In the early 60s, as a young boy growing up, I started listening to music. The choice on the radio was very limited: chart hits or middle of the road stuff. At night time, I would snuggle under the bedclothes to listen to Radio Luxembourg. Then a myriad of groups sprang up, like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Animals, Spencer Davis Group who were predominately covering the songs of Black America – apart from the rock & roll we had been hearing for a few years, there was rhythm & blues, soul, Motown, jazz, blues. We had little chance of hearing the original versions of these songs and it was not possible to buy them in the record shops.
Two television programmes had a big impact on me: one was the American Folk-Blues Festival, which introduced me to the blues of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and more; the other was ‘Ready Steady Go!’, which became compulsive viewing on a Friday night. On the latter, I heard new music and saw the audience wearing the latest trendy clothes and dancing enthusiastically – it was time for me to change my appearance and get out there to join this new scene. At some point, I got my girlfriend to cut my hair into a new more-mod style, however, this was a mistake as it created patches of near-baldness, it was more like a skinhead cut and I did not feel like going out again until it had grown back!
Around this time, as I played the guitar, I joined a band with some friends and the Salty Dogs were born. We learnt many songs by the bands mentioned above and soon the first gig arrived. It went down very well. Two girls there liked what we were doing and suggested we went to a new club in town called the Dungeon, as we would enjoy the music.
The first visit to the Dungeon was to change my life. It was a dark, cold, sometimes damp place and, although the main room was just below street level, you felt like you were some way underground in some subterranean underworld. From the road, you walked up some stairs to enter the club; past the doormen, the cloakroom and the ultra-violet light, which was used to see the pass-out stamped onto the back of your hand. To the right on this level was the first room which had a small dance floor, some alcove seats round the sides, a jukebox and in the corner a bar where a guy would serve you with an ice-cold coke from a big red coke machine or coffee in glass cups. No alcohol was served on the premises, but we would walk up to a local pub for a drink, usually the Royal Children, Salutation or Trip to Jerusalem. Next to the pubs was a graveyard where couples would go for a ‘cuddle’.
Leaving the first room, you would go down the stairs, where posters were attached to the walls (I remember one advertising John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers featuring Eric “Slowhand” Clapton, another for the Farinas, a band from Leicester who, I believe, dressed as 1920s American gangsters and later changed their name to Family). At the bottom of the stairs, round the corner, you would enter a dark room, painted predominantly black, with very loud music throbbing from large speakers and a throng of people dancing. To one side was a stage and the DJ’s desk, there was no seating. I had not heard music played like this, volume–wise or the content and it was life-changing.
The place was not big like the arenas of today but more like a large pub and we were within touching distance of the artists. On one occasion I remember standing next to this small guy on the dance floor, before realising it was Keith Moon.
Songs I remember dancing to from those early days include:
- ‘Night Train’ by James Brown and the Famous Flames,
- ‘Open the Door to Your Heart’ by Darrell Banks,
- ‘The Entertainer’ by Tony Clarke,
- ‘Tell It Like It Is’ by Aaron Neville,
- ‘Boogaloo Party’ by the Flamingos.
Two records played regularly on the jukebox upstairs were ‘Soulful Dress’ by Sugar Pie DeSanto and ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ by Jimmy Smith.
Amongst the artists I remember seeing on the stage are soul singers like ‘Little’ Stevie Wonder, Inez & Charlie Foxx, Patti LaBelle & the Blue Belles, the Drifters, Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, bands like the Who, Small Faces, the Steampacket, Mark Four, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, Family, more bluesy artists like Screaming Jay Hawkins and Jesse Fuller.
The electrical system in the Dungeon was not great and I remember the fuses being blown more than once – certainly during the Mark Four’s set and when Screaming Jay Hawkins sang ‘I Put a Spell On You’, he stepped forward, there was a flash and … all you could hear was the horn section.
After his performance, Jesse Fuller was outside giving out very small slips of paper containing his autograph.
In March, 1967, the Dungeon, which by then had lost some of its popularity, had an all-nighter featuring the Drifters. People came from all over the country and the club was packed. At some point during the early hours, I went outside to get a breath of fresh air, to be greeted by the arrival a double-decker bus and an orderly line of marching policemen arriving at the club. It was a raid. They made everyone stay inside the club, with no music and the bright house lights switched on, while they searched every person, then either threw them out onto the streets or, in the case of those who were underage, rang their parents to go down to collect them. I believe the bus was used to search the girls. My friend sat on the floor at one stage, only to disturb a jumper under which was hidden a very large pile of pills. We decided to inform the police, who proceeded to search us and throw us out. Luckily for us, there was another all-nighter in town that night at the Beachcomber, so we went over there, where Lee Dorsey was performing. Eventually word got back to us that the police had finished and the Dungeon was reopening. The place was quite empty by now as most people had gone home, however I seem to remember that the Drifters appeared sometime around 6 or 7 in the morning. The next day we were ‘celebrities’ as the raid appeared in the national newspapers, however I doubt it was very successful for the police, as I don’t think many arrests were made.
The Dungeon had Sunday afternoon sessions, sometimes with a live band, often just a DJ playing records. We would go down, and when it finished go to Lyons tea shop in the square for a drink and then drive up to the Hand and Heart near Canning Circus for a pint and to watch ‘Batman’ on the television, before sometimes going back to the Dungeon for the evening session or going to the ‘funnies’, a cinema where they played cartoons, but had double seats where you could get close to your girlfriend.
The ‘Bung’, as the Dungeon was known by many regulars, had shaped my life and had been a great place giving me a wonderful experience. I had been introduced to a wide range of fabulous music, met some great people, some of whom are still friends, had a lot of laughs and fun, given me a certain style. We lived, for a short while, in our own unique and exclusive Mod world.
I have created a podcast of some of the music I first heard and danced to at the Dungeon. Here is the link: