When The Beatles were “remastered” a few years ago, many — like me — took the opportunity to buy the famous albums again. Fans delighted in the freshness of their favourite songs. Critics wrote of increased clarity and newly revealed sounds. One thing that hadn’t changed, though, was the surprise you still get when you listen to the recordings back- to- back, and realise how
many different bands they actually became.
It took just four years to reach the lush, pastoral tones of “Strawberry Fields” from the nasal hum of “Love Me Do”. Four years, and yet it was practically a whole dimension away.
There was a world out there to be conquered, and conquer it they would, but back in January 1962 they had only played in the south of England once — on 9th December 1961 when they took part in one of Sam Leach’s Big Beat Sessions at the Palais Ballroom, Aldershot. Billed as a “battle of the bands” between the boys and Ivor Jay and the Jaywalkers, a major publicity blunder resulted in only 18 people turning up.
Undeterred, manager Brian Epstein started to extend the band’s reach by booking venues further out of Liverpool, in places like Northwich and Rhyl. He also began dealing with the London- based Cana Variety Agency.
Jack Fallon, who owned Cana ( and who ended up playing fiddle on “Don’t Pass Me By” in 1968), also ran Jaybee Clubs, which promoted dances predominantly in the west of England. With contracts signed and hands shaken, The Beatles’ first gig for Jaybee was at the Subscription Rooms, Stroud, on 31st March 1962. The second, on 17th July, was at McIlroy’s Ballroom, Swindon.
This came near the end of a run of 61 live engagements and a look at the shows before and after gives a good idea of just how busy the boys were. On the 16th they played a lunchtime session at the Cavern, followed by an evening concert at the Plaza, St. Helens. They then came all the way down to Swindon, only to go virtually straight back to Liverpool for another lunchtime booking at the Cavern the next day — where they also played that night. Now that was hard work — for the band and their van!
McIlroy’s, or “Mac’s” as it was known, was within a plush department store. What was a restaurant by day was converted for evening use by moving the tables to the carpet around the central
parquet dance floor. Drinks were sold from an oak, hotel- like bar, while a rotating glitter ball cast its thrilling beams of light onto the assembled throng. The stage, though commodious, was only a foot or so above floor level. As well as many local groups, the likes of Joe Brown, Shane Fenton ( aka Alvin Stardust) and Gene Vincent all experienced its dizzying lack of height.
Thursday nights at Mac’s were all about jazz and many top acts like Kenny Ball, Humphrey Lyttelton and Acker Bilk appeared there. Tuesdays, on the other hand, were reserved for “beat groups”. But while the band may have been billed as “The Most Popular Group in the North”, most local youngsters treated The Beatles’ gig as “just another Tuesday”. That said, 360 people are believed to have turned up — which was certainly an improvement on their Aldershot gig!
Imagine yourself, then, in winklepickers, drainpipes or your best chiffon, as loud guitars ring and the drums thump a beat that would become so familiar to so many. You’ve just got a shot of R. White’s from the bar and you’re up for a shot of rhythm and blues.
The MC for that night, Don Hedges, recalls that the boys had no stage clothes: “They just got out of an old banger of a van and played as they were.”
Sadly, other details are sketchy, though we do know the band played two 60- minute sessions between 8 and 11, taking the first and last hours while background music played during an extended interval from 9 till 10. For this they were paid the princely sum of £ 27.10s.
Chuck Berry numbers probably featured heavily, though the band’s quest for originality means the audience would also have been treated to a range of obscure tracks from records supplied by merchant seamen ( known as “Cunard Yanks” on Merseyside). This would have introduced them to songs like Bobby Freeman’s “Shimmy Shimmy” or Little Willie John’s “Leave My Kitten Alone”, which they would record in 1964 ( but which wouldn’t be released for over 30 years).
Of course, there’s also the intriguing possibility that the boys might have tried out some of their own material, like “One After 909” or “Hello Little Girl”, both of which had been written by this time. John Lennon once commented that much of their best work was done during this “pre- theatre” period, so the audience would have been treated to a show packed with energy and excitement, whatever was played.
Clearly, the Swindon gig came at a very interesting time in The Beatles’ career. It was, after all, one of Pete Best’s final concerts with the band and, though they’d signed a contract with EMI and had recorded sessions for BBC Radio, the big time was still just out of reach. The months ahead would see them edge closer with yet more live dates and the release of their first single, “Love Me Do”, on 5th October, its climb to number 17 in the hit parade doubtless aided by a live appearance on Granada Television’s People and Places. Three more television appearances came in December, along with a run at the Star Club in Hamburg. Then came 1963, the year it all went mad...
The Beatles never returned to North Wiltshire, but many other bands — like The Who and The Yardbirds — did play at Mac’s before it closed when the whole building was modernised in the late 1960s. The department store survived until 1998, when the land was sold for development. The site is now occupied by a sports shop, but it will always have a tiny place in rock history.
The Beatles with Pete Best on drums. He left the group shortly after the Swindon gig.
During the day a department store, in the evening McIlroy’s became a popular entertainment venue.
The line- up that the world came to know, with Ringo Starr joining from Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.