284 miles south of Liverpool is the Hampshire town of Aldershot (pop. 36,000). As the “Home of the British Army” Aldershot has seen its fair share of historic events. Royal visits and military tattoos are regularly augmented with anniversaries of battles and various other reasons to have military bands marching through the town.
However, the event which probably attracts most discussion on the “Historic Aldershot” Facebook page took place on the 9th December 1961 at the Palais Ballroom. The poster for the event reads “Big Beats…presenting a Battle of the Bands, Liverpool v London”. The band representing London in this contest was Ivor Jay and the Jaywalkers. The band representing Liverpool was The Beatles in what Neil Aspinall described as their first gig down south.
For a small town, Aldershot has punched above its weight in terms of musical venues hosting early gigs by acts from Jimi Hendrix and Peter Green to PJ Harvey and the Stone Roses. Despite this, a gig which deserves no more than a footnote in the history of the Beatles or of Liverpool has found a prominent place in Aldershot culture and folklore.
The event was promoted by Liverpool promoter Sam Leach who, unfortunately failed to get the advert to the Aldershot News in time. As a result, only six people were waiting outside when the doors opened and the gig was attended by just 18 people in total in an evening that started badly and generally got worse.
The Palais Ballroom was, in fact, a small hall on the edge of the town centre which had the size and facilities of a village hall rather than a ballroom. John Lennon has been quoted as describing the venue as such in one of his many tirades from the stage. In the subsequent decades, the building has been a dance studio and a ballet school and is now a fitness gym.
One record of the gig itself comes from Pete Best’s 1983 autobiography Beatle.
He wrote, “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.”
No set list survives and it seems that Ivor Jay and the Jaywalkers never turned up. In fact, I can find no record of Ivor Jay and the Jaywalkers although there was an East-Anglian band at that time called Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers who had toured with the Beatles.
What is known about that night is that, despite a crowd of only 18 people, a fight broke out, not an uncommon occurrence in Aldershot to this day. What followed is largely hearsay.
There is no record of the Beatles being directly involved in the fight but one story tells of them being transported by the police to the edge of Aldershot and told never to come back. Another story is that they went on to play a gig in London the same night where they all ended up under arrest for disorderly conduct.
Terry McCann, who had driven the Beatles down to Aldershot, has said in several interviews that with so few people there, the Beatles stopped taking the gig seriously.
The drummer at that time was, of course, Pete Best and at one point, McCann took over the drums from Best despite not being a drummer and just bashed his way through a few songs. By about 9.30, the Beatles had given up playing altogether, Sam Leach had produced some beer and everyone just spent the rest of the evening drinking.
The day after the gig, the Beatles were back in Liverpool attending the third of three meetings at NEMS with Brian Epstein when it was agreed that he should become their manager.
Sam Leach had booked the Beatles to return to the Palais the next week but they cancelled. The Liverpool band who replaced them were Rory Storm and the Hurricanes with Ringo Starr on drums.
In 1961, The Beatles had little enough reason to like Aldershot, but for one Beatle it would get far, far worse. On the 12th January 1968, in Aldershot, a little girl was born. Her name was Heather Mills.
Words by Simon Harper, photography of the Beatles by Dick Matthews, image of the venue by Simon Harper.