The riverside at Castlefields

The riverside at Castlefields

Monday, 29 April 2013

The Beatles 1. The Pole Star of Popular Music

I was only six years old when the Fab Four came to town, but because I am a life-long fan I was asked by the boss to produce a clutch of features to mark the 50th anniversary . . .
So this is the first of three related articles (the others follow below) about The Beatles having played Shrewsbury Music Hall.
All three articles appeared in the Shropshire Star on Saturday, April 27, 2013.

The Beatles 1. The Pole Star of Popular Music

No. Emphatically NO! Please don’t speak about them in the same breath as JLS or West Life or Take That. We are not today discussing some over-rated boyband.
We are discussing – half a century on from their gigs in Shropshire – the band that would become the pole star of popular music – a fixed brilliant point of light, the constellations of pop stardom charted around them.
In short, people will still be playing the music of The Beatles 100 years from now.
Yet looking here at these old black and white photographs of four young lads from Liverpool, it seems incredible that they would go on to turn pop music on its head.
In not much more than seven years, they created a dazzling catalogue of around 200 songs from A Hard Day’s Night to Norwegian Wood, from Eight Days A Week to Penny Lane, from Across The Universe to Fool On The Hill, from I Saw Her Standing There to The Long and Winding Road.
I was a mere six years of age when I heard, coming out of a tinny transistor radio, Please Please Me, the group’s first number one record.
And I’ve been a fan ever since.
The years rolled by and I went on loving them when they became solo artists. (Hey. I know McCartney’s quality control has dipped alarming on occasion, but such is Paul’s over-arching genius that I’ll defend even some of his most cringe-worthy efforts from the seventies).
But of course John, Paul, George and Ringo were never going to be able to match as individuals what they achieved as a band.
There was the shock of the long hair, the knockabout humour and warmth of their movies, the being cheeky to Her Majesty, the strange moustaches, experimenting with Indian music, going weird, being scruffy, and a legacy of 13 extraordinary albums.
Just think about this embarrassment of riches. Should you ever tire of the White Album, Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road, just go back to the very beginning of it all and listen again to those early LPs. Because their early spontaneity is equal in merit to their late sophistication.
Check out the boisterous rock and roll. Enjoy again those harmonies, those infectious tunes.
Charming, witty, self-mocking, irreverent, clever, and super-abundant music-makers, The Beatles, were always much more than just a pop group.
And that’s why these old pictures of them in Shrewsbury are so important. Because they show the first flashes and twinkles and sparks of this pole star.

The Beatles 2. Beethoven, Buckingham Palace............... and Bigger than Jesus

The Beatles 2. 
Beethoven, Buckingham Palace, 
and Bigger than Jesus

They were still fresh and full of youthful exuberance, still a little shocked by just how quickly things were moving for them, still surprised and thrilled by the joyous reception they were getting from their fans. And yet there was so much more to come.
When they arrived in Shropshire in that spring of 1963 to play a concert at the Shrewsbury Music Hall, The Beatles' all-conquering global fame was still a good couple of years away. 
But on the other hand, they were not exactly unknown at this point, having just enjoyed their first number one record with Please Please Me - and it seemed that just about everyone in Britain was talking about them.
Their domination of the pop world was just beginning.
On the day they came to Shrewsbury, what would be their second number one, From Me To You, had already begun its 21-week run in the charts and would hit the top spot on May 4 (a position it would keep for seven weeks).  
The four lovable moptops were already taking the entertainment world by storm, but they would surely have laughed at you, if you'd suggested that in a few years time they would have not only streets in Liverpool, but also heavenly bodies named after them: four individual asteroids to be named Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr.
As the lads took to the Music Hall stage that night, they would not have dreamt that just two years later they would be invited to Buckingham Palace to be honoured by the Queen with the presentation of their MBEs.
Nor that just three years later, Lennon would be declaring, not through boastfulness but as a simple sociological observation: “The Beatles are bigger than Jesus Christ”.
And just four years later, the Sunday Times would be calling them ”The greatest composers since Beethoven.”
But even in 1963, people could see this was no ordinary band – even if they were still travelling the length and breadth of the country either by coach or clapped-out old van.
Everywhere they went they generated incredible excitement among the young, and often suspicion and bemusement among protective mums and dads.
This was, incidentally, their third visit to Shrewsbury, having played the town’s Music Hall before on December 14, 1962, and then The Granada on February 28, 1963.
And here’s a fascinating fact: It had been while the Fab Four were travelling by coach between York and Shrewsbury for their Granada concert that John and Paul had written From Me To You. Writing smash hit singles would become second-nature to them.
Another Shropshire date, by the way, had been Whitchurch Town Hall on January 19, 1963.
For the record, other gigs in the Midlands leading up to their 1963 Music Hall date included the Plaza Ballroom at Old Hill in Sandwell, the Birmingham Ritz, the Birmingham Hippodrome, The Gaumont in Wolverhampton, and a couple of dates in Stoke-on-Trent.
Radio and television appearances would quickly accelerate the growth of their fame, then the conquering of America and beyond.
But let us just go back to that Whitchurch appearance for a moment for a personal recollection from Albert Griffiths, 73, a Whitchurch man who remembers that day well.
He said: "They arrived in an old transit, it was as much rust as it was van. At the time we always had great bands performing in Whitchurch on a Saturday night.
"In many ways it was just another gig but there was an extra bit of excitement around The Beatles.
"When they came on stage John Lennon was stood right in front of me. He had that sort of cheeky look on his face and was wearing a pair of really old tatty jeans. I remember it well because he had a safety pin on his fly to hold them up.
"It was a great night. I can't remember most of the songs but I can remember Love Me Do like it was yesterday, it really stood out."
Pam Shaw, from Whitchurch, was also at the show which took place in what is now the Civic Centre, in High Street.
She said: "I was there! I went along like I did to many of the dances but I can remember a lot of people were there to see the Beatles.
"It wasn't Beatlemania, there wasn't people screaming and fainting, but there was a lot of excitement. I can remember being there, dancing and thinking how good they were.
"I really liked them and from that day I started to take a keen interest in them. I even went up to see them at The Cavern Club in Liverpool. From that day I was a big fan and have remained a big fan ever since. It was wonderful."
Councillor Doris Ankers said her late sister, Margaret Raine, met the musicians on the night.
She said: "My sister went and she never let us forget it. They were just a group from Liverpool who came down to play and after the show were talking to the crowd. My sister actually sat by the band and was talking to them, they were just starting to get famous but she always said they were very nice."
Very nice? The Beatles would be called many things in their time: brilliant, innovative, thrilling, ground-breaking, revolutionary . . . and also, as it happens, very nice.
John (the thinker), Paul (the romantic), George (the mystic) and Ringo (the clown) would themselves grow and develop from showbiz stars to spokesmen for their generation.
And 50 years on from their initial success, we’re still talking about them now, they are still making the front covers of serious music magazines, and many of us are still completely under their spell.

The Beatles 3. Their Growing Fame

Beatles 3 - Their Growing Fame
It seems bonkers now, but even with a storming number one record behind them, The Beatles were still travelling the length and breadth of the country either in an ordinary (far from luxurious) coach or in a clapped-out old van.
Did Take That have to suffer such indignity after their first number one?
And despite their already substantial fame at this point, the Fab Four were playing not large venues, but relatively humble places like the Shrewsbury Music Hall.
Again, it’s hard to imagine nowadays a band, at that level of fame, playing quite small theatres.
But what we forget is that in 1963, rock and roll as we know it today was still being invented.
Firstly, there was still a post-war mentality that demanded show business acts (and that is exactly how the Fab Four would have been perceived at this time) had to pay their dues.
They had to go out there and learn their craft – like four little Arthur Askeys or four little Jimmy Tarbucks – playing, to begin with, pubs and church halls and dodgy clubs, then small theatres, and eventually bigger theatres.
Not only were they making records, but they were being interviewed on radio shows (regularly) and TV shows and for magazines. It was all good publicity.
One day, if they were very very good little Beatles and kept their noses clean, they might get the chance to play to bigger audiences, maybe even tour in Australia and Japan. But they would have to pay their dues.
Secondly, it was unheard of at this time for pop groups to play sports arenas.
The age of super-tours with bands taking over football stadia was still some way off.
But it would be The Beatles and groups that followed in their wake that would change all that.
They had already grown from playing purely in the Liverpool area to playing across the UK.
1964 would prove a turning point.
They began the year with 10 appearances in London. Then it was off to Paris for 20 shows. And then America.
Their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show have become the stuff of legend. This was considered a milestone in American culture and the beginning of what would become known as ‘the British invasion’.
And in the summer of 1964 they played 25 concerts across the United States and Canada. There was no stopping them now.
Gradually, the sound systems were becoming more sophisticated. Rock fans were developing an appetite for bigger concerts and outdoor festivals.
Although there were still British tours to come for The Beatles, the likes of the Shrewsbury Music Hall would not see them again.
The people of Shropshire would now have to watch from afar as the rest of The Beatles’ story unfolded.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Shrewsbury Market and the Fair-haired Goddess

There was once a lovely, fair-haired goddess who worked at a stall in Shrewsbury Market. And without saying a word, she stole my heart.
This was a few years ago now.
The Prime Minister at the time was Edward Heath. British Leyland had just launched its new Austin Allegro range of family saloon cars, Princess Anne had announced her engagement to Mark Phillips, and the pop charts were full of records by the likes of The Sweet, Slade, Wizzard, 10cc, and a young and innovative David Bowie . . . oh, and Little Jimmy Osmond.
A golden age indeed.
I never found out the fair-haired goddess's name because I never plucked up the courage to speak to her.
I was a painfully shy 16-year-old. She would have been about the same age.
And forty years later, she remains one of my abiding memories of the market hall at that time.
Anyway . . .
My mother-in-law the other day asked me: "Have you been in the market lately?"
I had to admit that it was not a place I frequented these days, although I had heard good reports from my young sons who like its quirkiness and the many surprises it offers.
So I took it upon myself to pop in there on Saturday.
It really is rather fantastic.
The place was buzzing (which I hadn't expected). It was actually packed with customers.
A few years back it had become a rather neglected, slightly sad place with empty spaces where stalls once operated. Now, however, there's hardly a square foot that isn't busy. And it's wonderful to see.
I was really quite amazed at the variety of stalls and the choice of goods on offer.
There's classic Corgi toys, antiques and collectables, original artwork, kitchen equipment, bicycles and cycle accessories, garden plants, masses of fruit and veg, meat and fish and eggs, games, books, vinyl records (thousands of them), CDs, rugs, framed pictures, greetings cards, gift wrap, helium balloons, plates, ornaments, baking accessories, toys for your pet, belts and leather goods, American comicbooks, cushions, posters, needlecraft goods, hats, bags, and much, much more besides.
There's even a seafood and oyster bar!
Mother-in-law had been impressed by the Market Buffet so I decided to call in for a bite. I had a nice stilton and brocolli quiche with chips and salad, along with a frothy coffee. Just the job.
The very pleasant lady who served me recognised me from that rather  handsome photograph which accompanies this column and said some nice things about my weekly scribblings in the Shrewsbury Chronicle. Bless her!
And then it turned out that she had also known me years ago.
Yeah. I know what you're thinking. But no. This lady was not my fair-haired goddess from 1973, but what a story that would have been. What a novel that would make! I must develop that idea one day.
But no. It was simply that she had lived next door to us when we lived in Castlefields and she could clearly remember myself and my little brother and our mum and dad.
Small world.
Shrewsbury Market has been transformed recently: both its exterior and interior. It's had a good scrub down and, although I've never been a fan of the sixties architecture, it looks a heck of a lot better for a good bath.
It has a strong modern logo now which even adorns the high quality Shrewsbury Market carrier bags on sale.
The huge space inside is cleverly divided up into a network of intimate avenues and corners, the whole place made more pleasant by the green and cream canopies over the stalls and the Dickensian street lamps adding an old world charm.
All in all, I have fallen in love with the market again, even though that fair-haired goddess has long since gone.

The Castle Inn and Old Pubs in General

No matter how poor their condition might be, no matter how unloved they may have become, it's always sad when an old pub closes, and even sadder when they are swept away by bulldozers.
Even your ten-a-penny Victorian pub (and there will be thousands of them up and down the country) will have seen 150 or so years of history.
Just think of all those people, down through the decades, who will have gone there to celebrate or to drown their sorrows - or just to put the world to rights with a few friends.
So, yeah, I was a little sad, for instance, when the Hen and Chickens in Coleham bit the dust not so long ago.
I had enjoyed a few pints in there over the years - many of them with our dad, God rest his soul.
Having said all that, I rather like the smart and elegant building which has taken its place, by the way. At the risk of infuriating many of my fellow pub lovers, I might even go so far as to say, architecturally, the new (mock Victorian) building is probably a huge improvement on the ill-fated Hen and Chicks.
But I digress.
A number of local pubs will have fallen victim (as countless others have across the nation) to the competition presented by cheap drink from the supermarkets, changing demographics, and people increasingly nowadays staying at home and watching the telly (or home cinema) rather than going down the local.
I think Shrewsbury has actually weathered this storm rather well, actually, with surprisingly few pubs going under.
But one pub whose fate is still in the lap of the gods, it seems, is The Castle Inn in Coleham. You know the one I mean. The one that is set well back from Belle Vue Road but which could also be approached from its Peace Cottages side. Some people call it the back-to-front pub because it appears to be facing the wrong way. This is because the Peace Cottages side was originally the main road, but then later, Belle Vue Road became the principal route through the suburb.
Anyway, my own memories of this particular watering hole include being there on a few occasions when live rock music was on offer. And I was with our dad and my father-in-law there one night and they absolutely hated the music, pleading with me to finish off my pint so we could move on somewhere quieter.
It's been boarded up now for a good few years with no sign of anyone doing anything with it.
According to 'A Heritage of Old Inns and Taverns of Shrewsbury' by Derek Row, The Castle Inn was previously called The Windsor Castle and then, later, The Bull and Pump, and as such was recorded from 1780.
It doesn't look anything like that old, but then a lot of these pubs are much older than they look, having had various extensions and alterations made over the years.
From 1856 it was called The Castle Inn and it adjoined an old mansion once called The Gibralter. (Yeah. I know. Answers on a postcard please).
The place was auctioned by one WM Smith (not to be confused with WH Smith) in January 1820. At that time it comprised five chambers, two parlours, a kitchen, one scullery, pantry, brew-house, excellent vaults, large stables and other outbuildings, yard piggery and good garden with a pump.
I can only imagine that the yard piggery, the garden, the outbuildings and the stables were cleared a century or more later to allow for the parking of these new-fangled motor cars. . . the place has boasted a large car park for  some time.
In 1874 to 1882 the premises were owned by William Hazledine of The Woodlands in Abbey Foregate and then Shrewsbury's Trouncers Brewery (their old headquarters are now luxury flats on Kingsland Road) took over the ownership until the 1900s.
What I love about history is the way in which everything interconnects. Just then, did you notice? William Hazledine. The Woodlands in Abbey Foregate. Trouncers Brewery. The Castle Inn. It's like joining up the dots, and as you do so, it all comes to life.
Later into the 1900s it was owned by Shrewsbury and Wem Breweries.
In the 1960s through to the 1980s it was a centre for folk music.
Doubtless, there will be plenty of readers with their own memories of The Castle Inn and I would dearly love to hear from you.