Steve Forster became Assistant Manager of Band on the Wall in 1982 and later moved firstly to London where he managed The Woolwich Tramshed and then to Norwich where he was Director of The Waterfront venue. In 2013, he was running sfp communications, specialising in PR, marketing, and design for the arts practitioners and companies, working mostly in theatre, performance art, poetry and dance. In 2012 he won the Fringe Report Award as the best PR – Theatre. He is Chair of Norwich Arts Centre and also sits on the boards of The Voice Project, Escalator Arts and NIE Theatre company.
I remember reading about the opening of the BOW in the Evening News but it was a few months later when I first visited, one Saturday night. In those days there was a resident trio with different instrumentalists as guests each weekend. This week it was guitarist Kenny Shaw who thoroughly impressed a young man eager to explore various styles of jazz. But it was the venue itself that made the biggest impression, much more relaxed than anywhere I’d been to before, with people of all ages and many walks of life mixing freely and happily – and somehow the music, well it just belonged there!
With a varying collection of friends we started visiting at weekends on a regular basis, often after rock gigs at the various college venues in Manchester – there weren’t all that many places in Manchester city centre with a late bar that were welcoming to ‘smart’ dress (avoiding long hairs) in those days. As well as jazz soloists sometimes ‘The Band’ would throw a curveball our way too. I’d seen John Cooper Clarke perform occasionally unpaid in intervals between bands but as I remember Steve Morris gave him his first paid gig. John became so popular and was asked back so often that Steve had a lectern made for him that was stored for his frequent return appearances. This was well before he became the ‘punk poet’ of legend – indeed he had a shaved head and beard!
New Manchester Review nights
In 1976 I was at the birthday party at BOW for The New Manchester Review, a sort of Manchester version of Time Out but with a more left leaning political edge. Can’t remember all the acts on the bill but it did include The Buzzcocks (first time I saw them) and The Tom McMasters Band, a singer songwriter whose band included future Joy Division producer Martin Hannett on bass.
I had been an avid NMR reader and this time wrote to them with my thoughts on the event and the suggestion that I should write regularly for them. Eventually my way in was to contribute a column about ‘clubs’ – which at that time meant a curious blend of ‘chicken in the basket’ cabaret clubs, Catholic social clubs and sexist smutty comedians in working men’s clubs. I knew nothing about this scene and had slightly less interest and quite why this ultra left wing fortnightly covered it I’ve no idea to this day – possibly a middle class misconception that if ‘the workers’ went to them they must be OK. It was however a way in at a time when the magazine was about to launch a regular Monday night fundraising gig. Andrew Jaspan, a member of the editorial board (the magazine was run as a workers co-op, all members were on the editorial board) was their promoter and resident music biz expert so I set about convincing him that he was way too busy to spend time booking bands for this and running the shows every week. After a while I succeeded and took over some of the responsibilities, filling in when he was away. As the Mondays became very successful we also began to book weekly gigs at the bigger Rafters (700 capacity) which allowed us to book bigger bands.
Andrew and I shared the workload for the two weekly gigs and occasional others at bigger venues. Later Andrew decided to concentrate on journalism and although by this time I had also become the magazine’s music editor I took overall control of the gig promotion. Since that time Andrew has been the editor of The Scotsman, Scotland On Sunday, The Observer, The Sunday Herald and Editor In Chief of The Age, one of Australia’s leading dailies. I run a small pr agency with mostly impoverished arts organisations as clients so I guess he made the right decision.
The main attraction of the Monday gigs at BOW though was the unique atmosphere of BOW, it was the hippest night in town for a few years and was able to adapt easily to changes in the musical climate because most of the people making those changes were in the audience most weeks, be they musicians, managers, agents, hairdressers, flyposters or just busybodies. The DJ, Mike Collins, played a seductive mix of streetwise reggae, soul, funk and just enough (then) current rock to justify being on record companies mailing lists. When he gave his notice to become a mature student out of town I hired his equipment and took over from him myself. The great thing was that the audience trusted us, as long as we kept the standard up we could book anyone we wanted, known or not, people would come anyway. One time my birthday fell on a bank holiday Monday and I wanted to book someone easy to deal with to give me an easy night so I booked the amiable Manchester blues legend Victor Brox. When he arrived Victor asked me if I minded if he put his birthday cards up – unbeknown to me it was his birthday too. After that I booked him whenever possible on 5 May.
I booked a night featuring various members of bands signed to Rabid Records and their associates. The Prime Time Suckers played a very improvisational freeform jazz based set with John Cooper Clarke guesting. By this time John was at least a local celebrity and signed to CBS records, but almost unnoticed amidst the cacophony a young drama student in an anorak played just one or two short songs as Jilted John, months before his eponymous hit single.
Money was always tight however at NMR and magazine and advertising sales struggled to keep up with rising costs and eventually it was decided to suspend publication while a fundraising operation was undertaken. The Monday gigs continued but without the focus of the magazine attendance gradually fell off, as they were doing on other nights at BOW. As times got hard and the music agency/management business I was partner in began to fail too I took casual bar shifts at BOW to help make ends meet.
Anecdotes from this time include the time that the regular weekend piano player, Dave Roberts, famous for enjoying a drink or 20 was a bit beyond hitting the right notes (or at least hitting them in the right order). In the audience was his sometime stand in, tall Russian pianist Balis Novak who seeing the problem calmly walked onto the stage and, standing behind Dave, added his right hand to play the melody. Unaware of this Dave looked down, saw three hands playing, shook his head, got up and left the stage figuring that if he was so drunk that he appeared to have 3 hands he should stop playing there and then. Another time Granada TV filmed a live show by Alexei Sayle at BOW. As he was largely unknown outside the very small London comedy circuit, we and Granada had to work hard to get an audience in to see him. His surreal humour was a revelation. I can’t remember the name of the band that included TV historian Michael Wood on guitar, various Manchester based journalists and media types and actor Robert Lindsay as co- lead singer. Yes I can, it was The Johnny Angel Band.
Sometime in late 1980/early 1981 the Monday gigs folded. The last band to play were The Things, a ‘psychedelic revival’ band featuring John Maher of The Buzzcocks on drums and guitarist Dave Holmes playing a very unusual teardrop shaped Vox ‘organ-guitar’ – basically a 12 string guitar that could be made to sound like an organ, although so difficult to tune that it rarely sounded like a guitar (I believe it was later sold to New Order). Annoyingly the night was packed but that was down to the popularity of the band. By this time BOW was also in serious difficulties but inevitable closure was saved by takeover by The Jazz Centre Society. I’m sure this part of the story will be told elsewhere by others who know more about it, suffice to say that former owner Steve Morris was kept on as General Manager and I was more than happy to accept the offer of post of Assistant Manager.
The venue was only closed for a month (literally – open Dec 31, reopen Feb 1) for the installation of a raised seating area at the back of the room, a new stage and PA and lighting systems.
It was a total mad rush to get everything ready in time to re-open on Monday 1st February 1982. It was that afternoon before the final pile of rubble was taken away and with less than half an hour to opening that night’s band The Distractions were good natured enough to form part of a human chain passing tables and chairs up from the cellar at a time when they should have been soundchecking. As the doors opened there were a few minor teething problems but the place was packed, all the team were exhausted and it was an undoubted success.
During the rest of the week the bold new programme continued to attract the crowds. Although the framework became more relaxed as time went by, basically Monday was ‘rock’ night, Tuesday for bold experimentation (a relatively unknown Michael Nyman Band played to an audience that was as minimal as the music was minimalistic), Wednesday got the blues, Thursday’s were for jazz in all its many styles, Fridays began with alternate African and reggae events and Saturday operated an ‘anything goes’ policy.
During that first week we had to reorder beer at least twice due to underestimating the thirsty crowds we attracted and, with combined door and bar takings, the safe, an old wall mounted type in Steve Morris’s office, was full. After a Sunday off I arrived at the building with Steve early on Monday morning. He’d had a call at home from the cleaner to say she’d discovered a door open. We raced to his office to discover a hole in the wall where the safe used to be. Thieves had visited us on the closed Sunday, dug it out of the wall, taken it downstairs and removed the whole safe. The whole week’s takings had gone. As far as I’m aware no-ne was ever caught for this and the safe was never recovered. Needless to say a new intruder alarm system was fitted along with a new relocated safe in a much less obvious position.
This setback aside though ‘The Band’ went from strength to strength, the small team was undeniably stretched but survived on commitment, energy and possibly a few too many drinks. The programme evolved with Mon–Weds establishing a looser pattern depending on artist availabilities, Thursday remained the prime jazz night, Fridays took on more of a reggae direction with African rhythms mixed in, Saturday was dance night, usually two sets from a blues or soul rooted band with a disco blending modern jazz funk, blues, motown and rare groove soul with classic rock and pop.
My own role evolved, as well as being one of the programmers (band-bookers), I was sound and lighting operator, bar manager and cellarman and also DJ’d most nights when one was required (mostly weekends). Occasionally these different roles conflicted but mostly with a bit of ingenuity they rubbed along together fine. When the band were onstage and plugging in I could make my way to the sound and light boards in the centre of the room, leaving a record playing, and drop the faders when the musicians were ready. For the end of sets I had a selection of single tune tapes, each featuring an established floor filler that I would play while I made my way through the dancefloor to the stage to take over DJ duties. As the record decks were on the stage I could pack away microphones, stands and leads while the records played. If a real ale barrel needed changing a longish 12inch single (relatively new then) was called for while I dashed down to the cellar. Later I also became involved in the marketing and press functions.
The reggae vibe
I truly believe an environment was created that supported local musicians. As well as giving local jazz musicians the opportunity to stretch themselves, reggae bands in particular seemed to blossom. Now that there was a regular place to play with a good sound system bands were forming all over Manchester, I recall a member of Divine Inspiration asking about gigs as they only got together so that they could perform on a Friday at ‘The Band’. All the local reggae bands used to come to see the others and there was a (mostly) friendly rivalry between them. When a band from Birmingham, Black Symbol, were booked they loved it to the extent that when not playing they would drive up to Manchester just to enjoy the vibes. The Friday night where black and white mixed freely to enjoy the music became so well known that bands from far and wide wanted to play. Jah Warriors drove all the way from Ipswich to play on more than one occasion for basic Union rate.
At the time The Beat from Birmingham were a band of young white guys playing ska and reggae accompanied by Saxa, a black saxophone player much older than them. They thought it gave them credibility. Steve Morris, former owner and then General Manager of BOW loved the relaxed enthusiasm of the reggae bands and often got up to play with them. I doubt the sight of white haired Steve with his smart sports jacket, neatly pressed trousers, collar and tie added much credibility to the young black reggae bands he performed with but they loved it and they loved him.
Steve enjoyed it so much that when he ran out of reggae bands to play with I’d spin the dub version sides of reggae disco 45’s and Steve would blow over them while I added as much delay and reverb to his sax as I could get away with. Audiences, black and white loved it. Nowadays sampling and musicians playing over loops and prepared beats is commonplace but the vision of this very ‘straight’ 60ish man playing along to dub records as though in Lee Perry’s Black Arc studio had to be seen to be believed.
Anecdotes and memories from these years? Even if we draw a veil over the time some local gangsters turned up with carrier bags full of high denomination used notes asking to buy the club there are still plenty to go at.
There was a quite extraordinary series of solo piano performances from brilliant musicians. One of the greatest was Keith Tippett who, in the words of Steve Morris ‘made one solo piano sound like an orchestra’. As well as ranging from the lightest of touches to hammering the keys he threw pennies and other items onto the strings for percussive effects and sang onto the soundboard with eerie effect. At one point, there was an astonishing echo effect. Everyone in the room (including Keith) assumed I’d put some strange effect on the piano microphones to make the vocal effect continue long after he’d finished using his voice. Although he commented that it sounded good, I hadn’t done anything, and can’t explain it to this day other than it was the walls, drenched in music over the decades, or some musical ghosts resident in the building responding to Keith’s inspiration.
The one true international superstar to come out of this period was Mick Hucknall of Simply Red. At BOW we put on some of the last gigs by his old band, The Frantic Elevators. A year or so earlier they had been one of the less impressive punk bands but Mick was now obviously firmly in the driving seat. He’d trained the band to play quietly and he was eager to learn everything possible. With a new soulful sound with a generous Chicago blues influence the transformation was immense. Within a year he’d broken up the band and was establishing a new line up with an even more funk and soul orientated direction. Under the name Just Red the line up that would be largely disbanded just before recording the first album debuted at BOW and from the opening acapella line of Al Green’s Love and Happiness it was apparent that Mick had truly grown into a new maturity. BOW’s Andy Dodd obviously agreed, as shortly afterwards he joined the renamed Simply Red’s management team.
Nico was a former international superstar. The former model who appeared in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and sang on one of the most influential rock records ever made, the first Velvet Underground album, was now living in North Manchester as a hopeless drug addict. She could still pull a crowd though and we booked her to play 3 successive nights, one night solo and the other two with different bands. She arrived mid afternoon in a taxi with no money to pay for it and her famous harmonium in her arms. After I’d paid the cab driver she strode into the club and asked to borrow a screwdriver. As she dropped the wooden instrument onto the stage it promptly fell apart, the sides spreading out as though in a cartoon. For the next 2 hours this former top catwalk model and musical inspiration to a generation sat cross legged and fumbled with a bag full of screws and a borrowed posidrive screwdriver to reassemble it. Steve Morris climbed onstage near the end of her set to play on a classic Lou Reed song that he’d never heard before, it went down so well that Nico asked him to join the band on a permanent basis for the tour that would be documented in keyboard player James Young’s book ‘Songs They Never Play On The Radio’. The thought of Steve amongst the chaos of the collection of junkies, incompetents and perverts that Young describes sends the imagination into freefall.
Reggae witchdoctor Price Far I played his last ever UK show at BOW when he performed with a motley collection of Manchester rock, folk, jazz and world music musicians who miraculously gelled to create a swampy voodoo blend of stoned rhythms. The shows were recorded and issued in France as a limited edition cassette on the ROIR label.
Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias were a Manchester institution who brought back much of the spirit of the New Manchester Review nights when they undertook 2 ten week residencies. The B side of their Christmas single was recorded live at BOW by me and Dave Greatbanks. The Enid brought in the biggest PA ever seen in the venue and also, in those days before computers were reliable enough to use regularly, a whole bank of Betamax video players for backing tracks. They also recorded their fan club only album live at BOW.
The Len Bright Combo, based in Kent, featured Wreckless Eric (Eric Goulden) on guitar and vocals. After their 1986 gig I took him down to the cellar to be paid, where Steve Morris kept a desk and a music stand for saxophone practice. When Eric commented that his grandfather used to play saxophone in the Manchester area, it transpired that Steve used to know him! In fact Steve had been a fan of Stanley Heap, sax player in The Black Diamonds Dance Band and grandfather of Wreckless Eric. The episode is recounted in Eric’s book A Dysfunctional Success. Years later he turned up living in Norwich. We met up and he immediately asked after Steve, remembering that night 20 years earlier.
One of the saddest occasions was when Davy Graham, a hugely talented acoustic guitar player appeared. Graham was a true innovator having pioneered a style of folk/raga/jazz playing that many tried to copy. He could do things with a guitar that no-one else could and invented a new tuning for guitar but by this time he had acquired a fairly well documented drug habit. Upon arrival it was apparent that he was in an advanced stage of refreshment and was making little, if any sense. He took to the stage, started a tune then started to giggle. He stopped playing and giggled some more, tried to tell a story, then to play some more but to no avail. After a few embarrassing minutes he seemed to be overcoming his incapacity, only to break down into giggles once more. Eventually he left the stage, and when we were sure he was fit enough,we put him in a cab and refunded the audience’s ticket money. Davy did eventually clean up but the sadness of that night will stay with me forever.*
*Davy Graham died on 15 December 2008, aged 68.
Around 1983 Ted Hawkins was a former Californian jailbird whose remarkably pure soulful voice was being championed by Radio 1’s Andy Kershaw. When I heard he was coming to the UK for dates I was one of the first to call his UK record company (based in Leeds) to book a show. The only way the tour could be routed to accommodate Manchester was for us to do a show on Sunday lunchtime. Hawkins, essentially a street busker, was booked to perform every day he was in the country. After just a few days he was ‘exhausted’ and cancelling dates up to and including the one in Birmingham on the Saturday night before our gig.
Our gig was sold out, the phone rang constantly with guest list requests and we didn’t know if he’d show. Fortuitously he was accompanied on tour by the owner of Leeds’ Unamerican Activities Records and guitarist/singers Steve Phillips and Brendan Croker, all good friends of BOW. I tracked them all down by phone on the Saturday night (no mobiles then) and pleaded for them to get Ted to us, which thankfully they did. He arrived just before doors opened, did no soundcheck and appeared on stage with a white towel around his neck like a boxer. The audience and all those without tickets outside, many standing on the window sills trying to see in, loved it despite the brief, barely 45 minute set. Hawkins went on to settle in Yorkshire, tour with Billy Bragg amongst others but some years later his less savoury characteristics re-emerged and he ended his days in disgrace.
Granada TV commissioned a documentary about Steve Phillips, the Leeds based oil painter, guitarist and guitar maker. Years earlier he had given guitar lessons to a young Mark Knopfler who had subsequently become a millionaire with his band Dire Straits. Knopfler had commissioned Phillips to build him a National style resonator steel guitar and agreed to travel up to Manchester to take delivery and perform with Steve at BOW for the documentary. For the filming they also invited their friend Brendan Croker along, thus beginning a sequence of events that led to them forming The Notting Hillbillies, recording a couple of albums and touring extensively. On the day of the filming Mark Knopfler arrived early and only Mary McKay the elderly cleaner was in the building. She made him a cup of tea and they enjoyed a chat about nothing in particular. It was the following weekend that The Sunday Times printed one of its Rich Lists and this one featured the Dire Straits man in a high position. When she saw it Mary was agog to see that ‘the young lad with the guitar in a case that I served tea to in a cracked mug is a hugely rich man – and he was so nice and ordinary!’
Stadium rock band The Cult began as tribal rock pretenders Southern Death Cult. They arrived from Bradford with a strong travelling following that certainly added to the atmosphere of the show. It wasn’t until after they’d left that we noticed that all my DJ records, many of BOW’s between band tapes and even the tea and coffee from the kitchen had left with them. There was no suspicion of the band themselves but they did admit that someone amongst their following had done this at other venues.
The club handyman George built a wooden platform for the sound and lighting desks to sit on. I gaffer taped two beer crates together to provide a seat to sit on when operating them. The base was hollow and, made a loud noise if kicked with my heel so was perfect for beating out a rhythm to assist audience crowds for an encore at the ends of sets. Repeated use of the same spot must have weakened the wood because one night my foot went straight through it. George dutifully repaired it and asked if I wanted a metal kick plate.
As well as local musicians of varying fame other celebrities would visit BOW. John Hurt was seen at the bar when filming in Manchester, Fish from Marillion often visited as did many TV and stage actors. On one memorable night the great tenor sax player Don Weller brought Georgie Fame with him following a concert elsewhere earlier in the night. It was a sparsely attended show on a bitterly cold night from students at Salford Tech and Don and Fame were persuaded to play a couple of numbers. After their brief set almost all the 20 or so audience members bought them a drink. By the time the audience had left Georgie Fame was standing at the bar, fast asleep with his head on the bar. When their taxi arrived Don Weller quickly downed the 5 or 6 drinks Georgie hadn’t touched, polished off everything else in sight, threw the sleeping singer over his shoulder, bade us farewell and strode out to the waiting cab.
On a few occasions BOW itself was the star. The new Channel 4 had launched a weekly jazz programme (possibly called simply Jazz Club?). One programme was filmed at BOW* and while the music was filmed at nightime the links were done in the morning beginning at 8am. To provide the right background ambience for the presenter’s introductions we had to recruit volunteer members of staff to chink glasses, murmur and generally make like it was 11pm in a dark smoky jazz club rather than a bright, eye watering (for us night owls) 8am. I had an acting role as barman, serving the same drinks to the same people repeatedly as shots were retaken.
[Note from Ian Croal: We booked the Sam Rivers Trio, from USA, the Stan Tracey Sextet and the Gary Boyle Band for the Channel 4 programme]
Another time the ITV detective series Bulman filmed at BOW. The series starred Don Henderson as George Bulman and a young Siobhan Redmond as his sidekick. For scenes set in a Jazz Club BOW was used both inside and out. For the fictional venue BOW was renamed The Paradise Club with, for a week, appropriate temporary external signage. We lost count of the number of phone calls asking if BOW had been taken over and renamed. Now of course I would seek to make maximum advantage by encouraging press interest, then it was all about the music and it didn’t occur to me to seek press attention for anything other than our gigs.
At http://www.mediagems.de/01filmtv/bulman_engl.html you can see stills of Henderson and Redmond in BOW. As with all shoots at the time a catering truck was on hand to supply the cast and crew with meals, snacks, drinks etc. Many of the local chancers found they could simply join the queue and get free food and drinks. The most brazen even complained when it was late opening.
Every one of these memories prompts yet more but I need to close somewhere. I’ve left out more than I’ve included and I’ll kick myself when I remember things not here but that I wish I’d thought of earlier.
It was tough to leave…
Early in 1988 I left BOW to take over management of the Woolwich Tramshed in SE London, it was a huge wrench and I still love BOW, no other word for it. It taught me at least the basis of almost everything I know now. From London I went to Norwich to run a venue called The Waterfront and since 1999 have run a PR and marketing company specialising in the arts. I now work with performance artists, theatre companies, film-makers and poets as well as musicians but music is still my art form of preference. I also sit on the boards of Norwich Arts Centre, music education and performance charity The Voice Project and Cambridge/Norway based physical theatre company New International Encounter.
I still meet people who speak in glowing terms about BOW, past and present. A few years ago I designed the CD packaging for a release by Ghanaian trumpet player Mac Tontoh,* amongst the images we used was one taken outside BOW. I recently researched the history of Norwich Arts Centre for their 30th anniversary and was astounded by the similarity of certain aspects of their early 80’s programming with that at BOW.
Amongst my current clients are Cipher, a jazz/electronica duo who feature Theo Travis on saxes. In the early 80’s Theo was a student at RNCM whom I got to know as he regularly visited and occasionally played at BOW. Our paths didn’t cross again until 2004 when he contacted my client Cinema City about a live score to a silent film but we’ve kept in touch since. BOW is like that, it brings people together in a way that they don’t forget, and in a manner that they can always go back to. That makes it unique in a human way as well as a supernaturally musical one – just think of that sound Keith Tippett created.
*Mac Tontoh, trumpeter and a founding member of Osibisa, died 17 August 2010