Were You There? Popular Music at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall: 1951-1996
By Richard Lysons
Hardback, 288 pages
Sometimes we classical music enthusiasts forget that Manchester’s onetime iconic Free Trade Hall was not the sole preserve of the Hallé Orchestra. Looking back over the post-World War 2 years, attendees will recall great conductors such as Sir Malcolm Sargent, Glorious Sir John Barbirolli, James Loughran, Stanisław Skrowaczewski, and Kent Nagano directing what for Mancunians is the best symphony orchestra in the country. However, the Free Trade Hall also hosted a wide variety of events far removed from classical music; just about everybody in the world of pop, rock, jazz and folk music performed here. Beginning in 1951, when the Hall was restored to use after extensive bomb damage, music fan Richard Lysons’ new book Were you there? catalogues every non-classical musical event, from Nina Simone to Slade and from Norman Wisdom to Wizzard. It is an indispensable catalogue, a valuable commentary and a nostalgic reminiscence.
This book can expect a wide range of readers, from students through to long-time fans of the popular music scene and to people with an interest in Manchester’s recent cultural history. The Royal Northern College of Music now provides Jazz Studies as an elective part of their BMus programme. In 2015, the RNCM offered, for the first time, a four-year BMus degree in Popular Music. Were you there? will therefore become a critical tool for anyone majoring in non-classical music research, and for readers ‘who were there’ this book will act as an aide-memoire of the concerts they attended and, perhaps more pertinently, those they missed.
In 1896, Thomas Batley published a comprehensive listing of all the Hallé Orchestra’s Concerts from 30 January 1858 until 7 March 1895, including details of all vocal and instrumental soloists. For students of Victorian music, this rare volume is essential, but I guess few people will currently have access to it. In 1960, Michael Kennedy produced his masterly The Hallé Tradition, which presented similar information brought up to date, albeit less comprehensively, and in a narrative form. Manchester’s non-classical music scene has been addressed by several books. These include Dave Haslam’s Manchester, England: The Story of the Pop Cult City (2000) John Robb’s The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City 1976–1996, and Phill Gatenby and Craig Gill’s The Manchester Musical History Tour (2011). Richard Lysons’ book is an important addition to this historical literature.
Were You There? has an introduction by Clinton Heylin, the highly respected authority on Bob Dylan. One of his anecdotes reminds the reader that Dylan appeared here on two occasions, one being the infamous ‘Judas’ Concert. This ‘event’ occurred when a concertgoer shouted out ‘Judas! The reason? Bob Dylan chose to play a ‘set’ on electric instruments. Heylin concludes his remarks by insisting that Lysons ‘has opened the door of history on Manchester’s finest concert hall…’
Richard Lysons’ personal introduction outlines the practical aspects of this book as well as acknowledging his sources, personal and written. There is a handy listing of performers arranged by genre: e.g. British Pop, Jazz Rock, Skiffle and World Music.
The fundamental structure of the book is a year by year chronicle of (typically) non-classical events at the Free Trade Hall. I pick one year as an example to explain the book’s system; 1973 is as good as any. This was at a time when pop, rock, progressive rock and country were all regularly heard on radio, TV and record. Glancing at the comprehensive listing immediately uncovers the eclectic nature of these concerts: Genesis, Shirley Bassey, David Bowie (two houses), King Crimson, Lindisfarne, Ray Conniff and orchestra, Victor Borge, Yes, Status Quo, Petula Clark, Ravi Shankar and Johnny Cash - a wide-ranging set of top-class performers from many genres. Information about supporting acts are included where appropriate. Concise notes are given about each group or singer. Also, of interest are details of ‘Other Events at the Free Trade Hall.’ For 1973, these included an RSPB Film Show and a lecture by ‘alternative historian’ Erich von Däniken. A final section records ‘headliners’ at other venues in Manchester. For example, that year The Beach Boys, Lulu and Slim Whitman had appeared at the Palace Theatre in Oxford Street.
The final pages of this remarkable book include a short discussion about the demise of the Free Trade Hall as a venue and its transformation into a high-class hotel. Information about other ‘Major Manchester Venues’ are given, along with their seating capacity and ‘active dates.’ Interestingly, the Bridgewater Hall has been omitted from this list. There are notes about the Lesser Free Trade Hall and the Mighty Wurlitzer commissioned in 1977, replacing the organ destroyed during the 1940 Blitz. The book concludes with suggestions for further study and a ‘Select Bibliography’. There is also a ‘Discography’ and ‘Videography’ giving particulars of recordings made (legally!) at the Free Trade Hall. The index alphabetically lists headlining acts, referenced by date rather than page number.
Finally, as a bonus, there is an outstanding collection of colour and black and white photographs. These include pictures of the venue, performers, and advertising posters.
Despite Richard Lysons’s eschewal of classical concert performances, he does catalogue the first post war event on 16 November 1951. The Hallé Orchestra and Chorus were joined by the wonderful contralto Kathleen Ferrier and conductor Sir John. Works featured in this short concert included Maurice Johnstone’s Overture: Banners, Barbirolli’s Elizabethan Suite, Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, Hamilton Harty’s arrangement of Handel’s Water Music and concluded with Ferrier’s rendition of Land of Hope and Glory. Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) was in attendance. An historically significant extract from the 60-page commemorative brochure is included in the book, giving a vote of thanks to all who had helped restore the Free Trade Hall to its glory. There is also a description of the then-current facilities.
Lysons lists several more classical concerts at this date, including the Hamburg Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It was on 8 December 1951 that the first ‘pop’ concert took place: Graeme Bell and his Australian Jazz Band.
Lysons attended his first Free Trade Hall concert on 12 February 1972. Top of the Bill was the folk-rock band The Strawbs. After a career teaching English, he is now a music historian and writer. He was chief researcher for the highly acclaimed Discover Amazing Women by Rail project. Lysons first major publication was an edition of his father’s war letters, ‘My Dear Mother, Love Keith, which was published on Kindle in 2018. The present book ‘Were You There?’ is his first print book.
Were you there? is a quality production. It is a strong, well bound hardback, with an artistically sound jacket. The print is a decent size, clear and readable. The book is easy and convenient to use. Priced at only £20.00, it is excellent value for money.
I write as a classical music ‘historian’, but there is an enormous amount here to interest me. I’m a child of my times, and the pop and rock music of my generation is hugely important to me. I have thoroughly enjoyed investigating this book and getting a good feeling for what I have missed.
The entire volume is a vital addition to musical history, both locally to Manchester and in the wider world. It is an essential work of reference which has been written to scholarly standards but does not lose the common touch. I wish it every success.