The Jubilee Year was off to a damp squib when Britain found itself engulfed in the grip of the worst weather for fourteen years, snow covering virtually the whole country. Rail services, roads, airports all ground to a halt as paralysis took hold. The Queen wasn't hanging about though; she departed these shores in February to embark on a round robin tour of what was left of the Empire. The miserable weather didn't stop pop singer Billy J Kramer from getting around; he made a twelve hour trek through the snow in January from Liverpool to appear at Corby Stardust. I'll Keep You Satisfied Bill promised the crowd of over 500 who had made their way through the town in their wellington boots to show appreciation for the scousers's efforts.
Whilst the country was agog in celebrating Her Majesty, apart from the Punk fraternity where the Dead Kennedy's vocalist Jello Biafra opined the Jubilee 'an absurd, pompous self celebration', it was ironic that it was simultaneously almost drowning in a sea of anarchy. Striking became something of a pastime with workers everywhere. Jim Callaghan's government was immersed in a series of battles with unions that culminated with Labour embracing the Liberals who had offered their support to defeat a Conservative vote of no confidence, avoiding the likelihood of an immediate general election. Tory leader Margaret Thatcher berated them 'timid men!’
British Leyland threatened a shut down of their car plants to put an end to strikes. The British Steel Corporation was dogged by 'local' strikes; the miners demanded £135 for a four day working week. Undertakers in London went on strike, leaving a backlog of 800 corpses unburied. Industrial action blacked out the state opening of Parliament. Firemen went on strike for a 30% wage increase. Bakers and bread deliverymen joined in, prompting one wag to scrawl graffiti on Hammersmith Bridge; 'let them eat Corgi’ during the Queens celebrations! Corby bin men had three weeks off when one of the dustmen was suspended for riding on the back of a lorry. Union leader Ned Black remembers it well; "It was Hughie Mellows riding the dustcart. He was a stocky wee guy with one eye. The problem was down to a stroppy new manager. On his first day down at the yard, he came into the changing room and started barking orders out. He had a terrible manner, no man management skills whatsoever. Most of these bin men were hard cases. Their response was an abrupt 'up yours!' and we all walked out. We played football all day. He got the message. The dispute became even deeper over proposals for clearing the backlog of rubbish. Garbage was piling up in the streets. The men asked me to be the union official, so I went in with the bosses and came back out with what I thought was a good deal. Then this big Kettering guy standing at the back piped up, 'call that a deal?' he said, 'you're hopeless!' I looked right at him, 'Hopeless? There’s a big car park over there, I'll show you who's hopeless! I was going to stiffen him. A big row erupted, everybody started shouting and arguing. The Kettering guy backed down and agreed with the rest of us that we should settle for £50 each."
Housewives were in a panic when the country was threatened with a national bread strike. Headlines proclaimed there were dawn queues as a massive panic buying spree ensued. 'Shops, stores and supermarkets battled with irate customers trying to snap up as many loaves as possible.' The black market saw the cost go up to 47p a loaf from 27p. 'Bread workers earn £28.50 a week. But many work long hours, work Sundays, six days a week and with very little leisure time.' The General Sec of Bakers and Food Allied Workers Union explained; 'The row is over pay for time off and holidays.' On October 19th, the Bakers strike crumbled when 'small bakers' went back to work.
A dispute which caused thousands of steelworkers to go without meals occurred when 260 BSC canteen workers walked out over a 'heat wave' argument that reached boiling point when one woman fainted. The women claimed a weekend hot spell had sent temperatures soaring to 120o inside the Works' five main canteens. “We asked for cooling systems last summer but nothing was done. We'll go back when the weather changes,” an irate Nora Sweeney of the EWSR stated.
Minor disputes were the norm in a complex as vast as the steelworks.
George Magee’s trip to Nora's Eaterie epitomised the poor industrial relations between workers and management. A slinger on dayshift in the EWSR, George was on 'twelve hours', helping out the backshift by agreeing to operate a tube straightening machine. Arriving on the job ten minutes later than scheduled, George, a Dunkirk veteran and Irishman of wicked wit, was met by the foreman, John Flood, foaming at the mouth. Pointing to his watch, Flood growled; "what time do you call this? You're supposed to be on the job at 3.20. Twenty minutes is all you get for your break!" Looking at the two and a half ton of tubes on the table waiting to get straightened, he told George,” don’t leave this place until you've finished this lot!" George mused while puffing on his pipe, "Can I borrow your phone?" he asked Flood. Confused, Flood asked; "What for?" "To phone my wife to get her to bring my shaving gear down, I'll be here all night!"
Another unbelievable argument occurred over the maintenance of a toilet seat! Many of the older plants in the Works had a hole in the ground and two footprints either side to do the business but the modern ultra tech toilet blocks were more grander, i.e. the introduction of the pan. Albeit minus the seat. Instead, two wooden slats screwed to the sides acted as a buffer. Angus McKay, a welder in the Wagon Shops was the instigator in a row after reporting to his gaffer that one of the slats was broken and splintered his arse. The information was passed on and thus began a dispute which lasted for months as departments argued as to who was responsible for repairing the toilet. "Not us" said the plumbers and "Not us" said the carpenters. Angus; "The toilet was out of action for months with tape tied round the block like it was a murder scene!"
Angus's pal in the Wagon Shops, Mick Ferguson was also a keyboard player and accordionist making a name for himself performing regularly around the clubs. Affectionately known as 'Plug', Mick was also booked to appear at the retirement party of long serving Corby police sergeant Brendan McCormack who was hanging up his truncheon to become the scourge of Corby taxi drivers as the town's Taxi Inspector.
Yet, his musical career had a more than ignominious beginning. In the summer of 1972, Mick and Angus had travelled down to The George Inn, Cottingham on their Lambretta scooters, parked outside in the car park and were revving up and making a right racket. Which soon became too much for landlord Butch Lenton who charged out of the pub and chased them off in no uncertain manner with a mouthful of expletives.
Mick; "The next time we went down there, we left the scooters parked at the top of the road! At the time there was an old upright piano in the pub and I asked Butch, who clearly didn't realise we were the two guys he had chased a fortnight earlier, if it was alright if I had a tinker on it. 'Sure' he said and I must have impressed him as he asked me if I fancied playing piano for him on Saturday nights. £3 a night. The George was a bit smaller than what it is now, forty or fifty punters in there and it was jam packed. My dad James, who played the accordion, joined us and we soon built up a repertoire and crack. We'd ask them what they wanted to sing, I'd find the key and that was it. They were great nights and Butch was more than happy. Two years we did this. I loved it and began to think about the possibility of playing in a band, something I really fancied but wasn't sure on how to go about achieving it. Until I spotted an advert in the Evening Telegraph music column; a band with the unlikely name of Andreas and the Quantros was looking for an accordion player, with the aside that 'vocals would be an asset, but not essential.'
I'd never actually sung before but I took the bull by the horns and phoned the Kettering number to arrange an audition. Nervous as hell, I rode over to Kettering on my Lambretta with my dad's accordion in my sidecar. I don't know what they thought when I turned up in that, probably thought I was a right geek! 'Come in', Brian Turner said, the entire band were there. I was introduced and then asked if I could play a certain number, then another one. This went on for about twenty minutes. I was sweating buckets by this time, my nerves were getting the better of me, the heat in the room was getting unbearable, and then I passed out! Collapsed on the floor. Next thing I know, they were picking me up as I was coming round, and saying, 'you've got the job!'"
Rehearsals were held every Tuesday at Kettering Working Men's Club, running through numbers that were popular in the charts and because none of the other guys were keen on singing, I was thrown in at the deep end and the very first song I sang was Don McLean's Vincent. I realised this is what I was meant to be."
Mick made his debut as a Quantro in January 1974, at the Ex Serviceman's Club in Lloyds Road, Corby where the band was resident every Saturday and Sunday night. Mick; "The club was packed every weekend and after breaking my duck as a live vocalist my confidence shot through the roof. There was a novelty number by Little Jimmy Osmond called Long Haired Lover from Liverpool which I did. It was a piss take really, I'd sing the first half of the number normally then switch to a high pitched falsetto to finish it off. It brought the house down every time. The crowd loved it. Then at the end of May, a record came out by a band called The Rubettes which went all the way to number one, Sugar Baby Love. Brian Turner got hold of the sheet music; we learnt it and tried it out at the Old Legion. The song was so high I had to hit top G in falsetto to accomplish it. The reaction at the end of that first attempt was unbelievable. It was embarrassing! The whole crowd went nuts, standing on chairs, applauding, whistling, cheering. I couldn't understand what the fuss was about. Never seen anything like it. They wouldn't shut up until we did it again. Whether they thought it was a fluke I don't know! It's when I really burst on the scene!!"
A nice anecdote to this is a signed photograph from the Rubettes which takes pride of place in Mick's lounge. "John Grimley got it for me, it says, 'I did it first! To Plug, Mick Ferguson, from the boys in the Rubettes.' "The Quantros split up this year, 1977; the guys just got fed up being in a band and called it a day.”
The success of achieving third place in the Roundhouse had propelled Corby band Bumper forward and they were signed up by the Barry Collins Agency in Southend, whose other clients included Pilot and Love Affair. The band were soon playing all round the country, week long residencies, one night stands, a grind which had to take its toll, and eventually would do. As the Irving brothers couldn't drive and both Bob Grimley and Mick Haselip liked a drink, driving duties for the white transit van was designated to the youngest member of the group, Nigel Hart. Nidge; "I didn't mind at first, I was a non drinker anyway, but I have to admit to feeling put on at times. I did around 90% of the driving. Bob would give me a break occasionally. A typical night was when we played a club in Barrow-In-Furness, where we were on stage from 1 till 2.30am and then I had to drive back down to Northamptonshire right after. It was absolutely knackering! This was a normal sort of schedule and arduous. I had dreamt of the lifestyle but soon the reality was not what I expected. It gradually wore me out and in the end I quit."
Nidge had no regrets; "For me, Stuart Irving was arguably one of the most underrated vocalists around. He could really bump the audience up, had great stage presence and personality. It was a treat to sit behind those boys and watch as they stirred everything up."
Nidge moved to Cambridge in1981 after splitting with his girlfriend, gained his HGV license and continued to play around the Cambridge area; "in all kinds of outfits, pub rock bands, and dance bands - complete with a dickie bow! We had a residency at the Crown and Cushion in Great Granstead every Tuesday. It was mobbed virtually every week for nearly five years. The band was called Private Line and featured at various times a number of top class and well known rock musicians. Rick Wills who was a 'jobbing bassist', a session man, had played with Cochise and Foreigner. Guitarist Mick Grabham was another ex Cochise man who was better known for his work with Procol Harum. Don Airey ex Whitesnake keyboards. Dick Parry, sax player on Pink Floyd albums. I can still recall sitting there on drums, looking at Dick play and thinking who this guy had worked with, it knocked me out! We eventually became Los Amigos and played as a trio before I moved back to Thrapston in the early 90s. My next band with a quite appropriate name was High Mileage!"
|One of Nigel Hart's earliest bands, Brain Damage played regularly at Liverpool's famous Cavern Club in early 1970s.|
Another musical career, which had lasted over 40 years, coming to a close at the Welfare Club, was that of resident pianist Johnny Ballantyne. Johnny had arrived in Corby in 1936 and played piano for the Stewarts and Lloyds Dance Orchestra until it disbanded in the early 1960s. His first dance was on the night of Edward VIII's abdication. He eventually assumed control of band matters, recruiting a number of local musicians to the ranks, Jackie Wilson on trumpet, Bill 'Dozy' Clark on drums, and Bob Crawford on tenor sax.
Support for Johnny on his retirement night came from the latest incarnation of the Billy Mathieson, Derek Cowie, Reggy Knowles, Jim Smith and Ray Haggart quintet, now operating under the handle of Liquorish Allsorts! Mindful of ideas, it was Billy who suggested writing to Bassett's to enquire if they would be interested in sponsoring the band as they would be getting good value for advertising their confectionary. "They moreorless told us to bog off", Derek Cowie admitted.
Ian Murray and his band Big Bob's Rock and Roll Circus were still on the road and found themselves caught up in 'the Troubles' on the Emerald Isle.
"We had been offered work in Belfast so often but because of ‘The Troubles’ it had been vetoed by the wives every time. Eventually, after a particularly sparse January and February, we took up the offer to play at the Abercorn club in the city centre. We got off the ferry in Larne and drove into Belfast. In those days it was like a city under siege; in order to get to the club we had to drive through a check point commanded by police with more fire power in their hands than we had seen at the Berlin wall. The club was situated only a few hundred yards inside the security fence but for security reasons we had to unload the bus immediately and drive it back outside the fence leaving all the equipment in the street until we could haul it up the stairs. The boss of the club was called Dermot O’Donell, a diminutive, super self-confident, all-knowing Belfaster who tried his best to allay our fears about bombings, shootings and knee-cappings, “the media is to blame boys, there’s nothing ever happens here – honest, in fact why don’t you all join me here for lunch in the club tomorrow?”
The next day we drove down to the city centre from our ‘safe’ hotel up the steep hill on the Newtownards road, parked the bus outside the fence, passed through a security check like Heathrow on a busy day and joined Dermot in his club for lunch. No sooner had we ordered our pints of Guinness than two heavily armed British paratroopers broke into the club and shouted “everybody out – bomb threat”. The place emptied in ten seconds, we were all running like Olympic champions to get the other side of the fence and Dermot is panting “it’s never happened before lads – honest”.
The paranoia was enhanced a couple of days later when we left out hotel to drive down the Newtonards Road for the evening gig. Coming in the opposite direction was a huge low-loader carrying an excavator. As it passed us there was an almighty explosion and we all thought our last day had come - the bus actually moved sideways with the force of the blast. The silence in the bus was deafening as it took a few moments to realise that we were all still in one piece and that the cause of the blast was the air brakes on the low-loader which couldn’t take the hill up towards Newtonards. We earned our money that week.
Tuesday the 16th of August 1977 was a fateful day. We had been at the Abercorn club in Belfast since the previous Sunday and were booked through to the following Saturday. Midweek in the club was always a little on the quiet side and this Tuesday was no exception; just about half full, it was still a lively crowd of rock ‘n roll fans. We came on to do our last set around eleven o’clock and were well into it when I noticed one of the barmen frantically trying to catch my attention from the side of the stage. He was a thin, bespectacled, black haired guy who suffered terribly from acne; a great fan of John Wayne, he could roll off at the drop of a hat all the films Wayne had made and the characters he had played. He was also of a somewhat nervous disposition. After getting my attention at the end of a number, he whispered dramatically “They’ve just announced on the radio that Elvis has died – you’ve got to tell the audience”. After a second of thought - I had visions of the club emptying immediately after the announcement - I replied, “You tell them but after we’ve finished”. We went on to the end of the show and had a good reception and, sure enough someone went on stage to announce the sad news and the club emptied in two minutes; women and grown men with tears in their eyes.
Always quick to see an opportunity, the next day we went to the club in the afternoon and rehearsed a fifteen minute ‘Tribute to the King’ which we included in the show that night – it brought the house down. I was still playing the ‘Elvis Medley’ on my very last gig thirteen years later."
Mike Gregory; "I remember the club in (London) Derry - it was the "El Greco" and the boss was named Dessie Coyle, who we later found out was a commander in the IRA. The most wanted Provo in Ireland was watching us from the balcony one evening, someone told me who he was but I can't remember his name. I saw him again when I went off with Ray (graffiti) Beatty who was a painter who Des employed to paint out the graffiti on the club walls and also to drive the staff home at the end of the night. I went with him on this night to get a take away after he'd dropped them of. The take-away was under a tenement block and had metal shutters. Ray knocked on the door and a little flap opened (like a gambling den) and we were allowed in. My bum was going 'ten bob - threepenny bit' at this time. Any way - that fugitive was in front of me in the line and he turned to me and said, "I thought you were brilliant tonight, best show I’ve seen in a long time", then he turned back to talk to his friends. We got our food and left. As we were driving away Raymond said to me "do you know where you are just now?" I said "no". "That was where 'Bloody Sunday’ happened and that was where my brother got shot - just over there on that corner", he said. I wasn’t half glad to get back to the hotel I can tell you."
Corby steelworkers were given cause for optimism with an announcement that an order from BSC's Tubes Division, worth £3 million was in the pipeline for a massive new 2000 ton walking Dragline. Work on the construction of the giant ore quarrying machine was scheduled to begin in 1980 and erected on the site in 1981. A 279 feet boom would also be fabricated on site. The capacity of the bucket, 36 cubic yards, was large enough to hold three mini cars and able to lift 50 tons at a time. It would be the first new Dragline at Corby since 1963 and join four others in operation.
Following this was news of BSC winning a £21million order for oil-well casing and tubing placed by Chevron who were developing Ninian Field, the third largest in the North Sea. Though the 50,000 tons of high grade equipment was to be produced largely at Clydesdale, Scotland, significant tonnages would be made at Corby, Stockton and Llanwern.
Slicing through this abundance of good news was a crisis developing with the nation's bread delivery men who were supporting a claim for 'equal pay for women'. They had a 'cob' on when supermarkets began to undercut them with cheaper prices and threatened to boycott all stores who sold their bread at less than 18p a loaf. Their cause wasn't helped by the caustic response of an MP who urged all housewives to bake their own bread, "shop bread is tasteless anyway".
Bread was soon in short supply with people stocking up fridge freezers with all the loaves they could get hold of, but for those less fortunate, an opportunity to fill their stomachs came with the Annual Haggis Eating Contest at Corby Festival Hall. A 1lb and a half had to be devoured as quickly as possible to gain the title. The winner was a gentleman from Earls Barton who was long in the tooth at the game, Peter Dowdeswell. Peter had built up a reputation for gorging everything put on a plate and had numerous titles to his name. The Guinness Book of Records hailed Peter as the champ for eating eggs, (hard boiled, soft, raw), cheddar cheese, beer, eels, pancakes, spuds, prunes, jam sarnies, (40 in 17 minutes), shrimps, burghers, (with buns, 21 in 9 minutes) and the Earls Barton eating machine revealed he also had the gherkins and lemons records in his sights. 'It's all done for charity rather than Peter's insatiable hunger' Guinness said. Peter had some serious rivals around the world, including two New Yorkers, Donald 'Moses' Lerman and Charles 'Hungry' Hardy. Lerman stated; 'you don't have to be a big fat slob. I started on French fries and ice cream to get into it.' Hardy was the holder for hot dogs, 23 in 12 minutes.
Peter was in town during February at the Stardust, for a crack at his own world record for eating pancakes. The record stood at 61 x 6" scoffed in 7 minutes. The holder of over 70 eating and drinking records wasn't up for it this night however, managing only a mere 28. "I knew I should have left my dinner" he mused.
Later in the year, Peter Dowdeswell flew to California to take part in a doughnut commercial, even though, "I hate them. Last time I ended up in hospital because I ate too many." Returning home, Peter was in for a shock to find he'd lost his job as a building worker, though he dismissed it with a curt response; 'I was looking for a new job anyway, the canteen was crap!'
The Stardust was attracting a host of stars; Marty Wilde, Ricky Valance, Marmalade, Johnny Tillotson, Kathy Kirby and Del Shannon were all lined up for a modest 20p entrance fee. Another 'major' star to appear was PJ Proby. PJ's world had deteriorated since the heady days of the early 60s when he had a number of big selling singles, Maria, Somewhere, Hold Me. In latter years, drink had become a big problem for the American singer and he was now reduced to playing Working Men's Clubs to earn a crust. Taking the Stardust stage obviously the worse for wear his performance was a shambles from start to finish. The punters, who numbered nearly a thousand, were not slow in showing their disgust and began booing and shouting 'get off!!' Proby responded by shouting back and within minutes the scene degenerated into total farce with the audience and the singing star trading insults. Standing in the wings, Arthur Pitcher was equally disgusted and fifteen minutes into the set, walked on to the stage and dragged Proby off as the abuse and howling grew in intensity. Arthur apologised and later explained; "Proby's act was so unbelievably bad, the management had to stop him." before adding; 'I don't think they'll be booing next week though, Jimmie McGregor and Robin Hall, (Scottish folk singers), are here." Tubeworker Willy McCowatt and his wife May were two that were booing Proby; "May said to me, blimey Willy, he's bladdered! Then a few started hissing and hurling insults at Proby, 'rubbish!', 'you're garbage!', 'yae never were much use'. Proby retaliated by telling them likewise. He was steaming. Danny Quinn sitting near us was going to get up to stick one on him! What a laugh! It was just as well old Arthur didn't mess around."