LOOKING BACK - November 21, 2019 edition

The 1960s Benn Hall music scene

Thursday, 28th November 2019, 9:57 am
Updated Thursday, 28th November 2019, 10:41 am
John Phillpott in the 1960s when he was an Advertiser reporter

No 1960s Christmas would have been complete for Rugby’s youngsters without paying a visit to the town’s Benn Memorial Hall. Former Rugby Advertiser reporter John Phillpott recalls a golden age of rock ‘n’ roll…

It’s been said that if you can remember the 1960s then you weren’t really there.

Not true. There are probably plenty of Rugby people still around who will readily recall that momentous decade – and, in particular, those rock and rolling baby boomers who attended the regular dances held in those days at the Benn Memorial Hall.

John Phillpott, in the 1960s when he was an Advertiser reporter

The first stirrings of that great rock ‘n’ roll era came about during the early 60s in the form of a weekly session called Teenbeat. These grew in popularity, but really took off with the advent of the Merseybeat, spearheaded, of course, by the Beatles.

In fact, I seem to recall that the Moptops had been booked to appear at the Benn in February, 1963, but by then, they were national stars and the Rugby concert date was not honoured.

But it was the chart arrival of the Rolling Stones with Chuck Berry’s Come On in the summer of that year that changed everything.

Young Rugby guitar-slingers no longer wanted to be the bespectacled Hank Marvin of Shadows fame. They grew their hair, brushed it forwards… and went for the John Lennon or Brian Jones look.

By then, Rugby was reeling and a-rocking to home-grown talent. With the Beat Preachers leading the way, on came outfits such as Sam Spade and the Gravediggers, The Surf Siders, Twilights and The Ravens.

However, The Beat Preachers would soon give up their crown to The Fortunes and Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours, two groups from Reg Calvert’s Clifton Hall stable that enjoyed considerable chart success as the decade wore on.

Most of these groups drew from a rich well of American rhythm and blues, a no-nonsense, from-the-heart music that instantly clicked with a generation yearning for a change from the endless oily ballad crooners then dominating the Hit Parade.

Smokestack Lightning, You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover, Big Boss Man, Cops ‘n’ Robbers… the earthy sounds of Howling Wolf, Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed conjured up impossibly romantic images of an Americana the days of which were probably already numbered.

Every Friday and Saturday it was possible to access this exotic world courtesy of these Rugby groups, all of which were regulars at the Benn.

And from nearby Leicester came James King and the Farinas, later destined to become Family, who went on to have a huge hit with a number titled Burlesque.

But all this was a foretaste of even bigger things to come. In March, 1966, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers played the hall, soon to be followed up with a visit by legendary Mississippi bluesman John Lee Hooker.

I was a trainee reporter on the Rugby Advertiser at this time, and most weekends would find me down the Benn, with notebook and sharpened pencil in hand.

Soon, the acts got even bigger. I readily recall interviewing The Small Faces, Pink Floyd, Status Quo, The Searchers, The Foundations, The Kinks, The Animals, The Bee Gees and the Showstoppers, to name just a few of the bands that played the Benn.

Back then, the Benn Hall was indeed a famous north Warwickshire music mecca renowned for presenting the best in contemporary rock sounds.

The Rugby Advertiser offices in those days were located at 2 Albert Street, and this is where I would head for once that night’s gig was over. Reporters in those days were expected to write up their reports as soon as the job was finished. This was cast-iron rule, rigidly enforced by editors and chief reporters on all provincial newspapers.

So around midnight, I would be tapping away on an old Remington typewriter, piecing together my account of the night’s action.

Quite often, there might be fellow reporters in the editorial office, perhaps arrived fresh from a night job or, having seen a light on, just popped up the stairs for a bit of company.

Many a wee small hours were whiled away accompanied by bottles of beer and endless cigarettes.

Weariness rarely dampened my enthusiasm, and I invariably wrote far too much, despite the knowledge that the Editor’s blue pencil would soon be hard at work come Monday morning.

But regardless of how much of my sparkling prose appeared in print the following Friday, the next weekend would find me striding down North Street on the way to keep my appointment at the Benn Memorial Hall.

As singer Mary Hopkin said back in 1968, with the tune of the same name, those were the days my friends… and no one could possibly argue with that.

Footnote: John Phillpott left the Rugby Advertiser in 1969 and went on to spend a working lifetime in journalism.

His book Beef Cubes and Burdock, an account of his 1950s boyhood in Churchover, was published last year by Austin Macauley. It is available from Amazon and bookshops.