Grapevine Magazine hits The BIG Three Oh this month. To kick off a year of birthday celebrations, Tony Bell turns the tables and interviews Stephen ‘Foz’ Foster, a man well known for interviewing others on radio, and someone who has been writing for Grapevine Magazine since issue one.

TB: How did you get involved with Grapevine all those years ago?

Foz: Paul Burrows got me involved in Grapevine from the word go.  I knew Paul as a member of The Mean Red Spiders, they were my favourite local band and only the year before, in 1990, I’d put them on at The Corn Exchange in Ipswich.  They were headlining a bill which also included The Shaboogamoo Shufflers and The Boze Brothers.  And I make mention of that gig on the front page of the very first Grapevine from March 1991.  It was a wonderful gig and I was very close to all five members of The Mean Red Siders. I was pretty well known locally for my commercial radio work and I had moved over to the BBC, Paul thought it made perfect sense to get me on board and I was only too happy to contribute to that first edition, and I don’t think I’ve missed one since!

I have an almost complete collection; I’m hoping to get the missing issues sorted soon and get them bound. I’m very proud of the fact that I have been involved for thirty years.

(Click on the image of the first Grapevine Magazine to read it online!)

TB: Over thirty years, you have seen a few changes in the music scene, yes?

Foz: Yes, just one or two.  I suppose the big change for us all has been the internet.  The way bands have been able to push themselves on social media.  Thankfully, Grapevine has remained, up until the pandemic of course, an important part of the written word and indeed online.  The transition of how bands can publicise what they are doing is probably the biggest change.

Of course, the number of pubs that have shut has been a big blow.  Just looking through this first issue, there are so many venues that I used to go to… The Ship & Star in Sudbury, The Railway in Ipswich, The Oliver Twist in Colchester… there are loads of them… The Drum and Monkey in Ipswich… Very important venues in years gone by and sadly we’ve got very few of those left.   I think what has happened is that people are more than happy to take in their live music as part of the festival scene.  It has grown and grown like topsy as we know only too well here in Suffolk.  And while that has been a big boost to the music scene I think some of the smaller venues may have suffered as a result of people spending more of their money on big events and bigger indoor concerts – such as the O2 Arena instead of taking time out to go to a local pub and spending their money over the bar to help fund live music.   That’s just a bit of a hunch that I’ve got about it all – I could well be wrong.

TB: Of course today if you want to check out a band you simply click on a link. Back when Grapevine started you had to go and see them.

Foz: I think there are fewer young people going to see bands in pubs now.  A lot of the people going to pub gigs that I went to pre-pandemic, would have been the same people going to pub gigs when Grapevine started.  If the pub scene is to be replenished, we somehow need to get more youngsters involved to take over the mantel for years to come.

TB: The impossible question – what is the best gig you’ve been to or been involved in?

Foz: My favourite gig of the hundreds I’ve been to at The Regent Theatre, but it was The Gaumont in those days, was an early gig of U2, before they became a mega band.  They were promoting the album ‘Boy’ and they were really on the way up; you could sense that this band were going places.  They tore the roof off the place that night in 1983. Everyone in that audience I think realised that this was a band going places, they had something very special.  They were young, had great energy on stage and that certainly stands out as one of the great gigs I’ve been to.

Of the gigs I’ve promoted, John Butters and I ran a promotions company called Smokestack.  We put loads of Blues gigs on at a place called The Lion’s Den, at the back of The Golden Lion.  We had a superb run of blues gigs for several years before The Lion’s Den shut.  The best one of those was a guy called Jimmy Rogers, who used to be in the Muddy Waters Band in Chicago back in the 1950s. To get him and his Chicago Blues Band to Ipswich was quite a feat for us. The trouble being that it was quite expensive and unbelievably the gig didn’t sell out.  Being more expensive than most we’d put on we had to up the ticket price, I suppose we had a hundred people in there, we usually got somewhere between seventy-five and a hundred and fifty.  So John & I had to go to our respective cash point machines nearby and get out a couple of hundred quid each so we could pay the band at the end of the night.  Possibly the most expensive gig I’ve ever been to – certainly at that time it was!  It was great fun and my favourite ever gig at The Lion’s Den that is for sure.

TB: Over your career you have interviewed many, many famous musicians.  Are there any that you remember being surprising?

Foz: I suppose the biggest surprise was how easy Mike Oldfield was to interview. I had heard, as most people have, that he is a very shy guy, not very media friendly but he was so friendly.  I try to let my interviewee know that I know something about them and that I’m not just someone who has been drafted in to do the interview at the last minute.  I always try to get off on the right footing in that regard and you find that people, like Mike Oldfield, suddenly open up.  He told me that he used to be in a small band before he became famous, and that this band regularly used to come to Aldeburgh, and he knew the county very well.  I came away from that one thinking how well he had opened up because I wasn’t expecting anything of the sort.

On the other hand, someone like Gary Moore, sadly no longer with us, not once but twice gave me a really poor interview backstage at The Gaumont in Ipswich – this would have been back in the 1980s, he really was totally unhelpful.  After doing the second interview I walked out and there were about six Gary Moore fans gathered at the stage door hoping to have their LP sleeves signed.  He wouldn’t come out to meet six fans.  I could understand it if there were six hundred fans.  After that second poor interview I vowed never to interview him again.

But there have been so many great interviews – Ed Sheeran at The Maverick Festival, just after he had played on stage to about one man and his dog! He did a little session for us live on air on a Saturday afternoon.  About a year later at Jimmy’s Farm I saw him again and it was then I realised just how good Ed Sheeran was.  I remember saying to him, Ed, there is no doubt that you are going places.  You never know with these people, like U2 and Ed, how far they are going to go, but you are pretty sure that they will go beyond The Gaumont in Ipswich or Jimmy’s Farm.

TB: We’ve touched on venues long since closed but are there any new venues you like the look of?

Foz: To be honest I can’t think of any.  One I should mention is the John Peel Centre in Stowmarket which is about to grow with the purchase of the Nat West Bank building and will give them a frontage onto Stowmarket marketplace.  I hope great things are in store for the John Peel Centre – maybe even dressing rooms for bands!  Without doubt, John Peel, is such an important name in music still, he had an enormous influence on people whether they be broadcasters like me or bands, his name is synonymous with music at the cutting edge.

TB: Of all the gigs you been to, are there any bands you wanted to see but haven’t for one reason or other?

Foz: There aren’t many to be fair, I have been so lucky over the last forty or forty-five years, I’ve managed to tick most of them off.  The one band I do regret missing, and I don’t know why I missed them, at the height of the 1970s rock era, was The Sensational Alex Harvey Band at The Gaumont, and sadly Alex Harvey wasn’t with us for too many years after that.  They were a band that were pure theatre, something very different on the scene.  I have had the opportunity to see the band without Alex when they played a couple of gigs at The Railway in Ipswich.  On one occasion we breached a council noise pollution regulation and I ended up in Ipswich Magistrates Court explaining why we had overrun the concert.  That was in the days of Chris and Joyce at The Railway – thankfully we were cleared of that because I told the magistrate that we couldn’t let the Alex Harvey band go without them playing their biggest hit “Delilah”.

TB: We’ve been in lockdown for so long the only way to listen to music is recorded, have you a preference for vinyl, CDs, MP3s, streaming?

Foz: Since CDs came to the market back in the mid 80 that is how I have bought most of my music and indeed while I as at Radio Suffolk and Radio Orwell before that, that was how I received most of my promotional material.  I still buy CDs, I’ve just completed my collection of Elton John’s studio albums on CD and likewise Van Morrison and Bob Dylan… and also, would you believe, Van Der Graaf Generator!

I also stream now, though part of me feels guilty for streaming, I know that the artists get next to nothing for the privilege of everyone hearing their music.  I pay a monthly fee like most people and I stream it to listen to when I’m out on my walks normally around the waterfront area of Ipswich.

TB: What is the first band you will rush out and see as soon as lockdown ends?

Foz: Funnily enough, the only one I have in my diary, and I really don’t know if will happen at Venue 77 in Ipswich in early December, is the annual Dr Feelgood Christmas gig.  I can’t see any indoor gigs coming back much before the autumn.

TB: Earlier you mentioned festivals: realistically do you see much happening on the festival scene this year?

Foz: Sadly I don’t.  With Glastonbury making that announcement a few weeks ago I think other festivals will follow suit.  I see The Maverick Festival have moved their event to later in the year at Easton Farm Park.  I still think they will do well to hold it.  I just can’t see how at a festival you can keep people apart and certainly not at the bigger ones like Latitude.  There is going to be a lot of responsibility on Festival organisers to abide by every rule and regulation in the book because if they don’t someone will come down very hard on them.  That is going to put a lot of festival organisers off.  I doubt if Ipswich Music Day will happen this year on Christchurch Park, unless it is scaled down and it can be managed.  Sadly I don’t see much happening until late summer, it is going to have to be so well organised and for some it may be too much bother until everyone has been vaccinated, that is going to be the key.

Foz introducing StowBlues