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A Price On My Head

Updated: Sep 2, 2018

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, my proto-punk band, Ulterior Motives, played several gigs in The Vaults Bar which was in what had been the cellar of The Alexandra Hotel on Great Horton Road. By then, the hotel itself had been demolished leaving only its historic and ‘protected’ façade. In 1993, Bradford’s crass council demolished that and the cellar bar, leaving a piece of vacant land which would spend the next couple of decades earning its pittance as a council-run car park.

The Vaults, a two roomer, with no windows and its walls painted black, was at that time a dingy dive popular with bikers, local bands and a bunch of older men who’d been regular drinkers there for years. The single entrance was at the downhill side of the hotel and led directly into the front bar – a rectangular area with a pool table and a space invaders machine which would nowadays fetch a fortune on eBay. There was a central bar which served both barrooms, at one end of which was a narrow passage between the bar (on the right) and the toilets (on the left) that led into the much larger back room. While some gigs were free, most had a door-charge of a couple of quid. This was taken at a desk set up at the back-room end of the passage. The old men and some of the bikers, if they were in the room before the gig started, could stay without paying. That was part of the deal.

Both rooms had fixed benches and tables round the walls. In that back room, a semi-circular raised area had a walkway with fixed seating and tables to either side. Steps led down to the dance-floor, beyond which was the low stage. Several nights a week there’d be a local band on, and occasionally a touring outfit. While, heavy rock bands predominated, The Vaults also featured punk, blues, post-punk, indie and even folk or ska groups. There were also occasional appearances by performer-poets and singer-song-writers.

The place was run by John and June Farquhar, him a wily negotiator, her tough and business-wise, but both of them fair and kind with those they chose to work with on a regular basis. They were friends of mine then and they remain friends to this day. I’ve good reason to like them. Without them I’d not have successfully run my fanzine, The Wool City Rocker and, more importantly, I’d not have met Gaynor.

John booked the bands and had an encyclopedic knowledge the local scene. One night in the autumn of 1979, while booking another slot for my band, I asked him about a suitable support group. “We want a good one’, I told him, adding (jokingly), ‘but not one that’s better than us!’ He grinned: ‘I’ve got the perfect band for you. They’re young but have a really good singer. They’re called Dark Horse. Shall I book them as your support?’ I nodded. The gig was a good one and our two bands got on well. Our guitarist was Kay Russell, my long-term partner although we were in the process of splitting up. Trisha, the singer with Dark Horse, later invited my band to a party at her house on Xmas Day 1979. There she introduced me to her best friend, Gaynor, who’d just split up with her partner.

A couple of weeks before that Xmas party, in our last collaborative act, Kay and I had co-produced the first issue of The Wool City Rocker, the journal I’d continue producing for fourteen issues. The Vaults Bar became not one of the key sales outlets for the magazine whenever bands were on, but also my second office. It was where I met and interviewed many featured bands, reviewed their gigs, and relaxed after selling copies at gigs elsewhere around the city.

The Convulsions live in 1983
The Convulsions live, pictured at Tickles in 1983. Photo by Fritz The Cat. As far as I know, there are no pictures from the Vaults Bar gig.

This was why I chose The Vaults Bar as the venue for a one-off Saturday night punk gig on 14 May 1983. At that time I was running regular punk nights at Brannigans in Leeds on a Wednesday and at The Palm Cove Club in Bradford on a Thursday, usually featuring the same bands on those consecutive nights in the two adjoining cities. That week, I’d headlined Wiltshire band The Subhumans supported by three top West Yorkshire bands – Anti-System, The Instigators and The Underdogs. On tour at the time, The Subhumans had one gig in the northeast on the Friday night before heading back down south, passing through Yorkshire. Having no gig on the Saturday night, their singer and organizer, Dick Lucas, had asked me to find one for them in Bradford or Leeds. The Instigators were keen to gig with them, as were young local punks The Convulsions. Although it was short notice, I knew I could publicise this gig at the Brannigans and Palm Cove gigs and felt sure that The Convulsions would bring a local crowd, so it was viable and I booked it. What never occurred to me was that, after a couple of years with few bands down there, the bikers – most of whom styled themselves as Satan’s Slaves – would see it as an intrusion on their territory.

There was a good turn-out for this gig and, although there was no real trouble, the ensuing intimidation terrified some of the younger punks. The bikers, most of whom were old enough to be the parents or even grandparents of the punks, did a bit of barging and shouting and threw a few glasses and bottles into the front-of-stage crowd, but luckily no one was injured. If they’d really wanted to make trouble, things would’ve been far worse. In the end, the gig went well, with The Instigators set recorded and subsequently released on Dick’s Bluurg cassette label (which also released several of my own albums).

While all of this disruption was going on, I tried to calm things down. The main man behind the hostility seemed to be a stocky younger Satan’s Slave called Billy. Away from the music, beside the pool table, I tried hard to reason with him. His response was to pull out a knife and lunge at me with it. I stepped to one side, the blade missed me, and he stomped off. Later that evening, when things had quietened down, I spoke to him again, asking to see the knife. He showed me it. The thing was long enough, wide enough and certainly sharp enough to have done some harm if it had found its mark. He’d calmed down by then and we talked for a while. At the time I wrote a weekly column in the local free paper, The Bradford Star. He told me the name of his chapter of The Satan’s Slaves and said that if I mentioned them in my column we could call it quits.

I did refer both to him and his chapter in my next column, relating the key details of encounter and adding jokingly that I’d no idea what this group did but guessed that they held Tupperware parties and did flower-arranging. I don’t think Billy was amused. I was walking through the city centre the following week when a motorbike pulled up beside me. “You Nick Toczek?’ asked the rider. When I confessed that I was, he added ‘Message from Billy: there’s a contract out on you.’ And he rode off.

Several days later I went into the city centre branch of NatWest Bank and joined long the queue. By an extraordinary coincidence, standing immediately in from of me, in all his leathered glory, helmet in hand, was Billy himself. Unable to resist the opportunity, I tapped him on the shoulder. When he glanced back at me, I said in a voice loud enough for everyone in the bank to hear: ‘Hi, Billy, I’m told that, having not managed to stab me with that knife of yours, you’ve now put out a contract to have me killed.’

Everyone was staring by now and Billy actually bushed before whispering ‘Shut up… just shut up.’ I did so, but that queue was moving very slowly indeed and, as the pair of us gradually shuffled forward over the next ten minutes, we shared a silence which I enjoyed immensely.

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