LOOKING BACK - January 2, 2020 edition

Remember the days of The Merrymakers?

The Reprobates drummer Brian Meredith

It wasn’t the hills, rather the streets of Rugby that were once alive to the sounds of music. Former Advertiser reporter John Phillpott meets up with a man who back then was very much part of the action…

IF you had walked along Rugby’s Clifton Road and arrived at the junction with Rokeby Street around the late summer of 1964, the chances are that you would have heard The Reprobates practising hard.

You just couldn’t miss it… thumping bass drum and pistol shot snare meets the smoking major chords guitar riff to You Really Got Me, the first single from new group The Kinks.

John Phillpott when he was an Advertiser reporter in the 1960s

Numbers such as Ray Davies frantic hormone-drenched opus to love were standard fare for The Reprobates, and indeed most of the emerging ‘beat’ groups in and around Rugby in those days.

The group would regularly practise at the home of ‘Reps’ guitarists Paul and Theodore Barker. One can only hope that the neighbours were perhaps slightly understanding...

Six decades later and I’ve caught up with ex-Reprobates drummer Brian Meredith. As you might imagine, the conversation turns to the 1960s Rugby rock scene, and in particular an annual event that was very much an institution in the town.

The Merrymakers. There will be many Rugby people who will recall those long lost balmy summer evenings when this strolling band of players entertained the crowds on village greens and playing fields throughout the area.

Slapstick humour was on the menu, I recall, laced with musical offerings from one of the local groups which were at that time springing up almost overnight like the proverbial mushrooms.

The Merrymakers’ origins can be traced back to the amateur dramatic and musical explorations of Rugby’s apprentices, many of whom lodged at Coton House near Churchover.

Coton House was the former home of Mr and Mrs Arthur James, who had once entertained King Edward VII on one of his royal progresses. In the post-war period it became a dormitory for apprentices, some of whom had come from far afield to work in Rugby.

The Merrymakers were created by some of these youngsters who had musical or theatrical interests, and traditionally toured the Rugby area as a prelude to the Rugby Rag Festival.

This in turn came to its glorious conclusion in early September with the Beggars’ Ball, either held at Bridget Street Drill Hall or Rugby’s Benn Memorial Hall.

At some stage there would be a procession of floats through the town’s streets. On one occasion, I recall sitting at a desk complete with typewriter on the back of a flatbed lorry.

The custom was for the crowds to throw coins in the cause of charity. But I must say that when the Rugby Advertiser float sailed down North Street, the volleys of high velocity pennies and sixpences were so great that my colleague and I had to dive for cover.

However, my first introduction to the Merrymakers had come about in the summer of 1963, when they set up in front of Churchover’s Greyhound Inn on the village green. With the grass slope along the fence of Church Farm acting as a natural amphitheatre, the locals were entertained with sketches and then a few numbers courtesy of The Reprobates.

I remember a man in the audience lighting a cigar. A woman nearby, smelling the smoke, remarked that it seemed like Christmas. Showbiz didn’t come all that often to Churchover.

Several Rugby groups cut their teeth performing with The Merrymakers, outfits such as Sam Spade and the Gravediggers and the Surf Siders, whose drummer Des Dyer would later go on to enjoy great success with Coventry band Jigsaw.

The Reprobates eventually became Big Idea, with Mick Bradley taking over the drum chair. Mick was a hugely talented drummer, but tragically died from leukaemia in February, 1972, aged just 25, as his band Steamhammer were on the verge of international fame.

And Brian Meredith? Well, he became a multi-instrumentalist and went on to enjoy many years playing in bands both in the Midlands and West Country, where he now lives in retirement.

So these days, I imagine it’s all quiet on the Rokeby Street front…

Footnote: John Phillpott was at the Rugby Advertiser from 1965 to 1969, going on to work on a number of newspapers in a career spanning more than 50 years.

His book Beef Cubes and Burdock, published by Austin Macauley, chronicles his boyhood growing up in Churchover during the 1950s. It is available on Amazon and at bookshops.