Lookback rekindles the fire in Leamington and Warwick’s musical belly

Punks, Ozzy Ozbourne and the district council all played a role in shaping a local scene that made waves much further afield. Fire in the Belly retraces the groove over five decades.

Early Varukers Bath Place
Punk disruptors The Varukers at the former Bath Place Community Centre in Leamington

The sights, sounds and packed dancefloors that put Leamington Spa and Warwick on Britain’s musical map over the course of five decades have been brought to life in a new book. Fire in the Belly pays homage to the movers and shakers who helped shape genres such as blues, rock and skiffle and three waves of punk as well as the record stores, gigs and venues. Focussing on the period between 1950 and 2000, the book weaves together many aspects of musical life in the towns which made their influences felt way beyond Warwickshire.

Musical pacesetters included rock and rollers Woody Allen and the Challengers and punk band The Shapes while Banco De Gaia, the Edgar Broughton Band and The Varukers were among the acts who established themselves in the national scene. Many of the surprising and often bizarre stories from the period are told in print for the first time, preserving a musical heritage that had been in danger of being forgotten. Co-authors Jim Layton and Keith Hancock carried out interviews and research to trace the road from Arthur Renton’s antiquarian book, gramophone and music shop opening in 1957 to just short of Nizlopi laying claim to Leamington’s first number one single in 2005 with the JCB Song.

Jim said: “The musical landscape in Leamington and Warwick over the 50 years was a place of incredible change and development, from skiffle in the youth clubs in the 1950s through to the complexities of music harnessing world sources and new digital elements in the 1990s. Our towns have punched well above their weight in music-making, with national interest coming Leamington’s way in the 1980s and 1990s. We hope to pay respect to all those involved, not only the musicians but the shops, fans and promoters, and to tell some lively stories.”

“Over the 50 years there was some massive creativity and innovation from two relatively small towns, and some villages, in the heart of Warwickshire”
Rocking Chair Blues Band
The Rocking Chair Blues Band were among local acts in the 60s

The towns played host to balls, big dances and receptions, a 24-hour ‘jiving marathon’, the council’s Pop O Tec venue, mini-festivals on the Campion Hills and sometimes raucous ‘Twang and Twist’ rock-pop concerts. The Edgar Broughton Band – one of John Peel’s favourite live acts – are a name already familiar to many blues and rock fans. But some of the more off-beat and bizarre episodes from the town’s musical tapestry are also relived, including when co-author Keith’s former band, The Jay Bee Kay Peys, managed to win over an expectant 350-strong crowd who had turned up to see the Bee Gees after a case of mis-advertising. The Leamington band, who rolled out a few covers, still hold the record  for attendance at the Pump Rooms. More rebellious and disruptive times followed with progressive rock in the 1970s, with the decade opening courtesy of a performance by Black Sabbath at the Jephson Pavillion in the Jephson Gardens.

Legend has it that Ozzy Osbourne got his vermin-biting idea when the noise and vibration from the band scared river rats who ran across the stage – some as big as a cat. Punk’s arrival also upset the genteel order of things, with names such as The Shapes being among the ‘first wave’ that arrived in the mid-1970s.

The authors go back through the doors of The Crown Hotel in Leamington’s High Street, a place of incredible importance in the evolution of blues and rock music in the town where a sense of camaraderie extended across gigs, workshops and a cricket club. Many other pubs, cafes, haunts and characters, all with their quirks, contributions and eccentricities, are explored in the book.

Reopened and supporting local music – Head records on Facebook

Keith said: “Over the 50 years there was some massive creativity and innovation from two relatively small towns, and some villages, in the heart of Warwickshire. What is striking is not only the enthusiasm and motivation of the musicians but the supportive infrastructure. There are lots of examples where music was enabled by schools and teachers, youth clubs and groups, record and music shops, parental support, musicians’ workshops, readily-available venues, local recording studios and willingness of people, especially the young, to turn out to hear new sounds. Despite digital technology and the internet, many of these elements are still around and the town still has some fire in the belly.”

Main close cropped
Authors Keith Hancock (l) and Jim Layton with Head’s Simon Dullenty

Fire in the Belly will be stocked at the newly-reopened Head music shop in Leamington Spa, which is keen to back the local scene. Owner Simon Dullenty, who also worked at the former Fopp store, said: “It’s important to have the connection with your local community. Leamington has an independent vibe to it and we stock music by local bands so what we plan to do is have a launch day where we have up-and-coming and established artists to play in the store. We’re always trying to support local music. I remember putting Nizlopi on in the old Fopp store 15 years ago. We sold the single before it became a hit so it’s an example of what can happen.”

Head has reopened in the Royal Priors’ lower precinct amid a resurgence of interest in vinyl and is supporting an ‘alternative sounds’ night featuring local acts including Roddy Radiation and Jackdaw with Crowbar at the Zephyr Lounge on September 29.

Alternative sounds live on as local bands share bill at Zephyr Lounge

Simon said: “The customer reaction has been fantastic, people are coming up to us and saying how happy they are that we’ve reopened. A lot of people have started to buy vinyl which has been an upward trend since Record Store Day started and it’s a reaction to the internet. This is almost the opposite of what’s happening with music on the internet and shops like these have a niche market. We’re not about to be millionaires and retire any time soon, but people are interested in buying the physical product and just browsing. It’s not a phone shop, it’s not a coffee shop, it’s something different, and people like that.”

*Fire in the Belly will be available from Head, Kenilworth Books, Warwick Books and Waterstone’s Leamington from Wednesday July 25. For orders and queries contact fireinthebelly2018@gmail.com

Author: Much Ado Warwickshire

A celebration of old and new in Shakespeare's county. Regular updates on world-renowned and lesser-known attractions with plays, walks and cakes galore.

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