Can I dance with you?
It is August 1967. At fifteen, I am standing by the stage of the Hydro Hotel Ballroom in Kilkee, Co Clare, on the west coast of Ireland. It’s my second Irish summer. I am shy, not confident, and pathologically romantic. Ballrooms and Showbands could have been invented for me.
I was already going to concerts at home, had thrilled to the Who and others in big theatres like the Liverpool Empire – but this ballroom reaches other parts of me.
The Showband dance starts at 9 and finishes around 1am. During those four hours the band will play accurate versions of virtually everything in the charts plus a range of older dance numbers. They don’t play much original stuff but their musicianship is excellent; two or three of them will share lead vocal, and most band members play more than one instrument. In addition, the presence of a three piece brass section, to augment the normal rock group line up, means the live sound in the large ballroom is thunderous and elemental. By 11pm the dancefloor will be heaving, the boards bouncing, the glitterball flickering excitement, and the dancers’ ears ringing, their faces shining with sweat and excitement.
Holidaying at the Hydro Hotel is great – with a large group of teenagers to offset my single child status; bands are booked for a week, and often they practise new material during the day; the musicians are quite happy to chat and make friends with a starstruck teenager.
It’s only around 9.30; showband dances are teetotal, so most of the older dancers come in from the bars in the seaside town around 10.30. There’s about 60 of us in the hall, and I’m at the foot of the stage, catching the guys’ eyes, revelling in their nods and winks of recognition. I’m daft about music, and this is liggers’ heaven.
The band this week is “Kevin Flynn and the Editors” from Cahir, Co Tipperary. They are a good professional outfit, a mix of ages in their ranks, and they play a wide range of music to cater for all the tastes of the Ballroom. If it was Sunday night, the farmers would be in from the country and you would have a different atmosphere, more older women in the hall. At their height, the ballrooms were said to be where well over 60% of rural married couples first met each other. The rest of the week local girls, hotel staff and holiday makers provide an interesting mix; no wonder last week’s band, The Carousel, from Crumlin in Dublin, had just put out a single entitled ‘Holiday Romance’!
The Editors themselves have a single release – on the Emerald Record label. The B side is an original composition, sung by its composer, guitarist, Alex Steele: a slow dance country flavoured ballad: “If you change your mind”; the A side is a cover of the old Bobby Darin rock and roll hit: “Queen of the Hop”.
This is sung by rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist, Don Cotter. Now, to be honest, for 1967, the Editors, like most of the Showbands, are not exactly groovy in style. Their stagewear consists of matching brown mohair suits, white shirts, and narrow ties: smart, but not exactly Haight Ashbury! Some of the biggest arguments I ever got into back at school concerned my liking for showbands. They weren’t cool and just played other people’s songs was the accusation, and I’m afraid I lacked the ability to recapture the thrill of the live show in the ballroom, when defending my heroes.
However, in the Editors, Don Cotter was as close as it got to pop star. With shades and collar length hair, he looked a lot like Dave Davies of the Kinks, and tended to sing the rockier, pop numbers. Indeed, he did a mean “Death of a Clown” as performed by his doppelganger.
I liked going early to listen to the band’s first hour or so. Not only could I hang out by the stage, shouting out the odd request, but they slipped in a few of their own favourites before the hall filled up, and, best of all, was the echo of their sound in the half empty ballroom. To me it was a promise of mounting excitement, the sound of showbiz, the call to dance.
This particular night, as it gets on to ten or so, the band are warming up. A four song set of slow numbers comes to an end with Alex Steele singing Jim Reeves’ weepy: “He’ll have to go”, followed by the familiar: “That’s all for now folks, your next dance please!”
Most folk who frequented the Ballrooms will remember them for two main reasons: one was the ‘set’ dance system – the band played 3 or 4 songs in a row, then broke for a couple of minutes. This fairly added to the tension in the hall. If a girl stayed on the floor with you for the whole four songs, she must either be very nervous, awfully polite, or she quite liked you. If you liked her, the gap between sets was a chance to invite her for a lemonade, or keep her talking till the next set started. Most sets would be four ‘quicksteps’, but you would never know when they were going to announce “And now a slow set, boys and girls”. If you were particularly unsure of yourself, you had a couple of songs to get up courage to ask her to dance, and, if you were lucky, you’d get at least two dances out of it.
The word tension doesn’t really begin to explain the situation, and you would be surrounded by guys talking ‘tactics’ like they were on a football field. This set system also led to the other major memory most folk have, the peculiar arrangement whereby the girls would all sit along one wall, while the guys all stood opposite in a big group, waiting for the set to be announced. There would follow a most unholy dash across the width of the hall, and, as ‘intended targets’ were taken, there would be awful collisions as guys changed direction or bottled out at the last minute. The ‘changeover’ became more and more manic as the last dance approached.They called them ‘Ballrooms of Romance’, but ‘Ballrooms of Great Angst’ would have been a better description I always felt.
Anyway, on this occasion, the 50 metre dash is still an hour or two ahead; I’m just enjoying the music and admiring my heroes. Don steps up to the microphone, and, without any introduction, plays the opening G-D-C-D chords of the current No1: The Troggs’ “With a Girl like You”.
It is, and remains some 46 years later, a perfect pop moment, brought back to me sharply, and with a tinge of sadness, by the announcement of the death today of Reg Presley, who wrote and sang the song.
How could a lovesick 15 year old not feel the words were written for him, as he surreptitiously scanned the hall to see if The Girl’ had arrived yet.
“I want to spend my life with a girl like you
And do all the things that you want me to”.
On the brink of serious relationships, wanting the love of a partnership, without any clear idea of what it entailed, what it would ask of you, what you’d need to give, just knowing how good it felt to be smitten.
“I can tell by the way you dress that you’re so refined
And by the way you talk, that you’re just my kind;
Girl why should it be, that you don’t notice me?
Can I dance with you?”
Even the ‘Ba Ba ba’ at the end of each line seemed to echo the gibbering nerves of so many of us approaching the girl of our dreams, for that month, anyway.
The chorus rose musically in a reflection of our panic:
“Baby baby, is there no chance, I can take you for the last dance?
All night long now, I’ve been waiting – now there’ll be no hesitating”
And then, in the end, consolidating its position, as the national anthem of all of us for whom the hopes of romantic dreams outweighed the cold water of experience:
“So, before this dance has reached the end
To you across the floor my love I’ll send
I just hope and pray, that I’ll find a way to say:
Can I dance with you?”
Echoing across that half empty ballroom, the song was a manifesto for nervous youth, a promise of possibility if not probability. The whole point, really, of being a teenager. I loved Don Cotter for singing it, and I loved Reg Presley for writing it. I was not alone. This whole ‘asking a girl to dance and falling in love thing’ WAS difficult – even for a guy in a rock band!
Banal, simplistic, musically and lyrically naive? Of course it was. But then, they were all adjectives that just as accurately applied to the fifteen year old me. The song and I were a perfect fit, as I nodded to the guys in the band ostentatiously, hoping The Girl would notice how friendly I was with them, and some of the stardust might fall on my carefully combed hair, before I got too sweaty with my remarkably uncoordinated dance moves.
Innocent to the point of ridicule in these oh so fast days of the twenty first century; glorious as a trip to the moon in the late sixties.
I mourn Reg’s passing – not because he was a giant musical talent, but because, as his later life seems to have proved, he was ordinary enough to have given me a 150 second soundtrack to my dreams which, if I’m brutally honest, I’ve never fully shaken off. I hear those ‘ba-ba-ba-ba-ba’s whenever I catch an echo, or clicking steps across a polished wooden floor, and there’s a long haired man from Tipp in dark glasses singing to a half empty hall.
At some point in the evening, the local Guards would appear, stood upright at the back of the hall, caps in place, white belts round their uniform coats, large torches held like nightsticks. With little enough to do in those days, this was their way of patrolling the resort, the Sergeant serious and official, the younger Guard tapping along to the music, with the hand furthest away from his superior.
Later, there would be the final packed hour of the dance, the shouted conversations, the sweet taste and sticky floors of 7 Up, the hand around the waist, the tortured closeness of a slow dance,the meeting of eyes, and perhaps a wee kiss offering a hint of teenage perfume, as advertised in New Spotlight Magazine, or Fab 208.
Then it would be all over for another night: “Safe home from Kevin Flynn and the Editors Showband, Cahir, Co Tipperary. Hope to see you again soon.” Then rigidly at attention for the National Anthem,mumbling the words in laboriously learned Irish.
You would queue to get out in the suddenly bright lights of the ballroom, as the band behind you packed up their instruments, shared jokes, and looked forward to a pint in the Bar. Maybe you’d join them later.
Outside is a crush of cars, bicycles, couples heading off for a walk round the bay. There’s gangs of lads laughing and talking too loudly to disguise the fact that they’re going home alone; groups of girls joking behind their hands and handbags, about the girl who came with them but is leaving with a boy. Nobody’s drunk, and no drugs. There must have been unhappinesses submerged in that ballroom, but, right now, folk are high on life and summer.
The August night air hits you like a warm flannel in the face. You realise your shirt is sticking to you, a cold slap on the back, and you are blinking salt sweat out of your eyes. School science tells you that you’re on a chemical high from a combination of pheromones and endorphins, but, as a shooting star falls out of a sparkling sky into a dark sea, you prefer to thank Don Cotter and Reg Presley. Life is wonderful – and you just know the future is going to be good.
I hope it was good for Reg, for Don and the Editors Showband and for all the folk who danced at the Hydro in Kilkee in the 60s.
Thank you Reg.