- 27 Apr 04
Barry Glendenning delights in the story of how the Irish rioted in Camden when legendary crooner Jim Reeves cancelled a show
"It began as a busy Irish club playing host to a wide variety of performers including the likes of Jim Reeves,” explains the official publicity blurb of The Electric Ballroom, one of London’s best known live venues, located in the heart of Camden Town. Whoever wrote it clearly hadn’t done their homework, as the true and vastly more intriguing yarn is the one about how Jim Reeves never played there at all.
For that story you need to delve into the fascinating Rock ‘N’ Roll Guide To Camden by Ann Scanlon, a huge chunk of which is devoted to the colourful past of this veritable musical institution. Possibly the most Irish venue anywhere in the world, including Ireland, it first threw open its doors in July 1978 and has since played host to a dizzying array of Irish talent including The Pogues, Van Morrison and U2, not to mention The Greedies, that wild hybrid which saw ex-Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones trading licks with Phil Lynott.
But according to Scanlon’s book, the Ballroom was the centre of Camden Town nightlife in the days long before rock ‘n’ roll. Originally named The Buffalo, it opened for business in the 1930s as a place to socialise for the Irish immigrants flooding Britain in search of work, and quickly developed a reputation as the kind of place you almost certainly wouldn’t bring your mother. The weekly brawls reached such epic proportions that, eventually, they led to the venue’s untimely demise: “The police were constantly being called in to deal with late-night violence and, after one fight too many, it was closed down,” writes Scanlon, before relating the tale of how The Buffalo was saved by a 20-year-old builder from Kerry.
“The Buffalo had been closed down by the police, who had put a big lock on the gate,” Bill Fuller told her. “So I went to the Chief Of Police in Holmes Road - he was an Inspector Harris and he was a hard man to bargain with, but I said ‘I’ll make a deal with you: if you’re ever called in to sort out a fight here, I’ll put the lock back on the gate’.”
Inspector Harris shook on the deal, but the violence didn’t stop. A keen amateur boxer, Fuller relied on his own fists to sort out any aggravation and ensure that the famous cast iron gates of The Buffalo remained unlocked. Expansion followed in 1941 when Camden Town Tube station was bombed and a section of the ballroom was blown away along with most of the street it backed on to. Fuller bought the site and his gang of builders rebuilt the venue with a new increased capacity of 2000.
As well as being a popular late-night meeting place for the Irish in North London, The Buffalo was well known for its live music. Traditional Irish music provided the heartbeat in the early days, before being replaced by the big band leaders such as Ambrose, Geraldo, Jack Parnell and Joe Loss, one of whose singers was a man called Ross McManus, the father of Elvis Costello.
Then Jim Reeves was booked to play The Buffalo. It was June of 1963 and Reeves, having just completed a tour of Ireland, was horrified by what he had seen. The squalid venues he could handle. The unscrupulous promoters? No problem. The endless miles spent travelling around narrow, twisting, pot-holed roads? Took ’em in his stride. A solid pro, it seemed that the coziest baritone in Nashville could overcome almost any obstacle the cowboys behind the Irish showband era could place in his path, except the conspicuous presence of a badly tuned piano on every single stage in Ireland. So he seethed and he seethed and he seethed. He seethed his way around Ireland, singing along to one untuned piano after another, until finally he could seethe no more. It wasn’t until he arrived in Camden that all hell broke loose.
Former Electric Ballroom manager Frank Murray explains that when Jim Reeves was booked to play at The Buffalo he, naturally, had only one thing on his rider – that the piano be in tune.
“Now Irish ballroom promoters never quite grasped things like riders in those days,” explains Frank. “They just put the band up on the stage, expected them to play, took the crowd’s money and went home. So when Jim arrived at The Buffalo, there was a piano but nobody had bothered to tune it. By this time, the ballroom was really crowded – it probably had rubber walls – but Jim’s manager, or whoever, said, ‘Jim’s not playing’.”
Oh dear. So the manager of the ballroom apologised and gave everyone their money back?
“So the manager of the ballroom and the staff took all of the money that they had in the cash box, went into the lane at the back of the building, loaded the cash into a manhole, secured everything that could be secured inside the ballroom, and then one of them got up on the stage and announced, ‘Jim Reeves will not be playing tonight’, before making a quick exit.”
And then what happened?
“The staff did a runner and just left the ballroom to the punters. Needless to say, there was a riot, as people started to demand their money back. The staff were off down the road and called in the police, who literally rode into the ballroom on horseback. I just have this great picture of mounted police riding into The Buffalo, with something like 2,000 Paddies going crazy because Jim Reeves hadn’t shown up. It was cinematic.”
Cinematic, not least because of the happy ending. With Inspector Harris long gone, The Buffalo survived and continues to survive: the punk wars, the Jesus & Mary Chain riots and whatever other crazy rock ’n’ roll shit the gods have seen fit to throw at it.
Which is more than can be said for poor Jim Reeves.