Rock'n'Roll is here to stay

Howard Roberts recalls the pop music scene in Stevenage from the mid 1950s

photo provided by the author


Around 1956 there was what proved to be a seismic shift in popular music. The steady diet of radio crooners such as Dickie Valentine, Ruby Murray, Alma Cogan, Joan Regan, Ronnie Carroll, etc. were swept away almost overnight to be replaced by a more raucous, earthy genre which came to be known as Rock’n’Roll. Of course, there was no shortage of detractors of this new style and I can remember very clearly being told that “your stuff won’t last ten minutes” by a disgruntled stand-up bassist playing waltzes and foxtrots in an old time dance quartet. But last it surely did.

The reasons for all this are well documented in mountains of literature on the subject, but I would like to focus more on how this new phenomenon took hold in Stevenage. I should note that this is entirely from my own perspective and experience, and your mileage may vary, so to speak.

The early days

Long before the Town Centre came into being and where the Rose Garden is now situated, by the pond across from St. George’s Church, was a large private house. When this was vacated by the owner, possibly because of the forthcoming development of the area, the Bedwell Boys Club took up residence there. The house was eventually scheduled for demolition and the boys club found new premises just off Popple Way.

Behind Popple Way shops, at the entrance to the King George playing fields, stood a long low building which had been built as a canteen for Hungarian refugees from that country’s uprising in 1953 and who were now living in Stevenage and many of whom were employed in the construction trades on the town. The long low building itself was of a Nissen hut style. It was the ideal location for the thriving boys club. About a year afterwards Skiffle, a sort of beefed-up version of folk music, started to become popular and anyone who could hastily learn two or three chords on a guitar was strumming away heartily to the delight of friends and anyone who was brave, or hip, enough to listen. So myself and a few friends thought we might as well have a go at this, too, and so we formed a Skiffle Group. There were five of us, four acoustic guitars and myself on tea-chest bass. We practised and strummed our fingers off and even reached what we thought was an acceptable standard.

Operation Splash

Soon after this, we received news that a swimming pool was to be built at the Barclay School and part of the fundraising effort, dubbed Operation Splash, was to be a skiffle competition. Our club leaders enthusiastically entered us with, I suppose, dreams of glittering stardom and all that.  We came last, but, no matter, the seed was sown.

There were seven or eight groups competing at the event, one of which included a Harry Webb from Cheshunt. Harry’s, er, Cliff Richard’s group didn’t win either, so that was some consolation.

Soon, a couple of community centres were holding dances where local groups could get an airing. Bedwell Community Centre and Broadhall Community Centre were the pioneers in this and on dance nights the halls were packed. Then, the old Town Hall in Orchard Road became a regular Monday night venue, again packed to the doors. Along with my own group, The Niteshades, other regulars were The Sinners and Rocky Lane and the Victors from St. Albans.

From the 1960s on

In 1961, a precursor to the outdoor rock festivals which brought worldwide attention to Knebworth Park in later years took place at the old Stevenage Town football ground next door to the original Our Mutual Friend public house. This was situated on the old Great North Road, remnants of which still remain, where the Leisure Centre now stands. Many an errant ball kicked into touch ended up on the railway line. No doubt some of these balls ended up in various points north and south of Stevenage. It was at the old football ground that a few “All Star Beat Shows” took place with some big names of the time, and huge crowds would attend.

As the town grew, more venues appeared such as the Stevenage Locarno, part of the Mecca dance hall chain and a bona-fide showpiece, and Bowes Lyon House. Bigger names were being booked, among them The Rolling Stones, The Ike and Tina Turner Revue, The Troggs, Rod Stewart, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, plus many others. During the course of 1961-64 The Niteshades played many times at these venues and further afield. Many of the firms in the industrial area held regular works socials and dances. Among them, Hawker Siddeley, Mentmore, English Electric, and Bowaters. There was certainly no shortage of gigs.

Some pubs, The Man in the Moon and The Longship, were also beginning to book bands. Area Working Men’s Clubs, including the Stevenage Club and Institute, soon joined in and, as a result, more venues gave rise to more bands being formed.

’Your stuff wont last ten minutes’

As newer generations have come along, so new contributions to the musical life of Stevenage have continued, and long may it do so.

It is, however, interesting to look back at how all this came about, not to mention that some of us ‘originals’ now approaching our seventies are still playing. Rock till ya drop, as the saying goes. Rock’n’Roll did stay after all.

I hope other members of early groups in and around Stevenage will read this short article and chip in with their own memories. It should make for a fascinating read.

This page was added on 24/01/2012.

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  • A great read Howard and a reminder of when we were apprentices together at The Garden City Press Letchworth. I was drummer for the Knight Errants at the time playing many of the gigs played by the Niteshades, and like Howard crawling into work late after returning from many a gig in the early hours!
    We were all so lucky to experience the revolution in pop music culture that exists to this day.

    By Terry Lovett (05/12/2021)
  • Just commenting to say my Dad wrote this and I couldn’t be prouder. The Niteshades drummer Len is in Letchworth, still gigging I believe as is bass player Martin. Dad, correct me if I got this wrong. You need to answer your fans LOL. ❤️🤓. Also, my mum and dad still gig here in Canada.

    By Carla (15/10/2020)
  • Remember the Niteshades well. I was in a band called Kit and the Saracens, a year or two younger than them. We looked up to the Niteshades and another local band called Danny Lee and the Gypsies. A drummer and “character” called Keith Harvey played with both bands at some time.

    By Colin Standring (15/08/2020)
  • Hi Howard this brings back some memories. I played guitar and did some vocals in a skiffle group from Hitchin in the 50s I can remember playing the Bedwell community centre in Stevenage and I remember the Niteshades one of the better skiffle groups. I can recall playing at a youth club on Walsworth Road Hitchin as stand in for one of the group who had fell off his Vespa and broke his wrist. I think it was Ian Brittain, we also formed a rock and roll band later and played regularly at the Railway club, went on to get my first pro gig at Butlins in 59 and 60 managed to be a pro musician and singer with my wife as Ray and Ann Brett for forty years or so, still doing the odd gig, good memories

    By Raymond Bultitude (29/03/2017)
  • Ike and Tina Turner played Stevenage Mecca two years running around 1970.I also saw The Who there.Turner and the Ikettes were sensational.To see these acts in such a small venue was an unbelievable privilege.

    By john taylor (13/12/2014)
  • Dave Thompson’s photo of ‘The Cobras’ in action can now be seen on a separate page of its own under this category! Take a look….

    By Jill Campbell (01/04/2012)
  • I read with interest your page re Operation Splash. Our Group called ‘The Cobra’s’ took part in this competition. After all the groups had played their two numbers and the judges had retired to consider their verdict we all went to the back of the hall awaiting the announcement of who had won! When the head judge came on stage we all waited with baited breath and were surprised to hear him say that the judges could not decide on who had won and that they wanted two groups to perform again. These were ‘Dick Teague and his Skiffle group’ (Cliff Richards Mob) and The Cobras, our group. He stressed that this play off was not necessarily for 1st and 2nd place. I can’t recall who went on stage first but we had only rehearsed 2 numbers to an acceptable standard so we performed our next best number. What a catastrophe, the drummer lost one of his sticks, I broke a string on my guitar and we made a right hash of the whole thing. When the results were announced I believe that the order was 1st The Sinners, 2nd The Mainliners, 3rd Dick Teague, and 4th The Cobra’s. I can’t remember who was next. We had to catch the train back to Knebworth and Dick Teague’s mob were on the same train and they were very displeased with the result and reckoned that the judges didn’t know what they were doing as they reckoned they should have come 1st.

    As time went on almost every Youth Club had their own group that would play on club nights. We had a couple of years playing at weddings, dinners, pubs etc but disbanded when some of our lads wanted to try the professional route. I being an apprentice wanted to finish my time before risking a life on the road and another lad decided being in a group was not for him anymore so we all went our different ways. We had a great time while it lasted, my kids were never interested in music but my 2 grandchildren are. My granddaughter plays keyboard and my grandson plays the guitar. They have promised me that if they make it they will take care of me in my old age. Not sure they realise I am Old Now! PS. I have a Photo of our group on stage at the Splash Contest but not sure how to upload it.

    By Dave Thompson (27/03/2012)
  • Hello Howard , a very interesting article about the pop scene. I remember the Niteshades and am proud to say i still have the original 45 of Be my Guest with the Bside of I must reveal which i played over and over again,great record. Can you tell me what happened to the other members of the Niteshades please?

    By Steve Hart (12/02/2012)