Dancehall days return
A new take on the showband era will be hucklebucking all the way to ahop near you, writes Tony Clayton Lea
'Now here's a dance you should know - hey! - Baby when the lights are low - hey!" The audience, smelling as fresh as newly plucked roses, entered the ballrooms - hoofing and lemonade only venues - and the showbands sent 'em home sweatin', having danced the hucklebuck to Timbuktu and back again.
The gauche simplicity of Ireland's entertainment industry in the late 1950s and 1960s - when Irish showbands, their managers and the venue owners ruled the land, when the audiences preferred well-drilled cover versions of known UK and US chart hits over original material - now seems aeons away from this country's well-oiled and engineered pop and rock music successes.
Yet, the current nationwide tour of Dance Hall Qs & Hucklebuck Shoes aims to bring back memories if not audiences to the much-maligned genre as it travels the length and breadth of Ireland over the next six weeks.
For more than two-and-a-half hours and across songs such as The Hucklebuck, From the Candy Store, Good Lookin' Woman and The Wedding Dress to If I Could Choose, Little Arrows, and Walkin' the Streets in the Rain, the show will aim to prove there's more to pop life than MTV.
The selling point is not the brass neck of its creator - showband veteran Hugh Hardy, former manager of Larry Cunningham & The Mighty Avons, Art Supple & The Victors and The Royal Showband - but that siblings of three of the showband era's biggest stars will portray their parents. Richard Rock, Claudine Day and Brian Dunphy will represent Dickie Rock, Eileen Reid and Sean Dunphy. As ideas go, it's inspired in a sideshow kind of way; that it smacks of opportunism is part of its ghoulish charm.
People such as Bob Geldof and Bono have said the showband ethos stifled creativity, and that it had an economic philosophy that focused on profit above all else, which is undoubtedly true. But city chaps Bob and Bono arrived from the suburbs into a largely parochial Irish music scene; they - and others with an equally disdainful attitude towards the single most important pop cultural change to happen to rural and provincial Ireland - had the benefit of the influx of UK and US rock mores through magazines, as well as a widening of social and cultural avenues through British TV. Rural Irish people coming out of the 1950s - blinking wide-eyed into a new decade - had little beyond a single television station and the local dances in the parish halls. The latter were family affairs presided over by the parish priest; strangers were viewed with suspicion and convent-educated girls would be told by the nuns to leave a space for the Holy Ghost between them and their male partners.
The change to these sedate proceedings came along in the late 1950s through The Clipper Carlton, a Strabane showband whose introduction of a show segment playing UK and US hits - heard via Radio Luxembourg's broadcasts on Sunday nights - revolutionised the music. In the slipstream of The Clipper Carlton came a veritable Niagara: The Cotton Mill Boys, The Virginians, The Real McCoy, The Cadets, The Nevada, The Sands, The Miami, The Drifters, The Pacific, The Freshman and The Capitol. These are just some of the showbands that set the pace for a newer, less conservative but not necessarily creative Ireland in the 1960s. Not that any of the showbands or their managers cared a whit about the integrity of the struggling artist. Dickie Rock - the boy soprano from Cabra, Dublin, who was discovered in The Kingsway Ballroom in Parnell Square - remembers it well.
"We had no pretensions about writing original material," says the man of whom the phrase "spit on me, Dickie" was coined (and no, he has no idea where it came from). "Bono, for example, a man who is so successful as him, criticising showbands of years ago - that's bad form, you know? We were just entertainers, we wanted to be on stage entertaining people. Original is not necessarily good, anyway; the Beatles had some great songs, but they also had some terrible ones. The great stars - Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra - rarely wrote their own material.
"The whole showband era was mostly lads out on stage entertaining an audience that wanted to dance. It's as simple as that."
Rock admits to jumping on the showband bandwagon, like many before and after him, but such an attitude was generated by the quick-buck excitement created by avid audience attendances.
"I feel now that I was so lucky. When I had my first hit record in 1963, I remember saying to Murty Quinn, who was the trombone player in the band, that if we get five years out of this we'd be doing well. I came from a working class family in Cabra, and we wouldn't have had plenty of money; life certainly wasn't cushy. I'd be getting £20 a week when my father was on half that."
When it was known how much money was to be made (payment was almost always in cash), the number of showbands multiplied. At the movement's height there were hundreds from around Ireland, criss-crossing the country in their coaches and vans. As the acts' popularity grew, so would the singers, who would eventually front the showbands: Butch Moore and The Capitol, Dickie Rock and The Miami, Eileen Reid and The Cadets, Sean Dunphy & The Hoedowners, Brendan Bowyer and The Royal, Joe Dolan and The Drifters - sex symbols in their day for a largely provincial Irish audience that had yet to connect with London's day-glo zeitgeist, New York's black-sweater bohemianism and California's psychedelic dreaming.
"I could never fathom that," says Dickie Rock of his saliva-inducing sex object status. "I'm not over six foot, I'm not a good-looking guy - I was a skinny fella that just couldn't understand why the girls at the front of the stage were screaming. Yes, I could sing a bit, but so could a bunch of other blokes. What was it? There must have been something."
Perhaps it was the smell of teenage spirit. For an audience that had managed to finally break free of the grip of the parish hall hop, live entertainment of a kind they had never witnessed before must have been incredible. The days of exaggerated contrast, MTV-type saturation and directly descended showband types such as Westlife (managed by Louis Walsh, himself part of the dwindling showband booking empire in the 1970s) were a long way off.
Was it of its time? Absolutely, says Rock. "I don't think it'll ever come back. Everything changes and people have got to be ready to accept that."
"I think we'll get a bigger audience, as the older generation will come along with the young kids," counters Claudine Day, 30-year old daughter of Eileen Reid and Jimmy Day, two stalwarts of the showband scene of the 1960s, each still going strong. Claudine's career was charted from birth - "my mother gave me my first encore" - and as a graduate of the Norma and Billy Barry School of eager, talented children, it was taken as a given she would enter and stay in the world of show business, come what may.
Claudine Day, then, views the upcoming Dance Hall Qs & Hucklebuck Shoes tour as an opportunity not to be missed.
She's no fool, however; making a living in the cabaret/weddings/ corporate circuit has toughened her to accept her lot as a hard-working entertainer.
"We're not going to appeal to everybody, but we're not trying for that. People who remember the 1960s will come to see us, and hopefully the younger age group will come along to hear the music that brought their parents together. We're not trying to be something other than what we are."
The past, as we know to our occasional cost, is a different country, and while Westlife and their ilk are updated, jetset facsimiles of the cheesy grins and choreographed moves of the showbands of yore, going back to the days of the proliferation of showbands and provincial venue monopoly (during the glory years, astute brothers Jim and former taoiseach Albert Reynolds owned a string of ballrooms) seems remote.
Will the show travel beyond the remit of its rural and provincial targets? It depends, says Claudine, on how the tour goes; it's open-ended, and with sizeable Irish-connected interest in parts of the UK and the US it's a foolish person indeed who will bet against a reasonable level of success.
"We're open to that, obviously," says Day, whose idle thoughts of inviting a fly-on-the-wall documentary camera team on the Irish tour not only makes common sense but also indicates how much an eye she has for a life beyond playing weddings and corporate events.
"You have to ask the question, does he have it?" says Dickie Rock of his son, Richard (who previously aimed for show business success with an abortive stint in an early version of Boyzone). "I know he has the personality, he's tall and he looks great on stage. But does he have it to go all the way, or is it only enough for him just to sing around Mickey Mouse places? It's okay to do that, but probably only if it's part-time. The main thing is honesty. People have to ask themselves do they have the X factor?
"With me, I was singing around, doing charity shows in hospitals when I was 15 or 16; I was asked to join a band and it developed from there. People asked for me, wanted me. When I went on stage and started singing in the early 1960s, the option for people not to want me was there, but they decided not to take it up. No matter how much a person says they want to be this or that, it won't happen unless the public want you."
Dance Hall Qs & Hucklebuck Shoes tour is at the the South Court, Limerick tonight; Sunday, January 18th, INEC, Killarney; Monday, January 19th, Shannon Oaks, Portumna; Tuesday, January 20th, The Anner Hotel, Thurles; Wednesday, January 21st, West County Hotel, Ennis; Thursday, January 22nd, Longford Arms, Longford; Friday, January 23rd, Hillgrove Hotel, Monaghan; Saturday, January 24th, Haydens Hotel, Ballinasloe; Sunday, January 25th, Hotel Kilmore, Cavan; Wednesday, January 28th, Tullamore
Court, Tullamore; Thursday, January 29th, Mt Errigal, Letterkenny; Friday, January 30th, The Waterfront, Belfast; and Saturday, January 31st, Oyster Manor, Clarinbridge. The tour also continues into February.