A life in rock music with Rick Steele

Rick Steele, signing with Harlot
Rick Steele, signing with Harlot

There aren’t many roles like it. Fronting a rock band, playing live, spending hours on the road with your mates driving to gigs, and hanging out in the rehearsal studio.

It’s been part of Rick Steele’s life across the decades; some 45 years – on and off – as lead singer in bands from Spank The Plank to Harlot to the Ballroom Gitz.

Spank The Plank

Spank The Plank

The end of 2018 saw him decide it was time hang up his mic, switch off his amp, and take stock.

He admits the final gig with the Gitz over the festive period was a mix of “relief, sadness and some guilt”.

I first met him during the days when Spank The Plank were regular fixtures on a thriving live music scene which saw a host of pubs and clubs open the doors to local bands.

That was the late 1980s when bands such as Blue On Shock, The Receiving End, Supernova and The Big Now – to name but a few –would pull in the punters at venues all long gone, Anthony’s Hotel, Harlem, Bar Itza, The Clubhouse,and the Ollerton, as well as a vibrant scene in Levenmouth based around places such as the Hunting Lodge.

Harlot

Harlot

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His own story began 100 miles north in Aberdeen where he cut his teeth in local bands while still underage to get into the venues they played in.

A decade working offshore and then a move to Fife in 1988 saw him hook up with the band that became Spank The Plank, winners of the Fife Free Press 1991 Song Of The Year with a superb riff, Human Cannonball.

They were also runners-up to Blue On Shock in a Battle of the Bands competition which was run by Chas Gemmell from Burntisland – who played in Scarlett Lies – which packed out Anthony’s Hotel for every single heat.

Spank The Plank were regulars in the music pages of the Fife Free Press from the late 1980s onwards, and made their name as a great live band. With blues-based good time boogie – and more than a hint of groups such as ZZ Top – they played over 150 gigs across Scotland and supported groups such as Nazareth and the Wilko Johnson Band.

Locally, they could be found playing venues such as the Hunting Lodge, Crystals Arena, The Clubhouse, The Woodside Inn and many other local pubs and clubs. The original and classic line-up consisted of Rick, Stuart Porter on bass, who went on to play with Dunragan, Kenny Anderson on guitar – a fellow member of the Ballroom Gitz – Bill Nesbit on drums, and Bryan Kerr on guitar.

“We did a lot of stuff like ZZ Top –every know knows two Top songs, we had 22 of them!” Rick recalled. “We also did our own stuff; we’d add them to set lists and see how they went down.

“The Hunting Lodge was pretty much our home turf, and we also did events such as Cupar Festival. Back then all the bands played all the same venues, so we got to know each other well.”

One memorable self-penned song – released on old fashioned cassette! – included extracts from the 1990 Scottish rugby Grand Slam TV commentary of the late, great Bill McLaren, overlaid by a cracking guitar riff while, in 2014, Spank The Plank were named in the Press’ 100 greatest bands to emerge from Fife.

The group also led Rick on to Harlot, which specialised in rock covers – ideal for a singer who cites Steve Tyler of Aerosmith, Robert Plant, Bon Scott and David Coverdale as major influences.

“Kenny Anderson asked if I was interested in joining,” he said. “Brian Urquhart, who was such a major influence on so many people, told me to go for it.”

While the line-up was fluid, the band quickly established a solid following with a set based around the classic songs of AC/DC, Zeppelin and many other major bands.

“In Spank The Plank we played gigs Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It was hard work, but the band scene was great back then.

“Harlot became a band that other musicians came to see – I remember Joe’s Band coming to a gig to see the ‘new rivals!’ – and we also had great musicians regardless of any line-up changes.”

Harlot also led Rick into the Ballroom Gitz, with the bands running in tandem before he focused solely on the latter, complete with 70s-style outfits, wigs and make-up as they celebrated the era of glam rock with great success, albeit after a false start.

“About 10 years ago, around one month before Christmas, Kenny asked if I’d fill in.

I had to learn 42 songs in one month ... and then the gig was cancelled!”

With the Ballroom Gitz songbook already nailed, Rick decided to sign up, and immerse himself in the sounds of the ‘70s – Sweet, Slade and, until his downfall, Gary Glitter and the Glitter Band.

The Ballroom Gitz put on a show, dressing up and having fun, bringing the music to life.

“We went everywhere,” Rick said, “from Inverness to the Borders, and the gigs were all word of mouth – we never advertised. Folk came to see us, enjoyed the gigs, and when they had parties or events, they then got in touch.

“It was by far the most popular band I was in, and everyone knew every song we performed. It was huge fun, and we were up for making a fool of ourselves by getting all glammed up too.”

Rick pinpoints Thunder In The Glens festival as one of his highlights – a huge event for Harley Davidson fans who took over the centre of Aviemore. Gun and The Skids are among the big names to have played there in front of crowds of around 3000 people.

“It was a fantastic event” said Rick. “We arrived, they put us up in a chalet, and the stage had a huge PA and lighting systems; it was a fantastic atmosphere. The bikers loved our set because we were a rock band doing glam. The sound was raunchy!”

“The Ballroom Gitz were great fun.”

The decision to hang up his mic and come off the road came at the end of 2018 as Rick turned 60.

“I did my last gig with a bit of relief, sadness and some guilt as the band are now re-assessing their own plans and what they want to do.

“We’re all still good pals, but, taking stock, it was time to call a halt..”

But not entirely.

“Never say never!” Rick said.

“ I’d be happy to help out, deputising or stepping in at rehearsals with a band.”