Trevor Beales was a singer-songwriter who made music amid great social change in his hometown of Hebden Bridge. Now his work is gaining posthumous credit, thanks to a new album of ‘lost’ recordings. Gareth Thompson steps back in time.
Ivy Bank in Charlestown is on the outskirts of Hebden Bridge, in the Upper Calder Valley of West Yorkshire. A row of three terraced cottages, set back from the busy Halifax Road, it lies up a walled slope of bushy gardens and rockeries. Sheer woodlands rise in the foreground and at the rear, bordered below by onrushing streams. In the attic room of 1 Ivy Bank, in the early 1970s, a youthful folk singer called Trevor Beales began writing and recording in earnest. Hebden born and bred, Trevor had left school at seventeen to focus on music. Living with his parents, he committed to tape a series of remarkable songs that are finally seeing daylight.
The album Fireside Stories (Hebden Bridge Circa 1971-1974) is to be released on Todmorden label Basin Rock, with detailed sleeve notes from Benjamin Myers. A guitarist of fleet-fingered excellence, Trevor stands comparison with Michael Chapman and John Martyn, though friends recall such influences as Chet Atkins, Sonny Boy Williamson, Joe Pass and James Taylor. Trevor’s handsome baritone voice was still ripening, but sturdy enough for someone hardly past their teens. With his tousled bushy curls and trim goatee, he looked every bit the serious artist and thinker. His songs brim with narratives about doomed sailing ships, a condemned man, the trials of city life, false prophets. A yearning for freedom is prevalent throughout. Sometimes he sounds like a wanderer lost in the Pennines, looking for somewhere to bivvy for the night. Elsewhere he could be Dick Whittington with a guitar case in hand. There’s a grainy charcoal texture to certain tracks, whilst others are positively rainbow-like.
Trevor died at the age of thirty-three in 1987, from Cryptosporidium which became systemic and caused septicaemia within forty-eight hours. Then in 2018, a chance meeting between Trevor’s wife Christine and their childhood friend John Armstrong led to some old cassettes of Trevor’s music being digitised. The local instrumentalist Dan Bridgwood-Hill (aka dbh) was involved and the results were passed along to Basin Rock. Denny Field from the record label takes up the story: “The fact it was a local project with little known about Trevor piqued our interest. John Armstrong introduced us to Christine and we asked if she had any other recordings. She was moving from her house in Charlestown where fifty years ago Trevor had recorded the songs. Coincidentally, I’d explored this part of town during lockdown; it’s a real labyrinth of old footpaths and bridleways, crisscrossing the woods, fields and moorlands on one side of the valley. I’d literally been following in Trevor’s footsteps.”
Christine did have more cassettes and reel-to-reels, including some full band stuff and professional studio tapes. But it was the attic recordings which most interested Basin Rock, so they pieced together what might work as an album. Field says, “At every point we kept checking that we weren’t falling for Trevor’s backstory over the songs. We’d return to them after a break, but they’d blow us away all over again. We played them to respected musicians passing through Todmorden and their approval gave us another spur to keep going. With our label we only release records that add something to the world. There’s enough average ‘lost’ or private press records out there already. We wanted this project to stand beside the likes of F.J. McMahon’s Spirit Of The Golden Juice or Mossy Kilcher’s Northwind Calling. But I don’t think Fireside Stories is the album Trevor would’ve imagined making. Those attic recordings were a means to him getting out of the valley.”
Christine Beales recalls, “Back in the 70s the town’s outlook was very gloomy. All you really wanted to do as a teenager was get out. The place has changed so much over the years it’s phenomenal, but back then we couldn’t wait to leave. It was the end days for the local cotton industry. I went to live in Italy for two years, having done hotel stints in Cornwall. Trevor went off to Algiers, or down to Tiptree for strawberry picking. The town itself was a dying place for young people. Then came the so-called ‘hippies’ who were an influence on changing Hebden into the more bohemian place it is now, but it wasn’t just down to them. Some older locals were dismayed at these people taking drugs and occupying whole terraces of empty houses that the council were too lazy to repair. But the hippies squatted in them and quite rightly so.”
The town in that era was captured by photographer Charlie Meecham, whose work adorns the gatefold cover of Fireside Stories. Shot in black-and-white, Meecham’s pictures lend extra gravitas to the millstone grit houses, scrubbed stairwells, rocky fields and rundown farm buildings. Meecham says, “Those photos come from my Manchester Polytechnic student days when I was exploring the area in 1969. I’d grown intrigued by the train journey from Manchester to Leeds, getting off at various stops to explore the world as it changed between Lancashire and Yorkshire. I was finding areas that seemed strangely forgotten, almost hidden and very post-industrial. The mill towns were just limping along, the industry had been and gone for decades. They were dark places that didn’t seem to have much future. This was a good area to develop ideas, but if you were ambitious like Trevor you’d need to move on. You were too far from the urban mover and makers.”
Meecham was involved when several artists set up the Albert Street workshop in Hebden. “It was a can-do town as property was dirt cheap so creatives could afford to move in. When I first explored the area, the locals were intrigued by a group of hippies in tepees on the hillside. I had a day photographing a milkman doing his rounds. We were witnessing something on the cusp of major change. Farms up on the tops were tumbling down and deserted. I wanted to make some record of all this before it disappeared. I liked that contrast between the bleak moorlands and the valley town itself which seemed a productive place.” Meecham later shot the famous snowy woodlands scene for the cover of Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’ twelve-inch single. Along with Kate Mellor he now runs Foldworks, a studio and creative space providing print services, at Nanholme Mill by the Rochdale canal.
So, what kind of folk scene did Trevor Beales emerge into? The musician Bob Pegg recalls, “In the late 60s there was at least one folk club every evening around Leeds. The audience demographic was broad — office workers, students, business people, unemployed eccentrics. Toward the 70s, the taste for hardcore traditional music grew and some clubs discouraged guitars, favouring unaccompanied singing or trad instruments. Mr Fox, the folk-rock band I formed with Carole Pegg, played support to John Martyn in Bolton around 1971. There was scarcely enough audience to fill the front rows. Those who did turn up handed fat spliffs to John, who toked while still playing and handed them back. At the end of the evening the organiser announced he’d lost money and couldn’t pay us. John who was still young and slim pursued this guy up the street and shook him down for the fee.”
The archives at Tykes Stirrings folk magazine show early 70s gigs such as Martin Carthy at Club Memphis in Leeds; Tim Hart & Maddy Prior at Bradford Union Folk Club; Dick Gaughan at The George in Cleckheaton. At the 1974 West Riding Festival, the Boar’s Head Morris Men left the opening procession early and danced into a boozer where their lunch was ordered. John Armstrong recalls, “Trevor and I used to play folk clubs, mainly in Todmorden like The Black Swan (now The Polished Knob) across from the market. They gave locals like us three songs, mostly covers, but Trevor showed me the chords to his own numbers so I could play along. He wore big metal fingerpicks and a plastic one clipped to his thumb for extra volume.”
John and Christine were both at Calder High School with Trevor. John says, “We used to sing and play before lessons, getting there early with our guitars. One time Trevor came in with a song he’d found called ‘Hang Young John’ which he jokingly said was about me.” (No record of this song can be traced so we assume it’s a Beales original. An ominous prison ballad, it features on Fireside Stories as ‘Tell Me Now’.) Trevor had already been playing the pubs and clubs before his future wife knew him well. Christine says, “He moved to Ivy Bank where the early 70s recordings were made, basic and very primitive done in the bedroom. Those early songs are a good example but not fully typical of his sound. From the mid-70s onwards he was prolific, always storytelling, but with a more American slant. He had such a confidence and belief, heading off to the States from 1976-77. He lugged his demos around from California to Knoxville, sending me a postcard most days, saying record companies would get back to him.”
Trevor’s music did get released when he formed the band Havana Lake. Their album Concrete Valley came out in 1977 on Look Records, whose other acts included Slaithwaite Brass Band and Saddleworth Male Voice Choir. Concrete Valley was a fine slab of Aquarian prog with funky overtones, featuring versions of two numbers which appear solo on Fireside Stories. Denny Field says, “John Armstrong gave us a copy of Concrete Valley and we saw ‘Marion Belle’ was the first track, which was a nice synchronicity as we’d chosen it to open Fireside Stories. Christine showed us the postcards Trevor her sent while travelling America on a Greyhound bus, visiting all these musical cities. It makes you realise the lengths people went to back then, just to get heard. Compare it with now when there’s a number of Calder Valley bands doing well internationally. Fireside Stories is a product of its time, but the music stands up today. It’s really Christine who this album is for. We were wary of opening old wounds, but she spoke about Trevor in an upbeat manner. It was a privilege to step into her world.”
On a personal search for Ivy Bank, I came across some builders on their lunch break. One of them told me his father bought a three-bedroom house in Hebden for three hundred pounds, around the time Trevor was writing his attic material. The property’s value has since increased a thousandfold. Another recalled his Bradford schoolroom with its views over the town, where one teacher made them count the decreasing mill chimneys every year. Hebden today is long since free of the pollution and asbestos disease that claimed many of its mill workers’ lives. John Armstrong says, “It always seemed a safe environment, a good place to grow up. We used to play in the woods. Trevor’s father was a garage mechanic who brought back all these car spares like rubber tubing. When we were about twelve, around the time of space flight, Trevor said he’d built a spaceship in his cellar. I went there and he’d made this conical-shaped contraption from all these car parts tied together, six feet high and eight feet across. He told me he’d been to the moon and back in it. I looked at him and I thought, ‘Well, you never know.’”
Christine reminisces, “Trevor was not a static person, he moved with the flow and always with a healthy curiosity. Our daughter Lydia was only eight months old when he died. We were living in Bournemouth at the time and far from our families. It was a terrible shock and so sad for someone who had such a zest for life — drawing, making furniture, making music, writing poetry, tinkering with old cars, painting murals, but never making any money except in his dreams. It was tough, but I’ve since seen how lucky I was to have had lovely Trev in my life. He’d like how Hebden has evolved from cotton town to hipster town, with all its bijou bars and music scenes. There would’ve been a song or a poem about it somewhere, I’m sure.”
‘Fireside Stories (Hebden Bridge Circa 1971-1974)’ by Trevor Beales is released by Basin Rock on December 2nd, 2022.
Pre-order a physical or digital copy of the album here.