Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been intending to write something about the rock’n’roll scene as I remember it. Although it’s not very ‘vintage’ to pay tribute to social media, one of the great things about places like Facebook is the chance it’s given me to renew contact with many of the gang I knew going back over 35 years and to share photos of the time, some of which I never knew existed. One of the first mass memory trawls, even before Facebook took off, was Bill Jones’ work on My Space ahead of publication of his book ‘Rockabilly Underground’, which brought back the names of lots of places and people. So here, with the benefit of that and a trawl through my diaries of the time, which seem to consist of little more than a list of clubs visited and records bought, is the first chunk of my rock’n’roll memoirs. Forgive me if they’re detailed – I’ll break them into instalments to make the going easier…
I can’t put my finger on the time I got into rock’n’roll – while my Mum and Dad could never be described as children of the rock’n’roll generation (they were more your dance hall era), nor was contemporary pop a big part of our home life. Born in 1962, I was never comfortable with the 1970s pop scene when I was growing up and always preferred 1950s and early 60s pop: the Cliff Richard school of rock’n’roll, Bill Haley – the sort of thing you could hear played on the radio on a Sunday (by a certain now unmentionable DJ just before Annie Nightingale’s show – you know the one). When Elvis died, a lot more of his material was played again in amongst the pap on Radio One and I started to be able to separate rock’n’roll from the more general background of 50s pop, and to become influenced by the 50s look. At the same time, the Teds vs Punks encounters in the Kings Road of the summer of 1976 were making the news and, although this new wave of musical tribalism was, like the Mods vs Rockers thing, mostly manufactured by the media, it gave me an identity to pin this feeling onto. Finally, somewhere just ahead of my 15th birthday, I took the plunge and brylcreemed my hair back; overnight I became the target for attention – mostly unwanted – which instantly embroiled me in fights at school with my contemporary punk wannabes.
Having got that far, and added a few LPs from Woolworths to the family record library, I really didn’t know how to pursue my own little teenage rebellion and had no idea where to buy clothes like the ones I’d seen in pictures of the 1950s. I saw the odd Ted around in my home town of Bishop’s Stortford, but at 15 didn’t have the nerve to approach them – in fact, my cultural landscape was based entirely on the lyrics of records and re-runs of Elvis movies in the school holidays. My Road to Damascus moment came when I took a train across to Harlow to see the Darts give a free concert of their doo-wop influenced material in the local park. On the way home, I found myself in a carriage with a guy with Eddie Cochran painted on the back of his leather jacket (Glenn Daeche as I later found out). We got chatting, he told me about a couple of clubs right on my doorstep and I plucked up my courage to venture out.
So, my first rock’n’roll club – the Hound Dogs, held in the function rooms upstairs at the Railway Hotel in Bishop’s Stortford, a fantastic venue with a sprung dance floor (or maybe the joists were just knackered), and a somewhat relaxed approach to age limits at the bar. It was late 1978 when I went there for the first time, and my dog-earned membership card tells me I ‘joined’ properly on 8 December, duly paying my pound subs to the Committee.
Although the Hound Dogs was very much in the 1970s Ted revival model, it was, as others on the scene have described of their own first clubs, like coming home. Suddenly there were other people who looked like I wanted to look, danced like I wanted to dance and these fantastic records. Trevor, the DJ at the Hound Dogs at this time, had a wide selection of records spanning a range way beyond the typical Ted favourites, so I was introduced to everything from the Ted anthems to Sun rockabilly. What’s more, and it’s something reflected in most clubs I went to in my early rock’n’roll years, everyone was friendly and welcoming. It didn’t matter that I had no authentic clothes beyond school drainpipe trousers. Nor did they turn their noses up at my first semi-drape, adapted by my Mum from one of my Dad’s old 1960s suits (nice suit – I’ve still got it. Come to think of it, when I saw myself more as a rockabilly, she took in my jeans to make them narrower, so that’s my rebellious street cred destroyed). No-one cared that you were not beautifully dressed, it was attitude that mattered and, if you loved rock’n’roll, you were in.
As a well-organised Club, the Hound Dogs put on regular live concerts at some of the local village halls, and as one of the Committee was a bus-driver, we always had a bus to take us out there. We even had the annual pilgrimage to Southend for a day on the front, followed by an evening at the rock’n’roll club at the Kursaal It was there I was first exposed to the Ted vs Rockabilly schism starting to manifest itself as the younger element started to be drawn to looking more like the people we saw on the covers of the records we liked, rather than emulating the 70s Ted revival look. The Club even provided a float for the annual town carnival, which provided the spectacle of a dozen or so slightly pissed Teds riding on a well-decorated flat bed truck through the high street on a sunny Saturday afternoon – very rock’n’roll. For an otherwise unremarkable dormitory town, we were particularly lucky in having two thriving rock’n’roll venues, with another operating out of the Triad arts centre in an old maltings – another great dance floor, another great DJ, some slightly different faces, but the same tolerance of a very enthusiastic but pretty hopeless dancer.
The big step beyond the confines of the town came when people I met in Bishop’s Stortford told me about the Adam & Eve in Hackney and, when I started travelling into London on a season ticket to work in the school holidays, I started going there regularly on a Saturday. I must have led a charmed life back then as, in an era when musical tribalism usually played out with a fair bit of violence, I managed to get away with going to most places on my own without encountering any trouble. It’s indicative of how much trouble I didn’t get into that one night stands out clearly when a car full of skinheads drove past me shouting abuse (nothing unusual), then stopped and disgorged the occupants clearly looking for a fight. Fortunately, I managed to leg it into the nearest pub where I found some of the rock’n’roll gang (no idea why they were there, I just got lucky) to rescue me. Otherwise, through a mixture of a nose for impending trouble and a dose of healthy cowardice, I managed to avoid anything more violent than a bit of schoolground scuffling, even if the arrival of a courtyard full of scooter boys outside the Hound Dogs did require a swift exit through the fire escape one night. In London, however, I managed to walk back alone from Homerton Hospital to Hackney Downs station to catch the last train every Saturday night throughout the summer of the London riots without turning a hair – I must either have been fearless, very naïve, or so weedy looking that I didn’t merit a second glance! Gigs away from home town weren’t frequent for me – money and the logistics of getting back prevented anything too ambitious – but I was proud to have made my way to the Rainbow in Finsbury Park to see Bill Haley on his 1978 tour, and to feel myself an accepted part of the crowd attending, even spotting a few familiar Hound Dogs faces amongst them.
Enough for part one – and I haven’t left school properly yet. More to come another day as we hit the Fifties Flash and Bad Cat Club era.