8 Oct 2011
Sheffield - Steve Bellamy - Mod Memories
That Driving Beat
Detroit may be the home of Tamla Motown and Memphis the home of Stax but for my money the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg did more for English Mods than either of the other two. Let me explain.
It’s 1960. Rock and Roll from Sun records rules the America airwaves. Elvis is King and in Detroit and Memphis the sound of Soul music was just getting off the ground. People like Berry Gordy (of Tamla) and Jim Stewart (of Stax) were recording the R&B and gospel acts that had, up to now, only been on the local circuit but were destined for the Soul hall of fame. Marvin Gaye, Jr. Walker, Wilson Pickett, and Rufus Thomas to name but a few. It was a seminal era for 'that driving beat'
Meanwhile in England it’s still World War II at the BBC. Vera Lynne is still singing 'We’ll meet again' Billy Cotton is still doing his 'Armed Forces Band Show' and the hottest dance tunes are played on the BBC light service. Real toe tappers like 'Chattanooga Choo Choo' and 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B' There wasn’t a top ten of *anything* and kids like me didn’t have any say whatsoever in what 'tin pan alley' was foisting on the public as 'pop' music. Things weren’t looking too good for our Sheffield hero, Steve.
Then my uncle Alf (bless him) gave me a transistor radio for my birthday. Wow, my very own personal sound machine that actually ran on batteries and I could carry around with me. Very nifty indeed. Of course, the choice was still limited to the four BBC radio stations on the long wave and whatever you could pick up on the medium wave, which consisted of mostly foreign language stations broadcasting cooking recipes in Czechoslovakian for all I knew. Then late one Sunday night I hit that magic 1440khz and suddenly out of the ether the voice of my personal saviour DJ Chris Denning was saying 'hey kids, get your dancing shoes on, your tuned to the US Top Forty show on fabulous 208, Radio Luxemburg' Good God in heaven! Was I dreaming?
Little Richard, The Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, The Coasters, The Drifters, The Contours and of course Chubby Checker doing 'The Twist' all poured out of that magic box and into my heart and soul. I was hooked. For the next five years I was one of the late night 'under the bedcovers' kids that made Radio Luxembourg the lbed coversegend that it has become. We listened nightly to DJ's spinning new chart records from the US. There were R&B shows with Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Jazz shows with Ramsey Lewis and Ray Charles and the one that truly made it all worthwhile 'Soul Sounds' from the US billboard charts. It was from Radio Luxembourg thaLuxembourgt I learnt about the Detroit sound, The Philly sound and that new funky Soul music being made in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Later on the famous UK pirate radio stations added to this bounty of dance music that was being pumped into my ears. In particular Mike Ravens R&B show was a 'not to be missed' broadcast especially as he opened with Phil Upchurch’s 'You can’t sit down' – my kind of guy.
Of course I bought a record player and started going out with the girl who worked at the local record shop. Hey, a Sheffield soul man’s got to do what he’s got to do, right. It was with this wonderful girls help I managed to order ultra rare imported records direct from the US. How she managed to do it I will never know but when toothy Ken Dodd and those insipid, always smiling 'Bachelors' were topping the charts and putting Britain to narcoleptic sleep I was rocking my kitchen roof off with Fontella Bass’s 'Rescue me' and Shorty Long’s 'Devil with a Blue Dress on'
Unfortunately, although the music said 'you can’t sit down' I had to. There was nowhere to go to dance to 'that driving beat' except the local youth club and the church hall dances held every Saturday afternoon but, trust me here, you really don’t want me to tell you about them. It was, again, a bad time for our boy Steve. Talk about all dressed up and nowhere to go, I was all tuned up and nowhere to go.
And then my other uncle, who was a Sheffield bus driver at the time, came to visit us and upon hearing one of my precious records said 'bloody hell fire Jack sounds just like that jungle music them idiots play at that fucking Esquire club round the back of the bus station'. Words that changed my life. Thank you Uncle Frank. Eloquently put.
The next day I declined the charms of Mr. White’s English language, P.E and Physics, took the day off from school and went in search of the Esquire. Didn’t take too long to find it. I mean it had a reputation in Sheffield and everybody over 40 who you asked, knew just where it was and why it was to be avoided. – my kind of place.
My first night at the Esquire was in many ways better than my first night of sex. Well almost. I walked into the club to the beautiful sound of Sam Cooke singing Chain Gang and saw a dance floor full of kids, all my age, actually dancing and enjoying themselves. Talk about coming home. Talk about my generation. I felt like crying. In fact I think I did. It was a revelation. So, I wasn’t the only 'nutter' in the city after all.
"I’m in with the in crowd, I go where the in crowd goes, I’m in with the in crowd and I know what the in crowd knows"
From then on I lived only for the nights when I could jump on the 6:30 bus to Sheffield, pay my two shillings and sixpence entrance money and dance the night away. I made some great friends, learnt about clothes, drugs, girls and above all the music. The Northern Mod scene started there and I was part of it. We travelled around to other clubs (The Wheel, Clouds etc) and wherever we went we met other kids, who dressed like us, talked like us and above all liked our music. We were bound together by a common love of the music. We were Mods and this was our generation.
So while England and the rest of the world were going Beatle crazy we at the Esquire were in a way insulated from it. After all we knew who the Beatles, Stones, Yardbirds and Small Faces were copying and we preferred the originals, thank you. It was a good time for our boy Steve.
Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on R&B or Soul music. I don’t have an encyclopedic memory of record titles, artists and labels. Dave Godin once tried to turn me onto some ‘real deep soul’ recorded by some obviously very depressed guy in Chicago who sounded so miserable I really thought he was having a nervous breakdown on the record. I like my soul music fast, snappy and above all danceable. I suppose I am a shallow self-centred old school Mod but we all have our faults right.
Eventually I had to go to the US and see it all for myself. I went to New York’s Apollo theatre and saw The Impressions. I went to Chicago and saw Sam & Dave. I went to Detroit and actually sat in the studio while Martha and The Vandellas recorded ‘Heat Wave’ It was all good and I had a great time.
Sometimes my oldest kid likes to quote Cicero (106-43 B.C.) at me "No Sane man will dance" but what the fuck did Cicero know, he never went to the Sheffield Esquire now did he?
Well, it's dance time
Out on the floor each night I’m really moving
The band is wailin right, I feel like groovin
The chicks are out of sight, and I am approovin
The crowd is in tonight beggin for more
While I’m getting my kicks out on the floor’
Mod Dance!England won the World cup in 1966, Alf Ramsey became a knight and every kid playing football in the school yard and in the park wanted to be Geoff Hurst or Bobby Charlton. I didn’t. I wanted to be Charlie Foxx. Well every kids got to have a hero right, mine just happened to be a bit more esoteric than most. Ah - such is the stuff of an OM (original mod) Read on…..
By 1966 I was well into the Mod way of life. My backcombed hair was the spitting image of Steve Marriot (ala Small Faces), my shirt collection was the envy of the western world, and my scooter had more headlights on it than Fireball XL5. To say that I lived for the weekends would not be an exaggeration because after an amphetamine fuelled Saturday and Sunday I felt like death for the rest of the week.
Yet strangely, what I had become seemed to be out of sync with what was going on in the wider world of youth culture. The Beatles had all grown mustaches, started wearing Mexican rugs for clothes and singing about ‘purple raindrops in my eyes’ Phrases like ‘peace, love and brotherhood’ and ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’ could even to be heard on BBC radio I – my God even Tony Blackburn was wearing a paisley shirt and bell bottom trousers. Mike Raven (my R&B hero) had been usurped by John ‘hey cool man’ Peel (who I personally consider to be the fucking Anti-Christ when it comes to dance music) and trying to talk to my dad about my life was leading nowhere as you can imagine.
'Dancers are the athletes of God.' -- Albert Einstein
Steve, our hero, was happy enough but frustrated. After all I was Mod – which means modern, not a hippie freak, not a nasty greaser, a Mod, a sophistiCAT, at least in my mind that is but nobody seemed to appreciate it or understood it except my weekend mates. Then I had an epiphany. My uncle Alf (of portable radio fame) came over for Xmas dinner and in-between The Queens’ speech and the Morcombe and Wise show we got to talking. Turns out my mom and dad had a secret past, well at least one they could talk about to their friends, but never with me, after all I was just their only begotten. They were – wait for it… Ballroom dancers. Don’t stop reading just yet - it gets better. They had been Yorkshire champions five times in a row and my dad had represented England in the World Championships. So that’s what they had been doing Friday and Saturday nights. Of course I never knew – I was never there. Even if I had been – all I knew about ballroom dancing was from a TV show called ‘Come Dancing’ – which might still be on the TV by the way. From what I saw Ballroom dancing was a bunch of stuck up women being pranced around a wooden floor by these fellas dressed up like Fred Astaire and who I seriously suspected of being ‘poofs’ – the PC word these days is gay but these were the more coarser 60’s. Ballroom dancing – fuck me. I could dance but I didn’t think mom and dad had any idea what kind of dancing I was doing. Still it was something to talk about Sunday afternoon sitting around the telly watching match of the day reruns.
'One may judge a king by the state of dancing during his reign'.--Chinese proverb
So in between runs to the bathroom to throw up my guts (remember it’s the day after the all nighter) I got to talking about what my dad had done for entertainment before the war (could have been cave drawings for all I knew) – so he says…..
‘Oh I did a bit of socializing’
‘Oh yeah – how’d you mean?’
‘Well you know go down to the local dance club a few nights a week’
‘Oh yeah – dancing eh’
‘Yeah – nothing much – just the odd waltz – foxtrot, tango you know’
‘I like dancing’
‘Yeah, that’s what I did last night’
‘Yeah – lots of fun’
‘Oh well I know what you mean, let me tell you…….’
Suddenly my dad remembered he had a son, he turned off the telly, called my mother in from the kitchen (washing up) got out a photo album I’d never seen and we spend the next five hours just talking and talking and talking. I never had to explain myself to him again. I was a dancer and my dad was proud of me.
’A good education consists in knowing how to sing and dance well’.-- Plato
Going to the Mojo in Sheffield was like attending the holy mother church of dancing. Mods dressed well, rode scooters, liked soul music and took blues and bombers but all that wasn’t the heart of being a mod – dancing was. It was on the dance floor that everything made sense. It was no good being high without something to do with the energy. It was no good loving the R&B beat without being able to jump up and express it through physical action.
The whole reason for all-nighters was dancing. Get dressed, meet your mates, wait outside the dance club, meeting and greeting all the out of towners as they arrived by scooter, car or bus. Hello to ‘the Notts crew’ ‘the Donny boys’ (hi Mick) ‘the Wheel crew’ all of them mates and all of them there for just the same purpose as you. Get blocked, dance all night, and go home. Funny no different from today if you think about it.
I met all my friends in the Mojo toilet. No, hold on don’t stop reading, Yes, the toilets were dank, smelly and crowded all night but they were the haven you went to when it all got too much, when you wanted to cool down and catch your breath for a few minutes. Of course you were as high a weather balloon and just about everything you said came out sounding something like from ‘Bill and Ben the flowerpot men’ but who cares, you loved everybody and everybody loved you. You could stand there your mouth as dry as a bone , masticating furiously (I said MAS ticating) your eyes as wide as Blackpool tunnel and you felt as if you were on top of the world.
‘Of course I like you – I dance with you, don’t I?’ - Me
The Mojo was a converted all time dance hall – when I say converted I mean all they did was to turn down the lights, remove the revolving ballroom globe and put in strobe lights which made all the girls panties shine bright white through their mini dresses. Actually that’s about the only time girls got noticed, nobody really was bothered too much with ‘chatting up the birds’ and even if you did nothing was going to happen. Amphetamines have a rather startling effect upon your ‘wedding tackle’ – a fact which tended to make male bonding all the more fraternal. Twenty functional eunuchs standing around the Mojo toilet all talking about how great a time they were having and nobody is talking about sex. Try explaining that to your kids.
’Every day I count wasted is one in which there has been no dancing’. -- Nietzsche
The Mojo stage was recessed into one wall at the front of the club with the DJ’s corner off to the left and a raised runway stretching across the front. This runway was the realm of the Gods. It was here that the best dancers climbed up and showed off their stuff. It was here that reputations were made or broken. Nobody, no matter how charged on blues they were would have had the temerity to get up there without the tacit acceptance of the dozen or so ‘gangplank’ regulars. Yes folks I was one of ‘em and we guarded our status like Gordon Banks guarded the English net. We knew we were ‘the faces’ we knew we were the leaders, the guvners, the elite. We were the Gods and it was a like nothing I have every know since. Forget the anonymous adulation given to rock and roll stars by the stadium mobs and stage door groupies. This was acceptance and fawning admiration by your mod peers. Your mates looked at you with awe and respect and yes a little fear. Your word was law and you had kids falling over themselves to talk to you, dance with you, eat and drink at your table. You ‘could have’ had any bird in the place but we’ve already covered that particular depressing aspect to the Mod scene at the Mojo haven’t we. Ho hum
'La danse, c'est le mouvement, et le mouvement, c'est la vie'.--Ludmilla Chiriaeff
The highlight of the dance scene at the Mojo was the Christmas all nighter. Pete Stringfellow (owner, operator and DJ) lined up all the best acts for that one night. Geno Washington, Zoot Money, and Georgie Fame all on the same night with one big name US act headlining. Ike and Tina Turner, The Drifters, The Miracles, The Temptations all played the Mojo Christmas ‘nighter’ plus the whole staff of ‘Ready Steady Go’ were invited up from London. It was during this night that the Mojo dance contest was held. First prize was always something like free admission for year – don’t laugh we considered that a very valuable prize but actually it was the format of contest that provided all the interest. You see RSG had several resident dancers whose job it was to circulate through the studio crowd beforehand and sort of get everybody charged up for the live broadcast The undisputed ‘Queen’ of the RSG dancers was a 16 year old blonde chick called ‘Sandy Sargent’ – I never knew if that was her real name or not. (Later in life Sandy got married to Ian McLagan of the Small Faces in a secret ceremony at Marylebone registry office. Unfortunately the planned honeymoon was dashed when McLagan was caught with a lump of hash on him at the airport and they both got arrested. The band had to get them bailed out)
’Those who dance are considered insane by those who can't hear the music.’. -- George Carlin
The idea of the contest was that after several rounds of dancing, in which the best dancers were selected by the milling crowd cheering or booing for them as Pete Stringfellow pointed a spotlight at them, the finalists would have two minutes to do their stuff up on the gangplank partnered by, yes you guessed, Sandy Sargent. Kids would live for months beforehand dreaming of those two minutes of fame. I know I did. Finally, when the winner was announced the whole floor was cleared and the winner together with Sandy would do a two minute dance of honor – Those two minutes were as close as any Mojo Mod could come to beatification – you were made for life. I won in 1967 and I have lived on that reputation ever since. No shit. Thirty five years later grown men, now fat, balding and distinctly over the hill (which of course I’m not –grin) still come up to me at Soul do’s throughout the world and say ‘Fucking hell - Steve Bellamy. I saw you win the Mojo dance contest in ’67, you were great mate – buy you a pint?’
Hey, life doesn’t get any better than that, now does it?