A more classic example of a rags to riches – to rags again cautionary tale of the music industry could not wish to be found than that of Birmingham’s Starfighters. Formed in 1979 the band comprised of Steve ‘Bertie’ Burton (vocals) – previously of Birmingham rock band Cryer, Stevie Young (guitar), Pat Hambly (guitar), Doug Dennis (bass) and Steve Bailey (drums) and followed a very hard rock/ACDC-type groove – understandable with Stevie Young being the cousin of ACDC’s Angus and Malcolm (a band with whom Stevie would tour covering for Malcolm in the late 1980s).
Signed to Jive records (who at that time hosted an eclectic artist list including Tight Fit, A Flock of Seagulls, Billy Ocean and Samantha Fox!), things looked bright for the band. A self-titled album was released in1981 featuring a raucous blend of hard blues-based rock with Bertie’s rasping, sneering vocals on such track as Don’t Touch Me – a uptempo ditty about a flasher with a penchant for younger viewers – a real standout.
The band hit the pub/club circuit relentlessly and began to gain some press and support slots to some of the bigger names in the hard rock/metal scene of the early 80s. Often retrospectively co-opted into the ‘New Wave of British Heavy Metal’ genre, the Starfighters ploughed a more lonely furrow – not succumbing to the increasingly bouffant brigade that was beginning to emerge through such bands as the Tygers of Pan Tang, Def Leppard etc – preferring to keep to the tradition of unpretentious, hard drinking rock and roll.
Following the 1983 release of their second album, In-Flight Movie (featuring the Starfighters battle-cry ‘Who Cares’) the band were on tour in the States when they were unceremoniously dropped by their record label . . . and drifted into Birmingham band history.
Fortunately, around 1987 two great things occurred in the history of the Starfighters. Firstly, Bertie and Stevie decided to give the band another try and reformed – with Rick Sanford (guitar), ex-Surface Jamie Hawkins (drums) and ex-Hostage Steve ‘Redvers’ Hill (bass) – and I met them! Not that the latter was of any significance in their career but does allow me to introduce a few anecdotes to this tale.
By this time the band were based at a rehearsal studio called The Pits – having previously been based at a house in Rotton Park Road on the side of the disused railway embankement into which they joked the house was gradually slipping due to the vibrations caused by their extremely loud rehearsals there – which was housed in an incredibly old three storey early Victorian industrial premises on Granville Street backing onto the then-Davenports brewery. The various floors were accessed via the narrowest, steepest wooden stairs imaginable – almost like long ladders – which I spent a considerable amount of time – in various states of sobriety – falling down and up! The very top floor contained a ‘recording studio’ and a ‘lounge’ with a pioneering half ceiling which contained Bertie’s bed, as he also lived there.
Regular inhabitants, Bertie aside, of The Pits were a band called Pavlov’s Dogs and Frazer Young – Stevie’s brother – who was an absolute madman and served as the band’s roadie/tour manager/security and just about anything he wanted to be as – despite being of diminutive stature – had a wild temper and heavy Glaswegian accent and, after a few Jack Daniels, could turn from your best friend to your worst enemy in the blinking of an eye . . . remember Robert Carlyle’s ‘Begbie’ character in Trainspotting? In the bowels of the studio also lurked Phil – a hippie sound engineer with a yellow Luton van and a Tac Blue mixing desk who ran their PA service for local gigs. Finally, a band from Whitehaven – Teacher – along with a couple of girl friends of theirs – had also come down to live in Birmingham and various members of them and their entourage also kipped down there most nights.
Anyway, back to the band! I got to know them well through working for a PA company and getting to know Phil and through working at Edward’s Number 8 nightclub where Bertie would come for a drink from time to time. Further, I also did bits of roadie work for a band called the Redbeards from Texas who were long-time mates of the Starfighters . . . if I was particularly drunk and/or too skint to get home from the City Centre, I’d stagger up to The Pits at any time of the night and be given a sleeping bag and a mug of coffee . . . Bertie was an incredibly hospitable chap!
I saw them a few times in the late 80’s era at Birmingham University, an incredibly good turn at the Portland Club in Ladywood along with the Redbeards, and at an Edward’s Number 8 organised metal all-dayer at Goldwyn’s nightclub which, again, was an absolute knockout. Their energy live was incredible and boy could Bertie sing – and drink, his trademark bottle of Jack Daniels on stage during the set – and spike Rick Sanford’s pint with something rather hallucinogenic causing Rick, mid-gig, to do something rather unseemly in a plastic cup on stage . . . but we won’t go into that any further!
It was during a very late night intoxicated chat with Bertie that I asked what happend to the ‘Mark I’ lineup on their US tour. Apparently, the band spent their entire US tour’s money from the record company within the first few days of the tour and then when they contacted Jive for more funds, on the back of a few other ‘issues’ with the band, were swiftly dismissed from the label. Unfortunately, they had no money to get home so a couple of the band had to get some casual work to get the money together to fly home!
Apart from feeling very lucky to have been around the band and having seen them live – as they were truly a great live act – they were also responsible for one of my biggest regrets. One night I was at The Pits with ex-Cryer bassist Fez Ferriday and Metallica sound engineer (Big) Mick Hughes having a beer and a chat with Bertie between a sound check and a gig at either Edward’s or Goldwyns. Apparently a couple of minutes after we left, long-time friend of Bertie’s Ozzy Osbourne turned up for a binge – still gutted to this day that I missed that as Ozzy is another ‘hero’ of mine!
The ‘Mark II’ line up of the band was all too short lived and split in 1989 with Bertie going on to form the E-Numbers who were – whilst good live – more of a traditional blues band and not of the high-aggression and energy of the Starfighters. In more recent years Bertie fronted Vincent Flatts Final Drive who released several albums (all of which appear to be now only available second hand) and toured relentlessly through Europe and the US with their southern rock stylings.
The last contact I had with any of them was with Pat Hambly – who I hadn’t known during his period in the band – who runs a gents hairdressers (Hair Razors) on Weoley Castle Square. I went in for a trim and saw a Starfighters poster up on the wall so asked where he’d got it from – as soon as he said he used to be in the band it clicked who he was (second from left in the above photograph) and we had a good old natter about the band.
Shame they’re not still going – as I’m sure anyone who saw them live would agree – and I’ve no idea if Bertie is still gigging: if anyone knows please post the details. Both their albums have been released on CD too for anyone interested – I’d recommend them – with bonus tracks not on the vinyl releases and are available from the US on Amazon.
As for The Pits, things went a little downhill following a gig at the Powerhouse when the PA – engineered by Phil – was far from up to scratch and he was last seen being chased down Ridley Street by Fraser Young with a piece of 4 by 2 in his hand. The studio building has sadly long been demolished and is now a complex of appartments.