Cliff Richard is possibly not the first name to spring to mind in answer to the question ‘Whose show at the Chiswick Empire was stopped by a riot?’ But I swear it’s true. It was 1 May 1959 and you never know, there may be a few readers out there today who were in the Upper Circle that May evening 57 years ago.
It’s odd to think of Cliff as a dangerous rock and roll star. People of my vintage grew up with his shows on Saturday evening BBC1 or being robbed of winning Eurovision or talking about God with Billy Graham.
Believe it or not in the late Fifties the man who began life as Harry Webb from Cheshunt was mad, bad, dangerous to know – and had quite an effect on the ladies.
He was little more than an Elvis impersonator of course, with a curled lip, a decent quiff and a good agent (Tito Burns: that’s him in Dylan’s ‘Don’t Look Back’ playing the BBC off against Granada) but he was all we had. And his effect on young kids was electric and his shows throughout 1959 were plagued with serious trouble.
Cliff’s 1959 had started at the Lyceum in Wellington Street. He had begun his week-long, two-shows-a-night residency on 2 February, headlining ‘The Big Teenage Show’ with his band the Drifters – within weeks changed to the Shadows – on a bill that also featured early mad rock and roller Wee Willie Harris, previously a biscuit factory worker from Bermondsey and an 18 year old Liverpudlian compere Jimmy Tarbuck.
Things were going well, though not everyone was impressed. The Evening Standard’s opening night review reported: ‘Like a thousand tortured canaries screaming for freedom from the cage, the yells went up at the Lyceum last night.
But this they told me wasn’t agony it was ecstasy. Or was it? For me and perhaps for two or three more in this audience aged mainly between 14 and 18, it was agonizing – and perplexing and a little frightening.’
Anyway, 4 February 1959, two nights into the run, was a significant date in rock and roll history. Due to the limits of international communications of the time, it was the day we found out that the music had died: Buddy Holly, along with the Big Bopper and Richie Valens had died in the early hours of February 3, 1959 when the light aircraft Holly had chartered crashed shortly after take-off from Clear Lake Iowa where their ‘Winter Dance Party’ package tour had played that evening.
The news only filtered through to London the next day. Heartbroken Teds from all over London congregated up West to commiserate and seeing that Presley-a-like Cliff was at the Lyceum, decided to pay a visit. It all kicked off the moment a revolving stage brought Cliff into view of the 2,000 in the audience.
The show opened with fabulously bequiffed bass player Jet Harris starting up the bass line for ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ as the revolving stage swung into action and slowly revealing Cliff and the group in silhouette.
As they came into view, the girls started screaming. However their heartbroken and above all violently resentful Teddy boy boyfriends started hissing and booing. In fact the only reason that the booing and hissing stopped, was that it was replaced by a volley of missiles and the Teds could obviously not do both at the same time.
Within seconds of spotting Cliff, a barrage of missiles including fruit, eggs, tomatoes, bottles, cigarette packets, strips of linoleum ripped from the floor of the Lyceum, even bizarrely lampshades and coins (let’s all take a moment to remember how big an old penny was). Fights broke out all over the dance floor, girls fainted and were carried out by stewards above their heads to escape the crush.
To give him his due, Cliff tried to carry on, singing at a microphone stand whilst hopping from foot to foot dodging the missiles. Then Teds tried to storm the stage, pushing musicians out of the way to get close enough to aim a missed punch at Cliff’s head.
Luckily several stewards ran on stage to drag Cliff’s assailant off before he could land a follow up. Who knows what would have happened to British rock and roll if he’d connected?
Cliff and the band had not yet stepped off their slowly rotating stage so they just stayed on till it went round the back, where they ran off to the safety of the dressing room where Cliff was shaking with fear. The curtains came down and that was the end of the show, the concert abandoned.
Outside in Wellington Street, the Strand and the Aldwych, several hundred fans crowded around the hall booing and holding up traffic as fights broke out along the Strand. Cliff promptly cancelled the rest of the five shows that week, said to be worth £300 in fees, conveniently blaming it on a ‘troublesome throat’.
Things only got worse at later shows. At the Trocadero, Elephant and Castle, pennies, halfpennies and bottles rained down from the balcony.
At Romford, the tour bus was attacked just before they got on, bricks and planks of wood smashing many windows. The band, who had been trapped in the dressing room for an hour, made a dash for the bus, then got on the bus to make a swift getaway and many missiles including a lit firework were thrown inside.
And finally to Chiswick for the Chiswick Empire Variety Show on May 1, where unknown to Cliff, two groups of Teds, one from Hackney and one from Hammersmith, with a long standing vendetta, met for a pre-arranged tear up at the Chiswick Empire for the second show on Friday night.
Where had they arranged to meet? Why the upper balcony of course, in the cheap seats. Scuffles became battles and coins, eggs, light bulbs and bottles rained down on the stalls and stage. Within moments, said the local paper, ‘the stage looked like a miniature Covent Garden’.
The show continued for a while but opening act the Dallas Boys were hit by eggs every time they opened their mouths to sing. Most bravely, compere, none other than Des O’Connor, broke off from his routines to try and quell the row with jokes but failed and abandoned.
Eventually someone ripped a fire extinguisher off the wall in the balcony and threw it down into the stalls, where it hit two girls, one a glancing blow on the head causing concussion and one square in the chest, breaking her collar bone. At which point another of the acts on the bill, ventriloquist Ray Alan, pulled the curtain down himself and the show was called off with the theatre in absolute pandemonium.