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The Teesside town holding its own among musical rivals

Stockton's Sound it Out Records. Photo: Getty Images - Credit: Archant

It may lack the glitz of more renowned musical hubs, but in Stockton it’s the soul that counts says SOPHIA DEBOICK.

While some places are synonymous with music industry glamour, others entirely lack mystique. Stockton-on-Tees’ claims to fame include the invention of the friction match in a chemist’s shop on its high street (the widest high street in the UK – some say, in Europe), the 1958 unearthing of a prehistoric hippo’s tooth (the most northerly such discovery ever made), and winning a gold award in the 2011 RHS Britain in Bloom competition. Stockton was once threatened with inclusion in the Crap Towns series of books (and yes, it is a town, not a city, although with a population of 85,000, it is far larger than some 20 British cities). Having suffered the effects of sharp industrial decline, it was among the first targets of retail expert Mary Portas’ 2012 government-funded pilot project to revitalise ailing town centres.

While nearby Middlesbrough can claim such musical sons as Chris Rea, Paul Rodgers of Free, Bad Company and Queen, and Whitesnake, Stockton has no immediate musical associations. Yet, coming from such surroundings can provide motivation and inspiration.

Stockton has produced musicians who have quietly worked behind the scenes to make their mark and, like hundreds of ordinary towns and cities up and down the country, it is home to fans for whom music is identity, community and a defence against life grinding you down.

Bruce Thomas, bassist in Elvis Costello’s Attractions, is hardly a household name, and is sometimes persona non grata even among Costello fans for his unsympathetic account of the performer in his memoirs (Costello responded petulantly on the songs Hurry Down Doomsday and How to be Dumb), but he was a driving force in this commercially and critically massive band for a full decade.

After attending Stockton’s Grangefield Grammar School, Thomas formed The Roadrunners with Paul Rodgers and Micky Moody (later of Whitesnake), joining the Attractions for 1978’s pivotal This Year’s Model, a record that spawned some of the most memorable singles of early new wave.

Thomas’ bass entered into a perfect marriage with Steve Nieve’s Vox Continental organ, seen on tracks like The Beat. The ska bassline of (I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea was deceptively simple but gave Costello’s debut single with his new backing band much of its heft, while the fevered Pump It Up opened with Thomas’s bass front and centre, and was driven by his three descending notes in the organ-laden chorus.

The bassline of the frenetic Lipstick Vogue was head-spinning in its breakneck speed and one of Thomas’ greatest performances. Session work for Al Stewart, Billy Bragg, The Pretenders, Madness and Suzanne Vega followed, and Thomas is all over many a fondly-regarded track.

In the August 1977 week in which Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer’s pioneering electronic single I Feel Love was at No.3 in the UK charts, a less celebrated, although quietly influential record, sat just three chart places away. The RAH Band’s The Crunch – a highly camp, disco-inflected exploration of what the analogue synth could do at that early point – was an oddity, yet it ascended to No.6.

The band appeared on Top of the Pops fronted by a man wearing a plastic bag as a tunic, a balaclava, and fingerless leather gloves. It all had a whiff of amateurishness – the backing musicians were drafted in purely for show, and had clearly been hastily styled – but not since Brian Eno had manipulated a keyboard with silver-gloved hands when Roxy Music made their Top of the Pops debut five years before had such weirdness graced Britain’s Thursday night viewing.

Behind this strange display was the unlikely figure of Richard Anthony Hewson (hence the RAH), born in a village on the outskirts of Stockton in 1943.

In a previous life he had been a song arranger and was no less than the man responsible for the orchestra on The Beatles’ The Long and Winding Road (1970), rescuing the song from its sparse state of just McCartney’s vocal, piano and bass, as well as the brass and strings on another Let It Be track, I Me Mine (he got a flat fee of just £40 per song).

Despite considering himself a ‘jazz head’ with no knowledge of pop, and both McCartney and George Martin taking serious umbrage at his work on The Long and Winding Road, on which they had not signed off, he would go on to work with the Bee Gees, Diana Ross, Carly Simon, Art Garfunkel, Leo Sayer, Fleetwood Mac and Cliff Richard.

The RAH Band – consisting, of course, only of Hewson – carried on throughout these years, with 1985’s novelty single Clouds Across the Moon repeating the No.6 success of The Crunch. In presaging the synth-pop of the 1980s (the glam rock retro-futurism of Goldfrapp’s Strict Machine (2003) and Ooh La La (2005) also owed it more than a little debt), The Crunch was an overlooked musical milestone.

For great talents who remained under the radar, look no further than Lesley Duncan. Born and raised in Stockton, she had gone to London by the time she was 19 and released a dozen singles with EMI between 1963 and 1970. These all failed to make an impact, but her work with other artists saw huge success. Dusty Springfield’s backing singer on many recordings between 1965 and 1971, Duncan contributed to the soulful backing vocals on Take Another Little Piece Of My Heart (1968) and also co-wrote the powerful soul ballad I’m Gonna Leave You (1966) with Springfield and her other right-hand woman backing singer, Madeline Bell. Duncan also co-wrote You’re All Around Me with Scott Walker, the track appearing on the Walker Brothers’ 1965 debut LP, and she would later introduce sometime boyfriend David Bowie to Walker’s work, with a huge effect on his career path.

But Duncan’s best-known song was her Love Song, which was unsuccessful as a solo record, but took off after she recorded it as a duet with a pre-stardom Elton John for his third album, Tumbleweed Connection (1970). This was one of the very few times John recorded a song on which he had no writing credit, and the beautifully simple song became something of a standard, recorded by many big-name artists.

In 1971, John’s breakthrough year, Duncan supplied backing vocals on his Madman Across the Water LP, including its opener, Tiny Dancer, while he played piano on her debut solo album, Sing Children Sing. Prestigious backing singing jobs followed, including on The Dark Side of the Moon (1973), but while elfin-featured Duncan’s beautifully understated performance of her Chain of Love on the maiden episode of The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1971 showed she had the full package for success, she was too beset by stage fright to be a star, saying: “I just hated it, it made me ill. So I just wasn’t prepared to do much.” She retired to the Isle of Mull in the late 1970s and died in 2010.

The spotlight was put on the sometimes extraordinary nature of the quotidian by Stocktonian director Jeanie Finlay’s acclaimed 2011 documentary, Sound It Out, subtitled The Very Last Record Shop in Teesside. A portrait of the place of music in a community facing hardship, the documentary focussed on this shop of more than 20 years standing on Stockton’s Yarm Street. Near the job centre and in the vicinity of several pubs, it is the scene of homosocial bonding over a masculine obsession for record collecting.

For those on the periphery of Stockton’s society, owner Tom Butchart – a man who can instantly put his hand on any one of his 50,000 records in stock – is a link to the world of music, which itself is a means of preserving individuality in an ordinary town that threatens to suffocate with banality.

For young, jobless UK hardcore scenesters, teenage metalheads, wannabe hipsters, and – star of the documentary – diehard Status Quo fan, Shane, alike, music is a lifeline. Not every town and city is lucky enough to have an independent record shop, but all have fans like these.

Sound It Out also showcased the musical innovation coming out of the north west in the 2010s. Stockton solo artist Saint Saviour creates a transcendent moment in the documentary as she performs in the shop, and the soundtrack features several, largely now defunct, bands from this part of the country: Stockton’s Russell and the Wolves (garage-punk); Marske-By-The-Sea’s Das Wanderlust (‘wrong pop’); Middlesbrough’s Idiot Savant (‘history rock’); Stockton’s The Chapman Family (indie rock).

Butchart says: “In Stockton, I do sell a lot of heavy metal, because it’s a hard area. There’s people into heavy metal and hard dance music.” Appropriately enough, both electronic music producer C. J. Bolland (his Sugar is Sweeter (1996) and The Prophet (1997) were UK Top 20 hits) and Bill Steer of Liverpool-based extreme metal band Carcass and Birmingham’s Napalm Death (bands responsible for some of the most extreme music ever made in Britain), are also Stockton born.

Today, Stockton is fostering its musical talent, with the annual Stockton Calling music festival and the Tees Music Alliance, which runs the Green Dragon Studios and two small live venues at the historic Georgian theatre, providing a platform and resources to performers. But for consumers of music, it’s rather more simple – a record is all you need. As Butchart says: “It’s all about emotions, records.” The more ‘ordinary’ a place is, the more profound that role.

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