Punk band on steps of Reichstag building holding a Stay Up Late banner

Heavy Load – The Expletive-fuelled Punks And Their Weird Journey To Stardom

How a little-known anarchic punk band, including musicians with learning disabilities, came to be listed №9 in The Guardian’s Top 20 rock documentaries of all time and how this gave birth to the charity Stay Up Late and the Gig Buddies project.

Heavy Load – ‘Monsters of Doc’

In Nov ‘22 The Guardian published its ‘Monsters of Doc’, their Top 20 music documentaries of all time. The top 10 were films about Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Dr Feelgood, David Bowie, Louis Armstrong, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and more household names than you could shake a big stick at.

But at №9 was listed the movie’ Heavy Load’ — a band many people have never heard of. The documentary tells the story of the anarchic punk band, which had three members with learning disabilities and how they tried to get their noise to mainstream audiences.

“I want to be in a band”

Jimmy Nichols

I was the bass player in the band, so I’d like to share a little-known history of the band and how we went on to create the charity Stay Up Late and the Gig Buddies franchise.

I want to be in a band

It all started back in 1997 through a conversation between Jimmy and Mick. Jimmy has a learning disability and lived in a group home. He used to love playing his guitar in his bedroom as he has a lovely deep baritone voice. One day his support worker Mick asked him if he’d like to do more with his guitar playing. Jimmy, a man of few words, said, “I want to be in a band.”

Mick supported Jimmy by sending an advert to the other houses in the organisation that supported him. Shortly after, Simon (vocals) and Michael (drums) replied to join Mick and Jimmy in forming the band. There were two other members in the early days for about a month, both called Paul, so when they left, I jumped straight in, and it, of course, helped that I’m also called Paul! That was in 1997.

As we saw it, the first big break for us was an invite to play two nights at The Beautiful Octopus Club run by Heart N Soul in Deptford.

Burnstock

Look what happens when you take a person-centred approach!

The band started because Mick took the time to ask Jimmy what he dreamed of doing, which was being in a band. Jimmy didn’t say, “I want to be in a band that plays a couple of Glastonbury’s, New York, writes a Channel 4 theme tune, releases three albums, starts a charity and appears in one of the Guardian’s Top 10 music documentaries.” But all that happened because Mick supported Jimmy in following his dream, and we all embraced the many opportunities presented to us and pushed to see what else we could make happen.

We then became regulars playing at Carousel’s regular Blue Camel Clubs in Brighton and started making a name for ourselves on the disability arts scene in Sussex.

We weren’t always well-received or understood. Our music was loud, our performances were chaotic, and there was a lot of swearing. In those days learning disability club nights were more pop and had lots of ABBA. We even nearly got barred from playing one night because the organisers feared we might inspire all their members to start pogoing and destroy the floor of the tin hut they used to meet in.

Such negativity and confusion were all power to our elbow; we were punks, and punks need to upset people!

Real Power — meeting Jerry Rothwell

In the early 2000s, we met the film director Jerry Rothwell. He was making a film for the Cambridge Peoples’ Parliament about disability rights called ‘Real Power’. Jerry had read about us in his GP waiting room and was intrigued and thought we might be just the thing to add some light to the film. It talked about serious issues, but humour often helps get the point across.

After filming, Mick and I joked with Jerry in the pub that he should make a film about us.

About 18 months later, he phoned me and said, “you know that idea of making a film about you? I want to do it.”

Making the movie

Jerry makes his films all over the world, but he happened to live just outside Lewes in East Sussex, very near to all of us, so it was easy for him to film certain aspects of our lives at short notice, and he also came on the road with us. He filmed us for 2 ½ years, and I remember getting a call in my office from him one day, and he said, “I’ve been in the edit suite. There are about 100 hours of footage but no story yet.” Somehow Jerry managed to craft a story about our band that had a more significant impact than we could have ever dreamed.

The film premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, was screened on the BBC, at cinemas around the UK, on US TV and shown at various other international film festivals.

The Guardian produced a 4-page feature on us in The Weekend supplement ‘We played Mencap and they told us to turn it down’.

BBC 5 Live’s film critic Mark Kermode made it the film of the week, and we even ended up in Heat Magazine’s Top 10 movies of the month. (That was well beyond the mainstream, according to my mate Steve!)

Our gigs

We started off playing at disability club nights and community festivals, but the film opened up doors we could never have dreamt of. To celebrate the film’s release on US TV, we played a gig in New York, a couple of Glastonbury Festivals, two Scottish tours and Berlin. We even went on a road trip to Copenhagen and played to a bunch of anarchists in a squat made from an old factory. That was on top of all the regular gigs we’d get booked for around the UK.

Berlin

Starting Stay Up Late

In the movie, there’s a gig where we’re playing at a packed pub. It was a significant moment because it was the first time we’d played to a largely non-disabled crowd. It went down a storm, and afterwards, we enjoyed a beer and reflected on what a great gig it was. Michael (drums) had half a pint of beer left, and his support worker came over and said, “drink up, Michael. It’s time to go home.” Those eight words were all it took to take the shine off the evening.

However, we’d been getting increasingly frustrated with seeing people leaving our gigs early due to inflexible support workers, and this was the moment we snapped and decided to do something.

Why shouldn’t people with learning disabilities be able to have a good social life?

Sad Michael

Why can’t support workers be flexible and work a bit later from time to time if it means supporting someone to go to a gig, see their mates, or do something later in the evening?

So like many movements, Stay Up Late started over a beer in a pub. Many people shared our frustrations, and our aims have remained the same.

If you are supported with respect around your social life, then you will be in a culture which supports you with respect around other things that matter to you; finding work, having a relationship, pursuing your hobbies etc.

Stay Up Late became a charity, and our Gig Buddies project has been licensed across the UK and into Australia, New Zealand and Ireland.

Cast-offs theme tune

One day I got a call from a TV producer who wanted to commission us to record the theme tune for a programme she was making. Cast-Offs was a mockumentary reality show about six people with different disabilities abandoned on a crappy island. Judy, the producer, said, “We need noise and anarchy. We need something that doesn’t sound like what you’d hear on the TV”. I replied, “Oh yes, I think we can do that.”

Judy replied, “I love your can-do attitude”, and my response was “, well, you’ve just described what we can do, so it’s not going to be too hard!”

They paid us enough for 19 seconds of noise that it paid for most of the recording of our third album, ‘WHAM’.

How it all ended

In 2012 I got a phone call from our drummer Michael. He said, “Paul, I’ve been thinking. I’m going to be 50. It’s time to retire.” Now Michael had threatened to leave the band since we’d started, saying he would set up a solo project. However, this time it felt different, and we’d been booked to play a gig at the Paralympic festivities in Trafalgar Square. So that’s how we played our last gig, on a massive stage on a gorgeous September day in the centre of London. (Probably to a load of confused tourists who wished we’d turn it down a bit!)

Traf Sq

Our lasting legacy

Reading that Top 20 article in The Guardian was pretty wild. Most people have never heard of us, but we were, mentioned alongside some of the most influential musicians ever.

But in our small way, we lived true to the original spirit of punk. We didn’t care we couldn’t play our instruments as well as some people or that we couldn’t remember the lyrics to a song. We loved spending time with each other and the thrill of getting on stage and never knowing what would happen next.

A massive thank you also needs to go to Jerry Rothwell and Al Morrow, and everyone at Metfilm for having the vision to take the risk to make a film about us. I still can’t believe that ever happened!

Three chords and a bunch of swear words

We never wrote a set list ever. We would just get up and see what we felt like. That spirit of punk has permeated everything we now do through the charity (Stay Up Late), and although we do need to think things through just a little bit more these days, it just goes to show you what you can do with three chords and a bunch of swear words!

Watch the movie

You can watch the movie here:

Russian Load
author avatar
Paul Richards Executive Director, Stay Up Late
Posted in Heavy Load, Starting a charity.

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