Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

The good old days of beehives, showbands and ... yes, sex

In their 1960s heyday, showbands' ambitions for their punters were simple: send them home sweating. Perspiration was a pre-requisite to everything - the sweat on the breeze block walls of the ballrooms gleamed like a Brylcreem slicked quiff.

In Paul Charles's period novel The Last Dance a girl asked to take the floor fobs off her hopeful dance partner with: "Ask my sister, I'm sweatin'." Other cool dudes, in a decade when condoms were as exotically illegal as reefers, used the word "sweat" as a synonym for pre-menstrual anxiety.

From the late 1950s through the 1960s, the showband on stage was a live jukebox belting out an overture before the finale of couples pairing off - and that was a preamble to procreating another generation.

There were fewer single mothers and more hastily arranged marriages back then.

The fashion of the showband era was a helter-skelter ride too. Beehive hairdos above multi-petticoated frocks evolved to slinky figure-hugging dresses and Vidal Sassoon bobs; while the males morphed from Edwardian drape coats to Italian bum-freezer jackets with winklepicker shoes.

The showbands straddled the musical and social revolution that began with Elvis Presley, then accelerated through The Beatles.

On the ballroom floor, jiving gave way to the twist, the shake and so on . . . but the slow dance or lurch at the end of the evening remained as pairings solidified.

The bands and the ballrooms were an Irish solution to a timeless problem: how does boy meet girl? Some folk choose to remember the showband years through a fog of nostalgia for an age of innocence as if they were a warm-up act before the big bang of sex and drugs. That is self-serving deceit: droves of showband musicians were busy unzipping their flies after they had packed up their instruments at the end of a gig. And they had little difficulty finding a partner with whom to tango.

But then a night of heavy petting followed an evening of light-footed dancing for many of the punters who paid at the door. The Irish were never as chaste as they were portrayed by religious and political finger-waggers.

In his novel, Paul Charles tells it as it was. He includes a series of well-researched statistics: there were 760 showbands in the early 1960s, and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the decade's most successful bands.

He points out that they blossomed in the wake of World War Two when the emerging phenomenon of rock music was on a roll and the Troubles in the North were just around the corner. And it is in this window that The Last Dance is set.

It is written in the style of a band biography, fiction set against factual details of other bands, ballrooms and events. The novel is presented as the story of The Playboys, a fictional showband from a fictional town in Co Derry where the writer Paul Charles was born and raised.

The narrative of the rise and fall of the band is hitched to the love story of its lead singer, Martin Dean, and his childhood girlfriend, Hanna Hutchinson.

It is well written by a scribe who was a teenager in the time he chose to set his novel. His book, evocative, nostalgic and written with a wry humour, will bring back fond memories for a generation that is now going to bed at a time when they were once heading out to dance to a showband.

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