I first arrived in Northampton as a schoolteacher, but very quickly got involved in the local music scene, not as a musician, but as a writer! I felt that the local media was not doing enough to support live music, so I contacted a local newspaper to air my views on the subject.
What I did not expect was for them to invite me to write a weekly music column for them, “Why don`t you write it for us, they said? which I quickly accepted! Going to watch live rock or pop bands in Northampton during the early eighties could at times be something of an ordeal rather than a pleasure, not so much because of the sharp divide of talent between bands & musicians but because of the cramped & crowded pubs or clubs in which you would find yourself.
I could regularly be found listening to music down at The Black Lion, The White Elephant, Northants County Cricket Ground, Romany, Five Bells, or other pubs checking out and supporting local bands & musicians with my reviews. Despite the lack of decent venues, the live scene was vibrant and prospered and generally well supported. Many local bands played to packed houses with over fifty bands performing regularly around the town at an ever increasing number of pubs & clubs. I also found myself invited to cover unique events such as The Happening, rock or pop concerts at the Derngate Theatre or asked to review new recordings by local bands.
Out of the sweat & smoke two bands managed to clamber from the pub & club circuit onto our nation’s television screens and the larger concert venues of the UK, Europe, and the rest of the world. Former St Georges Avenue Art school students Bauhaus hit the big time with their rendition of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” which rose to No. 4 in the British charts and earned a much remembered appearance on Top of the Pops, but they also enjoyed a much wider & longstanding global cultural & musical influence.
Bauhaus’ roots can be traced back to the heady days of punk in 1976 and the sweaty atmosphere of The Paddock & Racecourse Pavilion. Seeing Bauhaus at that time was genuinely stirring, vocalist Pete Murphy daringly provocative, toying with the audience who knew they were watching something very special. Within six weeks of their formation Bauhaus had recorded their first single, the hugely influential & what will come to be regarded as their finest hour, ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, on the Small Wonder label. A startlingly atmospheric debut, David Jay’s bass and Kevin Haskins drums provided the single with its elegant & powerful metal skeleton, whilst Murphy’s hard, haunting voice alongside Danny Ash’s dripping guitar, provided the magic.
The single was chosen to appear in the Bowie film, ‘The Hunger’ with the band playing themselves. Despite the singles success of ‘Bela’ & ‘She’s in Parties’, Bauhaus were a live phenomenon. No recording could hope to capture the riveting presence of Murphy as he writhed about the stage, the howl of Ash’s guitar and the voodoo drums & hypnotic bass of Haskins & Jay. Even the four albums, ‘Mask, In the flatfield, The Sky’s gone out & Burning from the Inside’, could not recreate those unique charismatic performances.
The second most successful and productive town band comes from an unlikely field of music, Rockabilly, and they are the Cotton brothers from St James known as The Jets. The Jets also had a couple of top thirty UK hits with “Yes Tonight Josephine” and “Love Makes the World Go Round”, toured extensively and made many television appearances. Bob, Ray & Tony started making music way back in 1978 and are still touring and producing albums today.
Linda Casey (Leo) Fifi & The Firebirds
One of my favourite bands was the excellent Fifi & The Firebirds fronted by the late, great charismatic & hugely talented Linda Casey or Leo as she was sometimes called. The line up also included Phil Dann on guitar, Troy Watkins on bass, Steve ‘Ty Sticks’ on drums & occasionally Chester on Sax. It was a combination that worked well as all the band were all experienced musicians, most notably some former members of excellent band Coil. Many of their memorable songs were self – penned, either by Casey or Dann, who later went on to form St Anthony’s Fire.
Another excellent band were Tempest, built around the talents of former Religious Overdose vocalist Alex Novak. They released an excellent single ‘Lady Left This’ and recorded BBC radio sessions for both Kid Jensen & John Peel before splitting. Zoom Club, The Jazz Butcher, Where’s Lisse, Georgie Markov’s Empire, The Russians, Nation III, The World Service, Absolute Heroes and Groovy Underwear were just a few of the many bands & musicians contributing to an exciting live music scene around the town during the early eighties.
There were other, much more established, and professionally trained journalists such as Dominic Chapman, Alison Peachey, Simon Redley & Tina Baker recording their thoughts on the local music scene for posterity at the time. There is a popular saying that “today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip papers”, but for many local journalists their words live on to this day, in old, long treasured news clippings saved by local band members & musicians who first saw their name in print!
There were also several excellent photographers such as Steve Bell & Graham Trott, providing images which put faces to the names of the ever-changing band personnel. One of these photographers was Mitch Jenkins. His excellent photographs could be found alongside the names of most town bands during this period, including Bauhaus, St Anthonys Fire, Tempest, The Jazz Butcher & many others. Mitch started his career at the Chronicle and Echo before going on to photograph celebrities for the Times and Sunday Times Magazines, capturing the images of stars such as David Bowie & Bruce Springsteen.
Today, Mitch Jenkins is an Internationally acclaimed Photographer and Director, a visual storyteller who specialises in filmic, narrative-driven work. Mitch also has a longstanding relationship with Alan Moore, the revered Northampton comic book writer with whom he has recently collaborated & directed a feature film, The Show. The screenplay was written by Moore and filmed at various locations across the town including the Wellingborough Road and the Mounts. I am not sure whether the feature film has yet been released because of Covid restrictions over the last year and I hope someone can tell me! Their partnership is built on the pair’s complementary skillsets, shared artistic vision, and an obvious mutual love of Northampton. I understand, though I may be incorrect, that both Mitch & Alan still live in Northampton.
Northampton will never be remembered as a musical hotspot in the same way as Liverpool, London, Coventry, or Sheffield but the county town has produced many excellent musicians & bands and continues to do so to this day.