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Edinburgh Rocks – The Capital's Music Scene in the 1950s and Early 1960s

Edinburgh has always been a vintage city. Yet, for youngsters growing up in the shadow of World War Two as well as a pervading air of tight-lipped Calvinism, they were dreich times indeed. The founding of the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947 and the subsequent Fringe it spawned may have livened up the city for a couple of weeks in August as long as you were fans of theatre, opera and classical music, but the pubs still shut early, and on Sundays weren't open at all.

But Edinburgh too has always had a flipside beyond such official channels, and, in a twitch-hipped expression of the sort of cultural duality Robert Louis Stevenson recognised in his novel, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a vibrant dance-hall scene grew up across the city. Audiences flocked to emporiums such as the Cavendish in Tollcross, the Eldorado in Leith, The Plaza in Morningside and, most glamorous of all due to its revolving stage, the Palais in Fountainbridge. Here the likes of Joe Loss and Ted Heath brought their orchestras, while Ivor and Basil Kirchin's Big Band played a lengthy residence at the Palais with a combo that included future musical director for Scottish singer Annie Ross and composer of the theme to 1970s TV cop show, The Sweeney, Harry South.

Yet, for all the infectious appeal of the big band sound, the times, as coffee-bar troubadour Bob Dylan would point out a few short years later, were a-changing. While the Scottish Folk revival took hold in bars such as Sandy Bell's and the Oddfellows Hall on Forest Road, the release of films, The Blackboard Jungle and Rock Around The Clock in 1955, both of which featured Bill Haley, would have a profound effect on the psyche of the nation's youth. As would too the release of Tutti Frutti by Little Richard the same year. Elvis Presley's debut album, featuring Heartbreak Hotel and Blue Suede Shoes, and Gene Vincent's equally seminal Be-Bop-A-Lula, would follow a year later.

In the UK, while the short-lived skiffle boom was spear-headed by Glasgow-born Lonnie Donegan, it was Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele, Adam Faith and Billy Fury who put British rock'n'roll on the map. In Edinburgh as elsewhere, such heart-throbs soon gave way to the groups that would lead to the 1960s Beat boom.

Showbiz wouldn't ever disappear completely, however, and it's telling that accordionist Jimmy Shand scored a hit the same year as Rock Around The Clock with country dance classic, Blue Bell Polka. A kilted teenager from Leith called Jackie Dennis, meanwhile, made it to American TV with quasi-novelty records, La Dee Dah and Purple People Eater. Scotland's biggest musical sighting of the era was Hoots Mon, an instrumental number punctuated by mock Jock interjections that took Lord Rockingham's XI to number 1 for three weeks in 1958.

'Lord Rockingham' was in fact Elgin-born band-leader and composer Harry Robinson, who worked with producer Jack Good on pioneering rock'n'roll TV shows, Six-Five Special in 1957 and Oh Boy! the following year. Robinson and Good would go on to co-write the original 1977 West End production of Elvis, for which Robinson was musical director.

As is always the case, there was resistance to the new breed, even as falling attendances at the dance halls made big bands increasingly expensive bookings. The presence of rockers was frowned upon in many venues, as was jiving, a crime which saw some guilty revellers unceremoniously ejected. A mass brawl at the Palais saw some politicians call for the venue to be closed down, despite band-leader Jeff Rowena's determination to keep on playing throughout the melee. It would be a good few years, yet, however, before the Palais, like so many classic venues, was converted into a bingo hall.

By 1960, a nascent Beatles – with a name inspired by Buddy Holly's Crickets and with Edinburgh-born bass-player Stuart Sutcliffe having recently joined at the behest of art school contemporary, John Lennon - had already toured Scotland

Beyond the dance-halls, a network of small clubs sprang up to provide a platform for groups outwith youth clubs and church halls. While the likes of The Falcons and The Blackjacks would play in the all too appropriately named Hotplate, situated beneath a chip shop on Dalry Road, Phil and The Flintstones, who would play covers of Little Richard and Chuck Berry on a circuit that included The Cephas Club, situated in the basement of St George's West in Shandwick Place, and the Greenhill Club near Holy Corner in Morningside. The Top Storey Club, Fairleys and the Imperial Hotel were all venues based at the top of Leith Walk before the bulldozers moved in several years later to make way for the St James Centre. From here, it was a short hop across town to The Gamp Club on Victoria Terrace, and the labyrinth of The Place, just over the road.

Other bands included the Embers, The Abstracts, The Screaming Citizens, Butch and the Bandits, The Ricky Barnes All Stars, Johnny Horne and The Hornets, The Andy Russell Seven and Tam White and The Boston Dexters. While White was a Blues singer at heart, despite an ill-advised brief diversion into light entertainment, if you don't count school productions of The Beggar's Opera and The Mikado,White's musical career began singing Buddy Holly songs of all things in a skiffle group. That was before he heard Ray Charles sing What'd I Say, however, when he applied his gravel-voiced tones to grittier fare.

White would go on to create a rock'n'roll legend of sorts in the 1980s when he provided the singing voice for 'Big' Jazza McGlone, the fictional front-man of The Majestics played by Robbie Coltrane in John Byrne's 1987 TV comedy drama, Tutti Frutti.

Another group on the scene was The Crusaders, who White had played with alongside keyboard player Tam Paton. Paton had been an accomplished big-band leader on the dancehall circuit, and may have been taking note of Phil and The Flintstones tartan outfits for his most successful move a few years later when he became manager of a band who'd recently changed their name from The Saxons to the more fancifully inclined Bay City Rollers.

Producing a teeny-bopper friendly sound that transformed them briefly into an international smash-hit sensation, the Rollers' lyrical focus on nostalgia-driven Saturday night juke-box reveries showed off their dancehall roots via a form of glam-tastic rock'n'roll-lite. Not for nothing was their 1976 North American only release christened Rock and Roll Love Letter. The album also featured a track by guitarists Eric Faulkner and Stuart Wood called Too Young To Rock & Roll, which may well have been influenced by founding member Alan Longmur's boyhood memories of watching audiences at the Scotia Picture House on Dalry Road dance in the aisles to Elvis Presley movie, Jailhouse Rock.

If the Bay City Rollers were looking back in languor to more innocent times, the rock'n'roll scene they mourned had quickly progressed into something else. McGoos on the High Street and the International on Princes Street were where it was at, as Mod turned to psychedelia and beyond.

The Edinburgh venues and acts from the golden age of rock'n'roll may be long gone, but the music has yet to die, despite what Don McLean suggested in his epic 1971 elegy, American Pie. Rock'n'roll revival shows and 1950s vintage fairs are at a premium in Edinburgh, while musically, a younger generation of acts are looking to the past for inspiration. While the sites of venues mentioned here are more likely to be owned by commercial pub chain operators, promoters are looking more to the church halls and social clubs that housed the original wave of bands.

Clubs nights such as The Go-Go and Soulsville concentrate on retro sounds, there are rockabilly nights at the Spider's Web on Morrison Street, while Friday Night at the Parlour Bar on Duke Street in Leith is rock'n'roll central. At time of writing, the bespoke Franklin Rock'n'Roll Club hosts regular nights of live music in the suitably unfussy confines of a wooden cricket club hut on Leith Links. Rock'n'Roll in Edinburgh, it seems, is still very much alive. Rave on, indeed.

A version of this article was commissioned as programme notes for the Spring 2014 tour of Buddy - The Buddy Holly Musical to tie in with its dates at the Kings Theatre, Edinburgh from February 10th-15th 2014.



Anonymous said…
This is a really superb well written and informative article.

Ps the spiders web rockabilly club is now at the Edinburgh city football clubs social club at 7 Baxter's Place, Edinburgh EH1 3AF .
Neil Cooper said…
Thanks fore the comment, and the update re the Spider's Web. Appreciated.

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