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.
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.