by Matt Brennan
Seaside towns have been important locations for British leisure culture from the Victorian era onward, and music has always been one of the most vital forms of seaside entertainment – whether we are talking about big bands and ballroom dancing in the 1930s and 1940s, juke boxes and rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, R&B and beat groups in the 1960s, or the visual spectacle of glam rock and punk shows in the 1970s.
Unsurprisingly, most of the musical excitement on piers and at holiday camps has historically taken place in the summer time, and the summer season has long been a key part of the professional musician’s calendar. In the 1940s and 1950s it was typical for classical orchestral musicians to perform light music in seaside venues in the summer season and to moonlight in dance bands. The most important British resort chain was owned and managed by Billy Butlin, a self-made businessman who opened his first holiday camp in 1936. Just over a decade later, the Butlins chain of holiday camps were spending £4,500 per week on live dance music in their ballrooms each summer, transforming the camps and nearby seaside towns into a lucrative network of venues for touring musicians.
Likewise, the British ballroom circuit grew rapidly in the 1930s as companies such as Mecca and Rank transplanted ballroom dance culture from its aristocratic origins and marketed it toward working and middle class audiences. The Mecca and Rank companies each owned hundreds of enormous dance palaces, or “palais-de-danse,” and every ballroom had its own resident dance orchestra.
Live music culture in Britain changed dramatically over the course of the 1950s. A social study of English Life and Leisure published in 1951 claimed that three million people in England alone went ballroom dancing every week in over 450 dance halls. However, by the mid-1950s a younger generation of dancers had come to associate the big band music as belonging to their parents’ generation, and literally chose to dance to a different beat. Skiffle music, and later American rhythm-and-blues and rock ‘n’ roll, developed alongside an emerging new set of conventions for dancing and socializing. These included new technologies adopted by venues, namely juke boxes and deejays, both of which played records for dancing. As a result, by the early 1960s ballroom managers laid off many of their resident dance orchestras and replaced them with “disc nights,” much to the protestation of jazz musicians up and down the country.
This change was also reflected in the musical culture of seaside piers. Most seaside towns had music venues, and in certain cases, venues for music and dancing were constructed directly on seaside piers, such as the 1200-1500-capacity ballroom on Hastings Pier or the much smaller (likely under-200 capacity) “Nissen Hut” venue on Clevedon Pier.
While many ballrooms were forced to close or be converted into bingo halls (many former Mecca ballrooms have survived into the twenty-first century as bingo venues), a handful of ballrooms and dance halls were able to adapt to the generational change in music culture. Hastings Pier, for instance, managed this transition with more success than most, as evidence by the huge range of acts that played the venue throughout the tail end of the trad jazz era (Kenny Ball, Humphrey Lyttelton, Acker Bilk, Chris Barber), the early 1960s “beat group” era (Gerry & the Pacemakers, The Rolling Stones, The Hollies, The Kinks, The Who, The Yardbirds, John Mayall, Manfred Mann, Jimi Hendrix, The Zombies), progressive and glam rock (Pink Floyd, The Nice, Genesis, Hawkwind, Sparks, T-Rex) and onward into the punk period (Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Clash, The Jam, Richard Hell, The Slits).
Given this rich heritage, tracing the musical histories of seaside piers can illuminate the history of British musical life as a whole.
Allen, Dave. 2009. Here Come The Sixties: Popular Music in Portsmouth in the 1960s. Portsmouth: University of Portsmouth.
Bailey, Peter. 1978. Leisure and Class in Victorian England. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Rowntree, B.S. and Lavers, G.R. 1951. English Life and Leisure. A Social Study. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
Frith, Simon, Matt Brennan, Martin Cloonan, and Emma Webster. 2013. A History of Live Music in Britain Volume 1: 1950-1967 – From Dance Hall to the 100 Club. Farnham: Ashgate.
Horn, Adrian. 2009. Juke Box Britain: Americanisation and youth culture, 1945–60. Manchester: Manchester University Press.