I was out with a friend of mine this weekend and he reminded me of the time we spent, back in the late 80s,playing in a working mens club band.
He was specifically talking about a gig we did two years running on New Years Eve at a particular Miners Welfare where the concert secretary wanted us off stage in good time for the audience to play Bingo at midnight.On both of these occasions we celebrated bringing in the New Year in the back of the van with a Ginsters Pasty.
In the short time we played the Northern Working Mens Club Circuit we packed in a whole load of experience and gathered some funny stories to tell.
Every Club is run by a committee elected by the members .Concert secretaries were/are the elected officials who run the entertainment in the club and although we met many nice individuals doing their best under difficult circumstances to keep the show on the road we also met quite a few complete idiots who tried to make it as hard as possible for both band and audience to have a good night.It wasn’t uncommon to be told repeatedly to turn the music down during soundcheck to a level where you couldn’t possibly play.
This was often down to being booked by the wrong booker (the concert secretary in connection with an entertainment agent who just wanted a sale) for the wrong gig.For instance we would sometimes turn up at a venue to be the only people in the audience under the age of sixty (and we were a band all in our twenties playing modern pop music of the time.)
At other times circumstances, in that sad period in the late 80s when the mines were being shut down by a viscous government hell bent on breaking the unions, conspired to make it very hard for anyone to have a good time.
I remember playing at one Miners Welfare when just as we were about to take to the stage the Chairman asked to use our microphone as the Colliery had been told just that day that they were going to be closed.He stood on stage and made a five minute impassioned speech about the history of the mine,the club and the village pointing out people in the audience who had been trapped down the pit in mining disasters and others who had sweating alongside him to free them.He spoke about Grandfathers and Great Grand Fathers who had worked at the coal face,fathers who would not be able to offer their sons that opportunity.About community pride and how this decision was about to tear the community apart.After five minutes or so he looked to stage left and said…
“Anyway enough of me gabbing…..here’s your live act”
As we walked on there were grown men crying in the audience.Its pretty hard to follow that.
On a comic note though other Chairmen using the mic didn’t do quite so well.
One made a garbled angry speech about some allegations that had been made about him by certain members of the club and then said “Can the alligators please stand up!”
Another read out the bingo numbers but instead of reading the number he read out the order they were called on one of those random number generator machines.So he called out
“Kellys Eyes Number one…..One little duck number two….you and me number three…..knock at the door number four…..man alive number five”
By this time people were beginning to rumble that there was something amiss with this working mens club bingo and voices were being raised.
“Toms tricks its number six……lucky number seven…..one fat lady number eight……doctors orders number nine…..”
At which point all hell broke loose.You dont mess with the bingo.
Other Northern working mens club traditions you didn’t mess with included..
The Meat Raffle….I was never quite sure that I would want to win a basket full of unrefrigerated meat in a raffle.
The Fish Man….half way through the night a bloke in a white doctors coat would wander through the crowd selling whelks and cockles and some wag would shout “Have you got crabs?” and everyone would laugh.Of all the things to sell in a pub/club environment miles away from the sea shellfish isn’t the first to spring to mind.
The pack up…..in very popular working mens clubs particularly in the North East the audience would arrive early with packing up in tupperware containers.Before the band would come on after the second or third drink there would be a picnic on the table with pork pies,sandwiches,pickled onions etc etc and everyone on the table digging in.
The club organist and drummer….some working mens clubs had a club organist and drummer (just like TVs Raw Sex from the Dawn French show or the boys from Phoenix Nights.)Some of them had set pieces they had obviously been playing for years.They all played the topline melodies on the organ in a style which you just don’t hear anywhere else since Reginald Dixon and Jess Yates went out of fashion.I heard a tale of one organist who would smoke his pipe throughout his set and would leave it unattended whilst not playing.A band spiked his tobacco with cannabis and whilst I am not condoning this highly irresponsible and illegal activity it made us all laugh when it was told to us by a friend who supposedly saw the organist playing wild solos and grooving out on the music!
Talking of smoke…..these places never had air con and were the smokiest places in the whole world…you could cut the air it was that smoky.
Contraband….there was always some bloke selling something dodgy…usually something that was victimless like knock off pirate CDs or videos or ,more often than not ,fags and spirits.There was a documentary about a Barnsley smuggling ring that apparently brought in thousands of contraband cigs from France.I wish they would repeat this because it was fascinating.
The reserved table….every working mens club had tables where the regulars sat and watch out if you tried to take that table.
At one gig our drummer walked in with his kit and said “oh I remember this place…this is where that old guy sits on the table under the clock and last time we played here the clock fell on his head.” The concert sec shouted back across the room “aye and he’s dead now!”
The fight…we saw several humdingers in our time including one involving pretty much every able bodied person in the club.Our keyboard player couldn’t resist playing a piano accompaniment of the type you would hear in a Buster Keaton style custard pie fight.
Most of the fights were more bluster than actual violence but on several occasions we did see people being seriously hurt.It wasnt nice.
The band was usually removed from any scraps that broke out in the club but we did come across one really tricky audience at a club on the outskirts of Sheffield were a large group of young lads sat at the front throwing beer glasses both backwards towards the frightened crowd behind them and at the stage.By the end of the night there was broken glass everywhere.The concert sec said that they had been doing this every week and he called the police but they arrived after the club was cleared.
I guess this was much of the problem when you look back…..they didnt have doormen.They relied on the hard men of the village to sort any trouble out and when alcohol was involved this would sometimes end badly.
City centre venues have restrictions on their license which tell them how many door men they need to employ.It sometimes can run into dozens for big nights and yet some of these clubs had up to 800 people in without any door.
The Characters….there were always one or two eccentrics in the workies….one guy at a club who looked like he could be any age from 18 to 60,had greased back black hair,freckles and black horn rimmed glasses was nicknamed Woody Holly as he looked just like a cross between Woody Allen and Buddy Holly. There would usually be a guy (or a couple) stuck in a time warp….maybe a Teddy Boy and a lady with a bee hive or someone still wearing baggies and high waisters like northern soul dancers.You would also come across some chaps who were obviously very,very hard!!
But in a small pit village or little town an expensive taxi ride away from the nearest metropolitan centre the workie offered a place for everyone to mix together,see some entertainment,have several drinks etc etc and the most remarkable thing when I look back now is that all generations of family and community socialised together.This appears to me to be something lacking in many city centre bars.
I am sure that there are still some thriving (or at least surviving) working mens clubs left but many have folded, gone the same way as the industries which they were originally built to support.
I know that some of these clubs are still around and I hope that the existing ones still have the bingo and the fish man and the hard working club band playing the classics and for that reason….working mens clubs ….we salute you!!