The loss of a child would have a profound effect on any family. For Ken Bonsall the best way of honouring the memory of his son Lee seemed to be to channel his energies into his folk rock band Ferocious Dog.
Lee had given the band its name back when he was a toddler and his father was playing gigs in between working mining shifts at Welbeck colliery, in north Nottinghamshire.
When Lee took his own life in 2012 aged 24, he had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – a condition that set in after his best friend was shot dead while they were both serving as soldiers in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
“It was like we owed it to Lee to keep the name going,” says Bonsall, whose elder son Daniel plays fiddle in the band. “And what it does it occupies you, you’ve got to focus. We said the higher we get Ferocious Dog’s name is testament to Lee. It keeps his memory going in a way and that’s close to the people who know the band and know where the name comes from. It started off as a joke but we kept the name. Now he’s not here that’s where we throw everything.”
The family have also set up a memorial fund in Lee’s name, to help other sufferers of PTSD.
Two years ago Ferocious Dog became a six-piece and the gigs gradually got bigger. “New band members does help,” admits Bonsall, “because you get people who are more professional who want the music industry kind of thing rather than just being a pub band.” Although drummer Scott Walters recently had to bow out due to his own business commitments, the band swiftly found a replacement in Alex Smith. “The good thing about having the stature of Ferocious Dog is you get good people who want to be on board, so we’ve now got really professional players who’ve played with world famous bands like The Damned,” says Bonsall.
Guitarist Les Carter, who joined in 2015, was once one half of 90s stars Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine. For Bonsall and Daniel, who were both longtime fans of The Only Living Boy in New Cross hit makers, it was something of a dream come true.
Connections were first made when Carter’s side project Abdoujaparov played at Ferocious Dog’s mini festival in Warsop and Bonsall’s band were later invited to perform at the after party at Carter’s farewell show in London. Though they had to turn it down because of a prior commitment – “You can’t let people down, no matter if Wembley Stadium comes in” is Bonsall’s philosophy – Daniel saw an opportunity and asked the guitarist if he fancied joining Ferocious Dog. A week later he said yes. “He’s like a teenager in his first band, he is absolutely loving it,” Bonsall says. “Because he and I are older statesmen – Les is in his fifties and I’m 49 – we always share rooms [on tour] but Les has now started being a party animal and joining in with the young ones. On tour I’ll go back to my hotel room and look after my voice but Les comes in about 3am or 4am drunk. He’s like that young teenager again, absolutely living the dream and it’s good to see.”
Bonsall continued working as a miner until 2015. His last job was at Kellingley colliery in North Yorkshire. Although he’d left to set up his own tattooing business before the pit closed, he talks with fondness about seeing his workmates in the documentary The Last Miners, which was recently shown on the BBC.
“All those that you saw were my team. The shift charge engineer who went to work at the motor company selling cars he was in charge of me, the other deputy who was doing his house up, we used to called him ‘Wrestler’, every day I worked with him because he was in charge of us on the coal face.”
The strains of juggling mining with being in an increasingly successful touring band was also taking its toll. He recalls once getting up at 3.30am, doing a shift down the pit then jumping straight on to a minibus to play a gig in Bristol. When he got home, he says: “I got 20 minutes to do my snap, make my flask and then got picked up by the car share people who I drove with then went up to Yorkshire and did a full shift on the coal face.
“That was killing me, I couldn’t do another tour like that. That was stretching it too far.”
Bonsall’s roots in mining and Socialist politics remain close to his heart. On March 4 Ferocious Dog will headline the With Banners Held High benefit gig at Unity Works in Wakefield.
Proceeds will go to the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign and Justice For Mineworkers. “I was at Orgreave with my dad and my brother,” Bonsall says. “We just went for a peaceful demonstration. I was only 16. It’s something that I’m really passionate about, I even sing about it in my songs, about the Criminal Justice Bill that was brought out just to make it law what [the police] did.”