Seaside Rock

Commissioned by Ian Wilson, Irish shipwreck author and well-regarded supremo at North Down Heritage Centre in Bangor, County Down, this book is the missing link between Dazzling Stranger (2000) and Irish Folk, Trad & Blues: a Secret History (2004). Well, not really… it just appeared in 2003. In fact, it was written in early 2001, shortly before I became a librarian. Ian had come to a launch event for Dazzling Stranger in Belfast and had got in touch afterwards, suggesting I might like to write a leaflet on pop history in North Down. And thus I like to think of Seaside Rock as ‘a leaflet that got out of hand’…

It’s a modest but very affectionate 15,000 word book, covering North Down’s surprisingly vibrant pop scene between 1965-69, with a foreword by Donal Gallagher on Taste’s residency in Bangor during 1967. Theoretically it’s available via but if you really want a copy – with change out of a fiver – it’s probably easier calling/emailing the Heritage Centre.

Check out the links page. Meanwhile, here’s a little extract:


1965 – 1966: The Beat Boom

Nineteen Sixty-Five has often been seen as rock music’s year zero: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Who – the year when the album became more than a collection of singles, and when pop music itself came of age. Hardly in the vanguard of all was hip, the young folk of North Down were nevertheless doing their best to buy into the dream. The County Down Spectator hired a new youth correspondant, Jack Ledgerwood, and saw in the new year with a listing of ‘Bangor’s Top Ten’ – apparently featuring ground-breaking sounds exclusive to the town: not least ‘I Feel Fine’ by the Batles (otherwise unheard of in the annals of rock) and ‘Somewhere’ by one P.T. Proby.

Assisted by Marion Johnston, Ledgerwood would front the paper’s ‘Teen Scene’ column over the coming months – months that would see a burgeoning local beat scene and visits to venues in Bangor and Newtownards by the likes of the Searchers, the Kinks and Dusty Springfield alongside some of the biggest names in the still-dominant Irish showband world. Keen to make his mark, Ledgerwood’s first piece of the year was a preview of an imminent Rolling Stones concert at Belfast’s ABC cinema. It was the Stones’ second visit to Belfast and, with bafflingly fence-sitting prose, Ledgerwood predicted that ‘5000 obsequious fans’ might enjoy a ‘not innoxious occasion’ at what would be ‘an insalubrious place for anti-Stoners’. Indeed. But Ledgerwood was really on the side of the kids, and the following week treated his readers to a brief interview with the boys, and a set of exclusive pics from the hysteria-defining concert. He had also obliged a couple of young Bangor fans by delivering a Christmas cake to their heroes and was subsequently able to inform his readers that one of the girls, a Miss Dehra McDonald, had received a letter of thanks from Bill Wyman, signed by the whole group.

The Stones had been supported at their ABC concert by the Banshees, a Belfast group that included Eric Wrixon, a schoolboy keyboards wizard from Holywood, who would go on to enjoy brief spells in the internationally successful groups Them and Thin Lizzy, of which he was a founder member. The Banshees had already recorded a single in London, Ray Charles’ ‘I Got A Woman’, under a previous name, the Sinners. Unlike today, with high quality home recording gear – let alone professional studios – readily available and affordable, very few local groups had the opportunity or resources to record during the sixties. There was only one studio in Northern Ireland that was welcoming to beat groups (Peter Lloyd’s in Belfast, where the first demo recordings by Van Morrison’s Them were made) and even then the technology was primitive compared even to that available in England.

The reason for this was simple: the music scene in Ireland was still dominated by showbands – large mohair-suited ensembles generally featuring brass sections and energetic stage shows – who travelled up and down the island six days a week, playing sanitised covers of American country songs and English pop hits to thousands of smartly attired late teens and twenty-somethings in a vast network ballrooms.

The showbands, by their very nature, were live acts for whom records were essentially promotional tools. The real money was made on the road. As a consequence, showband records were generally churned out with little thought of production values or innovation, and mostly at Eamon Andrews’ studio in Dublin. For the newly emerging beat groups, however, opportunities to play live were more limited and making a record was the ultimate goal.

Nevertheless, Milano’s ballroom at Seacliffe Road in Ballyholme – regarded as one of the best in Ireland – was to play host in 1965 not only to some of the biggest showbands of the day but also to a series of visiting British pop stars. The first of these, on January 29th 1965, were the Searchers, a clean-cut Manchester act who entertained a polite rather than hysterical crowd of 1500 with a forty-minute, ten-song performance (long by the standards of the day). ‘We want you to sing along to this one,’ announced one of the group. ‘Not unless you say please,’ retorted a girl in the front row, to ripples of mirth. All of which, as the Spectator concluded, ‘at least shows that teenagers can behave themselves if they want to.’

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