Toby Twirl

Toby Twirl was one of a modest number of northeast bands in the sixties to win a record deal and, in addition, achieve some degree of success as a cabaret act on the national club circuit. Like most other local bands that released singles in the sixties chart success never came its way.

After the phenomenal rise to fame of The Animals in 1963 there was an expectation that more Newcastle groups would follow in their footsteps and become major recording artists. But unlike the avalanche that launched the careers of many Liverpudlian groups in the wake of the Beatles success was thin on the ground for northeast bands during the sixties. What makes Toby Twirl different from the other bands of that era was a sudden surge of interest in their music four decades after the band split up.

In the period covered by this site (1965 to 1972) most bands on the northeast gig circuit were content to play at local venues on a semi-professional basis. However, other more ambitious bands and individual musicians had dreams of ditching their semi-pro status and achieving national and even international fame. Toby Twirl most definitely belonged in the latter category. There is no doubt that Toby Twirl had the ability to make the grade. All five members were talented musicians and entertainers. However, after three years on the road as Toby Twirl, the success that the band members aspired to never came. The band came to an end in 1970 and it was mainly all down to one four-lettered word; a word that had haunted Toby Twirl throughout its life. This is the story of Toby Twirl: –

Shades Of Blue

Toby Twirl grew out of an earlier band that started around 1963. The band was a group of students who were in the same class at Rutherford College, Newcastle – Stu Somerville (bass), Jim Routledge (drums) and Barry Redman (keys). The trio were later joined by Norman Errington on guitar and vocalist Graham Bell. The five-piece band, playing predominantly Rhythm & Blues material, named themselves “Shades Of Blue”. Graham Bell’s time with the band was relatively short-lived although his career as a vocalist wasn’t. In later years he made a name for himself with a couple of notable northeast bands – Skip Bifferty and Bell & Arc.

Graham Bell was replaced by singer Dave (“Holly”) Holland. Next to leave the original lineup was guitarist Norman Errington who was replaced by Nick Thorburn. Drummer Jim Routledge also left the band some time later and was replaced by Richie McConnell. By this time the band was moving away from its original Rhythm & Blues roots and was playing more pop type songs. Before long Shades Of Blue had found its niche playing in Working Mens Clubs, which were abundant in the northeast at that time. They built up a good reputation in these clubs and were never short of well paid work. In the mid-sixties the band members were still semi-professional musicians with day time jobs.

From my own perspective I knew quite a lot about Shades Of Blue around 1966 although I’d never actually seen the band perform. I worked alongside guitarist Nick Thorburn for a few months in 1966. As we were both playing in bands at the time, me in Jazzboard and Nick in Shades Of Blue, it was inevitable that we would spend a lot of time talking about our respective bands and comparing our experiences.

It was clear that Shades Of Blue and Jazzboard were poles apart. I was gigging at clubs and dances frequented by teenagers mostly in County Durham and Teesside whilst Shades Of Blue played most of their gigs north of the Tyne at Social and Working Mens Clubs with slightly older audiences. Whereas Jazzboard’s music was geared for dancers, Shades Of Blue was mainly into performing for seated audiences whose expectation was to be entertained. Consequently the band worked hard to polish its stage act and provide a well rounded pop orientated show suitable for a wide audience. Having said that, Shades Of Blue did sometimes play at clubs like the Cellar, South Shields and the Quay Club in Newcastle while Jazzboard ventured out of its comfort zone and did the occasional Working Mens Club.

I can remember Nick telling me about some of the songs in the band’s repertoire: One I recall was a version of the novelty song “Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats and Liddle Lamzy Divey”, which he said used to go down very well at his gigs. He once told me that he felt the time was right for Shades Of Blue to move up a notch and that sometime in the future he would be giving up his day job to turn fully professional.

At some stage one of the band members attempted to promote Shades Of Blue by touting demo acetate discs recorded by an early version of the band at Morton Sound Studios in Newcastle. One of the acetates ended up at Decca Records, putting the band on the company’s radar. Subsequently two original songs, “Utopia Daydream” and “Quarter Past Lovely Day” penned by guitarist Nick Thorburn impressed producer-cum-songwriter Wayne Bickerton who arranged a recording contract with Decca and took the band under his wing. There was already an existing American band recording as Shades Of Blue so a change of name was necessary. The name chosen was “Toby Twirl” after a cartoon character in children’s books published in the 1940s and 1950s. Toby was a little pig with human characteristics. Shades Of Blue was no more and a new band with a fresh image and identity was born in the closing months of 1967.

Enter Toby Twirl

One early casualty of the new band was drummer Richie McConnell. He was planning to get married and was uncertain about how a life on the road away from his new bride would affect his life. Producer Wayne Bickerton also thought that the band would benefit from a more experienced drummer on board. A decision was made to replace Richie with an accomplished drummer from Sunderland called John Reed. Unlike the rest of the band members, John was a seasoned professional musician having toured for three years with a band called the Quandowns both in the UK and continental Europe. By this time the existing band members had ditched their day jobs and were fully professional musicians.

Musicians and band members often dream about a “lucky break” that will elevate their careers and perhaps lead to stardom. Toby Twirl’s lucky break came about at a gig in Gateshead around Christmas 1967. In his book “Back In Time”, John Reed describes what happened: –

“One of the earliest gigs we did was at the Five Bridges Hotel in Gateshead. It was a dinner dance and we were the cabaret. Little did we know that one of the tables was occupied by all the directors of the Bailey Organisation together with their main cabaret booker. We obviously impressed them, as when we had finished, we had a visit to our dressing room. They said they wanted to see us at their main offices in South Shields the following day.”

The subsequent meeting led to the Bailey Organisation (under the name of SAS Artistes Management) offering Toby Twirl a management contract. Despite the band already having a manager, namely Mel Unsworth, the fact that Baileys owned twenty six night clubs throughout the country swayed the band members into signing a contract with them. A flurry of gigs over the Christmas period followed. The next step was a brand new bright red Ford Transit van supplied by the Bailey Organisation.

Before John Reed joined Toby Twirl at the back end of 1967 the band had recorded some songs at the Decca Studios in West Hampstead, London. Session musicians were used on the tracks with the band members just adding the vocal parts. A double A-sided single featuring two of the recorded tracks was released on 19th January 1968 – “Back In Time”, a song written by Wayne Bickerton and his wife Carole and “The Fantasy World of Harry Faversham” penned by American songwriters.

The “Harry Faversham” song featured the exploits of a knight fighting off dragons to save a damsel from a castle. A promotional video was filmed at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. It was one of the earliest videos of that type featuring the band members in Regency style costumes and a paid actress cast as the damsel. To publicise the single, the Bailey Organisation decided to send Toby Twirl to their clubs all over the country for promotional performances as opposed to just cabaret spots. The band also did a photoshoot in London for Fabulous Magazine. An article duly appeared in the magazine with the band members wearing clothes purloined from fashion shops in Carnaby Street and Kings Road. The Harry Faversham video was aired on TV several times but in spite of this and the nationwide publicity through Baileys and Fabulous Magazine the single failed to chart.

In 1968 the band’s future looked promising with almost daily gigs in northeast social clubs, which were packed out everywhere they went. On one occasion Toby Twirl supported the Small Faces at the Top Rank ballroom in Sunderland and got a great reception from the local crowd. In August of that year the band began to play further afield in clubs specifically as a cabaret act. The bookings from 4th August 1968 turned out to be the start of two years of relentless touring throughout the UK. Toby Twirl was establishing itself as a top draw on the cabaret circuit in particular in the large northern cities such as Leeds and Manchester. Sometimes they would perform at several clubs on the same evening by doing the early spot at one and then moving to another club for a late session. Amongst others, they performed on the same bill as some of the country’s top cabaret acts of the day such as Tommy Cooper, Little & Large, Freddy Starr, Lonnie Donegal and Kathy Kirby,

Amid the busy touring schedule in 1968 the band managed a further recording session at Decca’s studios in London. On the previous occasion session musician were used to provide the instrumental backing. This time the band was to record everything apart from string and brass parts, which were to be added at a later date. The recording session resulted in the release of the band’s second single. The songs chosen were “Toffee Apple Sunday” written by band members Nick Thorburn and John Reed as the A-side and “Romeo And Juliet 1968”, another Wayne Bickerton composition as the B-side. As with the first single, Toffee Apple Sunday failed to make an impression in the charts, probably due to a lack of air play.

The popularity of Toby Twirl on the national cabaret circuit should have been reflected in the money being paid to the band. But that didn’t happen. Quite often the band was topping the bill at clubs and were aware that the supporting acts were being paid far more per capita than they were receiving. The band members were being paid a wage determined by their management team. The problem was that Toby Twirl was heavily in hock to the Bailey Organisation. The new van, touring and promotional expenses, the cost of the video shoot all added up to what the band members referred to as “The Debt”. In addition there was a sixth member of the band on the payroll. Colin Hart, a local South Shields lad had been hired as a road manager. He was also on a wage. Whenever the band approached its managers about an increase in wages or even the purchase of new equipment the requests were declined with “The Debt” always given as the reason. “The Debt” weighed heavily in the minds of the band members and ultimately was one of the factors leading to the the decline and fall of “Toby Twirl”.

The band’s final single for Decca was released in January ’69. The A-side was “Movin’ In” and the flip side was a reworking of the Nick Thorburn composition “Utopia Daydream”, which had been presented to Decca by Shades Of Blue eighteen months earlier. Decca organised a gig to promote the new single at The Playboy Club in London on 7th January 1969. Despite good media coverage, air play of the single, in particular by Radio 1, was not forthcoming. Consequently the third singles also flopped resulting in the end of the band’s recording career with Decca.

The band continued with its gruelling schedule of club gigs throughout 1969 and 1970, including a couple of foreign trips to Germany and Denmark. In the meantime, the constant work with relatively low wages was beginning to affect both the moral and abilities of some band members. Dave Holland was the first of the five core members to leave the band. Dave was a heavy smoker and drinker and this was starting to have a detrimental effect on his vocal abilities. He was replaced with a vocalist from the Rochdale area called Stuart Pickering who had previously worked in the Manchester area under the name of Reg James.

In May 1970 tragedy struck when bass player Stu Somerville went missing whilst canoeing in the North Sea near Whitley Bay. After an extensive search a canoe and lifejacket were recovered but Stu was not found. Stu had been with band from the outset being one of the original members of Shades Of Blue. His apparent death was a great shock to the rest of the band. In his book, John Reed says – “Stu was a real character and being a founder-member of the group, it left a big hole. The group was very much like a family, living in each others’ pockets, seven days a week, so the loss was great.”

A new bass player was recruited. Dave Robson from the Gosforth area joined the band and continued to tour with the band for around six months. Toby Twirl decided to disband at the end of 1970, its last gig being at a club in Hartlepool. There was probably no single reason why the band split up. The loss of Stu Somerville must have been one factor. Another was the realisation that after three failed attempts Toby Twirl was never going to be major recording band. Then there was that aforementioned four letter word that loomed over Toby Twirl throughout its three year life – “The Debt”. “The Debt” (to the Bailey Organisation) meant that the band members never earned the amounts of money they deserved for their relentless touring schedules and gruelling lives on the road.

The rebirth of Toby Twirl

The breakup of the band in 1970 should have drawn a line under story of Toby Twirl. But that wasn’t the case. Four decades after the split there was a growing interest in psychedelic pop music of the sixties. Psychedelic music was a genre that emerged in the mid-1960s as a result of the influence of psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, on the perception and creativity of musicians and listeners. Psychedelic music often incorporated distorted sounds, unconventional song structures, surreal lyrics, and colourful imagery to emulate the perceived effect of mind-enhancing drugs. Psychedelic pop (as opposed to psychedelic rock music) had a melodic style that incorporated elements of folk, baroque, and sunshine pop. Many bands in the mid-sixties, including the Beatles, were experimenting with psychedelic pop.

Back in the sixties when Toby Twirl was entertaining club audiences with its combination of pop covers, light-hearted novelty and comedy songs the output of the band’s stage act could hardly have been described as “psychedelic”. However the singles they released under the Decca label were just that. Their recorded songs such as “The Fantasy World of Harry Faversham”, “Utopia Daydream”, “Toffee Apple Sunday” and “Romeo And Juliet 1968” compared favourably with those from other psychedelic pop bands of the era: bands such as The Alan Bown and Simon Dupree and Big Sound.

In 2009 drummer John Reed published a book entitled “Back In Time” about his life on the road as a musician. This included his time as the drummer with Toby Twirl. A year or so later he became aware that Toby Twirl’s original vinyl releases were being sold as “psych-pop” singles on eBay and other on-line outlets at ridiculous amounts far in excess of their original six shillings and eight old pence price label. Some time later John was contacted by Hugh Dellar from Shindig Magazine who was a huge fan of 60’s psychedelia. This resulted in a 2012 article in Shindig Magazine entitled “Back In Time”. The introductory paragraph goes like this: – “If ever further proof were needed that the ‘60s were most unlike the way we’ve subsequently imagined them, then the strange story of TOBY TWIRL provides the ultimate evidence. Their very name exudes the childlike sense of wonder that embodies the essence of one playful strand of UK psychedelia, while their second 45 – the almost pairing of pristine toy town psychedelic confections, “Toffee Apple Sunday” and “Romeo And Juliet 1968” – has long been regarded as one of the most sublime examples of paisley pop.”

The renewed interest in Toby Twirl spurred John Reed on to giving the band more public exposure through a Facebook page he had created. He also retrieved some music he had recorded on a Ferrogragh tape recorder at band rehearsals back in the day. Work was done on the recordings by engineers and this resulted in the release of Toby Twirl’s first album. The limited edition self titled album was released on 11th June 2017 by Mega Dodo. The songs on the album are more representative of the band’s stage act than psychedelic pop music but nevertheless it was reviewed extensively by websites aimed at psychedelic pop enthusiasts and received favourable reviews.

Here are some of Toby Twirl’s tracks: –

Harry Faversham – Toby Twirl
Toffee Apple Sunday – Toby Twirl

So what happened to the original Toby Twirl personnel. Alas, the renewed interest in the band’s music didn’t result in a reformed Toby Twirl with a multitude of reunion gigs. The band members had moved on since 1970.

John Reed worked for Granada Television Rental for a while before having a long and successful career in the music industry working, amongst others, for Radio Luxembourg, RCA Records and Polydor.

Nick Thorburn went on to perform as a duo with keyboard player Barry Redman. Eventually he embarked on a career with Social Services before retiring.

Barry Redman continued to work as a solo artist after splitting with Nick. These days he keeps a low profile.

Sadly Dave Holland passed away in 2019 after running a pub in Blyth for many years.

Stu Somerville’s body was never recovered.

After Toby Twirl, road manager Colin Hart went on to work for recording artists Matthews Southern Comfort (famous for their singe “Woodstock”) and eventually ended up as the tour manager for rock band Deep Purple and personal assistant to legendary guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. Colin currently lives in Florida.

John Reed keeps the Toby Twirl Facebook page up to date. Here is the link: –

https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100038339538470

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Sources: –
Back In Time by John Reed (autobiography) – ISBN 978-1-5272-2295-3
Shindig Magazine – issue 27 (2012)
Toby Twirl interview – thestrangebrew.co.uk
Twist & Pout interview – garyalikiv.com
Newcastle Evening Chronicle
Various other internet sources
Thanks to Nick Thorburn for additional information about Shades Of Blue

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