When East Anglia rocked to Rolling Stones mania
- Credit: Archant
Trevor Heaton looks back at the days when a young band called the Rolling Stones packed out venues across East Anglia - and talks to a man who booked them.
Ray Cossey had a headache. Or rather, two big headaches.
The young manager of the Gaumont in Norwich had only been in post a few months when he booked the Rolling Stones, the hottest band since the emergence of the Beatles.
And now the big date – April 25 1964 – was fast approaching. Problem number one for Ray, then 25, was to work out how to stop fans rushing the stage – and problem number two was how to get the five members of the band in and out of the cinema-theatre in one piece.
But these were the sort of issues that venue managers up and down the country were having to get used to. Because Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, already with three hit singles and now a hit album under their belts, were riding high.
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The adulation, the screaming girls, the record sales, the ticket offices besieged by fans, the headlines: all of these pointed to a band that was going places – and not just Norwich on a Friday in April.
It had all seemed to happen so quickly. Less than three years earlier Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were just another two students with the sort of dreams about making it big in the music business shared by hundreds of thousands of their contemporaries.
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The pair, both born in the Kent town of Dartford in 1943, had gone to the same primary school but then had gone their separate ways. Their paths didn't cross again until one fateful day in October 1961, in the unlikely surroundings of platform two of the town's railway station. Jagger, now 18, was about to head off to the London School of Economics where he was a student. Richards, 17, was on his own travels – to the rather less celebrated Sidcup Art College.
It was what they were both carrying that made the pair instantly realise they were kindred spirits. Jagger had an armful of imported American blues records, including new vinyl by Chuck Berry, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, and Mississippi Fred McDowell; Richards had his hollow-bodied Höfner cutaway electric guitar.
The upshot of their conversation was that Richards joined the older boy's band, Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys. That group quickly fell apart when Jagger and Richards met pianist Ian 'Stu' Stewart and guitarist Brian Jones.
On July 12 the Rolling Stones played their debut gig, at the famous London venue the Marquee Club. Although Stu didn't really fit with the band's image, and was to be sidelined (amicably) the following year, Jones most certainly did. With his blonde bell of hair and a bad-boy twinkle in his eye, he was irresistible to women. Scandal was to follow him round in his brief life like a devoted puppy.
At this stage the band's horizons were strictly limited. As Richards puts it in his 2010 memoir, Life: 'We thought: 'Wouldn't it be great if could play one night a week with a few people dancing?'' Later they upgraded their aim, wanting instead to be the 'biggest rhythm and blues band in London' but three key events in early 1963 saw the Rolling Stones really start to gel.
The first was the recruiting of bassist Bill Wyman – real name Bill Perks – and drummer Charlie Watts in January. Bill was a few years older than the rest of the band and had been in the RAF. Not on the face of it, then, a natural Stone, but the rest of the band were impressed with his amplifier – a proper amp, at last! But then they quickly recognised the special musical chemistry between the bassist and Watts, one of the most sought-after drummers on the circuit. The proto-Stones had been trying to recruit Watts for months (even if they did suspect him of jazz-loving tendencies).
On February 2 1963 came the first gig with the classic line-up. From the start Richards was aware of his friend Mick's natural presence centre-stage, honed in the tiniest of venues. Jagger knew that he had to make an impact, so used every square foot of space available, two maracas in each hand for visual as well as percussive effect. As Richards wrote: 'He was brilliant. Even at that age I was astonished at how he used such small space to do so much.'
The third big event came the following month when Andrew Loog Oldham became their manager. A former publicist for the Fab Four, he persuaded the band to steer into pop territory but keep their 'bad boy' image. He wanted them to be the 'anti-Beatles'. And so, soon, the cry went up: 'Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?'.
You could almost hear the sound of the Home Counties harrumphing and snapping open their morning papers in disgust. It was to be music's most memorable tag-line until 1977's 'There's Old Wave, there's New Wave, and there's David Bowie'.
The Chuck Berry-penned Come On was only a modest debut hit in June, but it was enough to break them out of the London circuit and into the country at large. The following month the band played their first gig outside the capital, at Middlesbrough. It was to be the first of an incredibly punishing schedule. As Richards later recalled: 'Between then and 1966… we played virtually every night, or every day, sometimes two gigs a day.'
He reckoned this added up to something like 1,000 gigs between 1963 and 1966. Anti-Beatles they might be, and not someone you would want your daughters to marry, but no-one could accuse the young band of not putting in the musical hard yards.
On July 20 the band played Wisbech Corn Exchange. What happened next has taken on the status of local legend, thanks to accounts in various Stones memoirs. The story goes in Richards' book that the band were a hit with their female fans, with the local lads were not happy about this, and the evening ended in chaos.
But the Stone is mistaken in thinking this happened at Wisbech, says Kevin Rodgers.
'Total rubbish! I know – I was there,' he said. He has written a book about the Fens venue ('Dancing at the Corn Exchange'), and dismisses such stories.
Kevin was 15 at the time, and when the Stones played the venue it was only their third gig outside the capital. 'I think they were paid about £12 – that was the going rate for the bands who played there. They came in two old vans – one of them broke down and had to be given a tow.
'The thing was that the Corn Exchange was really a rock'n'roll venue. I know the Stones later billed themselves as the 'world's greatest rock'n'roll band' but the truth was that in those early years they were all rhythm and blues.'
The 500 or so venue regulars had turned up expecting up-tempo danceable numbers and instead the band were playing slow blues songs, heavy on Brian Jones' slide guitar and harmonica. 'It was just the wrong sort of music for the venue,' Mr Rodgers added. 'And the band were a 'name' in London but not really known much outside.
'People just stood there. They listened politely, but drifted off to get a [soft] drink after two or three numbers.'
Bill Wyman has happier memories of the gig. In his book Rolling with the Stones, he says: 'We also played at the Corn Exchange Wisbech and were flattered to see our photos and posters outside the venue. It was another first in what was becoming a year of them.'
The band were back in East Anglia on September 6, when they performed at the Lowestoft Royal Hotel (now the East Point Pavilion). It was a memorable occasion for the fans, but also for local lads Terry Balls, Gerry Peterson, Geoffrey Plastow and David Manthorpe, whose band The Felines were specially chosen to support the London band for their first appearance in the town.
Fifty years after that gig, Terry recalled how his band ended up having to entertain the town's teenagers for rather longer than expected: 'I remember on the booking that they gave us we were supposed to play until 9pm, but [they] got lost. So we had to play for another 45 minutes after the first set. It was full – so full they had to come through the side doors to get in!'
The band were down to a quartet for this gig, with Jones reportedly in hospital. It made absolutely no difference to the reception they received: the place went wild. As Bill Wyman said in a 1999 EDP interview. 'It was the first time that we were actually mobbed on stage,' he recalled. 'The kids started coming on stage – there was no security in those days – and they attacked us. We got our clothes ripped off. I lost jewellery – a ring, stuff like that.
'That was a great gig. You got a very limited fee of £20 and your accommodation provided.'
This was all in sharp contrast with their early days on the London circuit. There, the audience had been the cool kids like them, the trendy ones into imported blues records, the sort of scene where catalogue numbers would be passed round with almost religious fervour. But thanks to gigs such as Lowestoft and Wisbech, by the time the Stones headed off on their first major UK tour from September 29 to November 3 that year – way down the bill in a dream line-up of the Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley and Little Richard – they began to notice the sea-change in audience reaction. As Richards puts it, 'the chicks started screaming'.
The set list at this time included the likes of Not Fade Away, Walking the Dog, Around and Around, I'm A King Bee (complete with heavily innuendo-laden lyrics), Route 66, Memphis Tennessee and many other rhythm'n'blues songs. But the reality was that, at many gigs, with all the screaming and the near-riots, the band hardly managed to get through their sets before the pandemonium took over.
That tour saw the Stones back in Suffolk for an appearance at Ipswich Gaumont for the usual two shows in the penultimate date of the tour. It was the day after the release of their second single, the Lennon-McCartney-penned I Wanna Be Your Man, which became a number 12 hit. The band would be back in Ipswich in April 5 and October 9 the following year – but this time as headliners.
And still the relentless merry-go-round of gigs, and hysteria, went on. The band were playing the Odeon and Gaumont cinema chains, public halls, seaside pavilions - anywhere, everywhere where you could cram in an audience of teens…
In January 1964 the band returned to Lowestoft, this time at the South Pier. In that 1999 interview, Wyman – who went on to live at beautiful Gedding Hall in the county - recalled how there were 'so many girls around', the 'so' coming out more like 'sooooo'. In his autobiography, Stone Alone, you could see why: the bassist claimed that he and Brian Jones were, ahem, entertained by a 'nymphomaniac' and had to flee at 5.30am the next morning to escape her.
All these gigs were one thing, but the record company wanted product. So the band headed for Regent Sounds studio in London in January and February to record their chart-topping first album, the imaginatively-titled 'The Rolling Stones', a 12-track effort which featured guest appearances from Gene Pitney on piano, and Phil Spector on maracas, as well as ever-dependable 'Stu' on organ.
But if anything it was their single Not Fade Away, a top three hit for the band in February, that really showcased the Stones' approach. In the hands of Buddy Holly this had been a stripped-down simple pop song, with a Bo-Diddley-esque shuffling beat underpinning Holly's vocals. But the Stones made it something else: an explosion of ferocious maraca rhythms, wailing blues harmonica from Brian Jones, and Jagger telling – not asking, like Buddy – his woman to give him her love. Two great versions, but the Rolling Stones' take on the song was the one with attitude.
Two months later, on April 25, came that Norwich Gaumont gig, nine days after the release of the band's eagerly-awaited debut album.
The All Saints Green venue's former manager Ray Cossey, now 77, takes up the story. 'The first problem we had was the stage – it was an apron stage with only a few steps up to it. So we had to employ a number of security people to try and form a human barrier.
'The other problem was how to get them in and out of the theatre, because the stage door was very evident from the street. We secreted them in a van to get them in, and we secreted them in another van to get them out.'
On the night it was other people who had the headaches, caused by the sheer volume of noise. Not so much from the band, but from female fans (and there were plenty of those) who filled the 1,400-seater venue with a volume of noise not heard since The Beatles had packed out another Norwich venue - the Grosvenor - almost a year before.
The Stones played two sets, at 6.30pm and 8.45pm, with tickets priced at 12/6 (62.5p) down to 6/- (30p). 'I can't remember the fee we paid for them, but it was good money,' Ray added.
The Gaumont, although it was usually used as a cinema, was a better venue for gigs than many other similar sites. 'It was quite unusual for the Rank Organisation, which was essentially a cinema chain. The Gaumont was a full theatre – you had the ability to fly scenery, there were dressing rooms, all the paraphernalia of a full public theatre.
'And it had a perfect sound curve. When Sir Malcolm Sargent played there with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra he was very impressed. It would actually have made a perfect concert hall for Norwich – but it was too small [for that].'
The Stones, belying their 'bad boy' reputation, were 'as good as gold', Ray recalls. 'One of the things I remember is coming up to their dressing room door while they were having an argument about who was going to pay for the fish and chips. In the end we sent out to Valori's [in Timberhill]. I don't think Valori's ever knew whose chips they had supplied!'
Although the band were the biggest act to play the Gaumont, Ray was no stranger to organising pop concerts. Born in the city, he originally became an articled pupil at Percy Howes and Co surveyors, but at the age 19 took advantage of the assisted passage scheme to head off to New Zealand. He eventually ended up working as a trainee manager in theatres there, with one of the events he help organise being Cliff Richards' 21st birthday concert.
After four years he returned home when his mother became ill. 'Because the New Zealand theatres were part of the Rank Organisation, I was able to get a transfer.' He worked as an assistant theatre manager in Kilburn and in Sevenoaks in Kent. He was a trainee manager at Norwich in 1962, and became manager in 1964 only a few weeks before the Stones played.
After Norwich, Ray transferred to the West End, opening the Odeon Theatre in St Martin's Lane as the first new theatre in the West End since the war. Although he hosted lots of pop acts in his theatrical days – from Jet Harris to Dusty Springfield – Ray has a slight confession: he doesn't actually like the music. 'I've never been a fan – it was just work to me. I've always preferred the likes of Al Jolson – that was my sort of music…
Eventually he returned to Norfolk where he worked as an estate agent, then as an innovative commercial manager for Norwich City FC, bringing his considerable theatrical experience bear in order to usher in a newer, more corporate and welcoming approach to fans. As for the Gaumont, that later became the Carlton cinema and then a bingo hall. It was demolished in 2014.
But back in 1964 all this was way in the future. A few weeks after their Norwich date, the Rolling Stones began a gruelling US tour, recording their second album - The Rolling Stones No. 2 - partly in the legendary Chess Studios in Chicago.
Those sessions were also to give them their first UK number one single. That record may have been called It's All Over Now but it most certainly wasn't for the band. By the time the band played the Ipswich Gaumont in October 1966 - the support bill including Great Yarmouth favourites Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers - their set list was far removed from those early slide guitar-led blues covers. Now it was positively bursting with Jagger-Richards classics such as Paint It Black, Get Off of My Cloud and (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.
Now, more than 54 years after their first gig they are still chart-toppers, with their latest album, Blue & Lonesome, revisiting those blues roots. And the band, despite a few changes in line-up since those early-60s days, are still packing out stadia across the world, still making headlines.
Fade away? Not ruddy likely.