West Wylam lad Billy Mitchell formed his first band when he was 15 and embarked on a long musical career which led to him joining North-East legends – Lindisfarne. Today, he’s still making music as well as making people laugh with his comic talents.
IT TOOK two phone calls, 25 years apart, to persuade Billy Mitchell to join one of the North-East’s most famous bands and secure a place in musical history. Prudhoe-born Billy was living the life of a guitar-strumming hippy in Canada when he received the first phone call that could have changed his life.
“I remember the exact date,” said Billy. “It was April 1, 1972. And it was Simon Cowe on the phone from Lindisfarne.” By then everyone knew who Lindisfarne were. Alan Hull, Ray Jackson, Rod Clements, Ray Laidlaw and Simon were being hailed by some critics as the 1970s Beatles and songwriter Alan as the new Bob Dylan. They had a number one album, Fog on the Tyne, and a string of hit singles.
“Simon told me that Alan, the lead singer, was taking a step back from performing to concentrate on his songwriting and did I want to be their lead singer? Did I!? Of course I did! I leapt on the next plane home. But by the time I arrived in the North-East things had changed and I had missed my chance. Alan and Ray had left to form their own band and the others had got together to launch a new band – Jack-the-Lad.”
Twenty five years later it was Simon, again, who would call Billy to ask him to join Lindisfarne. And this time, the dream that had tantalised Billy all those years, would become a reality. “We had our first gig at Hartlepool Town Hall in 1996. It was a fantastic feeling to be up there, at last, with the band, singing some of the old hits and a few new ones as well.”
It’s been a roller coaster of a musical career for Billy who was just five years old when he won his first singing competition at the Miners’ Hall in West Wylam. He was the star act – a diminutive cowboy with the voice of an angel and an irrepressible cheeky grin. And when it came to awarding first prize, the judges were unanimous. Billy’s rendition of Rag Time Cowboy Joe was the out and out winner.
“I was presented with a 10 shilling note to spend in Hannah Currie’s shop in Prudhoe. You could buy anything and everything there from furniture to toys and I was spoilt for choice. But I finally settled on a box of dominoes with coloured spots.”
Music was very much a part of life for Billy whose mum Ellen sang constantly around the house, inspiring her son with her enthusiastic renditions of the big hits of the day. “She loved Dicky Valentine,” said Billy. “But she would sing along to anything on the radio. She just loved music.”
Billy spent his early childhood in the small, mining community of West Wylam. Today, 17, Ada Street still stands – one of a handful to survive the revamping of the estate – although the surrounding area is barely recognisable from all those years ago. “Back then there were just three streets, the pit and Stanley Burn wood,” said Billy. “It wasn’t the estate you see now.”
“I was a free spirit. I spent as much time as possible playing outside, collecting hazelnuts in the woods and running around the pit heap. But the best place was the sand hole – a giant hole, dug to find coal and then left, just as it was.”
Billy was a pupil at Prudhoe East Primary School where children wrote on slates with chalk and fellow students included Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson who, famously, grew up to play for Newcastle United. But school, for Billy, was never an inspiring place to be.
“It just wasn’t for me,” he said. “I was a free spirit. I spent as much time as possible playing outside, collecting hazelnuts in the woods and running around the pit heap. But the best place was the sand hole – a giant hole, dug to find coal and then left, just as it was. It was the best adventure playground ever. It was fenced off eventually after two boys were killed, but we had no sense of the danger we were in when we played in it. Children never do.”
Most boys of Billy’s age in West Wylam knew exactly what their future held – a life down the pit. And Brian, Billy’s oldest brother, did work in the pit just like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather before him.
But Billy would escape that fate when the family moved away when he was nine to the bright lights of Newcastle. “Dad was promoted to work in the garage at the West Wylam pit where he saw the loads getting smaller and smaller. He could see what was going to happen to the coal industry, so he got out while he still had a chance and became a pub manager at the Mason’s Arms on Westgate Road in Newcastle.”
Billy left school at 16 with ‘O’ Levels in woodwork, maths and English and, he admits, no clear idea of what he was going to do. “I ended up in a factory making laminated plastics and then had a spell in a supermarket as manager for Fine Fare in Byker. But, throughout it all, there was music. And that was what I lived for.”
Billy started playing with local bands, often working three or four gigs in a week. “I taught myself to play guitar when I was 15 with help from a friend, and formed my first band with four pals from the youth club a little later. We had one guitarist and seven singers and we called ourselves the Peasant Ville Dustman’s Choir! We would sing anything from Michael Row the Boat Ashore to My Old Man’s a Dustman!”
Music aside, there was another reason for joining a band – girls! “It was the only way we could get any of them to pay any attention to us!” The band was eventually pared down to a more realistic four piece and re-named The Triffids in honour of the cult book of the time by John Wyndham.
Meanwhile, another band was starting to make a name for itself on the local circuit. Downtown Faction comprised three talented musicians; Ray Laidlaw, Rod Clements and Simon Cowe. But the band was desperately in need of a vocalist.
“I used to sing with them now and then,” said Billy. “And they eventually asked me to join them permanently, but I said no – little knowing what they were to become. Was it a mistake? Some would say it was the biggest mistake of my life, but I don’t regret staying loyal to my friends. And my time would come.”
Ray Jackson joined Simon’s band instead and they became Brethren, before the arrival of Alan Hull and the launch of Lindisfarne, named after the beautiful island off the Northumbrian coast.
While Lindisfarne went from strength to strength Billy was moving away from rock ‘n’ roll and into the folk scene. “I set up a band called The Callies. It was really meant to be “ceilidh” but we couldn’t spell that!” Musical inspirations at the time included Bob Dylan who “was writing songs that actually meant something. Bands like Mud and The Sweet were fun, but silly. I loved the ballads.”
When The Callies broke up after three years, Billy and then wife Margaret decided to try their chances in Canada and set off, guitar in hand, for an adventure of a lifetime.
“I was a long-haired hippy, in brown loons with purple cut out flares, guitar and back pack,” said Billy. “We caught a one way flight to Seattle and then a greyhound bus to Vancouver. We had high hopes of what life was going to be out there, but, somehow, it wasn’t what we expected. People were focused on making money, on material things, on settling down and that’s not what we wanted.”
Reminders of home back in the North-East would turn up unexpectedly. “One day I turned on the radio and they were playing Fog on the Tyne. It made me nostalgic. So when Simon called that first time, asking me to come home, I didn’t hesitate.”
Billy’s favourite concert venue back home will always be the City Hall where Lindisfarne played their famous Christmas concerts year after year. “There is such a sense of history there,” he said. “It is filled with the ghosts of all the singers who have stood on that stage. It’s a magical place.”
Alongside music, Billy is best known for his comic talents and his partnership with Peter McIntyre has endured for a rib-tickling, fun 20 years. Maxie and Mitch, as they are known, are regulars on the panto circuit and beloved in their native North-East.
Billy also has his own band and often teams up with Brendan Healy and Bob Fox for comedy and music nights. And recently, he performed to a packed-out Queen’s Hall in Hexham as part of the hit show, the Pitman Poets. As such, he was instrumental in taking Geordie culture to London when the show went on tour.
“I am proud of my roots,” he said. “They say that your childhood shapes who you are and what you become and I am proud to be the lad from West Wylam who ended up singing with Lindisfarne. I have met some fantastic people along the way and had a lot of fun. I will always be grateful for that.”