My local heroes and Villains of 2011…

As the year draws to a close it is a time to reflect on the good and the bad of the last 12 months.

As I’m a bloke (and we love lists) here, in no particular order, are my local heroes and villains for 2011…

*First up its the lads and lasses of the Third Battalion, The Mercian Regiment (Staffords) who are HEROES – despite what my columnist colleague Mike Wolfe may think – for completing their tour of duty to Afghanistan. Private Gareth Bellingham, aged 22, of Clayton, was shot while on patrol in June and paid the ultimate sacrifice. We can’t have anything but admiration for the job our Armed Forces do.

*Developer Realis may, in time, be viewed as a HERO for investing hundreds of millions of pounds in the city centre to replace the eyesore that is Hanley Bus Station with a huge new shopping centre. But they, and the city council, are firmly in the VILLAINS corner for ever thinking it was OK to name the complex ‘City Sentral’. Bad English. Bad idea.

*I’m swallowing my pride for this one and naming Stoke City’s team HEROES for their exploits in 2011. It would be churlish – even for a Vale fan like me – to deny our cousins down the A500 their moment in the sun after an FA Cup Final appearance, a continuing European odyssey and some very decent results of late in the Premier League. There, I’ve said it.

*Next comes Jim Gannon – the pantomime VILLAIN who almost single-handedly wrecked Port Vale’s chances of promotion last season by dropping the entire first-choice midfield and upsetting virtually every player. The manager’s bizarre behaviour (remember busgate?) alienated the entire club and its fanbase. Good riddance.

*I’m afraid the city council again earns the title of VILLAIN for its shocking lack of transparency and accountability over the Dimensions pool fiasco. Ultimately, local businessman Mo Chaudry dropped his threat of legal action against the authority and tens of thousands of pounds worth of taxpayers’ money was wasted because someone at the council dropped a clanger over a potential deal to shut the splash pool at Dimensions. Inevitably, no-one – neither councillors nor officers – has been punished. Quelle surprise!

*The various incarnations of Port Vale’s board of directors have proven to be VILLAINS whose self-interest and misguided view of what’s best for the club have been catastrophic. The Vale doesn’t appear to have two pennies to rub together and fans and shareholders have been properly led up the garden path with the issuing of ‘nil-paid’ shares and the spectacular failure of the Blue Sky deal. Time for a New Year Spring Clean methinks.

*Another sort of local HERO this year is Saul Hudson – AKA guitarist Slash – who returned to his native North Staffordshire for the first time to play a one-off gig at the Victoria Hall. His links to the city may be tenuous, but I’m still claiming him. Anyone who, like yours truly, was lucky enough to see him play live up Hanley in July knows they were in the presence of greatness. Rock on, Slash.

*Sticking with music I’d like to name Robert Williams esquire as a HERO of 2011. Firstly, he has earned it because he has given ordinary Vale fans a voice by allowing his shares to be used by the Supporters’ Club. Secondly, he deserves it because I saw him with Take That on the Progress Live tour at Manchester and can categorically say that there was only one superstar on the stage that night. Everything else was window dressing. Take a bow, Robbie.

*My next VILLAIN isn’t local but its actions have placed a priceless piece of our heritage in jeopardy. The High Court ruling that the Wedgwood Museum collection could be sold off to help plug a pension fund deficit linked to the collapse of the pottery giant was a disgrace. Mercifully, the stage is set for Stoke-on-Trent-born billionaire and philanthropist John Caudwell to become the HERO after he vowed to save the collection rather than seeing it broken up and lost to the Potteries. Nice one, John.

*Finally, a bit of festive cheer courtesy of a local firm which battened down the hatches in October 2008 in preparation for the global economic downturn. JCB is not only surviving but thriving and has to be seen as a HERO after awarding its workforce a 5.2 per cent pay rise and a £500 Christmas bonus. Other employers please take note.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel


REVIEW: Slash at the Victoria Hall, Hanley (July 24, 2011)

They say the devil has all the best tunes. Not last night he didn’t.

Slash, AKA Saul Hudson, borrowed them for his long-awaited homecoming gig.

This was one of those rare musical ‘I was there’ moments.

Those lucky enough to get their greasy mits on a ticket were taken on an epic, three-hour rock odyssey.

I knew we were in for a treat because I spoke to Slash’s uncle Ian Hudson, from Tunstall, before the gig and he told me just how much the former Guns N’ Roses guitarist was looking forward to his return to the city where he spent the first six years of his life.

As the queue snaked around the Victoria Hall before the doors opened I sneaked in during the soundcheck and had the pleasure of watching Slash’s band warm up.

That’s when I came over all ‘We’re not worthy’ – à la Garth from Wayne’s World.

I stood up in the circle next to an amplifier, my ears bleeding and gazed down upon a rock legend not 30 feet away.

Now I’ve seen some decent guitarists in my time – Eddie van Halen in his pomp springs to mind, or Joe Perry from Aerosmith and, of course, my beloved Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi.

But I’ve experienced nothing which quite compares to the visceral thrill of watching Slash play his signature Gibson Les Paul to within an inch of its life in front of such a partisan crowd.

The audience came from all over: Paris; London, Bristol, Torquay, Portsmouth, Ayrshire and even Japan for a gig that sold out in two hours. But mostly they came from North Staffordshire to welcome home a bloke who left this city as wild child Saul Hudson and returned as rock royalty.

Slash doesn’t tend to say much. Not much that is printable, anyway.

However, he informed the crowd (to much whooping and hollering) that he had chosen Stoke-on-Trent to shoot the first tour DVD he’d made on his own.

He also said he’d been wanting to do this gig for ‘more years than he cared to remember’ and that it was special to be back, adding: “Needless to say it’s chuffin’ cool.”

OK. He didn’t say chuffin’.

When the bands you have been in have sold 120 million records and packed out stadiums across the globe, playing the Vicki Hall up Hanley on a Sunday night could be considered small beer.

However, Slash and his band worked their backsides off last night for the 1,500 people who turned this grand old venue into a cauldron. It’s hard to take your eyes off Slash and his jaw-dropping mastery of the strings.

But, in truth, one of the most memorable aspects of this intimate gig was the performance of frontman Myles Kennedy whose vocals were, dare I say, at least as good – if not better – than the deified Axl Rose.

Through it all Slash sweated, swaggered and strummed while his uncle Ian looked on proudly from the balcony above.

Highlights included Starlight – a single which is released today from Slash’s latest album and Slither from his days with Velvet Revolver.

But you could literally feel the building shaken to its foundations when the band played Guns N’ Roses tracks.

We were treated to Rocket Queen, Night Train, Mr Brownstone, Sweet Child O’ Mine and the epic Civil War before Paradise City brought the show to a shuddering climax.

Rock music simply doesn’t get any better than this.

From dinosaurs to a monster of rock

Sentinel columnist Martin Tideswell met up with a man who has more reason than most to be looking forward to the return of a music prodigy to his native city

When Tony Hudson told his family he was emigrating to America, his younger brother Ian was understandably upset – not least because it meant saying goodbye to his nephew Saul.

Ian took a lock of the lad’s hair, placed it in a photo album and shaped it into a number six – the age Saul was when he left the Potteries to start a new life overseas.

The year was 1971 and the States may as well have been another planet as far as your average Stokie was concerned.

Little did Ian know that the next time he would hear about the scruffy boy with a penchant for sticklebricks and drawing dinosaurs was through a book review in The Sentinel.

The book in question – Low Life In The Fast Lane – told the story of the biggest rock band in the world and there, on the cover, was the lad who had once turned little girls’ heads in Blurton.

The band was Guns N’ Roses, Saul had become its legendary lead guitarist Slash, and it dawned on Ian that his nephew was a megastar.

Ian, who works as a warehouse operative for DHL in Stoke, said: “I honestly couldn’t believe it. We were all absolutely thrilled to bits.

“You see, I remember Saul – as he was then – as this boisterous little guy who lived with my mum and dad, Cybil and Charles, in Consett Road, Blurton, and went to the local primary school.

“Saul was very close to his dad, adored his auntie Mabel and loved drawing. He was a very gentle boy really, and there was certainly nothing to indicate that he would become a hard rock musician or join a band.”

Ian said: “When we found out Guns were touring the UK in 1991 we managed to get in touch with the band’s PR company and asked Slash if he minded the Hudson family going along to the gig at Wembley and he said: ‘Great!’.

“The first time I saw him with Guns, strutting around with his guitar and flying across the stage with Axl it was just awesome.

“It was hard to believe it was the same little boy I knew from all those years ago.”

I took it as a good omen as I drove through Tunstall on my way to interview Ian that I had spotted a bloke wearing a faded Guns N’ Roses t-shirt.

You know the one – the classic, circular gold band logo with the two pistols and red roses.
It took me back…

Back to 1988, in fact – my final year at Holden Lane High – when an earthquake had transformed the music scene.

A certain American band had brought hard rock music to the masses with their multi-platinum album Appetite For Destruction.

Even the girls in my class, used to bopping around to the Theme From S-Express, were hooked.

“Slash’s from Stoke, you know,” I recall one of them saying – which, of course, made the lead guitarist even cooler. If that was possible.

Guns ’n Roses went on to become the biggest band in the world before drugs, touring and egos led to the implosion of the original line-up.

More than three decades later and the boy from Stoke – AKA Slash – is scheduled to play his first gig in the city where he spent the early years of his life.

Tickets sold out in under two hours – much to the delight of his uncle Ian who will be at a packed Victoria Hall in Hanley on July 24 along with his family and some lucky pals.

You wouldn’t know Ian had a famous relative. Not unless you get invited round to the home of his partner Jean Booth in Sandyford, that is.

In the cosy living room you’ll find framed pictures and magazine covers signed by Slash himself, along with back stage passes from past tours which are the equivalent of rocking horse poo to your average rock fan.

Ian, now 64 and living in Tunstall, has got used to having a famous nephew.

So used to it, in fact, that he can now look back and laugh at the time when he met a man in a pub in Fenton who claimed to be Slash’s uncle.

“I didn’t argue with him,” said Ian. “But it did make me smile to think that there was some bloke going around pretending to be me. I guess it just shows you how big Guns were.”

The living room at Jean’s house is where Slash’s father Tony spent two weeks sleeping on a camp bed in July last year when he stayed over in order to spend a little time with the brother he hadn’t seen for nearly 40 years.

Since that first Wembley concert experience, Ian has met up with his famous nephew several times – during UK gigs with his post-Guns ’n Roses outfits Slash’s Snakepit, supergroup Velvet Revolver and on his solo tour.

But when he heard that Blurton’s finest would actually be playing live here in the Potteries, Ian was understandably over the moon.

He said: “Slash had just got off stage from a gig in South America and he texted me. It said: ‘See you in Stoke on July 24’.

“I thought: ‘Stoke? Where on earth would he play in Stoke?’.

“When I found out it was the Victoria Hall I was thrilled because I’ve seen a few decent concerts there myself – people like Eric Clapton and ELO back in the 60s.

“It’s a great venue and it will be brilliant to see Slash back here in Stoke and not have to travel so far. I could even use my bus pass.”

Looking back, Ian fully understands why his older brother wanted to move away from the Potteries.

Tony, who will be 70 in August, was a gifted artist who went on to create album covers for musicians such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.

Meanwhile, Slash’s mother Ola was an African-American costume designer whose clients included David Bowie.

Needless to say there wasn’t much in the way of work for them in the Potteries.

Tony moved his family to the Laurel Canyon neighbourhood of Los Angeles which, during the 1960s, became famous as a home to many of the Big Apple’s rock musicians, such as Frank Zappa and Jim Morrison.

Ian said: “I think Tony just felt that he could offer his family a better life.

“Obviously, back then none of us had any idea what would happen to Slash.

“When they first moved to the States we would get letters and Tony would send pictures of album sleeves he had been working on.

“Then, over time, the correspondence dried and up and we just lost touch.

“The success of Slash’s career has brought us back together really and I couldn’t be more proud.”

Ian rang The Sentinel after reading my column about Slash’s homecoming gig and the campaign to have a statue erected in his honour here in the Potteries.

He said: “I don’t think Slash really understands just how many fans he has here back here in Stoke-on-Trent.

“But I’m sure the crowd will let him know. It will be a very special night for all of us.”