Wolverhampton. What a town. What a life.
Bet you never thought you’d read those words. And certainly not in that order.
For all the jokes and brickbats, Wolverhampton was a great place to be growing up in the 50s and early 60s.
Rolling Stone magazine called it ‘a grimy northern city’.
It wasn’t ‘grimy’ and it wasn’t northern.
Nor was it a city. It was the biggest town in the UK and it was (is) in the West Midlands. By the time I was born, it was almost 1,000 years old and a fixed and thriving spot on the map.
Rolling Stone, to be fair, was interviewing Slade at the height of their fame. Maybe it played into Noddy Holder’s working class roots to describe his home town so disparagingly. That was in the mid-70s.
I left Wolverhampton in 1966, and that ten-year gap is crucial. It was still a vibrant place, just beginning to feel the effects of immigrant culture and the consequent racism and resentment. We were only 20 months away from Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech.
But I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to talk about a town that had:
A music scene that incorporated skiffle, blues, amazing folk music (The Black Country Three) and a Civic Hall where the world’s greatest orchestras and conductors performed.
One of the greatest football clubs in the history of the game.
The most respected local newspaper in the country, the Express & Star, where a young Boris Johnson cut his journalistic teeth.
And the beginnings of a pop and rock movement that, while it never truly shook the world (we can’t really take credit for Led Zeppelin) has consistently, and to this day, drip-fed major talent into the mainstream.
At that time, we had Steve Brett & The Mavericks, The Montanas, Robert Plant, The Black Diamonds (later The Californians), Giorgio & Marco’s Men and The n’Betweens (later Slade).
There was also a little band called The Concords (later The Manhattans), featuring a 15-year-old lead singer who went on to become a one-hit wonder…..
But you’ve heard that story.
Occasionally, we’d glimpse the likes of The Spencer Davis Group, venturing out of their native Birmingham. Fourteen-year-old Stevie Winwood causing girls to crawl across his piano in a kind of ecstasy. The rest of us 14-year-old boys looked on in awe.
But for the most part, we were happy with what we had. So we didn’t really know that over in Birmingham, The Move, The Moody Blues, The Idle Race, Black Sabbath and The Applejacks were all revving up for an assault on the charts.
The Scousers and the Mancs, though, had got there first.
The Hollies, The Beatles, The Big Three, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Billy Fury, The Dakotas (before Billy J. Kramer), Rory Storm & The Hurricanes, The Searchers, The Swinging Blue Jeans – this first flush of what became the British Invasion takes up page after page of Wikipedia, almost every name replete with memories.
And it all happened in such an amazingly small period of time. No more than three years.
It only took Love Me Do and Please Please me to spark off an incredible outpouring of proletarian creativity.
Reminiscing with my pal Geoff Mullin following the death this month of Johnny Gustavson of The Big Three, Geoff made several references to the interplay between these now legendary Liverpool and Manchester groups. Given the lack of communication between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, this came as a surprise to me.
If not actually close friends (and some were), The Mancs and Scousers were certainly mixing it up in pubs and clubs up and down the newly opened M1.
It was mostly one way traffic, though, in the admiration stakes. Liverpool’s tight, experienced bands had their raucous roots in generally unheard American blues and soul. Manchester had Herman’s Hermits and Freddie & The Dreamers.
Still, legend has it that Graham Nash, then of The Hollies, taught John Lennon the lyrics to Anna, a standout song on The Beatles’ first album.
From my own limited experience, little of this happened between the Wolverhampton and Birmingham scenes. Maybe that explains why they weren’t as influential.
I got to thinking about all this after a vintage month in the departure lounge. It seems October, not April, is the cruellest month – for the moment at any rate.
We are going to have to get used to this from now on. As even the youngest of our heroes approach their eighth decade, more and more will be booked on the outward flight.
On this month’s one-way trip, only Paul Revere had made it past 75. Some didn’t even reach 70.
Lynsey de Paul, Johnny Gustavson, John Holt, Alvin Stardust, Tim Hauser (of Manhattan Transfer), Raf Ravenscroft and Jack Bruce all achieved lift off in the last four weeks.
Of these, Johnny Gus was the least known, I would guess. And yet when the London record scouts got Liverpool fever in 1963, he would have been many a fellow-muso’s tip for stardom. No-one ever questioned that The Big Three’s live version of Some Other Guy put even The Beatles in the shade.
But somehow, the power and raw energy of The Big Three never made it onto record, and neither did they have a powerhouse writing team like Lennon & McCartney.
So, at this melancholy time, a melancholy song. The title alone sets the tone.
And yet Wet Wednesday Afternoon isn’t designed to depress. It’s a celebration of the awakening of a 13-year-old boy, his appreciation of his surroundings, and the joy of music that promises great things ahead.
Wednesdays were half days for us. For some reason lost to history, we attended school on Saturday mornings. So Wednesday afternoons were for going round each other’s houses, listening to music. Or going to the cinema to the see the latest Elvis (or, at a push, Cliff). Or sitting in cafes, listening to the jukebox or the radio. Or going to Beattie’s, the local department store, and trying out instruments we were never able to afford.
That’s what Wet Wednesday Afternoon is about. “What a town, what a life, what lucky people we were to be young….”