In 1966 I’d been been a member of the Jazzboard when the band had opened for the Who, the Small Faces and Cream. Could anything top that? Well nearly. In 1969 Sneeze supported Free at Durham University. It didn’t seem such a big deal at the time because, at that stage, they hadn’t had any chart success. But looking back it was a great night and definitely one of the highlights of my gigging career. After that gig, Paul Rodgers became one of my all time favourite rock vocalists – he still is. This is how Sneeze came about: –
The Village broke up in December 1968 and out of its ashes came Sneeze. I can’t remember exact details of how the band got together but I think it was the Village’s latter day guitarist, Ray Coulson who started the ball rolling. Sneeze was made up of four members from the Village; myself on tenor sax and Jimmy Hall on flugelhorn as the horn section; Ray on guitar and Brian Gibson on drums. From the Whitley Bay band Coloured Rain came the vocalist Rob Rudd and Hammond organist Pierre Pedersen. The line up was completed by a very able Gateshead bass player named Tom Hill who had previously played in bands with Brian. (A few years later Tom and Brian formed Geordie with Brian Johnson and had a number of chart hits. Subsequently, Brian Johnson found fame as the front man with AC/DC).
Things got off to a slow start with Sneeze. We were doing a combination of numbers from our previous bands, Village and Coloured Rain – basically Soul and pop songs. The singer, Rob, was comfortable with this material but with the exception of working men’s clubs, the type of music we were playing was rapidly losing popularity in the North East in favour of heavy/progressive music.
Rob Rudd didn’t last long as Sneeze’s vocalist. The band needed a new image and a change of musical direction. Several singers were auditioned before Rod Foggon from Alnwick was chosen as the new Sneeze vocalist. Rod had a good voice and a great stage presence. Sneeze ditched all the old soul and pop material and started doing covers of songs by bands such as Blood, Sweat and Tears, Electric Flag, Santana, Steve Miller Band and Jethro Tull. We worked hard on our image; the guitarists both wore white flowing garments and floppy hats. The horn section wore matching light blue flared trousers and black tops and Rod, the front man, usually wore tight fitting trousers and something on top to show off a bare chest.
By the late spring of 1969, Sneeze had a full diary, playing on average four gigs a week. Most of the gigs were supplied by the booking agent, Ivan Birchall who, at that time, covered a lot of the top venues in the North East. The band did not have a manager but on 2nd May the band played a gig at the Northern Counties College in Longbenton, Newcastle. At the end of the night an overweight character in his thirties approached the band and introduced himself as Don. Don said that he was an agent and wanted to book the band to play in Germany in a few week’s hence. He also promised regular gigs in London plus a record deal. It turned out that Don was neither a manager nor an agent but a frustrated singer who was looking for a backing band. Needless to say the gigs in Germany and the USA didn’t materialise but for a few weeks Don did wheedle himself into a manager’s role in Sneeze.
The “Don” episode introduced the band to Mickey Meade the proprietor of the Torino Sound Studio. After Don’s departure, Mickey became our manager and supplied the band with new amplifiers and a PA system. The first gig we did with Mickey as the manager was on 26th May at a dance in Barnard Castle. He turned up with a personal bodyguard on hire from a security firm because, according to him, he had received death threats. We all thought that this was bullshit and that he was just trying to make himself look important. After that night the bodyguard was never seen again. Mickey lived for a good few years but, bizarrely, he was murdered many years later on the banks of the river Wear by two hit men hired by his lover who he had allegedly been abusing.
In Sneeze’s early days the band sometimes practiced at Impulse Studio in Wallsend. The proprietor of Impulse was Dave Wood who was involved in the early careers of Alan Hull and Lindisfarne. I had met Dave the year before when I recorded a demo album with a soul band called the Technique. At that time he had been impressed with the brass which had recorded well. Amongst other things, Dave used to record and produce records for solo singers. When a brass section was asked for by the singer or if Dave thought it would enhance the recording, he would occasionally ask Sneeze or just the horn section (me and Jimmy Hall) to record a separate track, which he would add to the original recording. One such track was for a young female singer called Billie Wells who, in 1969, was tipped for stardom. The track was called “Follow My Heart” and although nothing became of it, it is probably the only recording of the original Sneeze still in existence. Billie never quite made it as an international singing star but I believe she is still performing on cruise liners and at various other venues all over the world.
Early in 1969 Dave Wood was recording and producing records for the singer/songwriter, Alan Hull. Dave asked if Jimmy and I would add a brass part to three of Alan’s songs which he had already recorded. We spent an afternoon writing the arrangement and recording the tracks. I didn’t know much about Alan Hull at the time but when I actually heard his songs I knew there was something special about him. A line in one of the three songs, which I think was about the morning after a night of passion has stayed in my memory ever since. It went – “I watch your striptease in reverse and put my hand into your purse – you said that I couldn’t get much worse” – or something like that. Anyway, Alan hated the brass arrangements on the three songs so our tracks weren’t actually used for anything. Jimmy and I did get paid for the session (£12 each according to an old diary) and because Alan Hull wasn’t that well known outside North East folk clubs we weren’t that bothered. Not long after he teamed up with the local band Brethren and they all found fame and fortune as Lindisfarne.
A few months after the “big Don” episode another “Don” came into our lives in the shape of Don Covay, the American soul singer famous for his 1966 hits “See Saw” and “Mercy, Mercy”. We were booked to play at a new venue in the Northumberland village of Linton, just north of Ashington. The venue was a night club which had been offering free membership to anyone in the Newcastle area who filled out an application form. The gig was cancelled a few days before we were due to play because Don Covay was booked in our place. However, through our agent, Ivan Birchall, we were asked if we could back Don. At that time, there was an issue with the Musicians Union about solo performers from abroad using their own backing musicians in the UK. We reluctantly agreed to this on the understanding that we would receive the same money that we had originally been booked for. Don Covay was travelling from London to Newcastle on the day of the gig and we were told to meet him at Newcastle Central Station that afternoon. We were to drive him to the club in Linton, which would give us three or four hours to rehearse before the performance. We didn’t know what he looked like and were worried that we would miss him in the crowd. We needn’t have worried. He was the only black man in the station and he showed up wearing a white suit, a bright red shirt, carrying a bundle of soul albums including a couple of his own. We managed to learn all the numbers on his set list within a couple of hours and that evening he went down a storm. Strangely, it wasn’t his own hits that went down the best. The number that brought the house down was Don’s version of Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’, which we had to play three times to keep the crowd happy.
A few weeks later we got call from our agent. Don Covay wanted us to back him at a gig in Nottingham. This time our agent also booked in Sneeze as a separate act to do a warm up slot before Don’s set. The gig was in a club on the banks of the river Trent in a converted boathouse and, unlike the Linton gig, it was full of ardent soul fans. The progressive music of Sneeze didn’t go down well with the crowd and this time, because we had not managed to fit a rehearsal in before the show, the backing we provided could have been better. However, Don seemed reasonably happy and a friend he had brought with him, who he introduced as Clarence “Frogman” Henry said he liked the band and in particular the horn section; quote – “Hey man – I like that brass!”
Was the black soul singer we backed on the two occasions the real Don Covay? Our Don was definitely American, he was a good singer and his renditions of ‘See Saw’ and ‘Mercy Mercy’ sounded just like the records. But that didn’t make him the genuine article. The DJ at the Nottingham club definitely thought he was an impostor. He had a 1966 Don Covay album with a photograph showing the artist as being slightly chubby around the face. Our Don was quite thin and he looked very uncomfortable when he saw us repeatedly looking at the picture on the album and then at him. He could, of course have lost a lot of weight in three years and I have recently seen a photo of Don Covay on YouTube which is just about how I remember the guy we backed. I guess I’ll never know the truth. However, I do know that over five years later I read about the prosecution of a London agent who had supplied phoney American soul singers to English clubs, one being a Don Covay!
In 1969 a Newcastle hypnotist called Romark (real name Ronnie Markham) opened a night club called ‘Change Is’ in Bath Lane, Newcastle just off Westgate Road. The club was financed by the comedian Bob Monkhouse. ‘Change Is’ was spread over three floors which included a dance floor with a booth for the house DJ and a small stage area for visiting bands. There was also a cabaret room upstairs where Romark was the resident compere.
Sneeze played one trial gig in May 1969 followed by a week’s residency in the first week of June. The cabaret acts appearing at the club at the same time were the Spinners (the English folk band – not their Motown namesakes) and another folk group called the Settlers. In its early days a number of well known bands played at the club including Robert Fripp’s band, King Crimson, who did a week’s residency around the same time as Sneeze. ‘Change Is’ lasted a couple of years but eventually went bust. Allegedly, the late Bob Monkhouse lost all the money he invested in the club. He was reported to have said that Romark had him under hypnosis when he agreed to pour money into the venture. The venue reopened in the early seventies under the name of ‘Bloomers’.
Some other venues Sneeze played at in the early part of 1969 were: Haggerston Castle, the Locarno Ballroom in Sunderland, Newcastle’s Quay Club, the Cellar Club in Ashington, the Rex at Whitley Bay and the Mayfair Ballroom in Newcastle.
In the summer of ’69 Tom Hill decided he wanted to start his own band and left Sneeze to form a band called ‘Blondie’ with a drummer called Keith Fisher. One of the last gigs the band did with the original line up was at the Town Moor in Newcastle in front of a crown of around 10,000 music fans. Also playing that day were the Junco Partners and another Newcastle band on the verge of success – Ginhouse
Photos taken at the Newcastle Town Moor concert: –
Tom and Ray were replaced by Gateshead bassist George “Stodge” Otigbah and Mick Balls, a guitarist from North Shields. At the same time the band added new songs to the repertoire including material from Spirit, Chicago Transit Authority, Richie Havens and Keef Hartley. As well as being a first class bassist, Stodge was also an accomplished songwriter so at this stage the band started to include original material in the sets.
Not long after Stodge and Mick joined the band, we were booked to play at Dunelm House, part of Durham University’s student’s union, supporting Free. The other support band that night was Tom Hill’s new band, Blondie. At that time Free had not had any chart success but they were rapidly gaining popularity and already had a huge fan base in the North East, in particular in Sunderland. They hadn’t been on television a lot but I knew all about them and what they looked like because of coverage in the music press (NME, Sounds and Melody Maker). Dunelm was packed that night and Free put on a great show.
I read recently on Wikepedia that, according to Free’s ex-drummer, Simon Kirke, Andy Fraser had written ‘All Right Now’ in the dressing room at that particular gig after their set had failed to excite the audience. As far as I remember they got a good reception from the Durham students but it may not have been what they were used to.
Sneeze’s last gig in 1969 on New Year’s eve was at a notorious pub in Consett, County Durham called the Freemason’s Arms. None of the band wanted to do the gig because of its awful reputation, but our agent insisted and, because the money was good, it went ahead. As well as beer, the pub also served up pies. One of its peculiarities was to have knives and forks fixed to the bar on short chains so that they couldn’t be used as weapons in the frequent fights that broke out there. We had decided to play ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as the clock was counting down for the New Year and I had written down the horn parts for the occasion. There had been no trouble all night and the crowd seemed in a good mood. Just before midnight, Jimmy and I put the Auld Lang Syne music sheets on the Hammond organ and turned our back on the audience so we could read the parts. After playing a verse we noticed that people had stopped singing. When we turned around we saw that the whole place had erupted in violence. All the men in the place were knocking the daylights out of each other. A lot of girls were trying to get on the high stage to escape. We managed to get our girlfriends off the dance floor and into the dressing room upstairs where we boarded ourselves up until the police arrived.
Photos taken at the Mayfair Ballroom, Newcastle in December 1969: –
Pierre Pedersen left the band early in 1970. We decided not to replace him and carried on as a six piece without a Hammond organ. Unfortunately, Pierre also used to drive the band’s Transit van.
Geographically we were quite spread out; Rod lived at Alnwick, Stodge and Brian at Gateshead, Mick at North Shields, Jimmy near Houghton-le-Spring and me at Sunderland. The distance from Rod’s home in the North to Jimmy’s in the South was around 60 miles.
Before a gig, most of the band would meet at a pub called the Market Lane on Pilgrim Street, Newcastle (not far from the Tyne Bridge) and wait for the van to arrive.
One day when I was walking from Newcastle Central Station to the Market Lane a van stopped and the driver asked me in a Brummy accent if I knew if there was any music shops open at that time of the evening. I was carrying my saxophone case so he probably thought I was in the know. He said that he was in a band and that his drummer had no drum sticks for their gig in Newcastle that evening. It was well after 6.00pm so I said that there was probably nothing open that late in the day. I told him that I was in a band myself and our drummer could possibly help out. The occupants of the van squeezed up and I hopped in and directed the driver towards the Market Lane. During the short journey I asked who the band was, to which someone replied “Black Sabbath”. They were not, of course, that well known back in those days and were actually playing as a support band that night.
In view of the logistical problems of dropping people at home after each gig, we decided to look for somewhere central to rent and eventually found a suitable semi in the west end of Newcastle in Clifton Road. Four of us moved into the property on a permanent basis, Jimmy stayed occasionally and Brian decided he would prefer the comfort of his parent’s home in Gateshead. Living together and having our own place gave us a lot more time to practice and learn new material, concentrating on Stodge’s own songs.
Throughout 1970 the band played at places like the Mayfair Ballroom, Newcastle University, Change Is, the Viking at Seahouses, the Rex at Whitley Bay and even a few gigs in Scotland. We shared the stage with some famous bands – the Love Affair, Juicy Lucy and Hot Chocolate.
One memorable gig was at a Durham University Students Union dance supporting a little known band at that time called Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets. The gig was in a small students union building in a narrow street very near to Durham Cathedral called South Bailey. The Sunsets were accompanied by their manager who introduced the band in a phoney American accent – “it’s nice to be here at your high school hop”. For the rest of the evening the manager also acted as a compare and sometimes sang and danced on stage, sharing the limelight with Shakin’ Stevens.
Ten years or so later Shakin’ Stevens would become a household name with his hits ‘This Old House’ and ‘Green Door’.
Also in 1970 we auditioned at the Change Is nightclub, Bath Lane, Newcastle with several other local bands for a spot on a north east regional program featuring Newcastle bands and singers. As a result of the audition we went to the BBC’s Maida Vale Studio in London and recorded half a dozen songs. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get a copy of the tapes nor did we hear the recordings when they were played on the radio.
Early in 1971, two years after Sneeze formed, some of the members thought that Sneeze had gone as far as it could go in the north east and a joint decision was made to split up.
The band’s final gig was at the Rex Hotel, Whitley Bay on 8th March 1971.
On 27th September 2014 some members of Sneeze got back together for a one-off reunion gig at The Clav Club, Dunston, Gateshead, 43 years after the band’s last performance. The ‘reunited’ band consisted of Pierre Pedersen, Roger Smith and Jimmy Hall from the original line-up; Mick Ball on guitar; Rod Foggon (the band’s second vocalist) plus guest drummer Steve Ross and guest bassist Keith Tulip. The band played songs from their 1971 set list to a sell-out audience and received a great response.
Here’s a Youtube video taken on the night: –
Here’s another video from the band’s 2016 reunion gig: –