Empress Ballroom, Blackpool

From '60s rioters to '80s ravers, generations of music lovers have gathered beneath the chandeliers of this capacious seaside venue to see and hear their heroes perform. Steve Sutherland heads for the lights of Blackpool for tales from the Empress Ballroom

You may have read recently about a chap named Adrian Cox, a train driver from Bournemouth, who appeared in the papers when he blew two grand hiring a print of Monty Python's Life Of Brian to show friends and family at his local, condemned ABC cinema in celebration of his 51st birthday.

Mr Cox made the news because, in gaining permission to screen the movie that many consider Python's finest, he had inadvertently overturned a ban which had been imposed by the local council way back in 1980 when they decreed it too blasphemous for public consumption without considerable cuts, which the distributors at the time were unwilling to make.


Weird Situation
So for 35 years, Bournemouth had remained Brianless, which is quite a weird situation when you come to think about it. Maybe it's something in the seaside air because, as it turns out, the good burgermeisters of Bournemouth are not alone among the councils of our coastal resorts in imposing bans which surely last decades longer than intended. Consider, for instance, Blackpool City Council who, in the summer of 1964, banned The Rolling Stones from performing in their neighbourhood: a ban which was only lifted after 44 years, by council leader Peter Callow in 2008 when he issued a statement letting bygones be bygones, inviting the band back to play in the 'Pool.


The Stones ban came about after a particularly rowdy gig at the Empress Ballroom, the venue we're all gathered here to celebrate. It was built, a structure of true Victorian splendour, in 1896 as part of the dozen halls designed to make up the Blackpool Winter Gardens, a pleasure emporium some quarter mile from the beach.


With a sprung dance floor spanning some 12,500 square feet – one of the biggest in the world – a vaulted ceiling boasting 12 chandeliers and surrounded on three sides by ornate balconies, the Empress was a jewel in the crown of an ambitious project which also included an Indian Lounge and the Opera House Theatre.

Home to the local dance festival and, later, political conferences and Matchplay darts, its tenure as a mecca of entertainment has run uninterrupted since its opening, bar a brief spell during World War I when the admiralty requisitioned it for the assembly of gas envelopes for airships. But in its long and eventful history it had never witnessed anything akin to the riot that ensued on the 24th of July '64 when The Stones came to town.


Mocked Mercilessly
Let's set the scene: The Stones, recently back from their first testing tour of the States where they are mocked mercilessly by the media, have just released their cover of Bobby Womack's 'It's All Over Now', destined to become their first UK number one. Too see it on its way up the charts, the band have embarked on a series of one-off dates in Bridlington, Brighton, Blackpool and Leeds. Anyone set of seeing The Stones – billed as the double superlative 'Fabulous Fabulous Rolling Stones' and supported by Lulu & The Luvvers and Rey Anton & The Peppermint Men – could expect a set comprising mostly of covers such as Rufus Thomas' 'Walking The Dog', Tommy Tucker's 'High Heel Sneakers', Buddy Holly's 'Not Fade Away', the Marvin Gaye hit 'Can I Get A Witness', and the Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters blues classic 'I Just Want To Make Love To You', topped off with, of course, 'It's All Over Now'.

When The Stones arrive, they aren't the only game in town. Just across the way, at the Rainbow Theatre on the South Pier, infamous promoter Larry Parnes' Big Star Show is in its Summer season featuring a twice-nightly bill of Joe Brown, Johnny Kidd & The Pirates and The Tornados. And on the North Pier, Gene Vincent and The Shouts have recently played a stint supported by up-coming Geordie sensations The Animals along with The Atlantics, billed as Blackpool's top beat group.