Is Portsmouth the Birthplace of British Rock & Roll?

Portsmouth Sinfonia. Image from cover of Portsmouth Sinfonia Plays Popular Classics (Transatlantic Records)

For this summer’s Portsmouth Festivities, our new Contributing Editor Dr Dave Allen was invited to give a talk on the topic ‘Portsmouth’s unique musical heritage’. His immediate response was that he didn’t think Portsmouth’s musical heritage is unique… but that doesn’t mean it isn’t significant.

To prepare for the talk, I started to think about local music in a historical context. Some obvious points emerge from such an analysis. We know, for example, that Portsmouth is the UK’s only island city; we’re surrounded by water, albeit just a trickle along the northern edge, and for centuries our economy has depended to a large extent on the water. We know too that for centuries people working on the water have had songs to accompany their work and that others have sung more personal ‘folk’ ditties around a sea setting. Traditional English folk music is littoral as well as rural.

For example, I have a pal from the Isle of Wight, Justin Smith, who for some years sang with an acapella trio called the Dollymops, who specialised in traditional English songs. On their last album were cuts called ‘On Gosport Beach’, ‘From Spithead Roads’, a couple about the Isle of Wight and others with a naval feel such as ‘British Man of War’.

Portsmouth is a military as well as a maritime city, which has created a new economy from its wartime legacies and from the conversion of naval buildings into shopping and learning centres. Songs remind us of that history, such as Sandy Denny’s rendering of ‘Banks of the Nile’, which was originally a ballad from the Napoleonic Wars and has since been included in a published collection by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. A copy is held in the library of the Cecil Sharp House. As with most folk songs, there are variations on the lyrics and Denny’s version opens with:

Oh hark! the drums do beat, my love, no longer can we stay.

The bugle-horns are sounding clear, and we must march away.

We’re ordered down to Portsmouth, and it’s many is the weary mile.

To join the British Army on the banks of the Nile.

The sea then offers us a special context for traditional music from or about Portsmouth and one which is maintained in the city by the long established Shantymen… but it’s not unique. We have seen that the Dollymops sing also of neighbouring Gosport and the Isle of Wight and there are certainly many sea-focused songs that don’t mention Portsmouth. Nonetheless perhaps the narrative song and the particular styles of vocal delivery in Portsmouth folk music offer something unique?

To understand the issues better we must establish where and by whom music is experienced. By tradition, folk songs were sung live either at work or in relaxation in relatively small groups. But through the twentieth century music became big business, a part of the entertainment industry so that, to return to the example of Sandy Denny, the last time I saw her performing live was at London’s Festival Hall, while her famous band Fairport Convention have for some years hosted their large-scale Cropredy Festival.

In Portsmouth the maritime context grew in importance through the first half of the twentieth century. The large presence of sailors, marines and a few soldiers explains why there were once more pubs in Portsmouth than almost anywhere in the country. Alongside them were the musical halls, theatres and dance halls. In a city dominated by the dockyard, the potential working class audience for music was considerable. Then, through the summer months, Southsea had a thriving seaside industry with live performances in many venues around the seafront, notably South Parade Pier and the Savoy Buildings and Ballroom opposite.

Much of this declined during the war and in 1944 those seafront venues were commandeered by the D-Day force being assembled in south Hampshire. But after the war the Pier came back to life and Billy Butlin re-opened the Savoy. There was a range of light entertainment focused on the major British dance bands of the day, supplemented by a range of good local bands. In the 1950s a new audience emerged for jazz – traditional and modern – and from the mid-1950s rock & roll and skiffle brought the newer guitar-based sounds.

We might see this tripartite combination of a naval, local and holidaying audience as at least unusual, if not unique – Blackpool, for example, had more holidaymakers but no military presence – but beyond a tradition for venues and live music, enhanced from 1959 by the re-opening of the Guildhall, the music on offer was pretty much as it was elsewhere.

Sometimes when I talk about the live acts who visited the city from the late 1950s, I suggest that it’s simpler to identify the top acts that didn’t come. I tend to offer Frank Sinatra, James Brown and Aretha Franklin, and a few others, but people are sometimes astonished to know that in addition to the Beatles or Bill Haley, we had Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Frank Zappa, Louis Armstrong – indeed just about everybody.

That is not a unique claim either, given that all those acts were touring the UK, but it was quite significant: even with the decline in the numbers of servicemen, the end of National Service and the loss of British holidaymakers to continental sunshine, there were still plenty of venues to fill and an established local tradition of live entertainment. The 1960s continued to offer a broad range of popular music in conventional and ‘hip’ venues and the leading local entrepreneur Rikki Farr catered for the mods at his legendary Birdcage Club, took over Kimbells Ballroom (recently the Osborne Road Casino) for top British blues rock and ‘progressive’ acts and was also actively involved in the two huge Isle of Festivals of 1969 & 1970.

Birdcage Dave Allen
Image of the Birdcage entrance from Dave Allen’s blog Pompey Pop.

They were thrilling days with many local acts performing too. In its heyday the folk scene supported a number of clubs, while top British jazz performers appeared around the city. By 1970 a decline of sorts set in and while there is still a live scene, centred perhaps on the Wedgewood Rooms and the Guildhall, the important role of the students of forty or so years ago has declined. Meanwhile many of the legendary venues like the Savoy, Birdcage or Tricorn have not merely closed but disappeared in to rubble.

But those venues are Portsmouth’s heritage – significant if not unique – and since there is something very special about music played live, we must hope that that part of our heritage is sustained.

This article has repeated some of the arguments in the talk I prepared. As it happened no one came so it wasn’t delivered (!) but I will conclude with a couple of other thoughts.

Firstly, I have limited myself to the world I know best which, in its broadest sense, is popular music, by which I mean ‘pop’ for sure but also blues, jazz, folk, rock and all the offshoots. There is an interesting piece to be written sometime about the huge popularity of black American and Caribbean music among an almost wholly white working-class teenage audience in Portsmouth through the 1960s and I might try that at some point.

Neither have I ventured into the world of ‘classical’ music at all and I am very mindful of a somewhat hidden but brief and extraordinary period of experimental music in the old Art College around 1970. Its most public manifestation was the somewhat ‘wacky’ Portsmouth Sinfonia but there was so much more and again I might offer a piece on that in the future. But it is not really a part of our ‘heritage’ because it was a cultural cul-de-sac, which led to very little in the city. The Guildhall and other venues have offered a good range of more mainstream ‘classical’ music over the years but it’s difficult to see it as unique.

So I shall finish with what may be a unique event that, incidentally, imminent anniversary. Sixty years ago this September, jazz drummer Tony Crombie brought his newly formed rock & roll outfit the Rockets to the Theatre Royal for a week’s concerts, headlining a variety show. They were Britain’s response to Billy Haley & his Comets: the first professional, touring and recording British rock & roll group. In September 1956 they made their debut at the New Theatre Royal before moving on to the London Palladium, a national tour and a film appearance. They didn’t become major stars and Crombie went back to his jazz roots, but they were Britain’s first, they came first to Portsmouth and so perhaps our unique heritage is to have been, in some sense, the birthplace of British rock & roll.

There’s something to tell London, Liverpool and the rest!

Photography by Moshe Tasky

Find more Pompey Music history over at Dave Allen’s blog, Pompey Pop.