The Beatstalkers were the first Scottish pop stars and took 1960s Scotland by storm. But, poised for fame and fortune, they disappeared from the scene after 1969. Now they are reforming for only their second gig in 44 years, writes Susan Mansfield
THEY were the first Scottish boyband. Women screamed and fainted when they took to the stage in their tartan hipsters and sang raw American-style rhythm and blues. They famously caused a riot in 1965 when 7,000 fans turned up for a free concert in Glasgow’s George Square. Later, signed to Decca, they shared a bill in London with The Who. Yet, today, many people have never heard of The Beatstalkers. Their enormous success in Scotland failed to follow them south of the border. They never made an album, but their legacy lives on in seven singles (now highly collectable) and in the memories of legendary live performances. When they split in 1969, the average age of the band was 21.
Now The Beatstalkers have reformed for a concert tonight as part of Celtic Connections. It will be just the second time they have played together since 1969. But at a reunion concert at the Barrowlands in 2005, they discovered not only that their original fans still wanted to see them play, but a whole new generation of mod culture aficionados were eager for their sound.
“It just never crossed my mind that all these people would still be interested,” says Alan Mair, the bassist and co-founder, who went on to play with new wave band The Only Ones. “I found the old 45s when I was clearing out my mother’s house in Glasgow and decided to clean them up, then we made a CD. When we were doing radio interviews to promote the CD, people kept asking us, ‘Are you going to do a concert?’ After the third or fourth one, we started thinking, ‘Should we?’
“It was fantastic. We pulled it off – Barrowlands was packed, it was a great atmosphere. We hadn’t played together for 35 years, but we just worked hard and rehearsed. We were still all very good friends. I even recognised some of the fans.”
The original line-up will be together again at the Arches tonight, with the exception of keyboard player Eddie Campbell, who has a prior engagement.
Mair, drummer Jeff Allen and singer Dave Lennox have continued to work in the music business, while guitarist Ronnie Smith runs a tailoring business in Glasgow and Campbell is an events manager.
They will be joined on stage by fellow 1960s performers Zoot Money, Hamish Stuart from the Average White Band, and Fraser Watson from The Poets. Mair says: “I saw the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary concert at the O2, and one of the things I loved about it was the guests coming on, so we thought it would be nice to have The Beatstalkers and friends.”
The band was formed by Mair and Campbell while they were still pupils at Shawlands Academy in the early 1960s. Mair says: “Dave Lennox was a friend of mine in school and was always singing, I thought he had a really good voice. Then a guy I knew from ice skating, Tudge Williamson, said he played the drums so he came along and auditioned, playing on a biscuit tin (Williamson was later replaced by Jeff Allen). Then we advertised and Ronnie Smith came and joined.”
Rock’n’roll was just arriving in Glasgow, everyone wanted to be in a band, but The Beatstalkers found their sound by tracking down imported American music. “In about 1962, Ronnie and I discovered a shop in Battlefield selling imports and heard all these amazing songs coming from America that hadn’t broken into the charts yet – Marvin Gaye, very early Stevie Wonder, Chuck Berry, Don Covay, The Tams.”
“People just went wild for it,” says music broadcaster and producer John Cavanagh. “The Beatstalkers were definitely the band who introduced the American culture of black R&B records to Scottish audiences before they’d even heard American bands. People were asking: ‘What’s this?’ It was coming from an entirely different place.”
News of The Beatstalkers spread by word of mouth – in 1965 they had not made a record, had never been played on the radio and were barely old enough to buy a drink legally, but they were playing to sell-out crowds at the Barrowlands.
Then, in the summer of 1965, the band took part in a series of free lunchtime concerts in George Square. Police were unable to hold back the crowds as 7,000 people tried to push into the square. After a couple of songs, the band were called off stage for their own safety, and escaped through the City Chambers as the fans surged forward.
“That really elevated The Beatstalkers to another level,” says Mair. “We were definitely the first Scottish pop stars – mass hysteria, girls screaming, fainting, it got as big as it could get. We would play Barrowlands four nights in a row, always sold out, then two nights at the Dennistoun Palais. We could play to 10,000 in a week, that was really something at that time.”
Newspaper headlines shouted about hysteria, which was compared to scenes of Beatlemania south of the border. After one gig at the Palais, the Daily Record reported, almost wearily: “Another night of screaming, beat-crazed girls. Another night of hysteria, fainting and rioting”. The boys – still teens – were rock stars. Girls would queue up in the close outside Mair’s mother’s flat in Minard Road, in the hope of catching a glimpse of him.
“We couldn’t go anywhere without being recognised. It could be a bit intrusive, but it was nothing to complain about. It was very exciting to be 17, 18 and have that level of adulation and fame. We were making great money, we all bought nice flats, and we’d a great car, a Zephyr 4. We were all very focused, a very determined bunch of guys, we worked hard.”
When Mair and Lennox left their jobs at engineering firm John Dalgleish to go professional, their bosses were unimpressed. “They thought we were just silly boys throwing our lives away, but we were satisfied we’d made the right decision. We did take great joy in turning up one day in our Zephyr 4 one day to say hello.”
Not surprisingly, The Beatstalkers’ success was beginning to catch the eye of London-based record producers. “When we left to make our first record, there were 2,000 people in Central Station running riot over the tracks, trying to get on the train. Next time, we flew from Glasgow airport, and there were thousands of fans all over the runway, lying in front of the plane to try to stop it taking off. Crazy times.”
In London, they made their first single, Everybody’s Talkin’ ’Bout My Baby, were guests on TV pop show Ready Steady Go, with The Who and The Small Faces, and played the Marquee Club with The Who. They shared a manager with the young David Bowie, and recorded three of his songs as B-sides.
They also cultivated their mod look, with tartan hipsters and sharp shirts, and were courted by fashion companies offering to make clothes for them. “We took pride in trying to look different from other bands. When we did Ready Steady Go, both Small Faces and The Who came over to us and said ‘where do you get your clothes?’”
Everybody’s Talkin’ ’Bout My Baby sold well in Scotland, but with only two record shops in Scotland being “counted” for chart sales, it reached only No37. The record company continued to push the band towards a pop sound which was at odds with their American R&B influences.
Cavanagh says: “In those days, what the record company said went. When The Beatstalkers went to London, they wanted to play their hard-edged, wild R&B stuff which was whipping fans into a frenzy in Scotland, but the record company thought that was all a bit rough and ready, and shoehorned them into something more poppy.”
Mair feels this is the reason they failed to break through in London. After more than a year, and six uncharted singles, their van with all their music equipment inside was stolen from outside a post office in London, and they decided to call it a day.
Mair then left the music industry for a time to set up his own business making clothes and boots with a unit in Kensington Market, the epicentre of cool in London at the beginning of the 1970s. With half of the city’s rock bands wearing his boots, he asked a young man from a neighbouring unit to come on board as his shop manager. The young Freddie Mercury was happy to agree.
“He was in this band, they had just changed their name to Queen, and every year he said he was going to go professional, but I’d heard that from so many people. He was a humble person, very grounded, a really nice guy. Most songwriters were always bragging about their songs, how big they were going to be, but Freddie never did, even after the first records.
“When I heard Bohemian Rhapsody on the radio for the first time. I thought, ‘Wow, what songs you had in you, that you never bragged about’.”
He still remembers the day when David Bowie turned up at the market without the cash for a new pair of boots. “He was a friend and I just said, ‘Come in, anyway, Freddie will fit you with a pair’. So there was Freddie Mercury fitting David Bowie with a pair of boots. What a photograph that would have been.”