spitfires over the years and some will return for the Christmas gig being staged at the Rolling Mills Club. For that one evening the band becomes The Mighty Smokin’ Spitfires with 11 on stage.

As well as the Spitfires’ original songs the audience can expect a selection of soul classics made famous by the likes of Wilson Pickett, Arthur Conley, Sam and Dave and James Brown.

“We’ve been doing this gig between Christmas and New Year in Darlington for about 10 years,” says Hunter. “We started in the Travellers, then the Arts Centre and since that closed this’ll be the third one at the Rolling Mills. It’s always been a good opportunity to play more of our own stuff than we get to do normally. The Cluny gig has taken that on too. We’ve almost had to start learning our own stuff again.

“It’s definitely a Darlington-based band. I lived in Darlington, Terry, Steve and Mike (Hepple, keyboards) are all based in Darlington, Ian (Rigby, bass) is from East Layton.

“The important thing about this gig is that people can have a good time, dance, drink some beer, have some fun.”

Smokin’ Spitfires, live at the Rolling Mills Club, Longfield Road, Darlington, on Monday, December 29, 2014. Admission at the door £8, doors open 8pm. Retrospective will be available at the gig.

The band is on Facebook
or visit the website:



Odeon nights and a Majestic afternoon

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The Odeon in Bondgate, Darlington, is being restored after decades of neglect

WHEN I first moved to Darlington, to spend a year at college, I stayed in digs with three fellow students. We had a landlady who didn’t like us cluttering up her home, despite us being paying guests, and who fed us macaroni cheese at least three times a week.

This meant we had to seek shelter and sustenance elsewhere. The Odeon cinema on Bondgate regularly provided the shelter, while the Americana Fish Bar across the road provided the antidote to the macaroni cheese.

It was 1979, before multiplexes, and around the time desperate operators started dividing up their cinemas into smaller units – typically one big screen and a couple of studios – so they could show more movies, in the hope that audiences. presented with a greater choice of rubbish, would turn up.

The Odeon hadn’t been divided. It was vast, seating about 1,100 in stalls and circle, and frequently almost empty. That I can’t remember anything I saw there suggests we watched whatever was on, rather than making any kind of discerning choice.

By the time I returned to Darlington to work, in 1986, the Odeon had been closed for five years. Riley’s turned part of it into a snooker hall where I occasionally played, badly, before setting off for an evening’s work. The outside still looked like a cinema but inside they’d done a decent job of disguising the building’s original function.


The original ceiling remains intact

I hadn’t thought about the old place much for decades before I stumbled across a Facebook post about it. I don’t think I even knew that its original name was the Majestic.

It’s still a snooker club, although it has had a couple of operators since I last played. But it’s now being transformed by a local commercial property developer, Devlin Hunter.

Today he was giving guided tours of the building, organised via Facebook ( by people who’ve taken a keen interest in the Majestic’s future. He took us into areas few people had seen since the last reel played out, although some of the building was still off limits for safety reasons.

He’s already removed a hideous suspended ceiling, uncovered the proscenium arch, and made a start on restoring some of the tremendous art deco features which appear to have survived the years relatively intact. There are stained glass windows and a magnificent, hidden façade yet to be tackled.

Mr Hunter’s visitors ranged from architecture lovers and cinema enthusiasts to local people with their own memories of the building and the merely curious.


The original facade of the Majestic survives, complete with its many stained glass windows, but is, for now, hidden (Orphan internet picture, I’d be happy to acknowledge the photographer if anyone knows who that was)

He says he’s been surprised by how many people seem to have a view on his project and he’s already spent more than he intended as more features have been revealed. He resisted every attempt to get him to disclose what the ultimate use will be. There have been reports of a “multi-purpose leisure facility”.

Whatever it turns out to be it would be nice to think that the people of Darlington will once again find  their entertainment in this impressive building.

Now, about reopening the Americana Fish Bar…

Return of the Sunday soul sessions, 2013

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spitfires october 2013 (2)THE Smokin’ Spitfires are playing a series of gigs – first Sunday of every month – in aid of the Bubble Foundation at The Cluny, Newcastle. The next, the sixth, is on February 2, 2014. Doors open at noon, £6.50 admission. Here’s the back story to what was meant to be a one-off:

First published in The Chronicle, Newcastle, August 2013

THEY’D queue from 11.30am with the doors opening at noon. Soon the foyer of the Newcastle Playhouse at the top of the Haymarket would be heaving, with 200 or more music fans crammed inside.

From 1982 to 1986 the Sunday lunchtime gig they’d all come to see was a Tyneside institution.

The East Side Torpedoes was a North East soul and rhythm and blues band who played all over the UK. But every Sunday they came home, missing only a couple of gigs in all that time.

East Side Torpedoes 1982

The East Side Torpedoes outside the Playhouse in 1982. From left, Steve Hall (guitar), Neil Hunter (vocals), Dave Connolly (trumpet), Dave Allan (drums), Derek Nattrass (bass), Andy Hawkin (keyboards), Nigel Stanger (alto sax), Lindolph D’Oliveira (tenor sax) and Terry O’Hern (trombone). Picture copyright ncjMedia

They had started as a five-piece, led by singer Neil Hunter, adding players until there were eight or 10 on stage, often including a four-man horn section.

And while classic soul covers figured, the set was mainly original material, some of it evocative of North East life. The Evening Chronicle said their live shows featured “a brand of music that is powerful and fun” and called the band “a breath of fresh air”.

It was £3 to get in. Gill Johnston, who sometimes took the money on the door, remembers:  “The atmosphere was electric. You had to stand and it got very hot. The band would do two 45-minute sets but the second one could go on and on depending on their mood.”

Coast to Coast album coverThe Torpedoes recorded an album called Coast to Coast, produced by former Animal Chas Chandler. They were played on radio by John Peel and John Walters and a single featured as the weekly powerplay on Radio Luxembourg, then a key pop broadcaster. They appeared at Knebworth and Tyne Tees TV made a 30-minute film on the band.

Neil remembers: “Some weeks we’d play three or four nights, some weeks five or six, sometimes none but we’d come back for the Playhouse, often driving through the night, because it was that important. We had a road crew of three or four guys who were on £25 a week and the Playhouse gig paid their wages if we didn’t have the work in.”

Gill recalls the gigs always ending on the same song, the slow, Hunter-penned ballad On Such A Night As This. “By then”, she says, “you’d have the audience swaying, everyone singing, people singing harmonies and descants.”

The East Side Torpedoes split ­- “gave up” according to Neil – in the mid 80s. He and trombone player Terry ‘Ernie’ O’Hern stuck together in the Blue Sharks, the D7s and, for a while, a re-formed East Side Torpedoes before forming the Smokin’ Spitfires in 2003.

And it’s the Spitfires, complete with a four-man horn section, who are playing a Sunday lunchtime gig once again, in aid of the Bubble Foundation which funds life-saving treatments for babies born without an immune system. It is a cause the band has supported for some years, introduced to it by Gill Johnston, now Bubble’s fundraising manager.

The venue is The Cluny in the Ouseburn in Newcastle on Sunday September 8, doors open at noon.  Gill’s hoping it’ll recapture some of the spirit of the Playhouse days.

o Tickets £6.50 on the door or visit More about the Bubble Foundation at

o The article above appeared in the Chronicle, Newcastle on August 31, 2013

Do you like soul music? Sweet soul music…

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BACK in the Seventies I was at an all-boys grammar school. It had a stern-looking main building, gowned masters, blazers and ties and an inexplicable tolerance for long hair. But while I shared with my contemporaries a reluctance to go the barbers, I didn’t share the musical tastes of many of them.

It was fashionable to paint your haversack to reflect your favourite band. Intricate daubings of logos and album covers of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Hawkwind mostly, Genesis, Welsh rockers Budgie, and, for the older lads, CSNY.

Truth was, I didn’t like very much by any of them.


The Smokin’ Spitfires at Darlington Arts Centre in 2011. Picture courtesy of Gasto Promotions

At a party I was once outed as not being one of them. “You,” my accuser observed, “like all that soul and Motown sh*t, don’t you?”

Guilty as charged. Still guilty. And out on Friday night watching North East band the Smokin’ Spitfires playing a repertoire of classic Atlantic, Stax and Motown and a smattering of genuine originals at their annual Darlington Christmas party gig.

If my accuser from long ago is still around I have this observation for him: you don’t see many full rooms for bands playing Budgie and CSNY covers these days do you?.

The Spitfires have their roots, a long time ago, in the East Side Torpedoes. In 1978 the Torpedoes were the first band to play Darlington Arts Centre, in what became the Garden Bar, and the Spitfires, with two of the original Torpedoes, were among the last acts to play there before the centre’s unfortunate closure.

The East Side Torpedoes made an album, flirted with fame. They did a soul song about urban redevelopment – East End, West End – and another about confronting prejudice – Face It Where It Stands. On Such a Night As This, which closed Friday’s gig, is about being away from your Northern home. (There’s a remarkable amount of East Side Torpedoes stuff on YouTube, try starting here

The Smokin’ Spitfires are playing a series of benefit gigs at The Cluny in Newcastle in aid of the Bubble Foundation. You can find them there on the first Sunday of each month, including next Sunday, January 5, 2014.

Before the series launched, with what was planned to be a one-off, I had a chat with lead singer Neil Hunter for the Remember When page of the Chronicle in Newcastle.  I’ll post that article next.

Hellooah, it’s panto time 2013

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First published in The Journal, Newcastle, December 2013

I DIDN’T see a panto until I was almost 40, and until I saw my first I had no idea what I was missing. So it’s always a pleasure to review the annual Darlington Civic Theatre show. This year’s is a proper treat:

Aladdin, Darlington Civic Theatre until January 12, 2014


Programme cover for Aladdin, starring the Chuckle Brothers, at Darlington Civic Theatre.

LEAVE your serious face behind you, get ready to shout “Hellooah” and revel in a full-on family treat because the Chuckle Brothers don’t stop until you’re wiping away tears of laughter.

Aladdin is a joy.  The “to me, to you” showbiz legends lead from the front but there are highlights throughout this show with a strong starring cast and talented support.

There are some clever sets, a great live band, pyrotechnics, an elephant (of which more later), a flying carpet, some twerking, and a striking giant puppet genie.

The Chuckle Brothers deliver a series of sketches which appear at times to leave even themselves helpless with laughter. The one where Barry attempts to audition for the X Factor while Paul designs a dress had me weeping.

And there can’t be many acts who would have reached back to the 1930s and shoehorned Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s Egyptian Sand-dancer routine into a story set in old Peking. Priceless.

Gary Amers makes Aladdin a proper North East mother’s boy, desperate to win the hand of Princess Jasmine. His performance is energetic and funny.

Darlington’s own Beth Stobbart, in her first professional  panto  after shining on this stage with Darlington OS, is delightful as Jasmine. It seems there’s nothing she can’t sing.

When the Chuckle Brothers aren’t on it’s Philip Meeks, fast becoming a Darlington favourite, who keeps the laughs coming as Widow Twankey. He gives us a warm and funny dame and gets through uncountable costume changes. There’s even a Darlington football-themed outfit including the Quakers bra: “Nee cups, and nee support”. Phil Corbitt as Abanazar supplies just the right amount of evil as the villain of the piece.

There are some stand-out musical numbers, with Jessie J’s Price Tag, which closes the first half, being my favourite. Stobbart and Amers give great vocal performances, the set is transformed into a sumptuous sea of red and gold, the dancers lend a Vegas glamour. It’s fabulous.

There’s also a fair bit of slapstick. And the elephant? Well, if you’re any further forward than row K, you might want to duck. Enjoy.

o This review appeared in The Journal, Newcastle, on December 14, 2013.

o Educational bit: If you’re not familiar with Wilson, Keppel and Betty have a look here, although it must have been Betty’s day off:

RIP Graham Grumbleweed

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Graham Walker, left, and Robin Colvill. Picture from

GRAHAM Walker of the comedy double act The Grumbleweeds has died, aged 68.

He was a man who could reduce me to tears of laughter just by walking onto a stage. If he walked on carrying a drum stool I would be laughing before he’d even started the gag.

And I could see that gag (and you had to see it, explanation wouldn’t do justice), and the rest of The Grumbleweeds’ tried and tested and oft-repeated routine any number of times and still find it funny.

The Grumbleweeds – Graham and his comedy partner Robin Colvill – had been together since 1962. If you told me they’d been doing some of their comedy business from the day they started I wouldn’t complain.

I first encountered them as a child watching a BBC children’s TV show called, I think, The Coal Hole Club. Back then they were a five-piece musical comedy group. When I found out they were doing panto in Darlington a few years back I was at the front of the queue for the office review tickets. They were hysterically funny. When they returned a couple of years later the panto characters were different, the act was the same.

It was this kind of thing:

Robin: Sign this.

Graham: I ain’t got no pen.

R: I have no pen, he has no pen, they have no pens.

G: Well who’s got all the pens?

R: I’m talking about your grammar.

G: What about her?

R: What about who?

G: My grandma.

R: What about your grandma?

G: Well, she might have a pen.

It was silly, and innocent. They had more on-stage energy than men half their age. It was unfashionable – they probably hadn’t been on TV in 20 years. But if you are in the right frame of mind comedy doesn’t have to be cutting edge, or aimed at filling arenas, or flogging DVDs (although they’d have sold you one, in the foyer, in person). It just has to make people laugh. The Grumbleweeds made me laugh, so RIP Graham Walker.

I’m not sure the review (from 2009) did The Grumbleweeds’ contribution to the show justice: but then again, I’d watched much of it with tears streaming down my face. It appeared under the headline: Perfect panto leaves nothing to Grumble about

 Aladdin at Darlington Civic Theatre

FIRSTLY, a confession. I’m only 10 in panto years. I didn’t see one until I was 39 which means the magic of this very British theatrical experience hasn’t yet worn off.

Panto should appeal to the inner child in all of us and this one, featuring The Grumbleweeds, appealed to mine in much the same way The Grumbleweeds appealed when I was an actual child.

Yes, they’ve been in the business that long. Aladdin was first performed in 1788 and the boys were probably in it shortly afterwards.

Actually they’ve been together since 1962 but you take my point – they know what they’re doing in front of an audience.

And so to the show. Let’s tick off the essential panto ingredients.

Wafer thin and largely incidental plot? Boy wants girl. Tick.

Comedy double act? See above. Tick.

Former reality TV contestant? X Factor’s Chico (as Aladdin). Tick.

Evil person? Wizard. Tick.

Pretty girl? Two. A princess (Sarah Brown) and her friend Yu Yin (from the Chinese State Circus). Tick.

Hard-working, on-the-ball, live band? Tick.

Cute dancing children? As always at Darlington, the Joanne Banks Dancers. Tick.

Funny man dressed as large woman? Bobby Bennett, entertaining people since 1955. Tick.

Other random stuff? Tick – because one of the joys of panto is that almost anything can be shoehorned in.

Which is how I came to be watching a Chinese woman lying on her back juggling five umbrellas (and the occasional rug) with her feet while a princess sang Reflection from the Disney movie Mulan and a sugar-wired three-year-old kicked me in the head from behind.

It couldn’t have been more surreal had Darlington’s own Vic Reeves scripted it for Novelty Island.

The two 14-year-olds I took along had a whale of a time. Silliness conquering teenage cool perhaps?

Their favourite joke? Ozzy Osbourne: “Guess who I bumped into in Specsavers?” You can fill in the punchline yourself.

The whole company play their part. Magician Max Somerset from BBC TV’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a splendid baddie and Bobby Bennett a tremendous Widow Twankey. The real surprise is that Chico really is an all-round entertainer.

And there’s a tantalising glimpse of what the future holds for Jedward. But for that you’ll have to buy a ticket.

However, it’s The Grumbleweeds – Graham Walker and Robin Colvill – who are the stars of a super show.

This review appeared in The Journal on December 12, 2009. Read more about The Grumbleweeds at

If you’d like to see more (and you really should) there’s a video here: