This article is the second in the series "When Rock and Roll came to the Isle of Wight". Keith Roberts, bass guitarist with the legendary Knights who packed Ventnor Winter Gardens in the mid sixties, recalls the early days.
Rock and Roll on the Isle of Wight
by Keith Roberts
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously said in 1957 "you've never had it so good" but I don't think he was thinking about popular music! I was 13 and in my third year at Sandown Grammar School and my school chums and I were keen to enjoy rock 'n' roll music which was well established in America but not here. However, the film Rock Around the Clock featuring Bill Haley and the Comets was put on general release in this country and I watched it at the Royalty Cinema in Cowes. Together with the records of Elvis Presley and Little Richard etc it was clear that this new music whilst not new in its roots was sensational, exciting and almost as if it had been designed for youngsters like us. Not all adults disliked the loudness and brashness of the new songs but the vast majority did. Trad jazz was about the limit of their tolerance of young peoples' music!
Buddy Holly was an early favourite of ours and someone at school produced a photo of his LP record "The Chirping Crickets". There was a strange but beautifully futuristic electric guitar in the picture which we soon learnt was a Fender Stratocaster. From that moment we all wanted a guitar like that - we'd learn to play it in due course!
A big star of the day was Lonnie Donegan and his Skiffle Group and we loved his upbeat versions of old folk and blues tunes. The line-up of his band was not unlike that of the rock 'n' roll bands just around the corner, He featured an electric guitar always in the hands of a top player. Like many of my peers, I played in skiffle groups our venues being limited to school fetes Guide huts and WI halls.
A few of the aspiring rock 'n' rollers at school made their own electric guitars whilst I made do with an acoustic guitar made by my father. My woodworking skills were, as now, nil.
The washboards we used to provide the percussion in skiffle groups now gave way to drum kits. The electric bass guitar completed the instrumentation of a rock 'n' roll band.
We somehow managed to combine GCE studies with rehearsing in our newly formed bands The problem was - where could we play? The early venues were usually halls such as Queens Hall Newport, Drill Hall and Trinity Hall Cowes or the Town Hall East Cowes. The line up of my first band was Jonnie Barnard (vocals), Dave Tripp (lead guitar), Crann Davies (bass guitar), Hamilton 'Cass' Casswell (drums) and myself (rhythm guitar). We played every Thursday at the WI Hall in Gurnard and non-stop jiving was the order of the day.
Towards the end of our season, Dave and Crann defected to the Zodiacs who had secured a regular gig at the Sandown Pier Ball Room. Two schoolmates Brian Sharpe and Martyn Ford helped us out for the few remaining nights. It was a good job we all knew the same songs!
Such was the huge popularity of the new music that the hotel and club owners began to realise that there was money to be made from the teenage rock 'n' rollers! I played at Gurnard Pines Holiday Camp in a Cowes-based band called The Vulcans. I then joined the Invaders and we played at the Hotel Ryde Castle and the piers at Ryde Sandown and Shanklin. I was then 'promoted' to the Knights for two and a half years at the prestigious Trouville Hotel at Sandown. The owner, Jimmy Troughton had finally bowed to pressure from everyone to allow an electric band to play 4 nights a week together with the Metronomes Dance Band for that 'awful modern dancing'! Jimmy had been a drummer himself in a dance band and resented the decline of 'his' music in favour of ours. He was loyal to the Metronomes however and kept them on despite their fall from popularity.
It's fair to say that rock 'n roll will never go away and it's still very popular today. Pop music, in general, has changed many times since 1957 - the Beatles saw to that!