ANGELS IN LIMBO: SUNDERLAND LOCARNO BALLROOM, 1974.

Wake up. It's 1974. The Hot Rod Gang motorvate along the Felling Bypass, heading for the Locarno Ballroom in Sunderland. Dance hall gig: big sound, polished sprung dancefloor, wide stage, spotlights, swirling mirror ball.  Let's go! Because EVERYTHING happens on the Felling Bypass. Housing estates and industry, open country and farms; all on the road to Sunderland. At the Conservative Club, we're told to play the National Anthem after our false tab. 'False tab' is clubspeak for encore. We ask if they have a tape. No. WE have to play it. Antoine and I rehearse it on our saxophones. Then we hatch a plan.

At the end of the show, we start playing the National Anthem, then I stop and quote young Elvis from 'Milkcow Blues Boogie'. "Hold it, fellas. That don't MOVE. Let's get REAL GONE for a change..." Then we segue straight into 'Tequila'. Dancers dutifully stand to attention for the National Anthem. A Conservative Club rule.  Then they hear 'Tequila' and everyone starts dancing. The Concert Chairman runs onstage shouting, waving his arms at us and imploring the audience to stop. "Ladies and Gentlemen, PLEASE...!" We keep going because of the dancers. Later, we get into trouble with the club Committee. Messing about with the National Anthem is an Act of Treason, they say.

The Felling Bypass. At Leam Lane, we play a good show and do six encores. Then the club don't pay. George Turner from the Musicians Union gets the Transport & General Workers' Union to threaten a beer deliveries strike. They pay, and apologise. We donate the fee to the M.U. Benevolent Fund.

At Pelaw, I see a friend showing her boyfriend a paperback book while we're playing 'Sea Cruise'. I think, "mistake". Sure enough, he throws his pint of beer in her face and storms out. She runs into our dressing room, crying. We have to keep playing, but I feel guilty. Earlier that day, I see the book on a newsagent's display carousel. Our model friend is on the cover, semi-nude, looking into a cracked hotel room mirror. A businessman is leaving, jacket on shoulder. The blurb reads 'from boardroom to bedroom, women flow through his life like fuel through a dragster.' She doesn't have a copy, so I buy the book to give to her. She picks the wrong time to proudly show it to her jealous boyfriend. He's been drinking. He's insecure. He doesn't like the picture.  

We have to help her calm down in the break. She washes the beer out of her hair, dries it with my stage towel. Now my stage towel smells of Federation Ale. She thinks that's funny and cheers up. Her boyfriend has taken their car, so we have to drop her off at home after the show. We wait outside to make sure she gets in OK. She goes inside, then reappears to give us a thumbs-up from her front door. He's inside, sleeping it off. 

One wet night on the Felling Bypass, a figure steps off the pavement right in front of the van. I shout "Look out!" just as Antoine takes sharp evasive action. He stops, puts on the hazard flashers. We get out; no-one's there. We see a long metal pedestrian safety barrier blocking anyone from stepping into the traffic. Maybe it was put there after a fatality? John Lee Hooker talks about "Ghostses in the road." This was one.

One day, a bull runs loose in the traffic. The farmer tries to get it through an open gate and back into its field. I argue with a young policeman who wants to shoot it. The farmer succeeds, the bull is safe, traffic moves again. 

Another time on the Felling Bypass, we stop outside a pub. Carlos Magee and Sandie LaRocque are meant to meet us in the car park, to go on to that night's gig.  No-one's here.  I've changed into my glittery leopard-skin fabric stage jacket, to save time at the venue. Without thinking, I run into the pub. I look like Chuck Berry's downtown Christmas tree. I shout, "Carlos! Sandie! Hurry up!" Everyone stops talking and looks at me. Some wolf-whistles begin.  

The barman grins at my stage outfit and asks, "Are you tonight's entertainment?" A drinker shouts "Aye, he is!" Then someone puts me out of my misery; there are TWO pubs in the area with the same name. Carlos and Sandie LaRocque wait anxiously outside the other one. 

Further up the Felling Bypass with the Hot Rod Gang I see our drummer's car, a grey 1950s Austin Somerset. Boppin' Brian comes from Felling, where the North East Rock'n'Roll Society is born. Boppin' Brian is a member. We all are. I'm member number 10. I'm in a junk shop, looking for 45s for my 1960 Ami Lyric jukebox. A handwritten card on a notice board says, 'Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, The Big Bopper, Richie Valens - all dead, but their music lives on at the North East Rock'n'Roll Society. Contact Rockin' Jim Newark'.  

I contact Rockin' Jim. He's an O.T; an Original Teddy Boy from the 1950s. I'm too young to be a proper teddy boy at school, but one of my schoolteachers calls me 'Teddy Boy Craig' because I comb my hair back and turn my collar up. Rockin' Jim is great. He gets to see Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly in person while they're still alive. 

NER&RS members meet in a high-rise block in Felling, called Dene Towers. I go there to join and we play records at the meeting. Later, we meet at a pub in Lemington, then we go to the wonderful Alletsa Ballroom in Whitley Bay. Our DJ is Tongue-Tied Pete Forrester. 

On the Felling Bypass, I see Boppin' Brian's car overtake some Hells Angel style bikers, who have stopped at the kerb. They wear back patches saying 'East Coast Chapter.' I pull out to pass them, but Speedo does a crazy thing. He's seen 'Easy Rider' at the cinema. He slides open the side window. As we pass the bikers he pretends to aim a shotgun at them out of the van window and yells, "Get your hair cut, hippies!" I look in my wing mirror and see the bikers firing up their machines to give chase. Not good.

We reach the Locarno. The bikes are in sight, behind us. I turn into the loading bay, hoping they'll just ride on by. They don't. They turn into the Locarno car park and head straight for the loading bay. I jump down from the cab, hoping I can explain that it was just a daft joke. 

The lead bike heads straight for me, then stops. The rider doesn't put his foot down. He stares fixedly at me through his apehanger handlebars. He looks completely stoned. He keeps staring as his chopper slowly topples sideways and crashes down onto the concrete. He screams in pain. We rush to lift the bike off him, but he's still screaming. The acid from the bike's battery has spilled onto his leg and is burning through his jeans. 

We've played the Locarno before and know that there's a shower in the dressing room. We pull the biker into the loading lift, take him up to the backstage area and get him under the shower, running cold water onto his leg. He rips off what's left of the fabric from his jeans below the knee. We want to call an ambulance, but he won't have it. He says they'd come to see the show. "Put it there, mate" he says, shaking hands. We leave him running the shower over his injured leg while we bring the equipment up in the lift and set up the stage. We can hear the crowd coming in behind the curtains. 

Just before we go on, the lead biker emerges from the shower.  He's soaked but fully dressed, apart from the missing lower left leg of his jeans. He announces that his gang have decided to be our bodyguards. We thank them, but say we don't really need bodyguards. They insist that they ARE our bodyguards. We don't argue. When the curtain opens, the bike gang form up on either side of us and march us onstage. We're embarrassed, but the audience seem to like the entrance. 

The audience like it less when the bike gang take up positions in front of the stage, facing the dancers and scowling at them. By now, gang members have acquired bottles of beer, smashing the metal caps off on the edge of the stage. The Locarno management don't like this. When one of the bikers finishes a bottle, he pitches it backwards over his head without looking and we have to duck. I think we need bodyguards to protect us from our bodyguards. 

After the show, our bodyguards want to know where we're playing next. They show up at gigs, march us onstage, menace the young audiences and alarm the management. We start to get a bad reputation. It reaches a crisis when we get a daytime outdoor gig at a family festival in Gateshead. We're playing it for free, to aid a charity. I try not to tell the East Coast Chapter about this one, because people will be bringing their children, but they see our name on the posters and in the press. As we arrive, the ominous rumble of chopper engines tells me they're here. 

They never help with the equipment. I think biker bodyguards don't carry amps and speakers; their job is mainly to get drunk and scare dancers off the dance-floor. We start playing, they keep drinking and glaring at the audience. Bottle caps are smashed off and empties fly back over our heads. This is a long way from being a 🎈🌞'Summer Fun Party For All The Family!'🌞🎈event. This is more like a 👊💥🔪'Come And Get Your Face Smashed In'🔪🏍💥 event.  

We're supposed to be playing two sets, but the council organiser comes up and says nervously that he thinks we'd better not play later that afternoon. Some parents are worried about their children's safety. We start packing up. We decide that this can't go on. I have to explain to the lead biker that we're losing bookings because of the gang being our bodyguards. I expect trouble, but he just says proudly, "Yeah, we have that effect on people." I thank them all; they fire up their bikes and rumble out of the park. 

I don't see them again, but Lynnette does. She's on a double-decker bus, carrying a crash helmet on her way to a motorcycle training course. People say, "Where's your bike, Pet?" She goes upstairs. The East Coast Chapter sprawl menacingly across the bus seats, wearing their colours. A friend of ours, Phil, has joined them and has swapped his Teddy Boy drape suit for a cut-off denim waistcoat and denim jeans.  "Where are your bikes, lads?" she asks, getting her question in first. She finds a seat without an oily boot on it. Phil explains gloomily that they've all lost their licences. Too many speeding and dangerous riding convictions mean that the feared East Coast Chapter patrols its territory from the top deck of a Northern bus. Fallen Angels, condemned and cast into Limbo. Lost souls on the Felling Bypass.

Ride safe & rock on, lads.

1 comment

  • Davy

    Davy Hebburn

    Crackin' story, Martin :)

    Crackin' story, Martin smile

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