Barrow Civic Hall (subsequently Forum 28, now the Forum) was a concert hall with decent acoustics and the venue for my earliest gig attendances. It was built in 1971 as part of a remodelled town centre, and altered in 1990 when it was renamed Forum 28. Although I saw The Sweet there on 29th May 1973 on the occasion of a friend’s birthday treat and I saw Alvin Stardust a year later when the tickets were really cheap after poor sales which made it worth going for a laugh, I also got to see Fruupp on the 14th June 1974, marking my first prog gig. For years Fruupp were largely forgotten but they are now much more highly regarded in symphonic prog-fan circles.
One more act I saw at the Civic Hall, possibly more than once, was a Cumbria-based trio called England, a band I have previously confused with Robert Webb’s England who arrived on the progressive rock scene towards the end of the ‘golden era’. The trio didn’t feature Mellotron or any other keyboards but nevertheless provided a decent evening’s entertainment, playing original material which wasn’t really prog but was well arranged and played. The band comprised of Olly Alcock (guitar, lead vocals), Ben Eggleston (bass, backing vocals), and Phil Cook (drums) and they released one album, England, in 1976. Their Barrow gigs were organised by local arts group Renaissance Theatre Trust, and I managed to get thrown off stage by the RTT director, Denis McGeary when I tried to lead a stage invasion.
Fruupp might be considered obscure because they didn’t conform to the prog-norm, daring to come from Northern Ireland rather than the south-east England dominated scene. They seemed to have a decent following in Barrow and one of the local bands, with drums provided courtesy of my friend Ian Henderson, used to perform cover versions of a couple of Fruupp songs and I borrowed at least one of the Fruupp albums from the band’s bassist. In fact both the first and second albums Future Legends and Seven Secrets were readily available in Barrow’s record shops but it took me some time before I actually bought one. My copy of Seven Secrets was obtained from Wells record store in 1977 for £2.75 – the retail price is written on the album sleeve which is one reason we didn’t often buy albums from Wells, considering the act an example of audio sacrilege. I suspect my Seven Secrets had been hanging around the store for some time and I’ve always thought it was probably one of the original pressings. It’s not some promotional or novel edition but if you hold the disc up to the light you can actually see through the vinyl which is tinted red, a phenomenon also noticeable in my copy of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, released in 1973. Seven Secrets came out in April 1974 which ties both releases to the 1973-74 oil crisis which resulted in a vinyl shortage.
Fruupp’s sound was symphonic prog, borrowing heavily from classical music. Keyboard player Stephen Houston also played oboe and they used their own string section in the studio, Future Legends Strings. The music was never over-complex but there was a fair amount of variation, including medieval sounds, and lyrics part inspired by mythology. However much I enjoyed seeing them live, it was probably the loan of the albums which prompted me to part with my cash, providing me with the time to absorb the sleeve notes penned by production coordinator and co-lyricist Paul Charles. These were right up my street – cosmic and mystic.
Barrow was not a popular destination for bands so anyone interested in seeing bigger groups had to tap into the burgeoning university circuit. I went to see Barclay James Harvest on their Time Honoured Ghosts tour at Lancaster University with a small group of school friends in a hired minibus (2nd November 1975) and helped to organise a minibus for the journey to Lancaster University to see Focus on 1st March 1976 during their Mother Focus tour. The Focus gig was memorable because it was one of the first shows following the departure of Jan Akkerman and London-born Belgian jazz guitarist Philip Catherine had been drafted in to fill the guitarist role. None of the Barrow contingent were aware of the personnel change and there was a bizarre rumour circulating that Akkerman couldn’t play because he had the ‘flu - news of his departure from Focus didn’t appear to have filtered through to the audience or the music press. I actually felt cheated that I’d not got to see the classic Focus line-up despite Catherine being more than competent, though he did seem reliant on a reel-to-reel tape machine.
Having an older brother at Leeds University was useful and I paid him a visit to see Rick Wakeman during the No Earthly Connection tour in the university refectory on 1st May 1976. I remember sitting on the floor with dry ice rolling off the stage and some low, liver-resonating notes coming from one of his Moogs, and the range of material played made it an enjoyable gig.
The train journey from Barrow to Leeds took over two hours but it turned out to be good preparation for a subsequent life of rail-dominated travel. Following Earthquake Records organised coach trips to Manchester and Liverpool for Peter Gabriel and Genesis respectively in the first few months of 1977 - the Liverpool trip was the first time I’d visited the city – I co-organised a trip to Manchester to see Gordon Giltrap with a couple of school friends that October. Barrow has poor transport connections and there were no direct trains to or from Manchester, so a change at Lancaster and/or Preston was required. Getting back to Preston after the gig involved a bit of a sprint but it goes without saying that we missed the last train to Barrow. Attempting to find anywhere to sleep on or close to Preston station was impossible, leaving the first train the next day as the only return option, eventually arriving home a little after 7am.
Gordon Giltrap in Manchester was the last gig I attended before moving to London the next year, though it wouldn’t be the last time I missed the last train home following a concert. Fortunately, the distance between Lewisham and Bexley is not too great to walk but I’ve had to miss the end of too many gigs to ensure I didn’t get stuck miles from home.