I’m going to take a diversion into some very local history, but not of the kind I normally cover here. This is an attempt to preserve a piece of local culture that I feel may otherwise be lost, and is very dear to me, a small snapshot of life just before everything changed. The change was undoubtedly for the better, but some of what was lost passed into obscurity almost unnoticed. I’m hoping I can correct a tiny fragment of that.
When I was a teenager – way back in the 1980’s – Brownhills was much more insular than it is today. 25 years ago, the out-of-town shopping revolution had not yet started, and most shopping was done locally. Thatcher was in charge, and the area – like many post-industrial towns – was depressed after a biting recession and on the edge of becoming a dormitory community. Most shops shut at 6pm, on Sundays almost everything was shut. The bus services were poor, and journeys to Walsall or Birmingham seemed to me to be exciting and rarified. Brownhills served most of my nerdy needs – we had two record shops, a Tandy, a couple of decent newsagents and a Bike Shop – so the teenage Bob had just about everything he needed.
Gradually, my wings started to spread, and I’d take more and more weekend journeys in to Walsall. I’d visit all the shops that interested me, and in the process of my explorations (which seem so absurd to me now) I became aware, through flyposting and conversation amongst mates, that there was a burgeoning local music scene, something that was generally absent in Brownhills. I discovered the now long-gone Bridge Records, loaded with precious, cheap vinyl. This tiny shop was frequented by all kinds of people who clearly didn’t fit in with my image of what music fans were like – my eyes were opened by a range of Goths, Hippies, New Romantics, Punks and a small but fascinating band of eccentrics. I started going to gigs with friends, listening to types of music that I’d never previously been aware of, and just generally finding out that there was a whole new world beyond the town I’d grown up in. I saw bands like Split in Two, Ron’s Neighbours and Bliss the Pocket Opera. I was bemused by the Charlatans before they were huge, and ducked out of the chance to see the Stone Roses at about the same time, a decision I’ve regretted ever since. I left early to get busses back home from gigs by The Nose Flutes, Charlie and the Horlicks Overdose, Babayaga, Little Red Schoolhouse and Brancusi’s Cock. I walked back from many others. I slowly got drunk and/or stoned to bands at The Overstrand, The Punch & Judy, The Royal Exchange, Shelfield Youth Club and even the Town Hall.
It’s hard to imagine now, but back then, the only source of news about the scene was gossip, word of mouth, fly posting, or the small ads in the local paper. Occasionally, there’d be gig lists on favoured radio shows, like The Cat’s Whisker on Beacon, or latterly, on Samantha Meah’s Sunday Night Party on Radio WM. Band posters and flyers – often handed out at gigs – were true cut and paste affairs made using stencils, cutouts, marker pens and photocopiers, as the technology to make them on computer cheaply just didn’t exist. Sometimes they were crap. Sometimes, they were highly artistic and wonderfully inventive.
The quest for further enlightenment – and the general lack of cash – eventually drew my eye to the cheap-looking homebrew magazines, or fanzines, sitting on the shelves behind the counter in Bridge Records. I can remember thinking about buying one, after all for 30p or so I couldn’t go wrong. A new world opened up to me.
I had, of course, read the NME and the inky music press, and had been annoyed by it; the faux coolness, the deliberate obscurity and constant references to London and Manchester. Yet this DIY piece of music journalism bristled with humour, crap jokes and enthusiasm. The writer seemed to want to be noticed, to write the definative local review of the Next Big Thing. This messy, hand-typed rag captivated me. That was the work of Frostie, and I’d bought a copy of ‘I Just Haven’t Named It Yet Baby!‘.
I have never knowingly met David Frost. David lived in Whitehorse Road, Brownhills. He had a distinctly Brownhillian chip on his shoulder, and he didn’t care who knew it. He wrote self-conscious, often pretentious prose, but there was a humour and an enthusiasm in there that enthralled me. He’d obviously been going to some of the same gigs as me, and he knew how crap the bus service was. He’d tried all the cafes in town. He knew, like I did, where the best record shops were in Walsall. He was as bemused by his hometown as I was, and equally irritated by the references to it as a throwaway story in the dying throws of the local soap opera Crossroads. There was a kind of pride in there, too, but it would have been uncool to let it show. I understood that. David Frost – whoever he was – was thinking my thoughts.
I showed the pamphlet to my pals, who weren’t in the slightest bit moved, but I treasured the monochrome mag. I recycled some of the crap jokes, including one that still survives on the net today, sorry Frostie, I never did credit you for that. Months later, I bought another of my new hero’s creations: Squeaky Clean. This was still written by Forstie, but he’d moved on a bit. There was a bit less Brownhills, and more counterculture. The interviews were longer, and there was, frankly, less crap. The style was still there, though, and I lapped it up. I had no idea where the cartoons he’d copied came from, but I found them hilarious. I guess I needed to get out more.
The odd thing about these two remnants of my youth is that they had a lasting, permanent effect. I would guarantee here and now that had I not read I Just Haven’t Named It Yet Baby!, and latterly Squeaky Clean, that this blog would never have existed. These humble productions were the first exposure the teenage Bob had to freeform, uncensored, uncommercial writing. It had never occurred to me that in my world, dominated by worthy-but-dull books, newspapers, tech magazines and the weekly music papers that anyone could ever just write stuff and put it out there unchecked. Here was somebody doing just that, and what’s more, it had an empathy and resonance with me. That planted a seed that took over two decades to germinate.
It is easy to forget how hard it must have been for Frostie to get his work out there. These days, you just sign up for a blog, it takes minutes; all the presentation is done for you, you just type, add some images and it’s out there, ready to be found by googlers and trawlers of the web. The writer I admired bashed out most of what he did on a typewriter. With tippex and stuff. He drew, hand wrote and collaged material into place. In I Just Haven’t Named It Yet Baby!, you can see he puts effort into varying the style and form of the page numbers, but runs out of ideas toward the end. There’s quite heavy use of Letraset. Just making the master of this slim tome must have been a labour of love; he then had to get it copied, which is credited to ‘Madeley Peoples Centre, Telford’ – some journey. Finally, David had to punt the finished fanzines around to local record shops and convince the owners to flog them. All for 30p a throw, marginally less than local fruit farms were paying at the time for picking a household bucket full of gooseberries. I know, because I did it. 35p a sodding bucket.
I can’t imagine facing the creative darkness that Frostie must have been shouting into. He’d gone to all that work, all that effort. Feedback must have been damned sparse. I cant begin to contemplate how he must have felt about his writing, whether anyone appreciated what he did enough to tell him. Well, I’m telling you now, mate, I did. I do this now, knowing that I get a reasonable flow of readers. Some of those comment, send me encouragement, requests or criticism. I doubt many bothered to contact you at all. I didn’t. I should have. I wish I had. For that, I’m sorry.
I bought other fanzines over the period, but none really compared. The scene quickly died as the eighties closed – rave, acid house and the festival scene saw to that, and the rise of the superstar DJ and club culture rendered unfashionable the kind of young bands I was so fond of. Venues shut up shop or reinvented themselves, whilst I continued my transition into adulthood. I travelled further afield. The scene became a warm memory. The fanzines I harboured stayed in my treasured collection of memories, to be found and re-read occasionally. I now share them, and hopefully some of the warm recollections, with you.
If anyone knows what became of David Frost – or indeed, if you are Frostie – please contact me. I’m sure there’s stuff we could share. That scene is long dead, many of its’ exponents, stars and leading lights lost, yet I’m sure I can’t have been the only teenager to have been desperately perusing those labours of love.
There are some things to look out for in both works; in I Just Haven’t Named It Yet Baby! note the following:
- I don’t know the release date, but it was certainly summer 1987, an event on the 31st August is advertised on page 2.
- On page five, the poorly copied publicity photo of Split in Two is posed on the bizarre modern sculpture at Chasewater, that now stands on the roundabout by the innovation centre.
- The awkward interview on page 7 with noted eccentric Julian Cope must have been something to observe. The man is still a huge figure in the industry and well respected for his work as a historian; however, the clean, poppier Julian Cope didn’t last long…
- The references to the Northern Relief Road (latterly the M6 Toll), very much a hot issue at the time, in the charts on page 10.
- The Moneygods interview on page 16 records one Darren Hale on vocals. That’s Daz Hale, latterly of local radio notoriety. I seem to remember Steve Withers was a real character, too.
- If there really was a second issue as predicted on page 17, I never saw it.
- Sorry, I’ve been recycling variants of page 18 for years. Genius.
And in Squeaky Clean:
- Issue date is recorded on page 2 as March 1988.
- Page 8 comic, ‘Big Blowout in the do-nut (sic) shop’ is from Willy Murphy’s Flamed Out Funnies #1.
- I still find page 14’s likening of All About Eve to Renaissance scarily accurate, even if the Zodiac Motel were mostly taking bollocks. It also rather betrayed some suspicious prog listening habits.
- I think the Big Bopper thanked on page 16 was probably the source of the cartoons, and is legendary in these parts.
- The odd photocopied book passage on page 21 is from the then-banned Spycatcher book. How dangerous. Not.
- ‘A good shit is best’, page 25, also came from Willy Murphy’s Flamed Out Funnies #1.
- The interview on page 26 with Algebra Suicide intrigued me so much that I spent years looking for anything by them; I finally discovered some stuff on Napster, years later. It was, um, interesting. They’re now on iTunes. That makes me sad.
- ‘Sus’ on the back page is from ‘The Laid-back Adventures of Suzie and Jonnie: The Moroccan Run’ by Antonio A. Ghura.