It’s not until you’re asked to reflect on your life journey for an article like this that you really try to piece everything together. I’m best known as the singer for the band Ferocious Dog these days, but the roots of everything we do as a band are buried deep in the events that surrounded me as I entered adulthood.
I grew up in a mining community in Nottinghamshire and left school when I was 16, in 1984. It wasn’t the most harmonious time – our family bore the brunt of the strikes (my dad and brother were in the midst of a year long strike, and I’d join them on the picket lines). We were right in the eye of that political storm. We stayed true to the NUM at Welbeck Colliery, later being moved to Kellingley, with a 50-mile each-way commute to contend with.
I spent 30 years a proud miner, socialist and unionist. In many ways it would have been easier to have not joined the strikes, but the principles at stake meant too much – and these shape the music we make now. Slow Motion Suicide from our latest album tells the story of the impact the decimation of the mining industry had on just one particular character, but that kind of worthlessness and hopelessness was – and maybe still is – rife in the aftermath of Thatcher’s destruction of the industries.
While I’ve always played music, it was in my last few years as a miner that the band took off in earnest. I was also a retained firefighter at the time so juggling two jobs and the band was really hard work. The first time we played in Bristol, at the Louisiana, I had just enough time to get home before hitting the road again to get to Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire to do a day shift at the coal face.
Musically, I draw influence from many bands and styles, but the Two Tone movement – bands like The Specials and The Beat – smashed the racial divide, something that means a lot to us too. We released a single called Ruby Bridges that hit number one in the iTunes folk charts. Our political mentors are New Model Army, The Levellers, Billy Bragg and Nick Burbridge, many of whom we’ve got to work with in the last few years – Nick co-wrote one of the tracks, Living On Thin Air, on our latest album.
I’m proud of my working class roots. Tony Blair tried to tell us there was no such thing any more but that’s nonsense – even if I were a millionaire I’d still be working class and proud of it. We use the band as a platform to talk about social issues – whether it’s historical injustices or more recent atrocities like the massacre at the mine in Marikana, South Africa. Given the lack of union opportunities for the current younger generation, we want to keep the message of solidarity and justice out there. This is all the more important given the current batch of politicians running roughshod over us.
The biggest influence on my life was when my son, Lee, took his own life at the age of 24 back in 2012. Lee served in the 13th Air Assault Support Regiment in the Helmand Province, Afghanistan at the age of 18. Shortly after his deployment, his best friend was shot by a sniper, fulfilling a role that Lee would have been doing had it not been for some training he’d missed due to a boxing injury. The guilt he felt at ‘living another man’s life’ proved too much for him ultimately.
For those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the Ministry of Defence (MOD) at the time had a policy of bullying and isolation. Rather than being offered counselling and treatment, Lee was told to ‘man up’ and was marginalised. Well trained in keeping his troubles to himself, he was ultimately not able to deal with them. We remember him in songs (The Glass tells the story of his final day) and through the Lee Bonsall Memorial Fund. We’ve successfully lobbied the MOD and government to review and change their treatment of people leaving the forces.
BBC documentary programme Panorama made an episode about PTSD: Broken by Battle, which tells the stories of veterans suffering from PTSD after attempting to reintegrate into civilian life. We will continue to fight for those who’ve served and been abandoned once they are no longer part of the services. The whole episode is available on YouTube and I would urge you to watch it.
As well as songwriting, I’m an artist with a pen, too, and since giving up mining I’ve started tattooing. Lee always wanted me to do this instead of mining – he even bought me the kit to do it, so it’s in his honour that I’ve belatedly taken it up. I’ve lost count of how many Ferocious Dog logos I’ve inked onto our fans, who we consider family – they take the name Hell Hounds, from one of our songs from the first album.
Considering that I can’t really sing and I’m a terrible guitarist, despite having played since I was 14, the band is doing really well. We played at Glastonbury this year and our new album, From Without, is getting some great reviews. We look on course to sell out our home town gig at Rock City in Nottingham at the end of November, which we’re going to video and put out a live CD from, funded by our family pre-ordering it. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself a little to realise where you’ve ended up.
As a band, we are fiercely independent. We’ve had offers from record labels but want to work to our own terms, without outside influence. The support we receive from fans and family, who pre-ordered our album in sufficient quantities to fund it and travel around the country to watch us, makes it all worthwhile. To see them singing along to The Glass really does bring a tear to the eye.