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.

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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.