Classic Pop OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2015 - by Mark Frith


Newcastle is often a place wannabe pop stars move away from - but its rich culture and focus on the arts make it a stunning breeding ground for charismatic musicians...

It's late 2012 and something is stirring in Newcastle. The year has been London's year, unquestionably, with all eyes fixed on the capital. Yet outside of London, Britain is hurting. Government cuts, long-rumoured, are being implemented everywhere. As is so often the case, it's the cultural world set to take the brunt. In Newcastle, those cuts were looking particularly wounding because its arts background there is so strong, so inspiring.

But Newcastle had friends they could call upon. Friends that may have left long ago (although as we will see, one very notably returned) but harbour such devotion to their background that they talk about it at every opportunity and allow its influence to invade their work on a regular basis.

Which is why, two weeks before Christmas that year, Neil Tennant, Sting and Bryan Ferry got together and wrote a letter. A letter praising the city's cultural life and bemoaning the "economically disastrous" cuts they felt could lead to "generations of young people (being) denied access to the opportunities we were given and, without the council's support, the arts will simply become a pursuit for the most wealthy".

Is there anywhere in Britain that inspires such devotion as Newcastle? Any breed prouder than a Geordie? Any musical types with greater passion than Bryan Ferry, Sting, Neil Tennant or the team at Kitchenware records? A cultural mecca, one of the most fertile breeding grounds in musical history. This is the story of Newcastle, creator of stars.

Although everything about him shouts London-fop-meets-Oxfordshire-country-gent, Bryan Ferry was actually born in Washington, County Durham. He grew up surrounded by music and was a regular visitor to concerts at Newcastle's City Hall from an early age. Speaking to a local newspaper journalist recently, Ferry recalled his early musical awakening.

"I remember seeing many of my musical heroes at Newcastle City Hall - Jimi Hendrix, Ella Fitzgerald, Modern Jazz Quartet, Count Basie... all kinds of people. It was a big part of my life - growing up and starting doing music here.

"Even when I was at school, I used to work in the tailor's shop on the high street to get my pocket money and I would spend it on records - usually at Windows of the Arcade in Newcastle - or going to the New Orleans' Jazz Club. I'd sit for about five hours with one beer..."

Watching turned to playing, and whilst at university (in Newcastle) Ferry formed a band called The City Blues and then, shortly after, The Gas Board with trumpeter and acclaimed film director, Mike Figgis.

But it wasn't just music where the city excelled. Despite being encouraged by his family to study in London, Ferry made the choice of staying in the North East to study Fine Art under the tutelage of Richard Hamilton.

Newcastle gave Bryan Ferry his cool, but it couldn't hang on to him beyond 1968. He knew that if he stayed in Newcastle he would mainly be a bystander to what was going on down south, while in London he would be able to play a fully fledged part.

He worked in a school whilst putting together what would become Roxy Music (helped, of course, by the obligatory Melody Maker advert) which included fellow Geordie Paul Thompson, saxophonist Andy Mackay and, from 1971 onwards, Brian Eno.

Eno had never been a trained musician at all - but when he attended a lecture by The Who's Pete Townshend, he became convinced he could still play a part. In the lecture, Townshend passionately advocated the use of tape machines by non-musicians to help them make (or at least produce) music. Eno was inspired by this and began to investigate the world of the synthesiser before becoming Roxy's off-stage 'mixer' at gigs, helping to shape the band's revolutionary electronic sound with synths, tape decks and the odd backing vocal. Eventually he was allowed on stage, a role he seized with gusto by sporting a series of ostentatious costumes.

By the time Eno left in 1973 the band had scored an instant Top 10 hit with debut album Roxy Music and a Top 5 hit with the revolutionary Virginia Plain followed by a series of stunning singles throughout the decade, each one a byword for perfect, cool pop music. There was Pyjamarama and Street Life in 1974, followed by Love Is The Drug, Dance Away and Angel Eyes. Yet it was the '80s that saw Roxy Music score their biggest hits.

Their biggest single was to be a cover version of John Lennon's Jealous Guy, just three months after Lennon's death. The release was controversial, seen as opportunistic in some quarters (or simply "too soon"), with the song's lyrics gaining extra poignancy in the light of Mark Chapman's tragic actions.

The following year the group secured their biggest selling studio album with Avalon, a lush album of mood music and great hooks and their biggest seller in the UK and US. It was to be their final album, although tours and contributions from past band members to Ferry solo albums have kept the band's impressible legacy strong. They were also, and this can't be underestimated, true electronic pioneers inspiring many of the artists you see in this magazine.

Ferry had a highly successful solo career throughout the '70s and '80s, peaking in 1985 with a typically louche Live Aid performance and a Number 1 album with Boys And Girls.

Sting was born Gordon Sumner in 1951. Dad was a milkman, mum a hairdresser, and Sumner lived with his three younger siblings near the shipyards in Wallsend, four miles east of Newcastle, an area that would later, much later, influence his work.

Like Ferry, Sumner got into music early - initially by strumming on an old Spanish guitar a friend of his father's had discarded in the family home. He was just ten years old. As he moved into his teens, music became a handy distraction from school, which he hated. "I got a scholarship to a grammar school," he recalled, "so I was kind of sectioned from most of the people I was brought up with and put in this school uniform, and was sent on a train to Newcastle and taught Latin and physics and all that stuff."

For a young lad with such a love of the community he grew up in, such a sense of place, to be separated from all he knew, even if he was only being shifted a few miles away from it, was life-changing. Life at St Cuthbert's High School was bleak.

"That split was pretty, ah, radical. [To] people I'd spent time with in school and the streets - suddenly I was this different creature. And that was it - I didn't really see those people again. I was cut off. It was a pretty rough school, actually. Something like three thousand boys, taught by priests, basically ruled by violence. They would cane you on a daily basis. I haven't been back."

Despite hating his own school years, in the early '70s Sumner trained to be a teacher, then taught for two years in nearby Cramlington. But it was his night-time life that really excited him. Sumner played jazz in every spare moment he could get with a variety of bands, and his distinctive stage outfit - not quite Brian Eno, but still - of a yellow and black jumper with hooped stripes earned him the nickname 'Sting'.

Again, like Ferry, Sting knew Newcastle only held so much for someone with such ambition, an ambition that would serve him well in the decades to come. Newly married, and with a baby boy called Joseph in tow, Sting and then-wife Frances began to plan a move to London. First he had to extricate himself from his teaching job ("I told them I was leaving, they said 'but you'll lose your pension!'") and then he had to find somewhere to live. But he had no money. And didn't know anyone in London. Oh, except for that guy...

Sting had met Stewart Copeland in Newcastle when Copeland came to see his band play and was impressed. By then a drummer for Curved Air (he'd previously been their roadie) Copeland suggested Sting look him up if he was ever down in London. Well, now he was down in London. And Copeland's number was the only one he had...

Sting went to Copeland's home - a squat in Mayfair in a building owned by Michael Winner - and there they formed The Police. It was January 1977. Enthused by the punk scene, the pair - and third member Henry Padovani - worked quickly, recording a single in February and playing a debut gig on March 1. Then a new face - industry veteran Andy Summers - appeared on the scene, replacing Padovani in the summer of 1977.

Success wasn't instant for The Police. The band released a regular stream of singles during 1978 (Roxanne, Can't Stand Losing You, So Lonely), all of which failed to make the Top 40, but US success on the back of a persistent touring schedule led to the UK waking up to the group. In fact during 1979 and 1980 they had hits with all three of the songs that had flopped before - alongside three new songs, all of which made Number 1: Message In A Bottle, Walking On The Moon and Don't Stand So Close To Me, which went on to become the biggest-selling single of 1980.

This incredible purple patch continued through the first half of the '80s. The hits were huge, the albums invariably reached Number 1 both in the UK and the US and touring, in particular, moved them onto a level no other band in that era reached (multiple gigs at Shea Stadium included). Indeed, a 1983 gig at Shea Stadium was, to Sting, their 'Everest' and led to the group taking a lengthy sabbatical - which became a split after attempts to record a sixth studio album in 1986 failed.

Still, by then Sting was doing very nicely on his own, thank you very much, thanks to profile-raising (and critically acclaimed) film roles and a huge solo album The Dream Of The Blue Turtles, with a sound that was more mainstream than the more abrasive Police material.

The solo career became a far longer term project than The Police, producing eleven solo albums so far, the latest of which saw Sumner make a highly emotional return to his North-East background. The Last Ship wasn't just an album, it was a Broadway show too. The fact that both performed poorly (the musical closed after just three months) can't disguise how much the whole thing meant to Sting.

Set in Wallsend, The Last Ship documented the closure of the Swan Hunter shipyard and the reverberations on the local community. He may have left for London decades before, moving to live with his New York-based second wife in the '90s and become King Of The Rainforest at points in-between, but Gordon Sumner was always a North-East lad at heart.

Whilst Sting was traversing the globe with The Police at their pomp, a small record label called Kitchenware was taking its first tentative steps. Formed in 1982 by Keith Armstrong, Paul Ludford and Phil Mitchell, it was Armstrong who took on the creative side of the operation, a role which required utter loyalty to his acts and a healthy disregard for the major labels who would come knocking at their door.

He also had another life, that of an HMV store manager, and a company induction course at the turn of the decade gave him an insight into the music industry, the marketing of records and how to get them in the shops. Spending a day with some pluggers made him realise how much of the industry relied on schmoozing and borderline bribery, and Armstrong resolved there and then that his label was going to be about quality and have a pureness others didn't have.

His early bands - Hurrah!, The Daintees - attracted strong major label interest, although when those label phoned up to request records, they didn't quite get the reception they expected. Armstrong, in an interview at the time, told how he'd tell them to go and buy copies. "'They're in the shops', I'd say, 'go and buy one!'". That's told them.

However, it was to be Kitchenware's next two bands - Prefab Sprout and Kane Gang - who would go on and make the label's name. The Sprouts in particular became one of the notable bands of the decade with a string of smart, wordy, beautiful pop songs that failed to trouble the Top 40 until a reissue of one of their most beautiful pieces, When Love Breaks Down, became a hit in 1985. Their music, still smart, still wordy, then became a lot more commercial towards the end of the decade and they even scored a Top 10 hit with The King Of Rock'n'Roll. The band, now down to a nucleus of Paddy McAloon, still record and release records to this day, the latest of which was 2013's Crimson/Red. Kitchenware is also in fine fettle, finally scoring a Number 1 album with The Editors on the label's twenty-fifth anniversary in 2007.

Born in North Shields, a fishing port just outside Newcastle, Neil Tennant was a shy, sensitive child. His detachment wasn't helped by the fact he heartily disliked school, stories of which made their way into many of his later songs. His refuge was music, first guitar and cello, then multiple roles in a folk group called Dust which he juggled with involvement in Newcastle's arts mecca, the People's Theatre.

But when he moved to London, playing music took a partial back seat for writing about it as Tennant, famously, rose through the ranks at Smash Hits magazine. After a chance meeting with Chris Lowe in an electronics shop on the Kings Road in London, the duo formed a band, Pet Shop Boys. Towards the end of each working day, Lowe would rock up at the Smash Hits office at 52-55 Carnaby Street, perch on the photocopier at the end of the office and wait for Tennant to finish writing and editing copy. Then they would disappear into the night to write and record songs.

For Pet Shop Boys, success would take time in coming. In the pop graveyard of summer and autumn 1985, which also saw Erasure's early records flop, the band missed out on the Top 75 with the brilliant Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money). Never mind; behind the scenes, the band were preparing a new version of West End Girls, previously produced by disco god Bobby O, but this time helmed by the brilliant Stephen Hague, for a pre-Christmas release.

West End Girls is a breathtaking record, meshing pop, electronic music, and even rap. It was huge, and arguably one of greatest singles of the era. Many would go further, saying the track marked a real sea-change in '80s electronic music, ushering out the showy dressing-up-for-Top-Of-The-Pops part of the decade and ushering in a cooler, smarter electronic music that wouldn't be far from the charts for many years.

Pet Shop Boys were the movement's leaders, delivering a series of singles so precise, so cool you can almost see the dry ice coming out of the speakers. They also delivered huge hits: three Number 1s and a Number 2 (with Dusty Springfield) in one twelve-month period from spring 1986 to spring 1987. Tennant would, memorably, refer to this period as the band's 'Imperial phase' which he felt ended with the 1988 release of Domino Dancing, a number seven 'flop'.

The '90s too delivered fewer Top 5 hits, but some exceptional moments: Being Boring, the paean to disappearing youth, Jealousy, about, er, jealousy, and the sexual confusion/relationship power games of Can You Forgive Her? Still together today, the band make a fine living pleasing their devoted fans worldwide, but most of all, as was always the case, themselves.

Unlike his contemporaries, who have reflected their home in their work but moved away and stayed away, Neil Tennant moved back to the North-East and bought a house in the countryside which is now his base and creative hub. Once a Geordie, always a Geordie...