It’s 60 years since an unknown band took to the stage of Alloa Town Hall and began a musical revolution, finds Sandra Dick

For excitement-starved young people in one of Scotland’s sixties industrial heartlands, the invitation for a night of dancing and entertainment at Alloa Town Hall must have been tempting.

The Beat Ballad Show on offer in 1960 featured Liverpool-born Johnny Gentle, a “crooner” with an Elvis-style quiff who had flirted briefly with chart success, alongside his band and a support act.

And surely after a week working in the town’s breweries, glass factories or surrounding coal mines, the chance to gather until 1.30am for the princely sum of just 4/- would have been hard to resist.

Still, the young folks of Alloa who gathered to be entertained by the smooth vocals of Johnny Gentle and his hastily-arranged backing group on Friday, May 20, 1960, could not for a moment have realised they were about to bear witness to the birth of one of the world’s greatest bands.

Or, for that matter, that the support act that shared the stage that Friday night six decades ago would go on become Scottish legends.

Providing the musical backdrop to Gentle were The Silver Beetles – Liverpool lads cutting their teeth on stage, who would eventually go on to become The Beatles.

And rubbing shoulders with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Edinburgh-born “fifth Beatle” Stuart Sutcliffe was none other than “sensational” Alex Harvey.

The gig came and went, with Gentle and The Silver Beetles heading onwards in a rickety van to play in small-town halls and ballrooms in Inverness, Fraserburgh, Keith, Forres, Nairn and Peterhead.

The seven-date tour – which left the group with less money than they had started off with – would be a far cry from the packed stadiums and Beatlemania that was just around the corner.

But according to lifelong Beatles fan and journalist Ken McNab, author of The Beatles In Scotland, the band’s first-ever Scottish appearance in the humble surroundings of Alloa Town Hall was a pivotal moment in music history.

“The Beatles later said that this was an important tour because it helped them get to a certain level,” he says. “It was the first time they had played in front of a crowd. Before then, they were pretty much just playing school dances in Liverpool.

“This tour with Johnny Gentle was a chance to see if they could cut it as a band.”

Gentle – real name John Askew – had pushed hard to achieve some chart success after signing for Philips Records in 1959 but had seen his efforts fall just short.

However, a growing vibe around Liverpool-based music had inspired his shrewd manager, Larry Parnes, to send his artist on tour with a young backing group from his home city.

“Larry Parnes was the Simon Cowell of his day,” explains McNab.

“He held auditions in Liverpool looking for people to back Billy Fury and Marty Wilde.

“The Beatles went but flunked the audition. But they had a certain charm. Larry Parnes decided they had enough about them to be teamed up with Johnny Gentle on a tour of fairly remote Scottish dance halls.”

There were just 10 days between the audition and the Alloa gig. Not much time to practise their chords, but enough for The Silver Beetles to christen themselves with colourful stage names. Paul McCartney became Paul Ramon, Stuart Sutcliffe was reinvented as Stuart de Stael, George Harrison became Carl in honour of Carl Perkins and John Lennon simply Long John.

First, however, the fresh-faced McCartney had to appeal for permission from his father.

“He was only around 17 years old and had to get permission to sag off school when he should have been doing his exams. That meant persuading his father that there was a future in this rock and roll business,” adds McNab.

The gig left an impression on the teenage McCartney. Speaking to BBC Scotland presenter Billy Sloan following his sell-out gig at the Hydro in Glasgow in 2018, he told how the show in Alloa sparked a lifelong love affair with Scotland that would eventually see him and wife Linda set up home on the remote Mull of Kintyre.

“We’d never really travelled anywhere. We’d pretty much always been in Liverpool, maybe only ever taking a little train trip to Southport, half an hour away,” he said at the time.

“So, coming up to Scotland was like travelling to a foreign country.

“It was very primitive. But it was OK because we were primitive – we didn’t have any equipment apart from guitars and a couple of amps. The audiences didn’t know who we were, nobody did.

“We were just Johnny Gentle’s backing band. They didn’t even know who he was.”

The band are said to have met Gentle just half an hour before they took to the Alloa stage, spending 20 minutes rattling through a setlist that included covers of Buddy Holly’s hit Raining In My Heart and American roccker Eddie Cochran’s C’mon Everybody.

Despite the age gap between the star of the show and his young fellow Liverpudlians, the singer appears to have struck up a close relationship. Within a day of the meeting, and by this time 150 miles north in Inverness, Gentle and John Lennon settled down to pen a song together.

“Lennon wrote one of his first songs with John Gentle,” adds McNab. “It had the chorus line ‘the best things in life are free’, which cropped up later in a Beatles song.

“John Gentle later said he felt he was in on the ground floor of The Beatles’ rise to fame.”

The 1960s tour also gave the young band a taste of life on the road – with all its bumps and turns. For drummer Tommy Muir, it would turn out to become something of a dead end.

Ten years older than the rest of the band, he had left work in a bottle factory in Liverpool where he worked as a forklift truck driver to take part in the Scottish tour. It wouldn’t end well.

“They had a car crash up in Highlands,” recalls McNab. “This guy Moore ended up in hospital, pretty shaken up.

“John Lennon hauled him out of his hospital bed, telling him ‘don’t think you will be missing this gig’.”

Despite suffering from concussion and loosened teeth when the band’s equipment landed on him, Moore turned up as ordered for the gig at Dalrymple Hall in Fraserburgh, apparently so loaded with painkillers that he had no idea where he was.

By the time the band arrived in Forres on May 26, they were penniless and sleeping in the back of their van despite repeated calls to tour promoter Parnes for money.

However, according to McNab, the tour played a vital role in laying the foundations for the band they would soon become.

Within two years drummer Moore would be a faded memory and Ringo Starr would be on board. And The Beatles swapped Alloa for Hamburg, playing 10 hours a day and refining their musical skills ready to take the world by storm.

“The Scottish tour was an important rung in the ladder,” adds McNab. “For those kids in Alloa, it would have been just like any other weekend, rolling up to the local hop.

“Never for a minute would they have thought that next time they heard of The Beatles. They would be huge.”