Last month the Time Machine followed Steve Davey from his Worthing childhood to London and the initial success of Steamhammer, the band for whom he played bass. After guitarist Martin Quittenton quit to work with Rod Stewart, we left the band in mid-1969 with a line-up consisting of vocalist Kieran White, guitarist Martin Pugh, drummer Mick Bradley and newly joined flute-playing eccentric Steve Joliffe. In August they returned to their home town for a free open air gig in Beach House Gardens, put on by local countercultural sorts the Worthing Workshop.
“People come up to me even today to say they were there,” chuckles Davy, who still lives in the town. “John Peel agreed to play records, but he pulled out so it was just us in the end. It was a memorable night. I remember Ian Grant and John May of the Workshop hammering away at pallets until the last minute to make a stage.”
A couple of monthslater Steamhammer hit Holland, supporting a fast-rising outfit called Led Zeppelin.
“That was daunting, yes,” says Davey, “I had one or two drinks before going onstage. The audience were waiting just for Led Zeppelin, so the ‘Hammer had to warm them up and win them over, which we did, actually. There were three gigs. We had a bit of difficulty at a place called the Circus in Scheveningen. We were all set up to play. There were curtains on the stage with all Led Zep’s equipment behind them, but just as we were about to start, John Bonham started to test out his drum kit at full wallop. We were standing there like dummies waiting for him to stop. Someone had to go back and tell him to pack it in.”
In November 1969, Steamhammer released their second album ‘Mk II’ which, with Joliffe’s influence, saw them pursue a more prog rock direction. After his brief contribution, however, he left to join Tangerine Dream. Steamhammer, undaunted, continued as a four-piece, gigging relentlessly in the UK, Europe, even touring the States. They crossed paths regularly with the likes of Jethro Tull, Genesis, Free and especially Irish bluesman Rory Gallagher. On one occasion, at the 1970 Plumpton Festival, they topped the bill over Family, a bigger band, and received a rapturous reception, a memory Kieran White always held dear.
“We sometimes took the van right up north for a gig, then were back at 6.00am going to bed,” Davy recalls, “then back up at midday shooting off 300 miles somewhere else. The gigs weren’t very well planned out. Sometimes we’d play twice a night, stopping in to play Middle Earth at the Roundhouse at 2.00am.”
Regarding sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll, Davy indicates Steamhammer may have dabbled but no more, regarding themselves “as music students, practicing hard, learning our craft.” Although he admits “waking up one morning in Münster, looking outside my window and seeing a camel, thinking, ‘Did I have a few too many drinks last night?’ In fact, the hotel backed onto a zoo but I wasn’t too sure for a minute.”
Steamhammer’s third album ‘Mountains’ was released in autumn 1970 and showcases a well-oiled musical machine. It acknowledges prog but goes back to their raw blues roots. One side was recorded live at the Lyceum (at a gig where they were supported by Black Sabbath!). It’s generally acknowledged as their best work and Steve Davy agrees, citing their extended cover of Lionel Hampton’s ‘Riding on the L&N’ as his Steamhammer favourite.
The band continued to tour, but it was becoming too much. Years on the road had taken their toll. In April 1971 Davy decided to rest in Worthing, but after two weeks the band told him if he didn’t come back they’d get someone else. He didn’t come back. A few months later frontman White also quit.
“Rather ironically, we were at our peak when things started to go wrong,” recalls Davy. “The most money, the best hotels, but with all the travelling the spark went out of the group. We’d gone a bit stale, we weren’t rehearsing, just turning up for gigs and playing, no new numbers going on.”
Steamhammer went on to record a final album, ‘Speech’, a noodling, jammed and mostly vocal-free affair, which came out in spring 1971. Before it appeared, tragedy struck as drummer Mick Bradley died suddenly of leukaemia aged only 25. The band limped on until 1973 when Quittenton briefly rejoined and they became the short-lived unit Axis.
“Life after Steamhammer was a bit strange,” says Davy, “I took a rest from the music biz, got back to ordinary jobs and quite enjoyed them: a job in a wine shop, I worked for Woolworths, the council, and so on, ever since.”
Guitarist Martin Pugh moved to California and almost had success with Armageddon, fronted by Keith Relf of The Yardbirds, until the latter’s death in 1976. He lives there to this day. Drummer Mike Rushton (see Part 1) went on to success in France with the band Les Innocents. Martin Quittenton turned down an offer to join The Faces and retired to Anglesey in the late 70s, living quietly off the proceeds of hits he wrote for Rod Stewart (including ‘Maggie May’). Less happily, singer Kieran White moved to the States and recorded an album, but success didn’t come calling. He became a truck driver, dying of cancer in 1995 aged 46.
“I retired two years ago,” says Steve Davy, “I still keep my hand in on the guitar most days. It’s now a six string, not a bass, as that’s more interesting on your own; basic rock things to keep my fingers supple. I used to jam with a group called Woodbine in Brighton in the 70s and 80s, but although I’ve made a few attempts at music I never got the same thing back from it. Sometimes when I think of Steamhammer, it does seem unreal.”
Steamhammer ended long ago, but their music is still available on CD and online. For fans of blues-rock and prog, the Time Machine recommends listening to ‘Mountains’ and working from there. The ‘Hammer still hits!
By Thomas H Green
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