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BIG FRONT YARD: A MEMOIR

There was a Birmingham (UK) based band at the start of the 1970s, Hard Meat, that released two albums on Warner Brothers Records, though being on that major label did them no good at all so far as sales were concerned. The core of the band was the Dolan Brothers, Mike (or Mick: people chose which to call him and he took no offence either way) and Steve.

In their post-Hard Meat days I knew the Dolans very well. Mike Dolan died last year, on August 2nd, from brain cancer, having survived the throat cancer he had fought against a few years earlier. Steve, the younger brother, died 15 years ago today - May 22, 2000.

I met the Dolans in 1973 when we all lived around Malvern, Worcestershire. They played a few local gigs with a changing assortment of other local musicians; I met them by going to one or two of these gigs.

At some point in 1974 they became Big Front Yard (another bad name? – anyway, taken from a sci-fi short story Mike admired) and I became their manager. They got nowhere.

When exactly they became Big Front Yard I’m not sure, but it was fixed only after Mike & his wife Sue (whose sister lived in the Napa Valley in California) went to London, supposedly for a week, so that he could rehearse with, and join, a group named Forsyth... but they came home a few days later, Forsyth having broken up. They paid Mike off with £30. This was in March 1974.

Mike Dolan in my West Malvern garden, June 1973
© Michael Gray, 2015
 

£30 was about the amount Big Front Yard were being paid for most of their gigs: £30 to be shared between the band, roadie Phil, me and the petrol for one gas-guzzling old van after another. They played all around the Birmingham area, on average once a week. It was that weary period punk soon abolished, when groups had to be fine musicians with loads of heavy-maintenance equipment just to be able to play in a pub for next to nothing. The best-paying gig was the one we promoted ourselves every couple of weeks at the Foley Arms Hotel in Malvern.

Mike was the leader of the group, lead guitarist and lead vocalist. He and Sue lived down a winding hill just outside West Malvern, in a cottage that had once been a country pub and was still called The Bell, with Jesse, their very Just-William little boy. (Sue and Jesse both live in California now.)

The first drummer, I believe, was Alan Mennie, always known as Min, and he was older. If he’s still alive, he’ll be 74 now. My then-wife and I had a house on a hill, with two storeys at the front but four at the back, and these extra layers were flats we rented out. In 1974 Min and girlfriend Dot had one of them. Min and I played chess together from time to time. I can’t remember when he quit the group, but it must have been at some point soon after February 1975, when he was playing (and speaking) on the recording session they did at Birmingham’s commercial radio station BRMB.

Min gets credits on albums by King Crimson and Pete Sinfield, and was always somewhat jazz-oriented. Many years later – in the early 1990s – he and Dot co-owned a house in a little village in Turkey with Mike Dolan and his girlfriend Glenn, and I remember calling in there once on a family holiday and seeing Mike emerging from the sea with his surfboard, looking far healthier than he’d ever looked in the 1970s of his youth.

Min seems to have disappeared without trace now, along with Dot and the son they had called Jamie. We’ve googled till we’re blue in the face but cannot find them.

There were a couple of drummers after Min – the dark, handsome one whose name I’ve forgotten: Rob Mason? - in the "official" photo from mid-1975 (below)  - and then Keith Baker, a local postman who in 1976 also became a tenant of a flat at our house.

Keith had known the Dolans forever, and had played music with them in earlier incarnations; he's here at the back in a photo from 1965 (which I've no idea how I acquired):

Front: Mike Dolan; Back, left to right: unknown; Keith Baker; Steve Dolan

At one point, early on, the band had also included an organ player, and he’s to be heard to good effect on ‘Mad John’s Dream’, the B-side of their one single. The A-side was ‘Money-Go-Round’. It was recorded in a nearby barn, and issued on Rampant Records, a label formed by my then-wife and I specially to release their record.




Around the end of 1974, BFY lost the organist and added a second guitarist, Sam Sun (Keith Sampson), who is on the BRMB sessions and the A-side and was a long-time stalwart of their gigs. He was a likeable, sensitive man, full of pain, who drank far too much horrible Barley Wine. He’s dead now too. I believe he killed himself.

Mike Dolan, Sam Sun, Rob Mason (?) & Steve Dolan, early 1976

Live and on record, Big Front Yard sounded pretty much like Hard Meat – which, impressively, the Dolans rarely mentioned afterwards. Big Front Yard played a couple of London gigs (eg Newlands Tavern, Peckham, Feb 19, 1975: fee £20) which we hoped A&R men would come to, but none did. We sent a demo cassette to John Peel. Nothing.

Mike also had a little home studio at The Bell, and there produced, and played guitar on, a couple of tracks by a childhood friend of mine, Peter Harrison – whose splendidly politically incorrect stage name was Huge Black Gussie Watson – which I still have on a home-made CD. (Peter died in 2007.) Steve played bass on an unissued track I wrote and produced in 1981 and have yet to give up on... Mike went on to achieve a great deal in the latter half of his life. Steve died too young for us to know what he might have done.

I last spoke to Mike on the telephone when he was living in Cornwall in another relationship that broke up subsequently. In his last two or three years he spent half his time in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, with his final partner Jackie, and half his time, also with her, in another little village house in Turkey, having quarrelled irretrievably with Min & Dot over their previous shared Turkey house. I was able to get to Steve's funeral but not to Mike's, nor to Sam Sun's.

Here's another picture of the late-75-and-76 line-up, all posed with their dilapidated Renault 4s outside The Bell in summer 1975:

It's disturbing to me that of these four, all younger than me, only one is still alive (Keith Baker, on the left of the picture).

Lastly, here are the Dolans onstage at the Foley Arms, Great Malvern in 1976:


 It's a long time ago (so any corrections will be welcomed), but it was a distinct part of my life in that pre-Thatcher world, in which I'd not long given up my dayjob (teaching English in schools) on the strength of signing my first book's US deal (1972) and had moved to the Malvern hills with wife, young son and high hopes. By the end of the long hot summer of 1976 I was on social security and by the start of 1977 I'd taken a job as Head of Press at UA Records in London, where self-styled punk artistes were telling 30-year-old Old Hippies like me that we ought to be lined up against a wall and shot. Mike Dolan's response would have been to turn the other cheek. Steve's would have been to throw a punch.

Footnote: I'm pleased to say I shall be revisiting Big Front Yard's general area on my own September tour of gigs: I'll be at Artrix in Bromsgrove on the 13th and then at the Kitchen Garden Cafe in King's Heath, Birmingham, on the 15th. I'm hoping Keith Baker might come along...

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8 comments:

  1. Hi Michael must confess never heard of the band. But my mate Harry Lang remembers them as a great outfit he saw at the Golden Cross in Kings Heath. Harry was the front man in various Brum based bands including Bullets, Pier 66, the Motor Show and Rockers.

    Hope to catch you in september

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  2. And Harry is still rocking with the Catfish Kings.

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  3. Elmer Gantry25 May, 2015

    Michael

    Really enjoyed this piece which brought a long gone period (I was ten in '73) vividly to life.

    Listened to the clip and the style of music really brought me back.

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  4. Update: I'm told (by their ex-roadie) that the black guy in the 1965 photo is Frankie Spencer, keyboards player for the Dolans' pre-Hard Meat group the Cock-a-Hoops, and that this is a photo of that group.

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  5. Hi Mike, I remember you from that era (a few shared conversations and drinks in pubs) and also from when I read and enjoyed your Dylan Song and Dance Man Book. I had moved back to the Malvern area from London and still live there and can fill in a few gaps . 1 No-one knows any more about Min either. 2 Yes Rob Mason correct name - still playing I believe 3 "Keith Baker, a local postman" - Keith was the original Uriah Heap drummer (but left classic style before they made it) so not just the local postman - a friend who is still playing in local bands and teaching drumming. Thanks so much for the 1965 photo - we shall all enjoy his reaction 4 the nearby barn where the single was recorded was in Bransford where a band I was in rehearsed also - some of our gear including my Marshall speakers were borrowed for the recording 5 Keith "Sam" Sampson had played guitar with numerous local bands 6 Steve's wake at the Marrs bar Worcester included Rob Mason and Luther Grosvenor. Maybe I'll be able to make it to the Kitchen Garden Cafe in King's Heath the 15th and say hello Pete

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    1. Hi Pete - a big thank-you for all this extra info and corrections. Glad to hear you're a friend of Keith Baker's (as is my own friend Hugh Roberton) and yes, the barn was at Bransford - and belonged, I believe, to Will Tooby and his splendidly named sister Susie Tooby.

      Still don't know the name of the organist on the B-side of the single, though.

      I certainly hope you'll be able to come to my King's Heath gig on September 15. If you see me, say hello, to quote a phrase. And thank you again.

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    2. Hi Mike , thanks for the reply, yes Will Tooby still lives at Bransford and runs The Fold which has its annual Blues at The Fold festival in the first week of July each year.
      Unfortunately I have another engagement now on September 15th. I expect you already know but just in case there will be a memorial for Mick on Friday 18th September at the Bacon Theatre in Cheltenham see https://www.facebook.com/mickdolanmemorial.gig?fref=ts and I'll be there.
      Pete

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  6. I actually roadied for the boys along with their mate Henry from down the road at a gig in Hereford. To my eternal shame I got so drunk...not unusual...they had to carry me out with the gigs. Was at school with Keith Sampson and he was always encouraging me and my band Isengard.He was a wonderful guitarist. We were of course
    in awe of them and saw them many a time at The Foley where of course we ran a night there a week with the wonderful Pewke Band. Correct me if I'm wrong but didn't Rod Stewart try to buy their label cos he wanted it for his own label. Their stand out track was Keep on Keeping on?

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