Friday, 1 February 2013

The Maritime Hotel

The Maritime Hotel was a music venue in Belfast that is most closely associated with Them's early sensational shows.  In fact the Maritime is considered the birthplace of rhythm and blues in Northern Ireland when Them and other groups began to play there in April, 1964. 
In the early 1960s, Belfast nightlife largely consisted of a number of licensed cabaret clubs with genteel pianists and singers and an array of sedate ballrooms where smart-suited showbands pounded out cover versions of the latest hits. But in April 1964 a spartan seamens' hostel in College Square North, Belfast, which had formerly been a Royal Irish Constabulary police station, was transformed into the Club Rado and a new rhythm 'n' blues movement in the city was inaugurated. 

Them came about at the beginning of April 1964 when Morrison responded to an advert for musicians to play at the new R&B club being created at the Maritime Hotel. The new R&B club needed a band for its opening night; however, Morrison had left the Golden Eagles (the group with which he had been performing at the time), so he created a new band out of The Gamblers, an East Belfast group formed by Ronnie Millings, Billy Harrison, and Alan Henderson in 1962.

Eric Wrixon, still a schoolboy, was the piano player and keyboardist.  Van played saxophone and harmonica and shared vocals with Billy Harrison. They followed Eric Wrixon's suggestion for a new name, and The Gamblers morphed into Them, their name taken from the Fifties horror movie Them! 

On April 14, 1964, an ad in a Belfast newspaper asked: Who Are? What Are? THEM. Similarly curious ads followed until the Friday before the gig (April 17, 1964) announced that Them would be performing that evening at Club Rado at the Maritime Hotel. Attendance at the two hundred capacity venue quickly grew with a packed house by the third week.
Them performed without a routine, fired by the crowd's energy: Morrison later commented that while the band was "out of our element" making records... "The way we did the numbers at the Maritime was more spontaneous, more energetic, more everything, because we were feeding off the crowd."

Morrison ad libbed songs as he performed and Gloria, the classic song he had written at eighteen years old, took shape here and could last up to twenty minutes. According to Morrison, "Them lived and died on the stage at the Maritime Hotel" but only very rudimentary recordings survive.  The band's strong R&B performances at the Maritime attracted attention. While the band did covers, they also played some of Morrison's early songs, such as Could You Would You, which he had written in Camden Town while touring with The Manhattan Showband. The debut of Morrison's Gloria took place on stage here. Sometimes, depending on his mood, the song could last up to twenty minutes. Morrison has stated that "Them lived and died on the stage at the Maritime Hotel," believing that the band did not manage to capture the spontaneity and energy of their live performances on their records. The statement also reflected the instability of the Them lineup, with numerous members passing through the ranks after the definitive Maritime period. Morrison and Henderson would remain the only constants, and a highly unsuccessful version of Them even soldiered on after Morrison's departure.
One fan's recording, of Turn On Your Love Light, the group's most popular number, made its way to Mervyn and Phil Solomon, who contacted Decca Records' Dick Rowe, who then travelled to Belfast to hear Them perform. Rowe and Phil Solomon agreed on a two year contract with the members of the band then signed up to Solomon. Morrison, at eighteen had to have his father sign for him. Within a few weeks, the group was taken to England and into the Decca's recording studio in West Hampstead for their first recording session.  
Over a two year period they released two albums and ten singles, with two more singles released after Morrison departed the band. They had three chart hits, Baby, Please Don't Go (1964), "Here Comes the Night" (1965), and Mystic Eyes (1965), though it was the b-side of "Baby, Please Don't Go", the garage band classic, "Gloria",Turner (1993), that went on to become a rock standard covered by Patti Smith, The Doors, Shadows of Knight, Jimi Hendrix and others.

Soon after the start of Club Rado at the Maritime,  it had earned a reputation on a par with the famous Cavern Club in Liverpool for highlighting a new generation of exotic musicians who were inspired by the traditional American rhythm 'n' blues tunes but who gave the music their own twist laying the foundations for what would years later evolve as Celtic rock. 

Among the regular Maritime favourites during its brief heyday from 1964 until it became a casualty of the civil disorder some five years later were Rory Gallagher and the Taste, Just Five (featuring Sam Mahood), the Lovin' Kind, the Mad Lads. the Alleykatz, the Interns, the Aztecs, the Deltones, Five by Five, the Method, the Few and the Fugitives.  But the Maritime is still best known for the dynamic Them shows and for nurturing the world class talents of Van Morrison. 

The Them song Joe Harper, Saturday morning, refers to the Maritime caretaker who frequently let the band use the hall for rehearsals when they could not get a room above Dougie Knights record and bicycle shop in Great Victoria Street where many bands of all musical persuasions practised.
Billy Harrison is third from left.
All that remains of the Maritime is a plaque in College Square North, Belfast that was unveiled on April 17, 2010 and, of course, the memories of thousands locals in their 60s who witnessed a special time in Belfast's music history.  

Check out the Ulster History Circle's tribute here.

The visitor to Belfast should also check out the Belfast Music Exhibition at the Oh Yeah Music Centre, in Gordon Street.  The exhibition highlights such Belfast music luminaries as Snow Patrol, Them, Van Morrison, Ruby Murray, Stiff Little Fingers, Dana and Clodagh Rogers, The Undertones, The Divine Comedy, Nadine Coyle and Henry McCullough.  The exhibition also has artifacts from the historic Maritime Hotel.

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