A sustained thread of notoriety continued to entwine Manchester’s Band on the Wall throughout the 1950s and 60s.
Waiters were reputed to carry knives – of a non-cutlery variety!1 There was a slick, Mafia-styled singer whose dark cloak was said to conceal a darker secret: a Luger pistol.2 And the band was on the wall, the musicians believed, to protect them from trouble that frequently broke out in this boisterous market pub. Then there were the ladies of the night.
But throughout this web of infamy, rumour and furtive fact, this big old pub on the corner of Swan Street and Oak Street, where the first drinks licence was recorded a century and a half earlier, clung to its reputation as a place for music — almost as a guilty secret. Small, hand-written, paper notices, at a side window and at the front door, declared ‘THE BAND ON THE WALL’ and were eclipsed by the formal, painted signage above the door arch of ‘GEORGE AND DRAGON’, the pub’s traditional name. And on the pub’s banner fascia was the giant lettering of ‘WILSONS ALES’, the main product of the pub’s new, corporate owners, Wilson’s Brewery, just two miles away in Newton Heath.
Close scrutiny of this 1959 photo reveals the hand-written notices in the window on the left and beside and above the entrance. It also shows the tired appearance of the façade that, according to some customers, was matched by cosmetic disrepair inside the pub. (photo courtesy Manchester Libraries and Local Studies)
USA: THE SOURCE
As to the music ‘on the wall’, apparently in the early 1950s, it was trad, Dad.
During World War Two, a revival of traditional jazz gained momentum in the UK and by 1950 the trad jazz boom was underway. Of course, USA was The Source. In Manchester, some local musicians were able to connect with that source by hearing the latest transatlantic sounds – traditional and modern – on records brought by American servicemen stationed at Burtonwood, near Warrington, including GI visitors to Band on the Wall during, and a few years after, the War.
One young, aspiring jazz musician, Mart Rodger, did not have to rely on American servicemen for his transatlantic discs: Donald*, his elder brother by 13 years, was a Lancaster bomber pilot who returned from flights to Canada with records by the likes of Benny Goodman, Bob Crosby and his Bob Cats, Artie Shaw and Chicago jazz. These records were a big influence on clarinetist Mart as a jazz-struck teenager. Now in his eighties, he still has all the records and continues (2017) to front the renowned Mart Rodger Manchester Jazz.
*Donald Rodger was killed in action in 1944
Still at school, aged just 14, in 1950 Mart was invited to join Stan Reed’s Mohawk Jazz Band, playing Band on the Wall. The gig took an unexpected turn. Mart recalled that ‘the police raided the joint’ [perhaps for a licensing contravention] and, because he was under-age, he ‘made a swift exit and escaped unnoticed, with his clarinet, by climbing out through a sash window at the back of the stage’. He added: ‘It was a somewhat rough joint, which attracted some dubious clientele’.
Young Mart was in the habit of sneaking out unnoticed from home to play gigs but was found out one day when he walked with his father through Lewis’s Arcade in the city centre. ‘His father’s eyebrows were raised when, “Hello Mart!” emerged from two ladies of ill repute who frequented that well-known arcade. Mart’s secret escapes into the night were out, but Dad enjoyed re-telling the tale to his business colleagues and no harm was done’.3
Mart was not the only youngster to play Band on the Wall in those days.
Pianist Mike Rogers, from Blackpool, was a schoolboy when he played a weekly gig at Band on the Wall in the early 1950s. In 2009 he wrote4 that the band had the late Alan Jackson on trumpet and sometimes featured ‘Moondog’ on drums and vocalist Ted Calvert.
Ted Calvert was the vocalist who was reputed to carry a Luger pistol under his cloak. This photo and caption is from the Manchester Evening News. Ted died a few weeks after receiving terrible injuries when he was attacked by a man in Macclesfield.
Mike described the venue at that time:
‘It was still an ordinary pub called The George and Dragon and many of the customers were not jazz fans, but just regular pub clients, as there was no entry charge. Some of the customers were quite rough and I remember several fights. The theory amongst musicians was that the band was on the wall to protect them from trouble’.
Another traditional band to play Band on the Wall in the 1950s was The Southside Stompers, led by renowned Baby Dodds-style drummer Don Bridgewood (1931-2015).5 The band later took up a residency at The Black Lion, Salford.
A Queer Turn
Later in the 50s, the entertainment at Band on the Wall segued from Trad to Drag. The new programme and the post-war physical deterioration of the area are colourfully described by writer and DJ Greg Thorpe:
‘…things took a slightly queer turn in the years after the war. By the late 1950s, just as the building’s Swan Street location was falling into decline, drag acts like Diamond Lil and Neville St Claire were popular performers at Band on the Wall. A history of showgirls and servicemen, rowdy wartime entertainment and drag, even the location of the venue at the crumbling fringes of the city, form a tantalising and inspiring feeling of hidden queer history’.6
Diamond Lil (James Stone) was one of Manchester’s best-known drag acts for many years and ‘was rumoured to have had a thing with Ronnie Kray back in the day’7. By presenting Lil, Band on the Wall’s landlord could have been risking the venue’s entertainment licence. In Salford, the landlord of the Irwell Castle Hotel had his entertainment licence revoked and was fined £50 for presenting Diamond Lil. The court adjudged Lil a lewd and indecent act. Lil was also fined £50 and his piano accompanist, a Mr Taylor, was fined £20 for aiding and abetting.8
Other drag artists and comedians who played Band on the Wall were:9 Jackie Carlton, Billy Dennis, Eric Leroy, Cherise, Louise and most famous of all, Bunny Lewis who topped the bill at some of the biggest Northern clubs, including Talk of the North, the Golden Garter and Batley Varieties. He was highly regarded as a comedian by his peers. Bob Monkhouse, who worked with Bunny on several occasions, said of him:10
‘It’s a brave comic who is willing to share the billing with Bunny Lewis as he is a hard act to follow, he’s a terrific artist and a great comic, so don’t let the frock fool you!.
At times there were some extraordinary acts in the support slots at Band on the Wall. A customer in the late 50s and early 60s, George Drew:11
‘Nightly live entertainment at that time consisted mainly of drag acts interspersed with such things as spoon and bone players, the occasional visits from a paper-burning act – I kid you not! – and a “Maestro of the Musical Saw”’.
George also recalled that the main entrance to the pub was the side door on Oak Street, with the bar opposite and ‘the acts performed on the “stage” which at that time appeared to be an old dining room table of strong construction. The large room had plenty of seating and tables with bench seating against the walls’. He added that it was ‘a big, rough, busy pub, down to earth’.
By the late 1950s and early 60s, it appears that music was relegated to a supporting role for the various performers on the makeshift stage at Band on the Wall. While it remained busy, it could be a scary place for young, first-time visitors. In the early 60s, a young man, Allen Blakeley, paid his one and only visit to the venue and, in 2011, described the experience:12
‘I only have one memory of the Band on the Wall…. A few of us went in on a Saturday night. It was a real spit and sawdust joint! It was also quite intimidating. We felt as if we would be mugged at any minute. Quick pint and we legged it down Lever Street for our bus. I have had a quick look at your site and see that now you are 100% music and it looks nothing like it did.’
Live Music Returns
Though perhaps not 100%, featured music did return to Band on the Wall after the arrival of a new tenant landlord and landlady in December 1963. Their son, Danny Young:13
‘My parents ran the place when it was the George & Dragon when I was a youngster. They took over when it was a pretty rough city centre pub in the early sixties and eventually put a ‘band’ back on show after many years without live music. Although this was just a local group or two it did help turn the pub around somewhat.’
Danny’s father Daniel Young senior was licensee from 2/12/1963 to 26/5/1966.
The return of featured music in the 60s was at times thunderous. One regular band, The New Religion, was wild, raging blues-rock with a psychedelic edge. Salford DJ and vocalist Mike Sweeney:
‘Live The New Religion were anarchic but magnificent, way ahead of their time with a brilliant name and a stunning image (military jackets and really long hair)’.14
Another music professional who would become an influential record producer and engineer, Martin Hannett, had an unusual take on the long-haired wildmen:
‘I used to go to the Band on the Wall in the sixties, every Friday, there was a band there called the New Religion, [that had] a foot-operated light show. I think they eventually turned into StackWaddy. They were good, fast and indifferent to musical values’.15
Record producer and engineer Martin Hannett (1948-1991) has been credited with creating The Manchester Sound. Among the albums he produced were those by Joy Division, John Cooper Clarke and Happy Mondays, In 1976 he played bass guitar in the Tom McMasters Band at Band on the Wall16.
Stack Waddy were championed in the 60s by DJ John Peel who signed them to his record label, Dandelion Records. Their second album was titled ‘Bugger Off’.
Band on the Wall continued to live up to its name for the rest of the 60s as several local bands performed there, and by 1968 there was a young resident group playing Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, usually three sets a night. On guitar and drums respectively were brothers Steven and Robert Rowbotham and the bass player with the band was Jim Gabrielides1 who described a typical night’s music:
‘… everywhere was wild, everybody wanted the popular music of the day. So it would be a mixture of the Beatles, a little bit of Motown – because Manchester was very strong even then as a Motown area. And then the vast majority of the “talent” singers would usually choose a country and western theme’.
It was more like a Wild Western movie when fights broke out and the landlord’s instruction to the band was the same as that given by legendary publican Ernie Tyson some 30 years earlier:
‘the instruction from the landlord Mr Roberts was — it wasn’t if, it was when – when the fighting starts, keep playing. There were lots of fights and you would have to keep playing. Because what he felt was: when the trouble started, if the music stopped, everyone gets involved. So his rule was: you kept playing. And very often we played through a few saloon scenes….’
And, as was the case three decades before, the venue…
‘ was also frequented by the ladies of the night. They used the Band on the Wall as their base, so they would start off there, they’d probably have a couple of drinks, then they’d move off and they’d probably call in midway through for a couple of drinks and some of them would end up there at the end of the night. Of course the pimps would be in — it was a very colourful, very busy place.’
‘To a lad of 17, touching 18, at the time it was quite an eye-opener.’
‘my dad used to wait up for when I got home not to see I was home safe, just for me to tell him what had been going on that night. He used to love the stories, you know, because there was always something happening….’
And just as Jazzer Hamilton, leader of the Barrow Boys Gang, had frequented Band on the Wall around 30 years earlier, the new leader of the Barrow Boys visited in the late 60s and was an equally intimidating figure:
‘There was a local guy, he ran the area, he was the head of the barrow boys, if you like, king of the gypsies. His name was Tex… he was an exact remake of Bill Sykes and that’s the type of character he was. He came into the pub, he was a big, burly sallow-faced guy and… the head guy was in… and nobody would cross Tex…’
But for Jim Gabrielides, despite its notoriety in the late 60s and early 70s:
‘Band on the Wall was the most romantic venue’.
The romance of the venue apparently was an insufficient attraction to retain the long-term loyality and commitment of a succession of licensees in the 50s and 60s. Turnover of tenant landlords was considerable: no fewer than 12 in two decades, thus an average stay of just 20 months. Yet the reports we have from this period all refer to it being a very busy pub that, one would imagine, would be lucrative for the landlords as well as the brewery owners. So why the turnaround of landlords? Perhaps the accumulated stress of running a venue where fights were frequent took its toll on the beleaguered landlords? Perhaps much of the clientele was impoverished, choosing the warmth and comfort of a pub to their own homes and spending a minimum over the bar?
Depopulation, Unemployment & Decay
These post-war decades witnessed big changes in the physical and demographic environment of the area of Band on the Wall. The first multi-storey office blocks of the 1950s in what is now called the Northern Quarter were said to reflect a new mood as ‘the nation was gripped by a new feeling of optimism and the nation looked forward, rather than back, to a brave new future’17. But that optimism may not have been shared by many of the local residents and workers in the immediate catchment area of Band on the Wall.
In neighbouring Ancoats, that had been a crucible of the Industrial Revolution, the post-war population tumbled. In the previous century its population rivaled ‘separate cotton towns such as Bolton or Oldham’18. Almost without exception, the cotton mills and allied works had closed, leaving thousands out of work. Glassworks and engineering companies folded. Many of Ancoats streets were subject to slum clearances: ‘some houses were demolished; others were closed, bricked up and left to rot’.18
The part of Ancoats known as ‘Little Italy’ never quite recovered from the war years when, following Mussolini’s decision to side with Hitler, Winston Churchill’s instruction to ‘collar the lot’ led to Italian residents being arrested as enemy agents and detained in internment camps. While many of the returning Italian men established successful businesses after the war and chose to move to the suburbs, others were compelled to move as a result of the slum clearances. For decades, ‘Little Italy’ had been an inspirational source of musical vitality. There were many musicians in the community, a number of whom performed at Band on the Wall, most notably in the 1930s accordionist Rudi Mancini and brother Albert (accordion and piano). Rudi Mancini’s youthful stint at Band on the Wall may have given him a taste for the licensed trade. From 1958 to 1963, he was licensee and entertained on electric organ at The Cheshire Cheese, 200 yards from Band on the Wall, in Oldham Road. He also ran other pubs and clubs in the area and was a well-known, flamboyant character. With his second wife, Pat, he went on to own the 110-room Queens Hotel in Blackpool. Pat Mancini, in her book, Queen of Blackpool, described their first date:
‘He arrived driving a massive big American car with yellow wheels. Rudi pressed the horn and it played a tune. I learned later it was a Chrysler Crown Imperial… it had a little record player in it. It was Frank Sinatra singing You Make Me Feel So Young’.
Sinatra, famously of Italian parents (and temperament?), came close to Ancoats Little Italy in 1952 when, following a sparsely-attended concert at The Palace Theatre, Manchester, he got very drunk with a beat policeman and, having forgotten which hotel he was booked into, was put up for the night on the local bobby’s sofa in Newton Heath, just along the Oldham Road from Ancoats19.
Although Ancoats, including ‘Little Italy’ and neighbouring areas, suffered severe depopulation and increased unemployment in the 50s and 60s, the night time economy – not all of it legal – remained bouyant and Band on the Wall, probably the biggest pub in the area, remained busy.
‘It was a very busy thoroughfare, that neck of the woods, the top of Oldham Street…’1
At Band on the Wall:
‘There was Irish in there but mainly northern Manchester … and remnants of what was the Quality Street gang used to call in….
‘The client group, they were locals, it was a real local area pub…
‘It was the number of local pubs that drew people to the area, also in Tib Street and down Shudehill. There was also the big club, The Osborne, in Rochdale Road’.1
Even bigger, grander clubs emerged in the Manchester area in the 1960s, such as: Poco a Poco, Stockport; the Golden Garter, Wythenshawe – that opened in 1968 with Bruce Forsyth the star artist — and the Talk of the North, Eccles. Many other clubs, big and small, established Manchester in the 60s as a city with the most vibrant night-life. Band on the Wall was part of that vibrancy, if at the down-market corner of the city, and, it would appear, was unaffected by the competition from the huge, plush new clubs.
Daytime trade could also be steady at ‘The Band’ mainly due to its proximity to ‘the city’s most important shopping street [Oldham Street] and its main market [Smithfield]’. But the physical fabric of the area was in decline and Band on the Wall was no exception. Reports from the 60s describe the deterioration of the building that had been subject to several adaptations over the years and was essentially in excess of 100 years old.
Apparently there was little Investment in the fabric of the building by the brewery, Wilsons of Newton Heath, that took ownership following a merger with Salford brewers Walker & Homfray in 1949. The new company had a combined total of 1100 licensed houses; Band on the Wall, then a somewhat notorious venue in a dubious area of the city, was not the priority for improvement. There was no change also when Wilsons was acquired by Watney Mann in 1960. The priority for investment in the area by this London-based company was completion of a big, new bottling plant.
‘…bottled beers saw a surge in popularity after the war. There was a reaction against the uncertain qualities of traditional cask-conditioned beers and for a short time it was thought that the pubs of the future would be stocked with row upon row of bottled beers!’20
At the close of the 1960s Band on the Wall had clung on to its customer base, despite the ongoing deprivation – close to destruction — of its immediate catchment area. And the venue continued to present regular live music. But the building, like the area, was deteriorating, with brewery neglect a contributing factor. Also, antithetical to the individuality of Band on the Wall was Watney Mann’s ‘standardisation programme’, introduced in 1969, that aimed to phase out local branding. Sensibly, this was abandoned after the company was acquired by the Grand Metropolitan group in 1972.
However, in the early 1970s the economic viability of the area of Band on the Wall was devastated when the Smithfield Market moved out, followed by the building of the Arndale Centre that sucked the vitality out of Oldham Street, for many years Manchester’s prime retail thoroughfare.
Band on the Wall – then highly dependent on local trade – was unable to withstand this double blow and, probably for the first time in a century, shut down. But only weeks later a Manchester former pro musician, with a business partner, would bravely take on the lease of the deserted and decaying venue. The story unfolds in the 70s section of this history.
1 Interview with Jim Gabrielides, 6 April 2011
2 Harold Edwards, ‘Alan Hare and Ted Calvert’, jazznorthwest.co.uk
3 Information on Mart Rodger from a ‘Profile of Mart Rodger’ by Patricia O’Beirne
4 Mike Rogers quote, jazznorthwest.co.uk, 28 September 2009
5 Article by Don Bridgewood, ‘The Southside Stompers’, jazznorthwest.co.uk
6 Journalist and DJ Greg Thorpe, Vada Magazine, Issue 12 2016
7 Danny Hurst, jobbing comedian and entertainer, chortle.co.uk
8 Salford Soapbox, ‘From the Archives’.
9 Bodzy 3, Manmates.proboards.com, 23 May 2008
10 Bunny Lewis: obituary, The Stage, 8 December 2008.
11 Geo Drew, phone conversation with historian Brian Holmshaw, 2000
12 Allen Blakeley, email 3 September 2011
13 Danny Young, email 21 March 2007:
14 DJ/vocalist Mike Sweeney, manchesterbeat.com
15 Interview with Martin Hannett, 29 May 1989, ‘Overload and Heaven Sent’, Vagabond website
16 ‘Memories of The Band’, Stephen Forster
17 The Northern Quarter, by Simon Taylor and Julian Holder, English Heritage publication, p67
18 Ancoats Cradle of industrialization by Michael E Rose with Keith Falconer and Julian Holder
19 Manchester Evening News, 12 July 2007
20 A History of Wilsons Brewery, 1834-1984, by Neil Richardson