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Gravesend's rock n roll roots; David Bowie, Gene Vincent and Iron Maiden

Due to the success of two musicians, or rather one band, Gravesend will always lie in the rock’n’roll shadow of neighbouring Dartford, but there was a time when our town could boast some of the biggest names around.

Surprisingly, The Rolling Stones never played in Gravesend, but during the 1960s and 1970s a long list of greats took to our stages.

These days if audiences want to see top acts they may have to make a pilgrimage to Glastonbury or Hyde Park or do the rounds at gigging favourites in London such as the Brixton Academy or Hammersmith Apollo.

Gene Vincent
Gene Vincent

However, it has not always been this way – once David Bowie was booed off stage in a Kings Farm pub, Gene Vincent delighted rock n roll crowds in Harmer Street and heavy metal gods Iron Maiden played in Northfleet but under a different name.

It will be hard to believe for young music fans in the present day, but Gravesend was a bona fide destination for musicians – and crowds in the town loved every minute of it.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying a good old-fashioned pub band, but hearing your favourite group in an intimate venue is hard to beat – something that for crowds at the once- famous Co-op Hall in Harmer Street was a regular occurrence.

In the early 1960s, the Co-op Hall, which is now Pockets pool hall, was the place to go for music and Roger Simmons, 73, remembers it fondly.

Music fan Roger Simmons outside the building where the Co-op hall used to be
Music fan Roger Simmons outside the building where the Co-op hall used to be

Mr Simmons, of Clarence Place, Gravesend, lived in Swanscombe at the time and saw a number of artists at the hall, including American star Gene Vincent in 1962.

He said: “The Co-op Hall was the main venue – that place was legendary. On a Friday night there were live bands and on a Monday it was just records being played.

“I was there the infamous night that Marty Wilde got hit on the head with a bottle.”

Mr Simmons said crowds of young people would flock to the venue to hear popular groups, most of which were in the charts or on their way to stardom.

Remembering Vincent, who had a massive hit with his song Be-Bop-A-Lula, he said: “He did all of his big songs that night. His band used to wear these blue caps – they were nicknamed Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps and they were wearing them that night, too.”

A promotional poster showing Gene Vincent as one of the acts playing at the Co-op hall
A promotional poster showing Gene Vincent as one of the acts playing at the Co-op hall

In the 1950s there was a handful of British musicians, influenced by rock’n’roll, who sought to emulate the sound and style of their American cousins.

Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele, who was stationed at Gravesend’s sea school as a cadet prior to his music career, were two such artists and another was Marty Wilde.

Wilde achieved success as a singer and song-writer and his travels took him to a gig at the Co-op Hall in the early 60s. Unfortunately for the singer, and the members of the audience, it did not quite go according to plan.

Mr Simmons said: “There was a well-known troublemaker in the crowd, who I won’t name, and he threw a bottle. I can still see it flying through the air now.

“It hit Marty Wilde on the head and that was the end of the show. I think it made the front page of the Mirror the next day.

“He’d had several hits at the time and was one of the big names. He regularly appeared on Ready, Steady, Go!”

Mr Simmons said that for music fans it was great to live in the area during the Co-op Hall’s heyday.

He said: “It was a magical time, it really was. Music had been exploding and tunes were changing. I have so many great memories from that time.”

Wilde was not the only artist to fall foul of a Gravesend audience – a young David Bowie also got into a spot of bother some years later.

David Bowie
David Bowie

In October 1969 he came to town to play a Halloween gig at the, since demolished, General Gordon pub in Cedar Avenue, but his artistic approach was not everyone’s cup of tea.

Dave Stableford was one of the throng at the Gordon who had paid the 8’6 (about 42 pence) admission fee to see Bowie.

The androgynous glam-rock singer would go on to gain global fame with such hits as Starman, Jean Genie and Space Oddity, but at the time he was billed as the “star of Top of the Pops”.

Mr Stableford said: “The gig lasted about 15 minutes, as I recall. He sang Space Oddity to everyone’s delight and then dragged a stool on stage, along with a huge book. He then sat and read poems.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t go down well and he was booed off. It’s hard to imagine today that the highly acclaimed David Bowie would ever get booed off stage.

“I’ve since done a bit of research and found out Gravesend wasn’t the only time he was booed off stage. It happened at the Roundhouse in the mid-70s. I don’t feel so bad now.”

Iron Maiden rocked up to Northfleet in the mid-1980s and chose The Red Lion in Crete Hall Road as a venue to play as part of their world tour.

The Red Lion and its adjoining club Leo’s have provided bands, both large and small, with a forum to showcase their talent, and in particular metal and heavy rock bands, for decades.

Back in the 80s, Iron Maiden were on their way to super-stardom and to avoid a mass frenzy they played in Northfleet under the name The Sherman Tanks.

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