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13 November 2014

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You are in: Wiltshire > History > Rock 'n' Roll Wiltshire > A Hard Day's Night in Swindon

The early Beatles

The early Beatles

A Hard Day's Night in Swindon

Find out all the facts about the historic night in 1962 when The Beatles played a gig in Swindon.

Tuesday 17th July 1962 was the date of a very historic occasion for Swindon. It was the day The Beatles, inarguably the greatest band of all-time, played their one and only gig in the town.

The venue was McIlroys Ballroom, a spacious hall above the much loved, and much missed department store which once stood on Regent Street in the town centre, where H&M is now situated.

'Macs', as the ballroom was affectionately known, proudly dubbed itself 'Showplace of the West' and in 1962 gigs were held every Tuesday night by the Jaybee Clubs organisation who promoted regular dance hall events across the West Country.

Although McIlroys was possibly more well-known for its Thursday night jazz gigs, Jaybee promotors Bill Reid (who later went on to run The Brunel Rooms nightclub) and his partner Dave Backhouse put on 'beat groups' every Tuesday night under the banner 'Top of the Pops'.

An ad for the gig in the Swindon Evening Advertiser (C) Swindon Advertiser

An ad for the gig in the Swindon Adver

And each Tuesday night the great and the good of the famous faces on the national pop music circuit regularly performed there. Indeed, in the weeks prior to the Fab Four's visit, Carl Denver, Joe Brown and Shane Fenton (later better known as glam rocker Alvin Stardust) had each made an appearance.

At this early stage in the Fab Four's career, they were relatively unknown outside of their native Liverpool. But new manager Brian Epstein was determined that they increase their profile around the country by way of relentless touring. When the boys rolled into Swindon they were nearing the end of a punishing string of 61 consecutive gigs.

Swindon was the third date of a tour of southern venues, although they'd played two gigs the day before back on Merseyside, including a lunchtime session at the venue they were synonymous with - The Cavern Club in Liverpool city centre. They were also to return to The Cavern the next day.

The long van journey from Liverpool to Swindon must have been especially arduous as in those days no motorway existed between the north and south of the country, and the weary band ended up performing in the suits they'd travelled in.

The Fab Four

The classic Fab Four line-up

It's assumed the designated driver for the journey was road manager and close personal assistant, Neil Aspinall. He is quoted in The Beatles Anthology book as saying Swindon "was miles away from anywhere."

In July 1962, The Beatles line-up was John, Paul, George and... Pete. The band were still playing with their first drummer, Pete Best. Although he was replaced by Richard Starkey (AKA Ringo Starr) shortly after, on 16th August.

Posters and newspaper ads for the Swindon gig heralded the band's forthcoming appearance with such hyperbole as 'The Fabulous Beat Group from Liverpool' and 'The Most Popular Group in the North'.

However, the eventual gig - for which the band were paid £27.10s (£27.50) - was decidedly inauspicious. The recorded turnout was 360 people. Particularly disappointing for the band considering the venue's capacity was over five times that figure.

It's thought that the crowd mainly consisted of disinterested Tuesday night regulars, many of whom left early, and John Lennon is said to have remarked with characteristic disdain: "This is a right place this is."

A young Justin Hayward - who later became the lead singer of The Moody Blues and led them to international success - was born and bred in Swindon and happened to be playing on the same bill as The Beatles at McIlroys Ballroom that night. In a 1997 interview in The Times, he revealed he too had left the venue early and missed their performance, much to his later regret.  

How they may have looked if they'd returned to Swindon!

How they may have looked had they returned!

It's worth remembering that the band had only recently landed their record deal with Parlophone, and their debut single 'Love Me Do' would not be released for another three months. Beatlemania was still some way off.

Nevertheless, between 8.00-11.00pm, the band ploughed through two lively hour-long sessions, the set-lists of which would have been filled predominantly with cover versions of songs by the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bobby Freeman.

Jaybee Clubs promotor Bill Reid quoted in the book Swindon in the News by John Hudson said: "They were a very unusual band. They just turned up in a van, got out and got up on stage.

"They were entirely different to the other bands around at the time, who were playing in gold lamé costumes.

"People kept telling us they were going to have a hit record, but we heard this all the time."

But Bill knew a promising band when he saw one and cannily booked the fledgling Mop Tops for another gig way into the future on 15th June 1963 at Salisbury City Hall.

Ringo and George filming 'Help!' on Salisbury Plain

Ringo and George filming Help! on Salisbury Plain

He landed the booking for little more than the £27.00 he'd paid for them to play at McIlroys, but by the summer of 1963, Beatlemania had swept the country and their booking fee had risen to £300 a gig.

They'd also swiftly outgrown venues the size of the City Hall and manager Brian Epstein tried to buy Bill out of the contract, but he was promptly refused!

The band's final visit to Wiltshire came in May 1965 when alongside actor Leo McKern they shot a scene for their second film 'Help!' on Salisbury Plain. The band stayed at the Antrobus Arms Hotel in nearby Amesbury for the duration of the filming.

But that hot summer's night back in 1962 will always remain Swindon's most historic musical claim to fame.

last updated: 12/01/2010 at 14:12
created: 15/01/2009

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So I presume the Ballroom is demolished but what of the City Hall? Any help geotagging it would be very much appreciated.

Mrs L Webb
One evening my husband and I were at a friends for supper and another guest there was Bill Reid. Amongst great hoots of laughter (from the other guests) I asked him if The Beatles had ever played at McIlroys in Swindon (as I had a vague recollection from the past of being there and listening to a group of young men - who were very good - but why was one of the men holding his guitar the wrong way round?) Imagine my surprise when Bill told me that they were one of the groups that he had arranged to play there! Oh how I wish I had asked for their autographs! but I was only 7 years old at the time. I think it was a family friends birthday party and I had been asked along to keep one of their children company for the evening. I am sure someone out there must have some photographs? They would be worth a fortune these days - little did we know how famous they would become. A few years later I remember watching The Beatles on TV but getting very annoyed because I couldnt hear them singing as all the ladies in the audience were screaming too loudly! You dont see that happening much these days!

Richard Hehir
I remember some of the girls in our Park North neighbourhood talking about the Beatles show on the way to school that week. Us boys made fun of them going to see a bunch of mods. We were all Stones fans.

Clive Carter
We used to have great Gigs in and around Swindon but sadly all of the places where they used to be held have either been burnt down or pulled down by the Council.I have been to see The Stones, The Beatles. Lulu ( I fell in love) ha ha. Rolling Stones, Screaming Lord Such, The Who in Chippenham, Dave Dozy Beaky Mick and Tich, Swinging Blue Jeans, sounds Incorporated, Barron Knights,and loads more.Sadly all we have left for a venue is the small Wyvern and the tin hut they call the Oasis.

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