With the arrival of the legendary Bob Dylan in town later in the year, for the first time in his career, now might be a good time to look at some music’s biggest names and their visits to Blackpool.
As a town that is famed for its variety shows, summer seasons and end of the pier comedians, Blackpool has also played host to some of the biggest names in rock and roll history and has certainly left its mark on some of them, in one form or another.
The logical place to start is with The Beatles. When it comes to rock history, no band is bigger. They graced Blackpool on a number of occasions between 1963 and 1965. Their favourite haunt was the ABC theatre on Church Street, where they played five times between July and September 1963. During that period they also played the Queen’s Theatre on Bank Hey Street, where TK Maxx now stands. There were so many fans outside the Queen’s for one of the shows that the band had to go through a builder’s yard, up some scaffolding and across the roof of the theatre, then be lowered into wings of the stage through a trap door in the roof to get into the building, as all the entrances were blocked by the throng outside. Beatlemania in full effect.
They played the Opera House a couple of times in 1964, the support act for one of the dates being an up and coming R n’ B group called The High Numbers, later to become The Who. Two other appearances at the ABC are there for all to see, as they were part of ITV’s Sunday variety show, Blackpool Night Out, hosted by Mike and Bernie Winters. The August 1965 performance was The Beatles’ only British television appearance to promote the movie Help! and included the first performance of Yesterday. The Beatles clearly enjoyed Blackpool and the town enjoyed them.
As a flip side to The Beatles’ love affair with Blackpool, The Rolling Stones played once and were never invited back. In August 1964, just as the Stones were starting to gain a reputation as the bad boys of rock and roll, they played a show at The Empress Ballroom. According to witnesses, during the show some of the audience started spitting at the band, possibly because of the band’s ‘suggestive’ performance. The spitting was largely aimed at Brian Jones and orchestrated by a man at the front of the stage. Keith Richards took it upon himself to sort out the situation and stood on the man’s hand, then followed up with a couple of kicks to the face for good measure. A riot ensued, and promptly the place was smashed to pieces, including damage to the chandeliers and a grand piano. It came down to the police, with dogs at hand, to calm the situation. Around 30 people were injured and the town council met and decided to ban the group from playing in Blackpool indefinitely. This ban was finally lifted in 2008, although whether there is a venue big enough for the Stones to play, or whether they would want to come back after being snubbed all these years, is a different matter.
Other legends that made fleeting visits to the seaside include Bob Marley & The Wailers, who played the Locarno Ballroom at the Mecca, one of the bedrocks of the Northern Soul scene, on the Burnin’ tour of late 1973. Davy Jones changed his name to David Bowie not long before he played the South Pier with his backing band The Buzz in May 1966. Any more information is scarce, so if you were there, tell everyone. Future Bowie collaborators Queen kicked off their first headlining tour, in support of the Queen II album, with a show at the Winter Gardens in March 1974.
Imagine turning up at the Winter Gardens, paying 50p and watching a line-up that included Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Move, Amen Corner and The Nice. Well, in 1967 you could have done just that. Hendrix also played a couple of dates at the Odeon earlier that year, but some of the performances from the November shows at the Opera House were caught on film by Peter Neal for a short documentary called See My Music Talking. The clips of Purple Haze and Wild Thing can be found on YouTube, showing off Hendrix in all his guitar slinging, rock god glory. Jimi’s visit to Blackpool gave rise to the oft repeated tale/urban legend that he was thrown out of The Blue Room for indulging in ‘herbal’ cigarettes.
Fast forward a couple of decades and The Stone Roses were on the verge of becoming one of the most influential British bands for 25 years. Just a few months after the release of their now seminal debut album, in August 1989, the Roses played what was, at the time, the biggest show of their career, and many who were there would say one of their best. The show at the Empress Ballroom was captured on film and released on video, so that all those that were there, claimed they were there or wished they were there, could relive the moment a band became a legend, in their baggy, flares-wearing pomp.
Another band that chose to immortalise their raw, live show in the Empress Ballroom is Detroit’s finest lo-fi, garage rock merchants, The White Stripes. Jack and Meg had just released their breakthrough album, Elephant, which included the now ubiquitous Seven Nation Army, and picked their two nights in Blackpool, in January 2004, to film for posterity. The concert film is shot in Super 8 film, giving a gritty and grimy lo-fi feel that matches the music and juxtaposes nicely with the beauty and refinement of the architecture of the legendary Victorian ballroom, a venue that has been graced by a vast array of musical legends during its history.
Bob Dylan will be playing The Opera House on November 22nd, 23rd, 24th, along with dates in Glasgow and The Royal Albert Hall.
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