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an early Penthouse poster, created by local artist and illustrator, Neil Pearson

The Penthouse days bring back passionate memories for the area's seasoned gig-goers, and in a new regular feature we'll be featuring memories from the venue's history, from both staff and regular punters.  For an opener, long-standing Penthouse DJ Mat Watkinson begins with recollections of his early adventures. 

Penthouse Profiles: Mat Watkinson

Intro

For just over 10 years, from 1970 to 1981, I DJ'd at The Penthouse, having taken over from my friend, Frank Avon, and relieved of my five hours a night, five, sometimes seven days a week* duties occasionally by Dave Beck, Paul Murray and the late Cedric McCullough. It was one of many happy times in my life, an experience you'd be unlikely to replicate today simply because of the huge significance of the artists involved. Some 600 of our most influential (and not so influential) rock, folk, soul, jazz and reggae artists passed through the back doors of the St Nicholas Street venue, formerly St George's Hall, a snooker room and used by what was at the time Scarborough Corporation. Today, it's an exclusive apartment block which is named after the club, a development echoed in Manchester by the same company which converted the legendary Hacienda into a similar block of luxury flats. As it was being converted, the company allowed me access to somewhere which became an integral part of the lives of people from Scarborough, Australia, Holland, Germany, New Zealand, France and the USA, while modestly refusing to force itself into the collective recall of rock historians. Ramsey Lewis played there, Eric Clapton previewed Layla there, the Sex Pistols played once to a room of 30 people and later to more than 1,000 over the period of one evening, with people queuing as far as Marks & Spencer till it was almost too late to get in.

What I'm bringing you here is a memoir. I'll leave the technical stuff, the accurate recall to others. When I can, I'll post interviews with some of the people who played for us, which I collected some years ago for a radio programme commissioned but not broadcast.  All photo contributions for future features are welcome.

* The club opened on Sundays in Summer with folk sessions featuring artists including Ralph McTell, John Martyn, Colin Scott, Noel Murphy & Shaggis and a great many more legends. I "sang" there several times before I realised this was unfair to the audience.

Early Days

I'd been to gigs before there was The Penthouse, in my life or anyone else's for that matter. I managed to get in to see the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band right when they were as close as they'd ever get to massive chart success in 1968, with I'm The Urban Spaceman. The Rats, the band that became The Spiders from Mars, played St Peter's youth club and I never felt any need to point out on the door that I wasn't Catholic. And there was, or there were, The Mandrakes, some of whom were schoolmates and one of which was Robert Allen Palmer, without the Robert then. I did my musical homework under the bedcovers with a home-built transistor radio tuned only to Radio Luxembourg and, later, John Peel on Radio 1 on the recommendation of my dad, who ten years earlier had forbidden me to watch Six - Five Special on BBC TV and ABCTV's 'Oh Boy!', both over the neighbour's fence on the Surrey council estate where we lived.

When The Penthouse opened in 1969, I'd have been in like a shot, except I wasn't quite old enough. I wouldn't be 18 until July. It didn't stop me going but I got rumbled in a way that called a brief halt to my gig going. I didn't have the money to go to the very first gigs - The Bedrocks and Roy Harper; and I didn't care too much that I would miss Peter Sarstedt . I missed too the wonderful Shirley Collins, managed to see Keef Hartley and the great British bluesman, Duster Bennett. For my sins, I saw Yes and was impressed, which would certainly not have impressed my hero, the Mighty Peel.

I was still at school, taking A-levels in English Literature, French and Art History, when dad showed me a piece in the paper about a poster competition run by The Penthouse and with something like money and beer as a prize. I entered with a screen print of a woman in a sort of Art Deco style, in cream and orange on a blue background, the stencils painstakingly cut with a craft knife, the screen and squeegee hand made in the school art room. I had no idea what sort of talent I would be up against and didn't care - why would I? When I found out I'd won, I was thrilled to bits, not realising what was to come. Because I was still only 17, I couldn't collect the prize in person and wouldn't in fact get anything until 24th July, so couldn't officially be the winner.

Unofficially, I still went to the club and I determined to make the most of the wait.

The Penthouse was owned by Peter Adams - as he was then - the man who gave me and everyone else lucky enough to pass through the doors of his St Nicholas Street rock and folk venue during its ten year heyday our incredible musical education. (He's been Rahim for years now, but still gets referred to as "Pete" which probably pisses me off more than it does him, which is why I try to put the record straight whenever I get the chance.)

In June every year, Scarborough hosted a fortnight-long trade fair - initially the Dutch Festival and later the Benelux Festival - one of the highlights of which was the carnival procession round the town, featuring fabulously decorated floats from local traders which drove at walking pace, interspersed with troupes of flag twirlers and young women handing out cheese. Peter had booked the Radha Krishna Temple that week - one of the many instances of his foresight in booking artists just about to become successful - and I offered to help him with his Penthouse float.

It was a bad decision for a great many reasons.

I decided to make a sort of awning, screen printed and tie-dyed with suitably hippie floral motifs, to be attached to long bamboo poles, which I scrounged from carpet shops (don't ask - in those days, carpets often came rolled on bamboo poles - perfect!). What I crossed off my list of priorities was the fact that it was on the afternoon I was taking my French A level. What I did was turn up to school with my flares and grandad vest, printed with an image I'd made of Chuck Berry, under my uniform. I sweated buckets in the makeshift exam centre that doubled as a gym, finished my exam in 35 minutes and asked to leave. Having since supported a student in a GCSE exam who similarly finished a bit swiftly, I now understood the invigilator's reluctance to let me go, but go I did - I passed OK, but only OK.

Unfortunately, the Krishnas had cried off - their Hare Krishna Mantra, released on the Apple label had reached Number 12 in the charts in August the previous year, so as cool as they might have been, we never got to see them, even though they appear on the celebration poster. Instead, Rahim substituted the much more fearsome anarchist, Edgar Broughton Band. Edgar (Rob to his friends), his brother, Steve, and Arthur Grant pitched up in a hired Ford Executive. We started out lashing the poles through the windows but this proved massively dangerous and I think we decided to send them back to St. Nicholas Street. We marched along with buckets, collecting money for the survivors of the Ancash earthquake in Peru at the end of May: the people lining the streets gave generously. The police were less than happy and arrested us for "collecting for charity without a licence." This was tame shit in terms of credibility, matching my arrest for hitchhiking on the motorway, having had to leave our broken down car on the way back from seeing Pink Floyd perform 'Atom Heart Mother' for the first time, in Hyde Park a month later. They gave us a lecture about how open to fiddling this might have been and let us go.

Yeah, right! Power to the people! Eat your heart out, Wolfie Smith.

 

Coming up in future articles: My very first DJ gig, more about that Pink Floyd Hyde Park premier, the first time I cleared a dance floor, Amazing Blondel and a dog named Matthew and how I got the job behind The Penthouse's wheels of steel.

Also, you will see above a very early Penthouse poster, created by local artist and illustrator, Neil Pearson. Neil created the iconic Penthouse logo of the beautiful girl with bubbly hair. There's much speculation about who inspired him, but so far, none of the guesses have been accurate.  In the coming weeks, I hope to bring you an interview with Neil about his memories of the club's early days...

Share your own Penthouse memories below and join the Facebook group.

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