The Mistrale Club, Beckenham – A DJ's story
These are some recollections of the Mistrale Club in Beckenham. I was resident DJ there for about 7 years and during that time there were quite a few changes. It was a long time ago and although I have no shortage of memories, I don't have date stamps so some of these things could be out of sequence.
In the late 60s I was working for Barry Thompson at Hatherley Garage at his car dealership in Sidcup. Mike Loveday was an amateur racing driver and had a little experience of being involved in a country club in Canterbury. He was in business with Barry in another venture and on hearing that the old Beckenham Ballrooms had closed, they had the idea of opening a London-style night club there. At that time Barry had a Maserati Mistrale coupe and that car provided the idea for the clubs name.
Samantha's Night Club in the West End had an E-type Jaguar as a DJ booth and Mike and Barry borrowed that idea but decided to use a vintage Rolls-Royce. A suitable vehicle was located in a barn in Kent and once back at the garage, it went into straight to the paint shop, where it was sprayed in gleaming white paint. It had the red R-R badge on the radiator which I believe dates it before 1934. One sunny Saturday morning I had the pleasure of driving it to the club at Beckenham. It all went well until reaching Chislehurst Common where it coughed and broke down with a fuel blockage and was towed the rest of the way. At Beckenham Junction, the builders were standing by, having knocked a large hole in the wall. They helped us push the car through and then bricked the hole up again.
A lot of work had been done in the premises, mostly painting and decorative details. Most of the walls were painted black to hide faults and unevenness. It was relieved by lighter paint in alcoves and pop art designs, very much in the late sixties style. There were three bars, two upstairs and one in the discotheque area. The entrance to the club was next to Beckenham Junction Station. As you came into the club, you would first be met by the door staff. I've read that one of them was Micheal Van Wijk who later became 'Wolf' on the Gladiators TV programme but I don't know about that. He's about the right age and he did come from that area so it maybe true but I don't know. They all seemed like good guys with useful personal skills like talking to defuse situations to keep things peaceful. Once in you approached a hatchway in the office on the right where you'd pay your money. That was a longish process as it was a members club, so you'd need to sign up and get a membership card.
Further down on the right was an attended cloakroom, where you could leave your coat. You'd be given a ticket by one of the girls. Toilets were down there too. Turning right past there you could either take the stairs up to the ballroom or carry on through an arch to the downstairs bar and discotheque. As you entered that part, you'd see the white Rolls ahead of you.
Up the stairs, you'd find a bar on the left or you could turn 180 degrees to the ballroom, edged by romanesque columns. At the far end was the stage and to the right a large alcove with tables and another bar. Beside the stage a fire escape led out onto Southend Road by the railway bridge. On Tuesday 16th April 1968 there was a preview night for local dignitaries. A West Indian steel band, 'The Cherry Pickers', played mellow music while Neil, Mike and Barry showed their guests around. The Chief Constable, Mayor, the Chairman of the Council were in attendance plus journalists and others like me, who were drafted in. Lots of champagne was handed around and I'm sure it helped grease the wheels and let these officials know what the place was like.
The Grand Opening was on Wednesday 17th April. The cost of entry was ten shillings, that's 50p in today's money. The bars were all very busy and any spare hands were roped in to help. I'd never worked in a bar before but I soon found my way around. That lower bar was run by a lady called Mrs Marshall and I think she may have been there since the old Beckenham Ballroom days. Two bands were on upstairs that night, the support act was 'The Grenades' and then 'Manfred Mann' and by that time Mike D'Abo was lead singer. They were enjoying a hit with 'The Mighty Quinn' at that time. The following night was billed as the opening of the discotheque with DJ Don Moss, a veteran of Radio Luxembourg and at that time on Radio 1. American vocal group, 'Reparata and the Delrons' appeared upstairs. They didn't appear on the handbill but their single 'Captain of Your Ship' had just peaked the previous week at No 13 in the UK charts so I think they must have been booked in at short notice.
A lot of great bands that played there in those early days and many were right at the peak of their popularity, even though some of them may not be remembered so well now. Ike and Tina Turner, Edwin Starr, Ben E King, The Alan Price Set, Zoot Money's Dantalions Chariot, Fairport Convention, Ginger Baker's Air Force, Marmalade, Jig Saw, The Pyramids, The Pretty Things, The Nice, The Skatellites, Tyrannosaurus Rex (pre T.Rex) P.P.Arnold, Mott the Hoople, Fleetwood Mac, Mungo Jerry, Genesis, The Box Tops, King Crimson, Desmond Dekker and the Aces, the Isley Brothers, the Chairmen of the Board, Black Sabbath, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Juicy Lucy, Moby Grape, Geno Washington, Free and I'm sure many others that escape me.
As well as the bands, all of the top Radio jocks would play upstairs. Emperor Rosko did Round Table on Radio 1 on Friday evening and a Saturday morning show so he didn't want to travel far between them so was frequently there on a Friday night. John Peel, Tony Blackburn, Kenny Everett, Chris Denning, Dave Cash, Ed Stuart, Ann Nightingale, Noel Edmonds, Dave Lee Travis and Stuart Henry all appeared. The discotheque was, I think one of the first to have stereo sound from speakers concealed in the walls. Those speakers were pretty weedy though without the bass we'd expect these days. There were illuminated perspex panels around the walls with pictures of dancers.
As I previously said, the records were played from the vintage Rolls-Royce. The DJs were two attractive Swedish girls, Unni and Bengte, I think. The equipment was a little primitive with just two turntables and a switch which would change from one to the other and a microphone. I think they got bored with the novelty of DJing fairly quickly. I was in the bar having a drink with Rob, who also worked at the garage one night and Barry Thompson approached and asked us to take over. Well, I'd been listening to Radio Luxembourg since I was 10. Pirate radio and Radio One that started up the previous year had shown us how it should be done. We reckoned we could do that easily enough.
We sorted through the records and found a few worth playing. We gradually developed a technique whereby one of us would announce the record while the other did the technical bit of dropping the stylus into the groove at the right time. That was how it was to start and we did gradually learn a bit about technique, particularly things like the felt slip mats that enable you to hold a record on cue and release it at the right time. We didn't get paid for this work, not in the beginning anyway, we did it for the enjoyment, oh and free beer. At some point, not too much later, a black ultraviolet tube was installed on the low ceiling in front of the Rolls. It picked out day-glo decorations which had been added to the car and on the walls. It also turned teeth green, showed up dandruff on dark jackets and highlighted white shirts and the girls underwear. This was the sixties!
At this time the evening closed with the Moody Blues 'Go Now'. Some time later a somewhat defaced copy of Jesse Belvin's 'Goodnight My Love' was presented to me by a guy named Steve, I never did know his second name. He was a lovely guy and regular helper around the place. One of the fashions at the time was shirts with roll collars. A men's boutique had agreed to supply us with clothes at a good discount in return for a favourable mention occasionally, so we got ourselves fitted out with a couple of shirts each which we wore with off-white jackets and flared trousers. Very smart we thought, the only drawback that we found with this rig-out was that when it got warm inside that Rolls, we found that it wasn't so easy to loosen a roll collar as it is with a more traditional style of shirt. We thought we were the bees knees, I'm not sure what others thought.
We were also learning about the type of music that went down in clubs. Whereas we had started off playing all the white top twenty material we gradually found out that the tamla and soul classics were the ones people liked to dance too and lots of other stuff that didn't get played on the radio. We were often being asked for Blue Beat and Ska but this was a fairly specialised subject with most of the records coming in as imports.
As the demand grew for ska, a special night was set up devoted to it. At this time several of the local sound systems were tried out. All this was a revelation to me. They brought in fifteen inch speakers and set them out around the place, really pushing out the bass. Their records all had the labels scratched out so no-one could see what they were. Rob and I didn't regard them as real jocks because they didn't use a mic to introduce the music they just spun the discs. The one that seemed most popular was Little Lee's Savoy Sound and it became a regular fixture on Thursday nights.
After a while, Rob found other things to do with his life and moved on. That was OK with me because I was more comfortable with it all getting more involved and quite happy to take care of it myself. Things were good, there was a good buzz about the place and we had a nice little clique that used hang about together.
There comes a time when any new club loses its initial buzz as people are attracted to other new and fresh things, so after a couple of years it was decided the Mistrale needed a bit of a facelift to ring the changes, so it closed for a few weeks while the work was done. A lot of the black paint disappeared and some lighter shades were used in parts of the club. Upstairs the original stage was removed and a new larger one was built to the right hand side of the ballroom. I think at this time a cafe/ snack bar with pinball and football machines went into an area by the cloakroom.
A perspex fronted DJ booth was built at fire exit side, (right as you went in) and a new sound system went in using Lee's speakers which the club bought from him. Lee now used the booth on Thursday nights. I found the new booth a great improvement, it was easier to access the records and the record playing equipment was much easier use and I could stand up or sit on a stool instead of being hunched over the decks. I could now see what was happening on the dance floor and the audience could see me.
The handbills for 1970 say:
Monday - Blues and Progressive
Wednesday - Dave Mitchell's Soul Discotheque
Thursday – Reggae sound of Count Lee
Friday – All Star
Saturday – Party Night
Sunday - Dave Mitchell's Soul Discotheque
The bands on upstairs on Friday and Saturday nights seem much less memorable at this time. February 1970 featured 'Coloured Raisins', 'Blues Quality Band' from Sweden, 'Eire Apparent', 'Almond Marzipan', 'Ferris Wheel', 'Mayfield Mule', 'Danny Ray Christie'. I have to say that I don't remember any of them. Some bigger bands also appeared occasionally, Genesis (March '70), Mungo Jerry (December '70 & March '71), Mott the Hoople (April '71), Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (October '71), Ashton, Gardner & Dyke (October '71) and Fleetwood Mac (July '71). Local band Gun Hill were regulars on the Monday Blues and Progressive nights and between sets, I played progressive album tracks from what was previously the 3rd bar upstairs. On Thursday nights in 1970 as well as Count Lee's records, 'Mood Reaction' played live reggae upstairs. It seems from the October 1971 flyer, Count Lee was not playing and Thursday nights became Swinging Sixties nights with live music from 'The Housebreakers', 'The Magic Rock Band', 'Storm Pack' and 'Mike L and the Free Birds'.
As we got to 1974 audiences had declined and it was time for another refurb, this time it would be much more radical. That was the end of the Mistrale Club after six years and after a complete refit, it reopened as 'Tites Club'.
The layout of the club was completely different and the entrance now came into where the discotheque had previously been. The Rolls Royce was now placed at the entrance and that was where the money was taken. That beautiful sprung dancefloor, that had been there since the ballroom's earliest days, now had a gigantic hole cut in it. Above the hole was a huge glassfibre bat complete with two red bulbs as eyes looking down on the dance floor below. The area where the stage had been became a seated area from where you could see the dance floor. The walls throughout had been remodelled with rough plaster over wiremesh to give a cave like appearance. As you came in past the main bar you got to the dance floor and ahead was a raised plinth made to look like a large tree stump. This provided the DJ area and it had a huge spider above with its legs coming down to frame the DJ booth. The stage was now to the right where bands and guest DJs would appear. It also had a large cinema screen which could be rolled down with an electric motor to show movies, or a light show from the projectors that were mounted at the far end. On the wall opposite the DJ booth were a couple of TV screens on which video could be played with or without sound coming from the disco speakers which were also flown from the ceiling. The area between the dance floor and the entrance door was a large modern looking bar. On the right hand side of this area was a 'restaurant' which provided simple meals and you could continue to buy drinks after licensing hours if you bought a meal. Richard Taylor and Lee Lang joined me as the resident DJs, covering the different nights. Richard and I would work the Friday and Saturday nights together.
At weekends there were often bands on stage but not the big names that had appeared at the Mistrale. Most frequently it was DJ roadshows on the stage. The Radio One guys were frequent, Johnny Walker, Dave Lee Travis, Rosko. Mike Allen was also a frequent visitor in the days before he was on Capital Radio.
Two memories stand out for me during that time. One Friday night when I was Djing, I looked over the dance floor and noticed a guy in a smart suit dancing with a girl, it was David Bowie. I didn't say anything but put on a Lou Reed track next. He gave me a nod a few minutes later before he wandered off. Another night, maybe a Wednesday, it was really quiet and a couple of guys wandered in and stood by the bar. One of them was Rod Stewart. I left an LP playing and joined him at the bar. We chatted for a while before I went back to my post and carried on.
I was working on New Years Eve 1974. The band that night was Jigsaw (Sky High) who I'd got to know as they'd played there several times before. There had been a lot of changes in my life that year and I needed a new plan. Talking to the guys helped me develop a plan and unusually for a New Years Eve, those plans stayed with me the following morning. By the spring of 1975 I was ready to move on. I moved to West London and worked with my own roadshow. I was working closely with Mike Allan who was now at Capital Radio and he put plenty of work my way. I did return to Tites as a guest DJ with my roadshow on a couple of occasions.
They were great years and many great memories.