When Eric Clapton played in Shropshire
The pre-publicity teasingly boasted of "a famous international guest star" appearing at a small venue in the wilds of the Shropshire hills. Somehow word got round. God was coming.
God, Slowhand . . . all nicknames for the guitar legend Eric Clapton. And indeed he did appear, playing along with Ronnie Lane, previously of The Faces, to a packed house at a country pub in a night which has gone down in pop folklore.
And all for just £1 on the door.
Some fans were turned away. Others were rumoured to have climbed in through the toilet windows at the Drum & Monkey at Bromlow.
The date was Friday, March 4, 1977.
Memories of that unforgettable night are being recalled in a special programme on BBC Radio Shropshire on February 7, from noon to 1pm, called The People's History of Pop – part of a BBC project (http://phop.co.uk/) collecting people's pop memories and memorabilia from the 1950s to the 1980s.
Johnty O'Donnell has been overseeing the project for Shropshire and has uncovered some incredible stories, and the programme will focus on the mid-1970s when Ronnie Lane left The Faces at the height of their fame in favour of a more simple life on the Shropshire border.
As Ronnie, who lived at Hyssington, near Bishop's Castle, began to drink and play in local pubs like the Drum & Monkey and The Miners Arms at Priest Weston, rock stars such as Eric Clapton began to visit.
Among those in the audience for that piece of pop history was Dave Bagnall, of Ironbridge, a Shropshire Star photographer at the time – he is a freelance these days.
He remembers it well.
"I did a job in Minsterley, I think it was, and met this guy who I think was the landlord of the Drum & Monkey pub. I don't remember his name. I had already photographed Ronnie Lane somewhere and the conversation came round to it. Ronnie Lane had already played in the pub, in the car park I believe, although I was not there for that, and I said if he was ever playing at his place again to let me know."
To digress for a moment, others recall that Clapton turned up to play towards the end of that car park gig.
Back to Dave's account: "Later I got a phone call and he said: 'I don't know whether you're interested, but Ronnie is playing tonight with Eric Clapton.'
"It was a no brainer. The other thing he said was: 'Don't tell too many people in advance, as we're only a small venue.' Obviously, I told all my mates. My wife went with me to watch and quite a few of my mates turned up.
"The strange thing is that most photographers who go to any form of concert complain of being too far away, but my problem was that I was too close. I was sat on the edge of the stage, which was only a little affair, so I was in their faces and couldn't do pictures I would have liked to have done.
"They had Ronnie Lane's band Slim Chance playing, and had their wives dressed as gipsies, dancing as almost a can-can dance. I was so close to them that I couldn't photograph them, it was impossible."
Those dancers included Pattie Boyd, former wife of George Harrison, who was destined to marry Clapton in 1979.
With the venue being so packed, Dave was unable to move further away to get different shots.
"There were too many people. It was rumoured that some people got in through the toilet window.
"Eric Clapton by then was really famous for Layla and lots of people kept shouting for him to play Layla. He responded by saying he couldn't remember the words, which I doubt is very true. All the music they played was Ronnie Lane's music.
"Strangely enough I liked Ronnie Lane more than Clapton at that time. I had photographed him in the early 1960s at the Majestic at Wellington when the Small Faces played there. I was well into Clapton's music as well. It two heroes in one for me.
"I was the only person taking pictures apart from Chris Whitehouse – son of Mary Whitehouse (the famous TV clean-up campaigner) – who was a reporter. I didn't approve of reporters taking photographs in those days, and he was using flash, which is a big no-no. Some bouncer guy came up to me and said: 'Are you using flash?' and I said: 'No, it's him.' I can't remember if they ejected him but they stopped him taking pictures so I ended up the only one taking pictures. It was quite difficult to take photographs, but having said that they were atmospheric, as it was a smoky atmosphere in there, with lots of people smoking in those days. The band were drinking large tots of whisky, and in one picture Ronnie Lane and Clapton are exchanging a glass.
"I had also photographed Ronnie Lane in the Quarry in Shrewsbury. He was living near Minsterley and started a thing called Passing Show which was like a circus tent. He toured the country with other entertainers like comedians, clowns, and other singers. He lost a lot of money doing it but it was really good."
Sadly, a shadow was about to fall over the rest of Lane's life as only a few months after that gig he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His treatment in the early 1980s included visiting Newtown to use a recompression chamber after research had shown the chambers, like those used by divers with bends, could help ease the effects of the debilitating illness.
He moved to America and died there in 1997. And as for the Drum & Monkey, that too has passed into history.
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