Episode 8. Midnight Rides - The Barmy Girlschool Army
It is a much unsung part of Rock and Roll, that of the fanatic, sometimes manic, bordering on obsessive, fan. You were probably one if you are of my generation or if you are younger, probably are now; I used to be. As I sit here typing this, looking at a picture of me in my parent’s garden in my hometown of Leicester forty years ago, it’s hard to imagine now what was going through my head all those years ago and more importantly, how different my life would have been if whatever was going through it, didn’t. I think most of us in the music business would admit that we got into it not because we considered it a brilliant and stable career – we can all testify it isn’t – but because we liked the idea of the glamour, the fame, being in with the bands; in essence, we were star struck in some way. That said, anyone who goes into the music business was at some point a fan of a band and I, like many others, was star struck when I was younger but had neither the talent not the opportunity to become a star so I settled for second-best by being a part of the team behind the band. Before I did though, I was a fan and a record collector who tried to meet my heroes after a gig and ask them for their autograph. It was a great time.
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Me on my Gilera RS50 bike circa 1978 around the time I started going to a lot of gigs. I sold the bike in 1979 and never bought another one.
The De Montfort Hall was the main venue for Leicester in the 1970s and 1980s and it was there I got to meet my first stars. After a great show by Renaissance and encouraged by Al Roberts (one of my best friends back then and to this day) we went around to the backstage door and asked if we could meet the band. To our surprise, we were let in and time has completely obliterated what we talked to the band about but we left babbling with excitement and signed record sleeves; I personally fell in love with Annie Haslam. After that, I met Barclay James Harvest, Hawkwind, Steve Hillage, Whitesnake, Thin Lizzy and a host of others including Motorhead and their support band one night in 1979, Girlschool. I don’t remember what it was about them that night that triggered my love for them, the music, their personalities, warmth or a combination of all three with something else but I just knew this was the band for me and I wanted to see them again.
That didn’t happen for another ten months due to one reason or another but this time they were back at De Montfort Hall supporting Uriah Heep. As soon as they finished their set, I headed to the backstage door with my copy of their debut single Take It All Away in my hands and I got them to sign it. I started looking through the gig guides in Sounds every week and it wasn’t long before I spotted they were playing in Corby a mere twenty-five mile. The only problem was, I had sold my motorbike, didn’t drive and Corby, being so small (it had a population of less than 50,000), wasn’t easily accessible by train. After a few phone calls to rail and bus companies, I worked out I could take a train to Kettering and then a bus to Corby which I did, knowing that the last bus back to Kettering was at 9pm so I was destined to stay all night. Arriving around 5pm, I asked for directions to the Raven Hotel where they were playing and approaching the venue saw Enid outside. I walked up to her hoping she’d recognise me and she did. Greeting me with a big smile she asked what I was doing there and before I could answer said ‘Doesn’t matter…I’ll tell the doorman you are crew. Have you met Ash and Newcy?’
The Raven Hotel in Corby UK. The venue for my first out-of-town Girlschool gig and where I first met Ash and Newcy.
I assumed Ash and Newcy were crew but they weren’t. They were just fans like me who had travelled up from south London to see the gig and because of that we became instant friends. We had a few beers before the show getting to know each other and after the show we walked back up to the town centre where I bedded down on a bus shelter bench for the night; Ash and Newcy headed off to the train station to wait for the first train south. I woke up a few hours later, cold and aching and I slowly made my way back to Leicester, unbelievably happy and wanting more Girlschool gigs. My next one was in Sheffield a week or two later at Genevieve’s Club where I met Jeff, closely followed by Jabz and Doug, Ken, Shane, Mark, Mick and Flash as we trudged up and down the UK. No matter where they played, I made the effort to be there any night of the week to see Girlschool and share the fun with what Ash and Newcy christened the Barmy Girlschool Army. I should add that this was done often to the chagrin of my boss as I rolled in from another all-night train ride, bleary and hung-over. Three entries from my dairy that year read:
June 6th 1980 Burton-on-Trent 76 Club
Took the train from Leicester to Burton-on-Trent which is quite a local gig for me although there are no late trains back so I’ll be sleeping somewhere. Arrived just after 1pm and walked to the gig. Hung around for a couple of hours until Tim showed up with the P.A. and I helped carry it in. Pete arrived shortly afterwards with the girls closely followed by Ash. After the sound-check we had a few pints in the pub. The gig was good – well packed and heaving. Went backstage after the gig and scrounged a beer. Kicked out of the club at about midnight and decided to sleep under a bridge over the river as the night is quite warm.
N.B. Tim was Girlschool’s sound engineer and Pete was the other crew member who did monitors and drove the girls from gig to gig,
June 7th 1980 Blackpool Norbreck Castle
I didn’t sleep well last night as there were several other rockers there as well and sleep didn’t seem much of an option. Found a café and had a big English breakfast to set me up for the day. Money is tight and it’s still early so I thought I’d hitchhike to Blackpool. I walked for a couple of miles along the main road out of Burton at about 10am. As luck would have it, Tim drove by with Ash in the truck and pulled over to give me a lift. I slept for a couple of hours and woke up when Tim pulled over, went around the back of the truck and emerged with three beers. Arrived Blackpool 3pm and carried the equipment in with Tim and Ash until Pete arrived with the band. Ash and I spent a very pleasant few hours talking to the girls, watching the sound-check and enjoying the gig. Post show we slept in the back of shop doorway. It was cold.
June 8th 1980 Bath Tiffanys
Ash and I wandered over to the girls’ hotel at 10am where Tim was ready for departure and had very kindly offered us a lift to Bath. Big bonus this – door to door for no cost. Arrived sometime in the afternoon – nice city – and helped Tim in with all the gear. Girls arrived with Pete sometime later and we watched the sound-check which didn’t go well for some reason. Doesn’t matter, me and Ash went to the pub and started talking to the local people. I suddenly realised that I had to be back in Leicester early for work the next day. Superb gig tonight. Started late so I missed every train and bus out of Bath. Kim very kindly asked the audience if there was anyone who could give me a lift somewhere north. Three guys made themselves known and offered me a lift to Stroud. Good start, I can hitch-hike from there. Post show in the dressing room, a biker asked the girls if they were squeamish. Confused looks all around and uncertain shakes of heads. The biker then proceeded to take off his false leg and handed it to the girls for them to autograph. He had lost it in a bike accident the previous year. Said my goodbyes and took the lift to Stroud. Picked up a truck from Stroud to near Birmingham followed by a man in a van who took me to Coventry. From there I hitched a ride on a milk float to Leicester (which took an hour and a half) and then went straight to work. Pretty tired and horrified to find out I had an exam at 11am.
Nothing to do and all night to do it so Ash and myself got a bit creative in a passport photo booth.
Amazingly, I passed that exam but in hindsight, to be honest, I don’t think I cared either way if I passed or not. For the hardcore fans of Girlschool, our priority was attending as many gigs as possible, no matter what the conditions or sacrifices we had to make. We didn’t question it but some of our parents often did as they were of a generation that couldn’t understand that commitment to rock music and one band in particular. Mine were quite superb once they realised that they were not going to talk me out of my weekly trips around the country and often woke up on a Sunday morning to find a couple of my friends crashed out on the lounge floor. Mum would cook us all breakfast; Dad would then drive us all to the train station for the next show. Over the next two years Girlschool became bigger and bigger and as the little club gigs turned into theatres and concert halls, we kept our faith. We met characters that came in and out of the Barmy Army but the originals remained true and are still supporting Girlschool even though life and sensibility have become more of a priority than the gigs. It was a remarkable journey over a couple of years though and we all forged friendships that have lasted to this day and although the midnight rides are a thing of our past and each of us have very different lives to what we envisioned back then, The Barmy Army still meets every few years to talk about the old times and argue about what happened and where it happened as our memories start to wane.
Every band has its fans and likewise, every fan has the unmoveable belief that their favourite band is the best band in the world. They are right because for them, their band is the best band in the world. Now, having been in the music business for forty years, I have to be a lot more critical of music and artists but I am still a fan and whenever I meet someone who is just as dedicated to a band as I was to Girlschool, I cast my mind back to those years ago when I was like that and remind myself that it will be a sad day for Rock and Roll and potential friends alike when that kind of dedication ceases to exist.
The original Barmy Army at our reunion in January 2020. Back row: Ken, Ash and myself, Front row: Mark, Doug, Jeff; Jabz unable to make it. I will move heaven and earth for these guys.