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Ed Bicknell: Managing Dire Straits, The Who Live at Hull, and the Union Ents Committee

Continuing our series of first hand accounts of student life, music, and protest in Hull during the late 1960s, we were pleased to receive contact from Ed Bicknell, (BA Social Studies, 1969). Ed took care of the Students’ Union Entertainments during that time and was responsible for bringing an incredible list of performers onto campus and into the city. These acts included The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Family, Joe Cocker, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers and many more. In this piece, Ed recalls those times and shares some inside stories.

After graduation Ed’s career took him into the music industry where he managed British rock band Dire Straits for many years. During his time with the band, they sold over 140 million records, won four Grammys, three Brits, two MTV video music awards, and spent over 1,100 weeks on the UK albums chart. He says of his distinguished career: ‘Everything I learned at University came into play, even parts of the degree!’

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Ed Bicknell, BA Social Studies (1969)

I paid my first visit to Hull for many years about 6 weeks ago ( October 2015) to give “advice” about turning the Holy Trinity Church into a venue ( whilst keeping it as a place of worship), via an introduction from Jane Bennett Powell, who as many will know runs the London Alumni group ( thank you Jane).

 

I believe it’s the largest Parish Church in the UK ( will take up to 1000) and has fantastic potential – in fact several concerts have already been put on by the amazing team behind the development- a really enthusiastic and dedicated bunch who unquestionably will achieve their goal. What’s odd is that I spent three years in Hull 1966-69 and didn’t know the Church existed !

Having too much fun I’m afraid.

Amazing the changes to the City. So much has disappeared! I was last there playing drums with Mark Knopfler’s “spin off” band The Notting Hillbillies at the City Hall in 1990 I think.

Great gig and audience, all nine of them (I jest, there were 17). I do recall that our dressing room was the “robing room” for the Graduation Ceremony back in June 1969. I recognized the coat hooks!

That was long before there was a Marina, Holiday Inn , Princes Quay shopping centre and Hull Truck Theatre (on the site of the old Mecca Ballroom) and so much else. Oh, and I mustn’t forget The Deep.

I see the Cecil Theatre where I saw the Buddy Rich Orchestra (amazing) is now a bingo hall. Having some spare time I visited to the old student union (Staff House) which I hadn’t been in since July 1969!

A very odd experience. Spooky.

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1969 Needler Hall prior to gig

I had a look at the old refectory (on the left after you come in) where I used to put on bands (and the one on the right- now a restaurant/ snack bar I think) which we used for discos (pre “disco”) The centre room/ restaurant right in front as you enter was The Buttery bar back then, and the centre room upstairs we used for films on weekends.

Mostly Marx Brothers and the current fare of the time including many so-called kitchen sink movies- doom laden dramas set “up North”, along with 2001, Far from the Madding Crowd, Marat/ Sade, things like that.

Cans of film would arrive on Friday afternoons and were dispatched back on Monday mornings. The original Reception is now a brick wall on the left as you come in.

My “Ents office” was where the reception lady now sits opposite…..a wall has been taken out but I occupied that for a year fielding calls from booking agents before moving to a room behind the old kitchens and sharing with Chris Mullin (later Labour MP and great author) who was editing the student magazine, Torchlight.

One telephone, one desk. What really struck me was the size and height of the stage and narrow access down the stairs behind. Both so small considering who played there.

I took over running the Union Entertainments in October 1967- the start of my second year doing a BA in Social Studies – a “new” course back then.

I was already running the Jazz and Folk clubs (I’ve no idea how or why I managed that), and helping the various halls of residence put on dances and small concerts, including Needler where I moved that Autumn after a grim year in “digs” in Pearson Avenue eating meat pies with no meat.

There was no election as theoretically required. My predecessor Malcom Haigh (who was tragically killed in a car accident in 1970) simply said ” Don’t be daft, sod having a bloody election. You do it. I’m off to do my finals” and that was that.

I should mention he was a pretty useful jazz pianist and along with a guitarist called Pete Rowntree and a flautist called Neil, we’d formed a band within about two weeks of my initial arrival in 1966.

Malcolm then booked us onto every Campus event he possibly could and we supported the likes of Alexis Korner, Ralph Mctell, Champion Jack Dupree, Michael Chapman (great local folk singer) and so on. Strangely a contemporary recently sent me a tape of one of those gigs (the one with Ralph). Unlistenable! Really dreadful. But at the time we thought we were great. Sad really.

Once I took over the Ents “Committee” ( a fantastic, very organized and supportive bunch), I made one defining decision:

I would put on the bands that I liked and somehow sell them to the student audience which included a technical college next door and a teacher training college nearby. About 10,000 to 12,000 students in total to draw from. It couldn’t have been better time wise.

Many artists who’ve gone on to huge and sustained success since were literally surviving off the “college circuit” which was extremely vibrant then. Plus we had the good fortune to be close to Sheffield and Leeds Universities and I managed to arrange for bands playing there to come over to Hull and vice versa.

Ed Bicknell WhoMuch of The Who’s “Live In Leeds” was actually recorded at Hull City Hall (after I’d left) but as Pete Townshend (sorry, name drop) said to me many years later “Live In Hull doesn’t have quite the same ring about it”. Very droll is our Pete.

This was long before motorways, by passes and bridges over the Humber and getting acts to even consider coming up from London was difficult. In fact one or two simply never made it!

Readers might be interested in how much those who did get there were paid. I know the value of money has changed a teeny bit (!), but here we go:

  • The Who (£250, £350)
  • Jimi Hendrix (£350)
  • Pink Floyd (£150 Union and £300 at the Lawns Centre)
  • Muddy Waters Blues Band (£350, VERY chuffed to get them)
  • John Lee Hooker (£250, and him)
  • The Kinks (£350)
  • Jethro Tull (£400- top 3 single)
  • Geno Washington (£250 , £300)
  • John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers (£300)
  • The Moody Blues (£110,£125,£150 -3 visits)
  • Joe Cocker and the Original Grease Band (£40 – yes ! Came over from Sheffield)
  • Ten Years After (£250)
  • Family (£175, £250- in my opinion the best band we had)
  • The Alan Bown (£125, £150)
  • Ralph Mctell, (several times £50-£75)
  • Al Stewart, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn (same)
  • Jimmy James and the Vagabonds (£200)
  • The Action (£75)
  • The Pretty Things (£125)
  • Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum (£125)

I kept all of the contracts and I can’t remember a bad show.

Actually there was one – Manfred Mann, who we put on at the Beverley Road swimming baths with a wood floor over the pool. Don’t ask. They had a bad night (not THAT bad), and voluntarily sent back £75 of the £300 fee. Amazing. Would NEVER happen now.

With that exception the rest were all great and it won’t surprise anyone to know The Who were deafening and duly smashed everything at the end of ” My Generation”. Moon’s drum kit ended up in the audience and when they’d finished nobody applauded and no one left. Too stunned. Brilliant.

In THAT hall.

Ed Bicknell PFPink Floyd did a bit of “performance art” at the first show. During one piece the roadies came on and boiled a kettle. The whistle in the spout produced exactly the right note at the right point in the song.

We had two local bands who I’d regularly pay £50 to support. Mandrake Paddle Steamer from Scarborough who had a singer called Robert Palmer (RIP), and a blues band called The Rats.

Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey. They became David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars. Great musicians and even better guys who I stayed in touch with right up to Mick’s sad passing in April 1993. Fitting that there is a Memorial Stage in his name in Queen’s Gardens.

Mandrake Paddle Steamer had the dubious honour of FOLLOWING Hendrix at a Skyline show in March 1967. Particularly intimidating since at the end of “Wild Thing” he stuck his guitar in the ceiling tiles and as it howled with feedback walked past me on his way to the dressing rooms ( actually the kitchen).

“******* great” was all I could say, which solicited a big grin.

To put those fees in context using “current” currency- a regular Saturday night gig in the Union would cost about 25p. The Union Ball in Feb 1968 which featured Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity (number 4 single from memory), Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Blossom Toes, disco, steel band AND a meal was priced at around £1.25p.

When some of the acts sold too many tickets for the Union building we had to move them into either the Mecca Ballroom ( Mayall/ Tull/ Kinks, cap about 1800) or the Skyline ( Hendrix/ Geno, 1500 on top of the Co- op) in Hull itself.

Those shows were open to the general public. Student Union gigs were not due to restricted capacity (about 900 packed in) and the licensing regulations.

No one, least of all me, took any notice of fire limits. I don’t think I even knew what a fire limit WAS back then and certainly no fire officer or anyone to do with Health and Safety EVER visited the Union. Very different times.

In fact not one of those acts ever had more than two road crew, no one had a truck bigger than 3 tons, no one brought any lights, no one did a sound check , no equipment arrived before 5 pm and no one went on later than 8.30 pm. Sets were either 2x 45 minutes or 75 minutes.

As I say, VERY different times.

Of course ALL of this had an ulterior motive. Girls. Now I need to be politically correct ( not something on the screen in the late Sixties), but it has to be said that Hull was a very…. how can I put this ….”sociable” place to be. I’m sure every other further education establishment across the UK was then and still are, but in terms of Union “jobs”, running the Entertainments had a certain cachet that didn’t really come with the North Sea Fishing Society or the Men’s Knitting Association ( no offence intended).

In closing I must add that the entire University experience could not have been better in terms of the career I eventually fell into.

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Ed Bicknell’s ‘EB’ drum kit plus technician

After failing utterly as a “professional” drummer and being sacked from an embryonic Average White Band for not being Scottish (in truth I wasn’t good enough), I accidentally bumped into one of the agents who used to try and sell me his crappy bands, on Oxford Street in early 1970.

 

“I can’t pay you anything but you can have half of everything you earn for the office” is stamped into my mind as if it were yesterday.

So with no money, no immediate prospects and in spite of the fact he had NO acts, I took up his “offer” and some years later had the good fortune and HUGE luck to be asked to see a “new” band looking for management playing in a tiny London club for £25 whilst renting a PA system for £75.

The band was Dire Straits and that night changed my life.

I went on to work with them, Mark Knopfler, Bryan Ferry, Gerry Rafferty (RIP), Scott Walker, Paul Brady and The Blue Nile over the next 30 years and EVERYTHING I learned at University came into play, even parts of the degree (the law and economics bit!) Lesson One: If you can’t read a poster from the top of a double decker bus it’s not going to be worth diddly squat.

Who it is, where it is, when it is and how much is all you need.

It took me 3 years in Hull to learn that and I had the best time.

The BEST .

Ed Bicknell

21 thoughts on “Ed Bicknell: Managing Dire Straits, The Who Live at Hull, and the Union Ents Committee

  1. WOW that article really brings the memories back. If I recall correctly it was normally five shillings ( equivalent to four pints of Hull Bitter !!) to gain entry into these gigs. At the time they just seemed to be quite normal fare for University students and it was only in retrospect that one realised one had watched true legends of the music scene for the price of a few pints.

    I particularly remember ‘The Who’ event, with them breaking their equipment after ‘My Generation’ which was seen as an outrageously extravagant act. Equally I remember going to see Manfred Mann at the Hull Baths when they were so off their heads not to be totally coherent. Even so it was quite a shock to be offered a refund as they were still great entertainment. The Moody Blues were a particular favourite at the time at Hull, and they were absolutely great guys who mixed with the students for a pint after their gig. I still have a signed record from them all, in some distant attic. How many students of the 1960’d have got LP’s stored away somewhere ? ……most I should imagine.

    Ed Bicknell himself was a bit of a legend and everyone at Hull just regarded him as Mr Ents Comm…….he was the local impresario that delivered the goods. He was at Needler Hall at the same time as myself and had a wonderful way of keeping life uncomplicated. I am sure he will not mind me saying that he only had two interests…..music and girls ……anything else was largely irrelevant to him. He was the kind of guy that very much did his own thing and for example you could not imagine him going for ‘milk round’ interviews for mega company graduate schemes, like most of us did. That would have been an anathema to him and it was so appropriate to hear after a few years that he was managing ‘Dire Straits’. He had found his true niche and I suppose in those days it was a bit easier for graduates to do this, as there were relatively much fewer chasing the opportunities that were going.

    I loved Ed’s comments about the lack of red tape needed to put on an event in those days. It is easy to forget how we have all been taken over in the last thirty years or so (for good and for bad) by the era of regulation. Then it was far, far easier to just do things and then manage the consequences.

    Thanks Ed for the great memories and for putting on all events, even though you did it without a Health and Safety Officer being in attendance……..none of us would have turned up if we had known!!

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    1. A life less ordianry by today’s standards. Great to hear that Hull Uni has always been cool. Somehow I can’t see people in 25 years talking about seeing Texas and the Proclaimers in 1989 in the same terms.

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  2. That was a great read and brought back many memories. I was there from 66-69 too and remember (mostly remember) a lot of those “events”. I also remember many good evenings at the Folk Club – don’t know if Ed was responsible for bringing these people in, but Michael Chapman, Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, Tony Capstick, Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick & the wonderful Watersons spring to mind. What a superb musical backdrop to 3 great years in Hull!

    Les Kirkham (History, 1966-1969)

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  3. i signed the booking contract for a dire straights gig at hull university as vice president around 1978-you must have been the manager ! we booked them just at the cusp of going massive – they played the refectory and I remember the music yes , but also the kerfuffle as the band had to access the stage via the kitchen and a giant vat of mushy peas was knocked over by accident as the band were going through the kitchen to get to the stage with me having to deal with the fury of Arthur the porter who had to clean up while sultans of swing was on in the background – happy days

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  4. How nice to get such feedback ( and not from Jeff Beck).
    Les- I didn’t really “run” the folk club but I often ” booked” the artists for them….certainly Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Al Stewart , Ralph McTell and Michael Chapman ( who is local to Hull).
    David- you are correct- Dire Straits played the Union on November 9 1978 . The first album ( the one with Sultans of Swing on it), had just been released ( June 8) and that show was in a nice ” run”, Keele, Hull, York, Sheffield Universities.
    I certainly agree re Family. The second time they came in June 69 was the best show we put on in my opinion, and was also the last concert I was involved in.
    Having said all that, the best memory for me?
    The mushy peas David refers to.
    From memory the only vaguely green ” vegetable ” ever served in the West Refectory. Along with “individual steak pie and chips” .
    Every day. EVERY day.
    Except substitute Fish Pie on Fridays.

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    1. Didn’t we call the refectory “Ben’s”? Was there actually a Ben, or was he a dour mythical figure? I remember someone at the sit-in debate saying they had been eating one of Ben’s pork pies and it tasted ad though it had been sitting in for a week.
      Ed, we have all got a lot to thank you for. One of the most talented Hull student generations had the very best in music. It can’t have done other than develop us all.

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    2. Didn’t we call the refectory “Ben’s”? Was there actually a Ben, or was he a dour mythical figure? I remember someone at the sit-in debate saying they had been eating one of Ben’s pork pies and it tasted as though it had been sitting in for a week.
      Ed, we have all got a lot to thank you for. One of the most talented Hull student generations had the very best in music. It can’t have done other than develop us all.

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      1. In my memory a ” Ben” was the term for the actual meal ie as in ” going for a Ben” or ” fancy a Ben?” Yes. There was a Ben. A human being ( some said). He ran the Union as a kind of full time General Manager on the payroll. He would look over the contracts for my bookings and say ” is this going to be ok? Are you sure about this ?” As £300 leapt from the page. But he never knocked anything back and fortunately we did run at a profit. Nice guy. He had more to worry about with the state of the peas than the Ents Commitee I think. They really were VERY mushy. Like a big green blob with no individual pea identifiable.

        Ed Bicknell.

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      2. I’m very happy to report that the quality of mushy peas has improved significantly on campus. A recent reunion group enthused warmly about the home-made flapjacks in Betty’s Cafe during the 1970s/80s recently, which was a hatch on the ground floor of the Larkin Buildling. Chris

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  5. What an impressive life! So good to read. I remember Ed from before Hull as we were at the same school. I feel/am a generation older – graduated 1966. I trust our Headmaster would be impressed by Ed – probably equally surprised that after he struggled to get me to university I went on to do a PhD (Birmingham) and spend a considerable part of my life in research, even in London and USA – in those days an adventure for us country people. Seems Hull was the start for a lot of us.
    Yes Ben was around even in my day. In those days we had to be in digs or Hall until 21, my digs had such good food I do not recall much of the refectory offerings. Brings back happy memories of those days. Thank you.

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    1. Hello Carolyn!
      What a very sweet and generous thing to say.
      I assume you’re referring to my Dad as “Headmaster” at Tadcaster Grammar School. What a small world it really is.
      He and my Mum came to see Dire Straits at Sheffield Arena (August 91) and were literally stunned.
      Couldn’t believe it … especially the volume and lighting, plus the cost when I told them! £285,000 a day. THEN.
      And to think the highest fee of any act we put on at Uni was £400 ( Jethro Tull…one truck).
      When I first set off for London July 4 69 they were understandably worried but very supportive. “The Music Business…what’s that ?” ( Actually it wasn’t called that then and it wasn’t even a business at that stage …).
      I was just a fan. Still am.
      Very little surprised my Dad.
      He would have been DELIGHTED by your achievements ( maybe you told him?).
      Thanks for the compliment
      Take care
      Ed.

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  6. Ed, I wonder if you could get in touch with me via email. I doubt you will remember me but we met in the heady days of 1972 when I was on Cardiff Ents (and Rag) -we booked many bands through you including Ralph McTell and Quintessence. I’m currently writing a thesis on the evolution of music in that period and would like to interview you if you could spare 30 mins or so. Looking forward to hearing from you. John

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    1. You’re right. I don’t! But I absolutely recall booking many acts into Cardiff University…Quintessnce! Blimey. I saw Ralph not long ago. Still the same and still playing the same songs.
      Here’s my email so get in touch. More than happy to help. Do not forget the influence of marihuana in that period. Quintessnce being a good example!
      Ed.

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    2. Dear recipient I’ve answered this but I can’t tell if it’s gone through. It’s fine to give John this email address. Thanks Ed Bicknell

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