Well, I suppose I am the oldest member of the team, as I now enjoy travelling around using my Concessionary travel pass and Senior railcard! Travel is certainly one of my greatest pleasures, and reflects upon my interest in the environment (both built and natural) as a Geographer. Indeed, Geography was the subject I studied at Manchester University, and I arrived in the city in late September 1968 – and I fondly remember that it rained almost incessantly for the first month. My love of travel is further reflected in the hobby of peridromophily – which is the collecting and study of transport tickets (keep that information safe for the unexpected quiz question!) I am always happy to receive contributions to my collection (which numbers over one million collectibly different specimens from all transport modes, from most parts of the world and some of which are more than 120 years old!) Please drop me an e-mail if you can help…
This interest and music have constantly battled it out for my greatest attention, but if I had to abandon one in favour of the other it would be music that would win – although if I should become deaf (and I guess I’m on that slippery slope now) then perhaps the music would have to go….
Music has been a constant in my life. My father was a keen collector of classical 78s (remember those?) and would try to get me interested…but being, perhaps, a typical free-thinking son, I wanted to find my own music. The early 1960s saw me begin to take an interest in the burgeoning pop music scene, and for a nine month period – while my parents were working in Germany – I shared a bedroom with my cousin Richard who was a couple of years older than me. Richard was a great Elvis fan, and I must admit to developing a severe dislike to Elvis and his music. I could hear no redeeming qualities in Elvis’s songs whatsoever!
It was the arrival of the Merseybeat scene, and to a lesser extent the Manchester bands, from 1962 onwards that really began to arouse my true musical spirit, and this was fostered by the arrival of the nautically-based “pirate radio” stations, such as Radio Caroline, Radio London and numerous others. I listened to them all, but Caroline was always my favourite, and I was increasingly drawn to some of the more obscure tracks that were played (and which were never featured on the BBC’s ‘Light Programme’ or on Radio Luxembourg this latter being mainly comprised of 15 minute or 30 minute shows sponsored by the main record labels. So, in a typical hour, you might get, for instance 15 minutes of singles on the Pye and associated company labels, followed by 15 minutes on the Philips etc labels and 30 minutes on the Decca and associated company labels. They would tend to feature the ones that they thought would stand a chance of getting into the holy grail of the Top 20. Radio Caroline, on the other hand, introduced me to The Art Woods, The T-Bones, The Zephyrs, The Birds and I heard ‘I Can’t Explain’ by The Who and ‘Go Now’ by the Moody Blues on Caroline months before they reached upper echelons of the Top 20!
My first gig was the “school dance” at the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe in December 1965. I can tell you, there was very little dancing, although I did fix myself up with a date for a very cold New Year’s Eve. Such are the ravages of time that I cannot remember the girl’s name. However, I can very vividly remember the band and its music, and I have dined out many times on recounting that I urinated next to their guitarist, one Eric Clapton. The band was John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and I have seen numerous incarnations of the Bluesbreakers over the years, and most recently in 2001 at a venue in West Falls Church, Virginia with my old school buddy Alex Fleming. The ‘Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton’ album has remained in my music collection in one form or another ever since, and there are very few songs that have beaten ‘Have You Heard’ – a John Mayall composition - for emotional intensity and quality of musicianship in the subsequent 40 plus years!
The aforementioned Alex and I – and sometimes with our pal Brian – went to a number of blues and jazz clubs in south Buckinghamshire over the following couple of years and this helped to broaden my musical taste and another pal, Geoff Arnold, shared with me a growing fondness for the psychedelic music that was starting to emerge from the American west coast by 1967. Whereas one of my first LP purchases was the aforementioned Bluesbreakers disc, I started to purchase (as income from my part-time job in the hardware department of the local department store would allow) what was regarded as “underground” music by the likes of the Doors, Love, Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane, Mad River and Ultimate Spinach. Having the best independent record store in the town just three doors along from the hardware department was a huge bonus – but once I could drive (I passed my test on the day before my 18th birthday) I began to explore other record shops in nearby towns too, and some of these had a much more extensive selection of psychedelic albums than the venerable Percy Prior, which remained unbeatable for 45s (Singles) as they seemed to get one copy of every release!
By the time I headed off to University, I was a frequent gig-goer, and (original) live music has played an important part in my life ever since. The first Saturday after arriving in Manchester, Joe Cocker & The Grease Band were on at the Student Union building (in what is these days known as Academy 2)! I could try to give you a full list of all the gigs attended over the next three years, but I never kept a list – something that in retrospect I regret. I saw most of the emergent bands of the era, and it would be easier to list the ones I didn’t see live – and that would include Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin (I had the chance of going to one of their very first gigs, but it was advertised as being by ‘The New Yardbirds’ and this did not seem very promising. Imagine my upset when I heard their first (amazing) album!) I missed very few of the other bands from that era that could be seen in their pomp! I did, incidentally, see a concert on the Rolling Stones “Farewell Tour” at The Free Trade Hall in Manchester. I think that was 1972……!!
One of my favourite bands of all time appeared in the mid 70s – Rush – and I still remember very fondly seeing them on the Manchester leg of their 2112 and A Farewell To Kings tours – and in decent sixed venues. Now you have to go to vast auditoriums to see them – but I get very anxious in such places – so that rules them out for me. I have always preferred the more intimate venues to see live music.
I did lose touch with the main trends of the 1980s – NWOBHM and the crest of the AOR wave, although I did make purchases from within both areas, without being fully aware of what was going on. I had amassed a collection of over 1500 vinyl albums by the end of this decade, by which time I had bought a CD player to supplement the record deck. Now I have a collection of over 6000 CDs, and I still have most of the vinyl albums and a credible (and probably quite valuable) collection of obscure 45s.
The 1990s was a decade of huge changes in my life; my wife of over 25 years left me for a similarly aged guy, but with a large Classical CD collection and instead I found a welcoming new family in the melodic rock, AOR and melodic metal genres – and if you are reading this, we must be distantly related!! I changed career, and joined the Prince’s Trust, managing a team of volunteers – a job that I still do nearly 12 years later, and of course I discovered the Gods of AOR festivals in Wigan, and that was where I first met my now great pal Gary Marshall. I think we were both playing air guitar at the back of the room when Ten were on stage. We got talking, and Gary revealed he wrote for Hard Roxx Magazine – which of course I had discovered and by then was buying on a regular basis. It was such a pleasure for me to meet a guy whose CD reviews never failed to encourage me to buy great new CDs.
The “naughties” in some ways led to even more changes for me, as I called round to Bruce Mee’s house to deliver my subscription for the new Fireworks Magazine that was due out at any time. To my amazement Bruce was home when I called, and being the guy he is (a) invited me in (b) played me some interesting new releases (c) asked if I had ever had journalistic aspirations – which led to me writing an initial and rather tentative review that appeared in issue 2 and (d) leaving with a pile of 12 CDs!! I was well and truly hooked. I have been proud to be associated with the magazine as it has developed and blossomed into the great publication it has now become. I keep trying to do less, but a combination of wanting to share my interest in great new – usually, but not always, British – bands and also (apparently) having a gene that seems to stop me from saying “no” keeps me more than fully occupied!
When in mid 2011, Phil Ashcroft announced that he would have to stand aside from being Reviews Editor for a while, I offered my services as the one member of the Fireworks team with more time available. By then I was six months into my retirement and my health was improving all the time from the serious medical condition that had afflicted me for the last eight months of 2010. This is what had led directly to my decision to retire when I did. Phil had wanted someone to take over from him on a temporary basis – until around the end of the year. However, he seemed to have no relish for returning to the role, and so I reluctantly (at first) agreed to continue…until the approach of my 65th birthday.
It was a wonderful role to have, working with the great teams here at Fireworks and Rocktopia and working ever more closely with the PR companies and record labels. But it is was also extremely time consuming and to complete all the tasks fully and professionally seemed to take even more time than the work I used to do when employed. So, at the end of 2013 I was delighted to be able to hand the role over to my colleague Dave Scott, for whom it was also a lifeline out of his day job and a lifeline to exciting new career possibilities, perhaps?
You may not realise that the Fireworks and Rocktopia teams are all volunteers who give of their time freely to write about the musical passion that is shared by us all. This passion spills over into the annual Firefest shows at Nottingham Rock City, and 2013 marks the tenth such show. I am the oldest person of the 40+ crew who combine to ensure the smooth running of the show every year. After the show last year, I was completely exhausted and thought I would not be able to manage another one. However, two days of R&R and I was once again looking forward to the next Festival. I work with The Jumblies, a group of wonderful pals (the aforementioned Gary Marshall, plus Steven Reid, Ian Johnson, David Hill and Nigel Kay) whose role it is to manage admissions to/from the Balcony and to oversee the Reception with the wonderful Sue Moffatt. Indeed, we regard ourselves as Sue’s Posse…Look out for our special t-shirts at Firefest X… We also muck in with whatever else needs to be done. Do come and introduce yourselves if you’ve not already done so…
PAUL JEROME SMITH