John is one of the unsung people in the Friars story and many punters
will not realise the important role he played. As Operations Manager of
both the Borough Assembly Hall and the Civic Centre, John was at nearly
every gig from 1971 onwards in an official capacity. John acted as the
conduit between Friars and Aylesbury Borough Council/Aylesbury Vale
District Council and has some great memories of Aylesbury and of Friars.
John took his well earned retirement in 2008, but was tempted out of
retirement to stage manage the Friars 40th Anniversary Party in June
2009 and will be again in October when Stiff Little Fingers come back.
The website interviewed John rather appropriately in the Civic Centre
coffee lounge outside the Maxwell Hall. Thanks again John.
Friars Aylesbury Website: John, thanks for talking to us. As I mentioned
on the website, not everyone will have recognised the significant role
you played as the Operations Manager of both the Borough Assembly Hall
and the Civic Centre all the way through both Phase Two and Phase Three
As for the significance of my role....both venues were local authority
controlled and my job was the link between the promoters and the
council. I saw my role as trying to keep things smooth. I started in the
late 1960s and the guys running the civic theatres back then were
generally people who had come, off the boards, been in variety and
worked in 'normal' theatres. They had dealt with the early rock and
rollers who came via what was known as package tours. Even The Beatles
and their contemporaries worked this format; 3 or 4 support acts doing
about 10 minutes each, the headliners closing with a twenty to thirty
minute set. No PA was carried, vocals generally went through the house
system and instrumentation through their own amps.....Vox AC 30s were
posh. The whole thing, at least stage side, was easy.
By the time the new wave of civic type theatres came along in the late
1960s/early 1970, promoters started to emerge from the hippy and
festivals era and the package tours had gone. So there were one off
bands being promoted which was totally alien to the theatre managers of
the time. Typically in Aylesbury, whilst the older managers were OK
people... they didn't understand the change. One Entertainments Manager
(who cannot be named) couldn't work with Friars. He couldn't understand
why they wanted this or that. So it became that I got involved, and did
so every gig.
What was so different that he couldn't deal with it?
said, in the old days, they used the house PA. Whether it was Billy
Fury, The Shadows or The Beatles. There wasn't a lot of worry. But then
as things progressed there were these huge speakers (that got toured)
and road crew putting them on tables and theatre managers saying you
can't do that! What about the floor! They couldn't relate to what was
happening. My experience of working the theatres in Bournemouth helped
me see how things were developing and I like to think that I helped by
arbitrating some what. David (Stopps) and I had a very good
relationship. David would book 26 Saturdays each year and I always
encouraged everybody artist wise. If we could have got The Sex Pistols,
I would have welcomed it. Every other council was banning them. There
was nothing Friars couldn't have handled.
That first punk gig at Friars, with the Stranglers was quite difficult
but we went with it.
That was a weird gig as they ended up headlining after Deaf School
pulled out. Didn't the London punks make their presence known?
Certainly. The junior security were on the doors to the Maxwell Hall
with the intention of stopping people taking glasses into the hall (it
was not permitted back then) and as soon as The Stranglers came on, they
all seemed to pogo past security with glasses in hand. We were quite
taken aback by that.
Nothing like that had happened before?
The junior guys would stop people with glasses and usually punters would
just say 'sorry, I didn't realise' but this was a little different.
So back to the theatre managers - they just couldn't deal with PAs,
lights and trucks?
was radically different. The early crews were more 'heavies' than
roadies who could pick up a bass speaker and throw it on the stage.
There wasn't the technical ability there is now and the attitude was 'we
are running that cable there' and I would be 'no you're not, people will
trip over it' These days, the crews are telling you what to do, they're
all Health and Safety conscious. But if you take a theatre guy towards
the end of his career and these big rough Glaswegian roadies stomping on
his dancefloor......You couldn't talk to these people in any
authoritarian manner as they would just say 'bollocks, who the fuck are
Back in the Friars days, my role was to make everything friendly, work
for Friars but also representing the local authority and I feel I did
that bit. It got to the point that the elected councillors were totally
supportive of Friars. Initially, as the Civic was being planned, they
were wary of young people and could only envisage the place being full
of ladies in ball gowns waltzing around the hall.
Funny you mention that as one of the cuttings on the website from before
the Civic opened suggested that the council would run the shows put on
at the venue and didn't intend giving the likes of David or the
wrestling promoter a chance.
My view was that we were a multi purpose venue that needed to
accommodate everyone. It's not a normal theatre. It started to move that
way and it had to. Friars was such an earner on the bars. All three bars
at full tilt all night.
And money in to the council's coffers...
Yes, there was no percentage going to Friars. We knew the bars would
work from the way Friars worked at the Assembly Hall. The Civic bars
were bigger but we still always got complaints. But the bar in the
corner at the Assembly Hall was horrendous. Trying to get barrels
in...once you were behind the bar, you were penned in by hundreds of
The bars at the Civic always took a kicking in the annual Friars poll!
Even the Farmers Ball people would complain. It was not to do with a
lack of staff - if you had too many, they would fall over each other and
couldn't get to the tills. The bars would have better shaped differently
from the start. Long or L shaped so that you might only be two from the
front rather than sixteen deep. But it compares well to many theatres
such as the Oxford New Theatre which has an horrendous bar.
I have to say I made good use of the bar facilities on June 1st which
made going up on stage four times less of an ordeal! God bless Stella
I've never liked going up on stage and when I did, it was after a brandy
or two! I'm glad David always went on stage. I did go up on stage in
1976 when we presented Sailor with a bottle of champagne to commemorate
the Glass of Champagne hit single (picture on that gig page)
You'll have seen the Geoffrey Tyrell pictures from some classic gigs and
there will be some more going up soon. It's great we can preserve these
for the future. You're doing a similar thing aren't you - you're a world
authority on Gene Vincent.
When it comes to box sets, CDs etc, people come to me for material and
advice. But there's people out there with loads of stuff on Gene and
they won't give access to any of it. Some of these people are even older
than me and what are they going to do with it? Gene Vincent is a small
market now so what's to gain by hanging on to it? I have a collective of
Gene Vincent mates and we share anything new between us. It's like the
Friars website, this stuff should be available to all and be there after
our lifetimes, as part of rock n roll heritage.
It would be nice ultimately if we had some museum of rock to safeguard
all this stuff after we have gone.
Mind you, the (Friars) website is getting me into a lot of trouble. I
intend spending a couple of minutes on it and then.....
You're not the only one to say that! Jake Burns commented recently that
it was a trip down memory lane!
So tell us a bit more about your role at Friars...
It wasn't so much about stage managing (like June 1st this year), but to
smooth over any difficulties. My input wasn't that great. David did the
work but there were occasions when... shall we say ...people had to be
asked to do what they were paid to do.....
I am aware of two occasions certainly regards artists.....! I know you
had to step in and for legal reasons it's probably best we don't name
the artists concerned....You had words with one artist after they
appeared to allow people onto the stage when you had expressly told them
Yes, words were had. We had all warned them not to do it because they
had a reputation for it. They said they wouldn't do it and they did. I
went to the dressing room and was stopped by a huge security guy from
physically entering but I barged through and I told them they would
never play Aylesbury again. I was told to fuck off, but they never
forgot about it!
There was also another act, the singer was verbally abused in the Market
Square and he allegedly refused to go on stage. I remember that gig and
seem to remember the doors opening late and a delay...the reasons were
never known at the time..
He didn't want to go on because of these 'bad vibes in the town' and
David needed to move the position from where he might go on to where he
will go on. He was trying to do this gently and I eventually went to the
I grabbed him and advised him that he had chosen his career and
downstairs there were 1250 people waiting for him, how about doing the
job that he had chosen to do.
I don't think David knows that bit.....so hopefully he won't be
I have it on good authority you pinned him to the wall!
Ha ha! I was younger then! I'm not sure if it was even me that
ultimately persuaded him but David was saying, 'He's going to go on' and
I was (in a surprised tone), 'Oh, is he really?'!!
There was a third occasion and that was The Damned who I know won't mind
me mentioning them. They thought Friars was this old hippy venue and
they would drag their feet about going on. I got on well with Ratty
(Scabies) and I would say, 'For goodness sake, you're an hour late...and
we're getting a bit peed off!' 'Oh alright as it's you!' Having a
reputation as a hippy venue was rubbish as we moved with the times. By
the time The Damned played there was a real variety.
I know someone who was at that gig and didn't the house lights come on
at midnight when they were still playing?
Yes, that is true. But great fun and great memories.
What about the Borough Assembly Hall?
I had more problems with the bar and revellers than the bands. It was
much different when we moved here to the Civic.
So when you started working here in Aylesbury, the Borough Assembly Hall
must still have been The Grosvenor?
It was before it got renamed when the council took it over. I moved up
here from Bournemouth Winter Gardens and got a job in the bar and then
the position of Entertainments Manager came up and I got that. I had
been odd jobbing in London theatres prior to landing this job. It had
been the Market Theatre, then the Grosvenor, then the Borough Assembly
One of the reasons for the change of name was that the Grosvenor had a
Saturday night was fight night!
The walkway to the front of the Assembly Hall is still there!
As a venue it wasn't too bad as the load in was at the back of the hall,
straight on to centre stage from some huge double doors in Long Lionel.
It is said that on a summer's night a drummer leant back and went
through the doors into the street! It's partly still there - the walkway
where the Post Office is.
When I moved to Aylesbury, there was a vibrant scene at the BAH, these
American blues acts on Tuesdays. Little Walter, John Lee Hooker. On
Saturday, the promoter Eddie Friday would put on the likes of Johnny
Kidd, The Swinging Blue Jeans and even my hero Gene Vincent. Another
promoter would put on the likes of Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Lee
Dorsey...so many great bands for a small market town. Cream....that was
when Clapton had just got an afro haircut, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker
spent the whole gig staring at him and laughing. They nailed Ginger's
kit to the stage! Them with Van Morrison as well. I was just a punter
Would you agree that as Friars came to the Borough Assembly Hall and
onwards and upwards, that people saw Friars as an event and not a gig?
Yes, there must have been 300-400 who would go regardless of who was on.
The product had to be there, but there was a hardcore. I also remember
some Americans coming from an air base and turning up one evening
thinking there must be something on at Friars, they had heard so much
about it, they thought it was like the Marquee where there was always
something on. They were surprised to be turned away and told that it was
every other Saturday night!
But then with people coming to every gig regardless you saw people you
wouldn't expect to see....like punks at Kate and Anna McGarrigle!
What about the Iggy Pop gig in 1977 and the return of Bowie. He was
quite anonymous wasn't he?
Very anonymous. He was sitting where we are now and chatting to me,
David and Needsy. He was a nice guy. We weren't allowed to announce he
David Stopps has said that the crowd started to shift across the hall
when they realised who was on keyboards...
Yes they did, I remember that. It was an amazing gig. During the sound
check, Iggy came and sat next to me on a flight case and had a natter.
What a memory that is!
Were there ever occasions where you had to cause to recommend to the
council that an act didn't play?
No, but if David had ever mentioned about one of the acts we talked
about earlier playing again, I would have said no. There is a book about
that band and they mention Friars and the promoter having a go at them.
But that was me, not David! But I was really really angry as someone
could have been injured at that gig. The speaker stacks started
I was at that gig and I was truly disappointed. They were not fun.
There was a problem when Sham 69 played and there was a bit of a punch
up and Jimmy Pursey was so upset. But they had this terrible reputation
which seemed to grow.
I know it gave David a sleepless night beforehand...
It was a worry, but nobody had his finger on the pulse like David. I
remember the last year (of Friars) when in the age of video coming,
bands weren't playing as much and he put his hands up and said he
couldn't do it any more. Some people have suggested that (the success
of) Howard (Jones) was the reason but that's not true. It simply that
the product wasn't there for a venue of this size and times were
changing. No-one tried harder than David to keep Friars going. He still
booked the 26 Saturdays and we still had to charge him whether anybody
played or not as we often couldn't re-hire it out. If he could have got
the bands, he would have done.
It was a tragedy. 1983-1984 had seen bigger gaps with the gigs but that
last five or six in 1984 sold out. Seems the last straw came when a band
pulled out (the gig hadn't been announced) to earn more money elsewhere.
After Friars, there were still some gigs. I put Steve Harley on and I
put Dr Feelgood on every year. Also the original Drifters, a soul night
with Junior Walker, Arthur Lee, Canned Heat....
From an organisational view, there must have been a few interesting
situations, for example having to remove bits of the ceiling to
accommodate The Police's rig at the surprise gig in 1982?
Well, I was told what was required, so we dealt with it, including
getting the trucks in.
That always fascinated me as the side of the Civic is narrow to reverse
and get a truck round.
We've had trucks take the pub sign off of The Six Grapes. The Genesis
truck managed to lean as it reversed the corner and hit the wall,
removing some bricks. Yet the Iggy Pop truck driver had a trailer as
well and reversed down at such speed, I was amazed. The tour buses often
parked adjacent to the kitchens. I recall The Ramones getting off the
bus and straight into the kitchen area, I found them sitting on the
floor, carving ham off the bone with the chef's knife!
The Genesis one must have been fun with all the stage extensions....
Yes, at they were all built on the day. Could be a pain sometimes.
I remember before The Pretty Things gig, David, myself and others were
given a tour backstage and we saw these door either side of what is now
a dance class area and were gobsmacked to discover the led to an
orchestra pit we didn't know existed!
It was used once! But using it left the dance floor uneven afterwards
and having to prop things up with wood. It eventually became a storage
area until the Fire Officer intervened.....
I never knew it existed!
It was a huge pit.
If push comes to shove, what are your best gigs at Friars?
Ian Dury with the Clash doing Sweet Gene Vincent, Motorhead and their
I was injured by that! I was hit by shrapnel from pyrotechnics and had a
huge lump on the side of my head!
Commander Cody.....Widowmaker...Steve Ellis has such a great voice.
Procol Harum did two encores before doing 'Whiter Shade Of Pale', the
I found the key to you answering my emails was to put Steve Ellis in the
title like the time he did Tracks of My Years on Radio 2!!!
Asylum, I used to enjoy them, a great act. Like Sailor had a
harbour/quayside backdrop and set, they had a living room kind of set
Ian Dury and I always got on because of the Gene Vincent connection. But
way back when he played Friars with Kilburn and The High Roads, I
thought there's a bit of Gene Vincent here and in Upminster Kid he
mentions Gene Vincent Craddock which was Gene's real name. So I asked
him if he was a Gene Vincent fan and we got on. I was a huge Clash fan
as well. We used to have Country music nights here. There was a great
country band called Tom Gribben and the Saltwater Cowboys and they did a
cover of 'Guns of Brixton' on one of their albums. It was round tables
and a cabaret type set up and The Clash turned up to see them, it was
brilliant, they were stood at the back. We were all backstage afterwards
and it was great, Gribben was knocked out. He was one of the first
country acts to bridge rock and country!
The Clash at Stoke Mandeville Stadium was fun, but I had nothing to do
One of my favourite gigs ever, but a logistical nightmare.
Apart from the Friars stage going up there, that was nothing to do with
me! I just enjoyed it!
I saw you talking on the Bucks TV documentary about being able to relax
with a pint at Friars on June 1st, something you couldn't do in the old
You couldn't really, in the very early days David and I could have
bought each other a drink at the bar, but this became not the thing to
do as you were at work .
That June 1st gig, I couldn't' believe how the atmosphere came back, it
was like it never went away.
Everyone wanted to make it work. It was nothing to do with us, it was
the people. Only problem from my point of view is that all the bands
were supposed to share a drum kit but they all brought their own kits,
but they all got miked up properly and no-one noticed the joins!
I really enjoyed that gig and after the gig the Pretty Things were
I remember Kid Creole and The Coconuts first appearance and they had
such an amazing after show party, that I won't forget it. There was
never any standoffishness after gigs. Backstage was great. The rider was
always met and Robin (Pike) would put flowers in the dressing rooms. It
was part of the reputation and the bands were always made so welcome.
Artists have said to me about the flowers and the difference it made.
It's not that luxurious backstage, but bands were made so welcome and at
the June 1st gig, Robin did the flowers again.
It was a great night and to be involved in it not as a punter was
You're one of the people now!
Scary! John, I really appreciate your time. Pleased you're enjoying your
well earned retirement.
This interview and its content are © 2010 Mike
O'Connor/www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk and may not be used in whole or in
part without permission.