Audley Road winds gently uphill in the unassuming Gosforth area of Newcastle-on-Tyne, lined with modest red brick terraced houses and close to the Gosforth Hotel at which venue Sting had commenced his performing career with Last Exit, before leaving for London to join a “punk band”, to the general derision of the locals.
Roy McCalvey had lived in the area for some years after his parents had settled in Newcastle, and like many adolescent boys growing up in the 1970s, music was a central part of his life. At 14 he had started playing guitar and writing songs, and at that time folk clubs provided an outlet for those wishing to make music, so Roy began to perform and record.
“After college I did a year in London teaching, then when I returned I bought a sound-on-sound tape recorder and started to put songs down, bass, drums, fuzz guitar and so on, a wah pedal for sounds. Up to that time I had sung hundreds of times in folk clubs and was an OK singer, and I was a songwriter creating versions of my songs on the early multi-tracking thing, full of hiss after bouncing tracks four or five times. I sent loads of reel to reel to music publishers but got little response
“I’d been goalkeeper for the college team, and John D was the left fullback. We played many years together, and he must have heard me at the folk club at college or saw me singing and playing in the common room and offered to play drums if I was recording anytime, having been the drummer for bands at school.
“One day we were in my parents’ front room. I said I was going to start a band and did he want to drum? He started to add drums to my stuff that I would send out: we used bongos as drums, knitting needles with elastoplast tips as drum sticks and a brass cigarette ash tray as a cymbal! I’m sure Ringo Starr started in much the same way. He and I put £40 together to buy a set of real drums – red colour I recall – shortly after.”
In 1975 a house came up for sale in Audley Road, No. 10, and Roy bought it, encouraged by his father who was of the opinion that it was time for his son to fly the nest, and by the conviction that this would be an ideal location for a band to rehearse. The house had been divided into two flats and Roy bought both, taking the ground floor for himself and renting out the upstairs part. All was set for Roy to realise his ambition to form a band.
Leo McCabe – a friend from college who had performed with Roy in small groups who sang by all accounts with a “lovely Irish brogue” – was swiftly recruited as lead singer and acoustic guitarist.
Tony Coyle lived near to Johnny D in Wallsend, and Johnny had met Tony’s sister at a dance a couple of years previously and eventually married her. The two men got to know each other and Johnny introduced him to Roy:
“So he told me he had a brother-in-law who can sing, and as he also did a bit of lead on acoustic guitar he became our lead guitarist and played acoustic rhythm. I had a bass that I had started to use on recordings; I didn’t want to play it but it was the missing piece of my own jigsaw puzzle so I had no real choice. I would play bass. And the band was born, called ‘Caught in the Act’.”
The final member of the band joined on Tony’s recommendation:
“Paddy joined shortly after we started gigging, in 1976. Tony told us ‘he’s a really good guitarist’, so he was in, and they brought ‘Just a Kid’ by Hall and Oates to the table, having learned it when mates at college. Then two weeks and a couple of rehearsals after Paddy joined, Tony said ‘Paddy writes really good songs’. So we listened, and you know? We couldn’t believe our ears. Tony wasn’t wrong.”
The band rehearsed in Roy’s front room, a couple of times a week when they could manage it.
“Paddy was always first to turn up at rehearsals and that was when we spoke the most, during that twenty minutes before the rest turned up. Faron Young ‘Four in the Morning’ had been a big a hit a few years before. But it stayed in the charts for weeks and weeks and Paddy and I HATED it and would joke about it in those times. God that record stuck like something nasty to the toilet bowl. Obviously it all made a bad impression on Paddy because he immortalised it in his own song.
“When I opened the door, Paddy would hold a hand up in a Roman type salute and say ‘Hail, McCalvus’, and I would retort ‘Patricia!’ in way of greeting, before letting him in. Always. Such innocent times.
“Paddy was a lovely bloke without any sides to him. An awesome guitarist. I was thankful for his rhythm work as I was not a real musician as a bassist and he filled in so much of the sound.”
“Must have annoyed the neighbours, but I had a bed in the rehearsal room which folded into an L shape when we put it on its side. We used it as a drum booth and put Johnny D and the drums in the 90 degree crook of the elbow, the mattress was on the wall so he was surrounded on three sides. Doubt it stopped any noise, though. Poor Sheila next door. I don’t think she actually knocked on the walls but we wouldn’t have heard if she did. She did show disapproval of noise with a comment or two in the street, though. An ex tiller girl lived upstairs and she used to kick to the music. She was in her Seventies.
“At no time did anyone sit down with the others and say ‘what do we want?’. I just assumed we were aiming for the top. I thought once we got a good set we would record. Recording then meant an expensive studio. Although Paddy did say a couple of times that music was all he was going to do.”
Paddy’s first gig with ‘Caught in the Act’ as at a student hall of residence at Longbeaton. There was to be one further change in the line-up however before ‘Avalon’ became a settled band:
“For some reason though, after Leo got into the band he’d tell me that he wasn’t going home to Ireland at half term and full term so we could do the band, but he always went home and refused rehearsals in the final week of term before half and full term. So really it was strangling the band: ages of inactivity. Also, there were no mobile phones then, so when he got back from Ireland it would take me at least a week to track him down and I didn’t always have a car. And he’d disappear some nights, and it turned out he was singing for drinks in Irish clubs around and about. So he left, and we became Avalon. John changed the name because he’d picked ‘Caught in the Act’ and didn’t like it, then he pushed for Avalon and didn’t like that either!”
And so Avalon was formed, and Paddy McAloon found himself as guitarist, sometime singer, and contributing songwriter in a four piece gigging band. This was a very different setup to what Prefab Sprout would become; all the other members wrote songs to some degree, and this was very much Roy McCalvey and Johnny D’s band. But it provided a vehicle for some of Paddy’s songs to be taken to the stage for the first time.
Roy has kept a few tapes of performances, demo’s and rehearsals, and it’s striking how fully formed Paddy’s songs were already. The arrangements of ‘Tiffany’s’ and ‘Walk On’ included on the tapes are essentially unchanged from the later recorded versions, and Roy and the other members of Avalon were impressed by the quality of his work.
“Tiffany’s had a simple bass line that really took off in the middle eight. Paddy always showed me what bass to play on his songs and other peoples sometimes. No ego, we were just a bunch of guys helping one another to get the job done. Tiffany’s was the one of his I enjoyed playing the most.
“‘Walk on’. Say no more. Think when I heard this, first time he played us his stuff at his audition, the hairs went up on my neck and I knew what was in the room. Burt Bacharach. Once said to him. ‘You know Paddy, I’m a pretty good songwriter, but you’re brilliant!’ Not wrong there.
“Two more songs I remember: Marble Halls and Strange Silhouettes. When we did these I knew we were onto another level, it was our Sergeant Pepper.”
‘Strange Silhouettes’ was later released as a Prefab Sprout B Side with changed lyrics and a lead vocal from Wendy as ‘Silhouettes’. On the original demo it’s rasping, and confident and in a surviving live recording it builds to a tremendous crescendo. ‘Marble Halls’ is a strange, rambling, seven minute song, which if anything recalls mid 1970s progressive rock, singing of “Bill and Ben and the porcelain men’ and a journey through the gloomy marble halls of the title, to a room with a fireplace where “nothing ever burns”.
Paddy also collaborated on writing duties for songs for other band members:
“‘Screaming’ was lyrics and a tune Johnny D brought to rehearsal one evening and Paddy was in conclave in the corner of the room with him for at least half an hour, working out the chords for him.
“Paddy once came to rehearsal and in a moment said ‘Listen to this. I can’t do a thing with it’, like he’d been washing his hair or something. It was a lovely bit of guitar so I said ‘please let me finish it, we need stuff for the set’. He said OK and within a week we were rehearsing it. I added lyrics but we both helped with the tune. This was ‘Coming Home’. We were changing from the pre-Paddy group and wanted anything where we weren’t switching guitars on stage like something from a Marx brothers film! Tony did vocals and I screeched out of tune along with him – how he must have relished having my contribution in his ear as he tried to keep in tune.”
The other songs in Avalon’s set were a mixture of band and individual compositions and cover songs
“We were all songwriters, but we did a few covers. ‘Sweet Jane’ by Lou Reed. All bands had a few songs like this to pad out the set – two chords and easy to do! We did ‘Knocking on Heavens Door’, ‘Brown Sugar’, Tony busting a gut on vocals. God, we also did ‘Honky Tonk Women’. John remembers doing a drum solo in the middle of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Rock’n Roll at a pub near Fenham Hall Drive. The end of the solo led into the start of Honky Tonk Woman. Paddy was note perfect on covers like Free’s ‘Wishing Well’ and ‘Alright now’ so we did those. And Paddy and Tonys’ Hall and Oates cover, ‘Just a Kid’. The Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ ‘Country Girl’.
“My songs: ‘Fly like an Eagle’ and ‘Emergency’. Both written on bass. I’d started to think ‘oh well, I’m stuck with playing bass, better start writing on the damn thing’. ‘Hey Lord’, all my bands played it.
“Then there were Tony’s songs: ‘Ellie’ was one. And ‘Blue Eyes’. I’d forgotten how much I liked Tony’s stuff. He played acoustic. Throaty bar chords.”
The band set off around the local circuit of pubs and small venues, eventually replacing folk singer Pete Scott at the Bay Hotel in Whitley Bay for a short residency. Sue Dyer who was living with friends in a shared flat in the town recalls seeing them there:
“I can’t remember many other people beyond our little crowd being there the first night and some friends of the band who were there to lend moral support. I can’t totally remember but I think the cover charge should have been 40p. As it was the first night and such a low turn out we were let in free that night. I can’t recall too much about the group apart from the main guitar/vocalist called Paddy, who we were very impressed by.”
Roy also remembers the Bay Hotel residency:
“Our gigs at the Bay Hotel were in the summer of 1977, a large upstairs room. We were flying and playing quite well by then, I think. I recall Paddy played a beautiful solo acoustic song ‘The Waltz’ during one of our sets at the Bay Hotel. I waltzed with a girl in the audience who I picked out at random as Paddy played. Thank God she didn’t turn me down. Another time we were about to play and Paddy burst into the opening riff of ‘Pretty Vacant’ – in the charts at the time – the audience was disappointed when he stopped after a few bars because we didn’t know it. We had smallish attendances except for about three of about seven gigs at the Bay. Erratic attendance ended the run.
“At the Bay we did an Eagles track, would have been ‘One of These Nights’. I remember now that the bass was a bitch to play.
“Paddy’s brother was basically always in the background. Martin once came to see us play. We weren’t introduced; I don’t suppose you like to introduce your kid brother? There was a dark haired guy with him, maybe the drummer? My cheap nasty chipboard black painted box with a twelve inch speaker in it was acting up, sounding like wet fish being slapped on a face and Martin thought it hilarious.”
Sue Dyer remembers seeing the band at another concert locally:
“The last night Avalon performed at the Bay Hotel someone asked us if we’d like to go along and watch them gig at an open day at a local mental hospital, Prudhoe Hospital. We met up and went along on the Saturday morning. The grounds of the hospital were large, it was a lovely sunny day, so we sat on the grass in a good position to watch the band. I still remember thinking that they were brilliant live, and the sound was great, especially for an open-air gig. In the afternoon there was tea laid on for performers and helpers. Since we were ‘hey, we’re with the band’ that day, we had tea and sarnies in a dismal looking canteen with the guys. We hung around the rest of the afternoon since Avalon were supposed to be playing at the dance in the evening. Another group turned up who said they’d been booked so Avalon packed up their gear and prepared to leave. As I think we’d been there supposedly to help I remember I carried a cymbal stand to the van! A roadie for Avalon!”
The band moved on to another residency at the Corner House in Whitley Bay playing songs such as ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ to largely disinterested restaurant eaters until the early hours of the morning, and the journey home was via Dipton, Witton Gilbert to drop Paddy off, Gosforth and eventually Wallsend, a long journey:
“We were taking Paddy home to Witton Gilbert after a gig. It was late, and inky black and we were all in the band van. Now the van was old and iffy, shagged exhaust, baldy tyres, questionable MOT, so when a Policeman came out of the dark on the brow of a hill surrounded by hedges and flagged us down, we were bricking it in case he took it straight off the road and told us to walk home… Came the challenge from the voice of the law in the darkness: ‘HELP ME SHOO THESE COWS BACK INTO THEIR FIELD LADS, ELSE THERE’LL BE AN ACCIDENT’. So we did. He said thanks and waved us off. AAAAAAAAAAAAArgh!”
Despite the regular performances, attendance at concerts was patchy, and enthusiasm within the band was waning. The second last Avalon gig was at the Chillingham in Heaton:
“It was the catalyst for the end. No one turned up (well, two people did) and I told Paddy I was sick of attending little attended gigs and felt like packing it in. I doubt this hurt Paddy at all, more that he thought ‘oh well, this band is ending – go NOW’. Paddy and his brother had some money from the petrol station whereas I and the drummer were unlikely to pack in teaching jobs to do the band and we had mortgages and no spare cash for recording. Also I was NOT a bassist. Paddy would have wanted his brother who was a great bassist. Johnny was head of art at a local college- good salary. All these factors come into play, I think. Anyway Paddy phoned John and said he was leaving.
“The last gig was at the Customs House the quayside, Rock against Racism. The joke amongst other local bands was ‘has anyone ever seen Avalon?’. Joke on them really. They’re probably all working at B&Q on the checkouts and Paddy made a big mark in the music world. It still hurts, you know. Our band was pretty stupid. We should have heard Paddy’s stuff then cleared the decks of our crap so as to accommodate a unique sound and obvious success.”
All the same, this wasn’t the the end of the Avalon story:
“Anyway, I got other musicians into the band, including Steve Daggett, later in Lindisfarne, and when Avalon MK 2 was a few weeks into its residency at the Hawthorne – we were doing great there for six months or so, mostly full up every week, even had support acts who usually weren’t better than us – Paddy and Tony came to see us. I ignored them because I was annoyed with Paddy anyhow and I’d been chasing my tail months before to try and get Tony to join the new band and he didn’t return calls, I felt he could have just said. ‘No, Roy. I’m waiting to form a band with Paddy’ or something.
“So that night, Paddy said to John: ‘Roy has really improved as a bass player’. I felt really good about this until a month or so later when I realised it was a backhanded compliment. I WAS CRAP IN THE FIRST AVALON! Praise or slight? Praise definitely because Paddy was as nice a person as you could hope to meet.
“Prefab Sprout were, I think, at Balmbras down the Bigg market and also doing well. I guess they won that race! I’ve not listened to much of the Sprouts stuff because I realised what we’d lost when he went.”
Paddy was not just walking away from Avalon though. In taking the decision to continue his own career in his own band, he was also to leave his friend Tony Coyle behind as a collaborator, although the two men remained close friends. Tony was to become a history teacher, very popular with his students, and often spoke of his association with Paddy McAloon and Prefab Sprout, rather to their amusement.
Following the eventual demise of the second incarnation of Avalon Roy and John D also became teachers, although Roy continued and indeed still continues to make music; Leo McCabe who had briefly shared the stage with Paddy sadly died young from cancer.
The final reflections on the short Avalon chapter of Paddy’s career are best left to Roy:
“Tony will have been mortified when Paddy didn’t include him when Prefab formed, they were really close pals. Tony was regarded as the lead singer in Avalon, and this would have been the role Tony expected for himself in the band. Johnny D told me that Tony was disappointed that Paddy – exact words – ‘hadn’t gone back for him’.”
“In all our chats before rehearsals Paddy never said ‘This band is what I am about – onwards to greatness with you guys’, but he did, as I’ve mentioned, tell me a couple of times that music was what it was all about for him, the most important thing in life, what he would be doing for his allotted span. I realise now from that that Avalon wasn’t in the plan. We were a stepping stone – a real band with a drummer and a PA – for him.
“You should always think ‘What do I want?’, and then go for it. I think I thought I would never run out of time. But you do. I feel sorry for Paddy, read last night about his illness, very moving. Walking with a stick and ear problems? Not good! I bet he does what I do, wanders into his studio every day for a few hours and that’s it.”
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