By Paul McLaughlin

Back in the 1950s, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke said that technology was indistinguishable from magic. Seventy years on, his words cast a spell that remains unbreakable and, as I flicked through the You Tube channel for want of something better to do that afternoon, I knew exactly what he meant.

There on screen were images, captured on film forever by the BBC in 1964, of Belfast youngsters dancing to the latest pop songs. It was magical and I was entranced and enchanted by the sheer energy and enjoyment on the faces of the boys and girls, but green with envy as my own memories came flooding back.

If only someone had had a movie camera. If only the local television station had had the foresight to come and film us as well. For a few short weeks in the Summer of 1964, our little corner of Belfast was also swinging to the sounds of the hit parade with no less drive and delight.

Our Saturday afternoon record hop in the main hall of St Bernadette’s Primary School never made it to celluloid, but for a few special weeks during that summer, I and all the seven to eleven-year-olds I knew were twisting and shaking with the best of them.

The local Parish Priest had given the venture his blessing. I’m sure the sixpenny cover charge of several hundred dancers made its way to him sooner rather than later. And, from two until five each week, the sounds of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Swinging Blue Jeans and the Searchers took us to another world.

A world of new and exciting noise that stirred the blood and freed the soul. I didn’t know it then, of course, but that little dance gave me a first and lasting taste of a music that refuses to age.
Chubby Checker – how politically incorrect is that for a name – dominated the dancefloor as if he were actually there. Everyone thought he or she could do the Twist, so everyone did. Including me!

Some boys and girls danced together, some girls with girls, but mostly a great mass of mad dervishes left their crisps and lemonades to one side when their favourites came on the turntable.
The Hollies, The Kinks, The Moody Blues and The Animals all had their say and we listened. The record player was boosted by a public address system not fit for purpose, but we didn’t care and when the live band hit the stage the place went crazy.

I remember the guitarist Charlie Turley, who lived just around the corner from the venue, as did the other lads in the band whose names I probably never knew, playing his instrument with the strap pulled over his head and the guitar actually behind him.

We were mesmerised as the Shadow’s ‘Apache’ and ‘Wonderful Land’ rang out in a fantastic, echoing, electric twang while their version of ‘Dance On’ became almost a command to the enthralled crowd. Charlie’s antics were, to use the buzzword of the time, ‘fabulous’ and all this two years before Jimi Hendrix had thought of conquering our shore.

The band played behind a wrought iron balustrade that bordered a stage more used to Irish dancing, verse speaking and daily prayers than this new rock ‘n’ roll and its stout frame served the dual purpose of keeping the horde of fans at bay and preventing over enthusiastic band members from impacting on the newly-laid parquet floor.
Linda was there every Saturday and is still there in my memory. Pretty as the picture that has stayed in my head. A first girlfriend whose hair danced perfectly behind its Alice band, whose white shoes could have walked to Wonderland itself. A memory that needs no cinematography.

I don’t know who called time on our weekly trip into the Top Twenty. Perhaps Father Higgins had had enough of the Devil’s music, but more likely the school’s headmistress, Miss Heaney, wanted her hall back in one piece for the start of the new school year.

Either way, the music stopped just as summer did and Saturdays were never the same again. Only the memory, like Clarke’s technology, remains to conjure up the magic.


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