Phil’s Forty, 30: Hitting the high notes

Record Business rang me at home just a couple of weeks before I was due to join the Hull Daily Mail in 1980. 

They offered me a job as a reporter on their magazine which was a proper publication for the music industry. Appearing every week, it carried news about singers, bands, music management, record labels, every aspect of the industry.

A selection from Phil's record collection.
A selection from Phil’s record collection.

But there had been two months of silence since the interview and, tempting though the offer was, I decided to stick with Hull.

I often wonder what might have been. Although Record Business only lasted until 1983 it was absorbed into Music Week which, for a time, became an essential purchase when I was writing about bands for the Yorkshire Post. It was at the top of the trade.

At the Doncaster Gazette I’d had the music pages to myself and took my pick of the best gigs in Sheffield, with interviewees including John Miles. The Jarrow-born performer of “Music”, “Highfly” and “Manhattan Skyline” told me how he was interviewed by the Yorkshire Ripper detectives as they were distracted by the hunt for “Wearside Jack”.

In Hull, rock and pop was in the capable hands of David Blows and Alan Burgess, Blowsy having moved from Donny a couple of years before me. Anyone else on the staff who fancied free records and tickets had to come up with something Blowsy and Burgess didn’t like, or wait until they were on holiday.

Rolling Stones at Roundhay Park in 1981.
Rolling Stones at Roundhay Park in 1981.

Somehow I managed to get the press pass for the Rolling Stones at Roundhay Park in 1981, with Parky on pics. It’s bizarre looking back at the coverage now to see that 39 years ago there were doubts about the band’s staying power. There were other big gigs including The Police at Queen’s Hall in Leeds and Hall & Oates at the Apollo in Manchester, but my priority had always been to find the best local bands. 

In Doncaster I’d become aware of the Comsat Angels and when a few of us in the Hull Daily Mail newsroom blagged tickets for a gig at Salford University I went to interview the Comsats while my colleagues went for a Chinese meal with the headliners. Some guys called U2.

Harlow, Harry de Mazzio.
Harlow, Harry de Mazzio.

Also in Doncaster there was Harlow, a brilliant, polished poppy, jazzy, funky band who did the only cover I’ve ever heard of Midnite Cruiser, my favourite Steely Dan track. The singer, Steve Hogarth, pitched up at Hull Truck in the early 80s fronting The Europeans, a rock band who seemed destined for great things until disappearing without trace. These days he’s the singer for Marillion. When I met him Harlow were playing the clubs around Doncaster but building a big reputation and I travelled with them to Fairview Studio at Willerby for the all-night session which led to their one and only single for United Artists. To borrow a cricketing term, “Harry de Mazzio” didn’t trouble the scorers. I’ve still got it and only wish they’d put Midnite Cruiser on the flip side.

Even better were The Uncool Danceband, who also frequented Fairview and were rated very highly by the studio’s mercurial engineer Roy Neave. Keith Herd, Fairview’s founder, put all of the Uncools’ stuff on CD for me a couple of years ago. They were sensational but their deal with Polydor took them nowhere, and they wouldn’t be the last brilliant local band to be left wondering what they had to do to get a break.

After taking on the music column at the Yorkshire Post in 1985 I vowed to reflect the local, national and international approach of the paper, and at that time in Hull we had bands making an impact at every level. 

David Bowie at Feyenoord Stadium.

The biggest international show was David Bowie at Feyenoord Stadium, the start of his 1987 world tour and a five-star trip with North Sea Ferries taking care of the crossing and a night at the Rotterdam Hilton. But the gig itself is remembered more for the theatrics than the music – and it was another one billed as a farewell!

For surrealism there was nothing to beat Norway’s version of Live Aid, which I stumbled across during an overnight in Oslo. Fra Lippo Lippi played and I remember thinking I’d vaguely heard of them. I also remembered Lou Howard telling me the Red Guitars had played in Oslo the week before, and the next day, as I boarded a train to Stockholm, I spotted a poster for The Housemartins, arriving in Norway the following week.

A top secret invitation from the record company took me to the legendary Limit Club in Sheffield in 1986 for one of the four warm-up gigs by The Human League as they prepared for a world tour which many in the know suggested would be their last. On home turf they delivered a blistering show with hit after hit.

The Snapdragons.
The Snapdragons.

The Snapdragons, a cracking band from Leeds who deserved a tilt at the big time, tempted me to their home city for a free festival at the university. Folk rockers Malcolm’s Interview, who evolved into God’s Little Monkeys, lured me to York to see their local scene and the Scarborough band Hope Street, enticed me to the Sand Aid festival.

But at that time the top bands in the county and many rising stars across the country all came to the Adelphi and, living a few minutes’ walk away, I was in the perfect place to cover them. 

The Housemartins made national headlines in the music and news pages, but not until sometime after busking duo Paul Heaton and Stan Cullimore called in at the Yorkshire Post office in Hull and asked for some publicity for their forthcoming European tour! 

The Housemartins.
The Housemartins.

As they landed a deal and carried on up the charts, the know-nothing news editor who maintained you couldn’t find good stories in pubs also insisted that we could develop the Humber Beat as a successor to the Mersey Beat. I was just quietly pleased to have earned a reference from Swift Nick in his authorised Housemartins biography, even if he did spell my name wrong! It compensates for the disappointment of not getting a mention in the Adelphi book which followed years later.

The La’s played two of their earliest gigs at the Adelphi and were quickly snapped up by Go! Discs, The Housemartins’ label. Pulp were regular visitors as were The Shamen. Meanwhile the local music scene was in great shape with a local label, Reasonable Records, putting out singles by The Gargoyles, Pink Noise and others, and the likes of Planet Wilson, Milkfloat and Spacemaid setting up their own labels or finding partners out of town with demos from Fairview or the other studios which were springing up.

Local fanzines appeared and I was able to get some space in a Humber-wide arts magazine to promote our music talent. But it effectively ended for me in 1989, when I left Hull just after helping Nick Langley launch Cheap Day Return on their journey to becoming Scarlet and breaking into the charts with “Independent Love Song”. 

Bermuda was a culture shock with zero original, live music. It was an honour to interview Roberta Flack and great to meet Maxi Priest, although I’m not convinced he was a fan of The Housemartins.

As we chatted about the UK music scene he said of Hull’s chart-toppers: “Good footballers”.

But all those bands and all those gigs were in addition to the day job. In Doncaster, on the Hull Daily Mail and in Bermuda I grabbed the opportunity to write about something fun and different. At the Yorkshire Post every column for nearly five years earned a fee and opened doors while I also held down a hard news role. In journalism you don’t need to specialise to do special assignments.

Phil Ascough

It’s 40 years this year since Phil Ascough, our most prolific freelance contributor, arrived in Hull to begin a new episode in his journalistic career. Having spent two years on the weekly Doncaster Gazette, Phil headed east to the Hull Daily Mail. Apart from three years on the Royal Gazette in Bermuda and a short spell at the Teesside Gazette, he’s been here ever since. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and the BBC before returning to the Mail and becoming business editor. He moved into sports media with the Press Association in Leeds and then Howden, and set up his own PR consultancy in 2010. To mark the anniversary he has set out to write 40 essays looking at his career, our city and its people.