This was the first time The Beatles had performed in the south of England. They played at the Palais Ballroom in Aldershot, Hampshire, before giving their first show in London later in the evening.
The Palais Ballroom event was promoted by Sam Leach, who had put on The Beatles numerous times previously in the Merseyside area. His rather optimistic belief was that, since no A&R men or record label executives were willing to travel to Liverpool to see the group play, he would take them to the south east instead.
Leach’s good intentions, however, were undone by his lack of geographical knowledge. Rather than showcasing The Beatles in the Greater London area, he booked them for five consecutive Saturday nights at the Palais Ballroom. Aldershot was a military town 37 miles from London, and the Palais Ballroom was run by local resident Bob Potter.
This night was billed on posters and handbills as a “Liverpool v London Battle of the Bands” featuring The Beatles and the London group Ivor Jay and the Jaywalkers (no relation to Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers) “plus two other star groups”, their names unrecorded. Leach also claimed to have placed a sizeable advert for the event in the Aldershot News and sent a £100 cheque to cover the cost, but the newspaper refused to cash it because he was not a regular advertiser and new customers were required to pay in cash. Furthermore, he failed to give any contact details, so the newspaper couldn’t contact him to explain their rules, and the advertisement never ran.
The result was that The Beatles played to a nearly empty venue. Despite having endured a nine-hour journey from Liverpool, before taking the stage the group descended on the two coffee bars in the town offering free admission to anyone interested in seeing a rock ‘n’ roll show, but in the end only 18 people turned up. What’s more, Ivor Jay and the Jaywalkers also failed to show.
Halfway through one number George and Paul put on their overcoats and took to the floor to dance a foxtrot together, while the rest of us struggled along, making enough music for them and the handful of spectators. We clowned our way through the whole of the second half. John and Paul deliberately played wrong chords and notes and added words to the songs that were never in the original lyrics.
Leach, who had invited A&R men to attend, was despondent. He had hired an impressive car for the month of the Aldershot gigs, and arranged for a driver, Dave Johnstone, to chauffeur him from Liverpool to Aldershot. The Beatles, meanwhile, had been driven to the event by Terry McCann, another friend of Leach’s.
We had set off really early – Sam in the car with Dave, and me in the van with the Beatles. John was in the front of course, but so were Pete and Paul and there wasn’t enough room for me to drive properly, so someone had to go in the back with George. I think it was Paul who ended up in the back with him.
There was no motorway then, so I would have headed down the A1 towards London. I remember we stopped at a café on the way down – in Staffordshire – and they just tipped us out the door. I don’t blame them really, the way we must have looked, with the Beatles in their scruffy leathers and all.
Someone scratched “The Beatles were here” on the door on the way out as a payback.
We would have got down to Aldershot about 5pm or 6pm and then found the place. It was locked up and we had to wait for the bloke to come and open it up. We went off to get some chips. Sam went out and found that the posters I had put up a few days before had been torn down. Then we found out that the advert hadn’t appeared and I wondered whether someone had phoned to cancel it. It’s the sort of stunt that used to be pulled.
Never mind, we got in, unloaded the stuff and the boys set up their amps and waited for the crowds to come flocking – and waited, and waited, and waited. Sam’s response was to head over the road to the pub to invite people over. He brought the bottles of beer back that you see in the pictures. He was stopping anyone passing by to tell them about the gig. Of course, they would come in, have a quick look, and say boring, and clear off somewhere else.
The Beatles were pretty fed up of course, but they played on. They would have done their usual stuff – Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis all of that, and Eddie Cochran. George knew all the intros to the Chuck Berry stuff so it was always done. Paul would probably have sung Till There Was You because he always insisted on doing that – even though everybody hated it.
I’m not surprised that people weren’t impressed, particularly with me on the drums, because that’s what happened for a quarter of an hour or so. Pete had got fed up at one point and I went and played on a few songs. I had done that type of thing before. I could keep a beat, but it wouldn’t have been very good.
That’s the sort of night it was. The Beatles were disappointed with the whole thing and were getting on and off the stage – hence the pictures of George waltzing on the dance floor with John and drinking beer.
Dick Matthews would have been reeling off pictures all the time, because that’s what he did. There was a posed picture of George that clearly showed a hole in the end of his shoe, but that bit was cut off the picture when it was used!
You can imagine what it was like for the Beatles with about four people dancing and six miserable faces standing around the edge looking on. They did their best, but it was no use. They packed up at about 9.30pm. Then Sam produced the beer, and the bingo balls started getting kicked around the floor: Liverpool versus Aldershot.
The Beatles, used to playing to packed houses on their home turf, played on regardless of the sparse audience, and Leach circulated among the dancers asking them to spread out and fill the space on the dance floor.
Unfortunately, their dancing resembled a dead man’s shuffle. I couldn’t get the record player to work either, so the Beatles’ break was cut to just 15 minutes.
Photographs from the event, taken by Leach’s friend Richard Matthews, show The Beatles looking somewhat glum as they played. Afterwards the group consoled themselves by drinking bottles of Watney’s brown ale, played football on the dance floor with bingo balls, and ran riot around the venue.
A neighbour called the police, and when The Beatles emerged from the ballroom at 1am there were three police cars and four police vans waiting. They were told to leave the town and not return.
Those few punters were thrilled and promised to return the following week, bringing their mates with them. I often wonder what happens when those youngsters now talk about the night the Beatles came to Aldershot and hardly anyone turned up to see them. I can just hear it. ‘Oh, there we were, all 18 of us, watching the Beatles on stage… and they did an encore’.
With nowhere to go, they drove to London where they played an impromptu set at the Blue Gardenia Club in Soho, in the early hours of 10 December. The club was run by Brian Cassar, the former frontman of Cass and the Cassanovas.
The following Saturday, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes played at the Palais Ballroon, in the second of five consecutive Saturday night shows that were booked by Leach. This time the Aldershot News ran his advertisement and 210 people showed up, but Leach decided it was too much trouble and cancelled the remaining three shows.
The Palais Ballroom was situated on the corner of Queens Street and Perowne Street in Aldershot. It later burnt down and a new building was erected on the site.