In the early evening of New Year’s Day 1964, while the independent television network was busy with local news, the only BBC channel then available screened the first episode of a new series entitled Top of the Pops. Broadcast live from a converted church in Dickenson Road, Manchester, the 25-minute programme had no great expectations vested in it and was scheduled to run for just six weeks. But, perhaps more by luck than judgement, the BBC had stumbled upon a winning formula, and the show proved so popular that it lasted for more than two thousand episodes, spanning 42 years, as it became one of the longest running series in British television history and easily outlived its early rivals, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Juke Box Jury and Ready Steady Go!
Both the timing and the location of the show were fortuitous. The year just ended had seen sales of singles and albums reach an all-time high, with British acts in the ascendency for the first time since the introduction of the charts in 1952: fourteen of the seventeen #1 singles in 1963 were home-grown (the exceptions came from Frank Ifield and Elvis Presley), with a strong emphasis on acts from the north-west of England – records by the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Searchers, and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas all reached the top that year.
The creative centre of gravity in the domestic recording industry, hitherto fixed firmly in the song-writing and publishing networks of London’s Tin Pan Alley, was no longer as secure as it had been, and the choice of Manchester as a venue for the new programme (although made for budgetary reasons) seemed to reflect a general drift northwards.
The business of actually making records continued to be a London-based activity, but the talent scouts of the record companies were now seldom to be seen in the capital. Instead they spent their time chasing around the huge number of clubs in the clubs of Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and beyond in a fevered search for new scenes and new bands. ‘The beat scene had loads of clubs in the centre of town,’ remembered Manchester musician C.P. Lee. ‘I counted well over two hundred.’
Typical of many northern clubs was the Downbeat in Newcastle, where journalist Nik Cohn used to go and watch the Alan Price Combo (later known as the Animals): ‘It was stuck on top of some kind of disused warehouse, down towards the docks, and the railway bridge ran right outside it, making it shake. It was cramped, wet, ratty and music made its walls buckle. And it was a fierce atmosphere, it burned...’