STEAMHAMMER OUTSIDE THEIR NOTTING HILL SQUAT. LEFT TO RIGHT: DRUMMER MIKE RUSHTON, BASSIST STEVE DAVY, GUITARIST MARTIN QUITTENTON, GUITARIST MARTIN PUGH, SINGER KIERAN WHITE.
Of the hundreds of bands Worthing has given the world, a few have gone on to international success. This century the likes of Royal Blood and The Ordinary Boys carved a name for themselves (the Time Machine will reach them eventually), but they were far from the first.
REWIND THE CLOCK FURTHER and one of the town’s first notable breakout groups was Steamhammer.
Formed in 1968 and peaking in 1970, Steamhammer were a blues rock outfit whose song ‘Junior’s Wailing’ is credited with persuading Status Quo to give up pop in favour of the heads-down boogie for which they became famous. Steamhammer bassist Steve Davy still lives in Worthing. This month – and next – he takes the Time Machine deep into his past.
Davy was born in Worthing Hospital at the end of 1950, his father a Fleet Street journalist and his mother a housewife. The family moved to Hove when he was two but returned to Worthing when he was 11. His brother David, eight years older, was a rock’n’roller and Steve absorbed his music collection. Not particularly academic he was, nonetheless, an avid popular music fan, buying a bass guitar at 14. When he left West Tarring Secondary School a year later, he was already gigging with a rock’n’roll band, The Martells
“At some point I felt myself going in a different direction,” says Steve, “I was listening to groups playing the Assembly Hall, like Cream, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers. That was where I wanted to go.”
The complexity of The Martells’ gradual mutation into mod outfit The Race, theninto Mo’s Blues Quarter, then into The Steam Hammer Blues Band, and finally into Steamhammer is too tangled to unravel here, although it’s worth noting that original singer Chris Slade named the band before leaving to finish college. By late 1968 Steamhammer had established themselves as a force to be reckoned with on the local gig circuit but knew they could be more. Thus Steve Davy, new singer Kieran White, guitarist Chris Aylmer, and manager Barry Taylor upped sticks and headed for London, leaving the rest of the band behind, unable to relocate due to “girlfriends and jobs”.
“We put our things in the back of a Bedford Dormobile without anywhere to go, toothbrush plus amplifiers and guitars, and headed off,” Steve recalls.
They soon settled in a Notting Hill, then a hive of countercultural activity (“We started off paying rent normally then the landlady died and it became a squat with all sorts of weird people staying”) and replaced Aylmer with guitarist Martin Pugh (Aylmer later formed metal outfit Samson which included future Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson). They also added classical guitarist Martin Quittenton to their line-up, then practiced and gigged relentlessly, eventually signing to CBS Records who released their self-titled debut album inMarch 1969. Also known as ‘Reflection’, it’s a vibrant Canned Heat-style electric blues beano.
A month later they were chosen as the backing group for a 21 date UK tour by American bluesman Freddie King. King’s incendiary guitar playing was a key influence on the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton so the job was prestigious.
“We rehearsed in a London pub,” Steve recalls, “He only gave us 20 minutes then said, ‘That’ll be fine – you’ve got the feeling,’ so we turned up to play gigs without quite knowing what was going to happen. He’d just yell out the key of the number, count it in, and we’d be away. Freddie King a huge man who wore a different-coloured suit every night. He had a bottle of Scotch in his dressing room and each night he’d drink most of it before he’d play. Onstage he was a ball of fire, he’d get every sound out of each note, a tremendous character with huge stage presence, but a warm and friendly man. It was a fantastic experience which also gave us publicity that put our name around.”
For the tour the band were joined by drummer Mickey Waller who had been in the Jeff Beck Group and stayed in for Steamhammer for a while afterwards.
“He was a close friend of Rod Stewart and arranged for Rod and Ronnie Wood to watch us play one night at the 100 Club,” remembers Steve, “This resulted in Martin Quittenton leaving to join Rod, playing guitar on his first three solo albums, and eventually writing ‘Maggie May’ and ‘You Wear It Well’. It made Martin quite wealthy. Rod wanted him to join The Faces and go to America but Martin was a quiet backroom boy, really, and didn’t want to go through all that razzmatazz so he ended up retiring.”
After Quittenton’s departure Steamhammer felt they needed new blood to revitalize things for their second LP. Steve Joliffe, a flute and sax-playing eccentric who’d already spent time in an early line-up of Tangerine Dream, entered the fold. With a newly tweaked sound they started to break big in Germany, playing larger venues and longer tours, backed by what is now their best-known tune, ‘Junior’s Wailing’.
“Joliffe’s stage persona went down really well with the Germans,” says Steve, “The group would stop playing at an agreed point during a number and he would run around the auditorium playing incredibly quirky sax on his own, sometimes without his shirt on. We also had a new drummer in Mick Bradley, an extrovert who added real power to our sound.”
‘Junior’s Wailing’ became a hit in Germany, forging a connection between the country and Steamhammer. Status Quo were so taken with the song that, alongside The Doors’ ‘Roadhouse Blues’, they credited it with helping forge the rockin’ rhythm’n’blues boogie that carried them through the next decades. They even recorded it on their third album, ‘Ma Kelly’s Greasy Spoon’.
By mid-1969 Steamhammer were on their way…
Next month, in Part 2, read about Steamhammer’s tour with Led Zeppelin, their festival days, their best-loved album, ‘Mountains’, and their eventual split.