Almost famous - and having some fun

Once upon a time, a handful of Norfolk bands were poised for stardom – and if they didn’t make it, they were going to have a good time in the process. Now the musicians and fans alike have a chance to relive those memories with a new photographic exhibition.

It was a time when Norwich was the talk of music fans all over the country. In the early 1980s bands such as The Higsons and The Farmer's Boys were being championed by the late, great John Peel, and seemed on the brink of major success.

And there to capture the scene at its height was Dave Guttridge, whose evocative photographs of Norwich's bands of the time are about to go on public display.

The exhibition, Once Upon a Time in the East, opens on December 1 at the Norwich Playhouse, and is sure to stir memories in anyone who was going to gigs in Norwich then.

“It just seemed to happen that at the time there was a disproportionate amount of good and interesting bands playing around the city,” recalls Dave, who continues to work as a professional photographer.

“That got picked up at the time by John Peel and David Jensen, and Peel would come down to most of the gigs at the Gala Ballroom on St Stephen's, where Megazone is now.

“Most of the bands had Peel sessions. It gave people the impetus to put records out and realise there would be an audience.”

Most Read

Supported by local distributors Backs Records, the bands included The Higsons (whose lead singer Charlie would go on to find wider fame as a member of The Fast Show team), Screen 3, Serious Drinking, Popular Voice and The Farmer's Boys, who perhaps summed up the scene's “almost famous” nature.

“The Farmer's Boys got to number 41 in the charts and were meant to go on to Top of the Pops but at the last minute the producers gave the slot to Alphaville, who had a big hit with Big in Japan – they were one hit wonders!” said Dave, of Dover Street, Norwich.

“The Farmer's Boys were signed to EMI but never really thought of it as a proper job.”

The band also gave Dave's exhibition a title – Once Upon a Time in the East is the title of the band's album of BBC sessions and rare recordings.

As a musician himself – he currently plays bass in local blues band 4D Jones – as well as a professional photographer, Dave was well placed to capture the moment in a series of vivid pictures for his fanzine, the name of which came from some graffiti on the wall of one of the recording studios.

“I used to publish a little fanzine that was given away at gigs, called Is it Fish?”

“I happened to be at all the gigs and happened to have a camera with me. It was my job during the day and also had access to a printing press, which I used out of hours to produce the fanzine.”

This was mainly between 1981 and 1984, “when the main bulk of it happened. That led to a number of bands not as successful but as interesting as the ones earlier in the decade”.

Alongside shots from the gigs, also pictured are some musicians offstage – for instance on the Big Day Out to the coast, organised by Norwich Arts Centre, then known as Premises.

“We used to have a double-decker bus and go to Walcott,” says Dave. “It was normally there, even though it was a meant to be a mystery tour… I remember we went to Lowestoft one year, but after that we went back to Walcott!”

The irony was that if the Norwich scene never quite scaled the heights of other clusters of bands from a single city – say the Bristol “trip-hop” sound or the Manchester groups such as the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses – that may have been down to the abundance of different types of talent.

“They were very diverse: you couldn't say there was a Norwich sound,” says Dave.

“That might have been one of the failings. With Manchester groups, there was a Manchester sound: a dance beat behind rock music. But people couldn't latch on to a Norwich sound, which may have made it more difficult to get national success.”

What comes across strongly however is that the aim of the Norwich bands featured in Dave's work. was not so much national success as to produce good music and have fun as they did so.

Now those pictures will be on view for at the Playhouse in St George's Street – and as well as members of the public, Dave is looking forward to a reunion of old friends.

“We are expecting quite a lot of old faces – I have had a lot of e-mails from people who have moved to London, who are looking forward to seeing how much weight they have put on!”

t Once Upon a Time in the East runs from December 1 to January 2 at the Playhouse. Entry is free and prints are available for sale. See www.thephotounit.co.uk/onceuponatimeintheeast/

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter