Meet the Beatstalkers, the Band David Bowie ‘Climbed Over’ for Fame
Before David Bowie became a world-renowned name, he had the talent and skill to do it – but the first rungs of the ladder to fame are crowded with equally talented and skilled people, and inevitably some of those people will be trampled back to the ground.
So it was for the young Scottish band the Beatstalkers, who initially believed they were bound for the big time when they teamed up with Bowie to write and record a series of singles in the mid ‘60s.
The five-piece beat group had already made remarkable headway. Starting as a school band in the then infamously violent and poverty-stricken city of Glasgow, they’d become the biggest name in the country – bigger even than the Beatles – before their journey to London. Singer Davie Lennox, bassist Alan Mair, keyboardist Eddie Campbell, guitarist Ronnie Simpson and drummer Tudge Williamson (soon to be replaced by Jeff Allen) were a big deal.
That had been underlined when they performed an open-air show in Glasgow’s George Square on June 11, 1965. The city authorities had expected 200 people to show up. But the Beatstalkers, who’d built a following in the cafes, clubs and ballrooms around the city, drew and estimated 5,000 to 7,000 fans.
That resulted in an event known as the George Square Riot, with the band carried to safety on police horses, helicopter overhead, and scenes that had only previously played out when Winston Churchill had ordered tanks into the square to fend off a feared socialist rising in 1919.
“No one expected so many people,” bassist Mair tells UCR. “We only managed to get through one song before the crowd surged forward and the stage started to collapse. There had only been two police officers for the whole square, but then reinforcements arrived on horseback to get us to safety. We were taken into the city chambers at one end of the square, and I think they put us in the lord provost’s office. The crowd followed us into the chambers and they were running wild. It took a while for things to calm down, then we went home. By that time we were in the first editions of the papers. My mum said, ‘How did it go?’ I said, ‘Have you seen the front page?’”
From that moment on, the Beatstalkers were regularly featured in the mainstream press. Every screamed-out show, every venue ban because of the high turnout, every road trip became big news -- often on the front pages. Until the riot, no Scottish band had achieved such press coverage – they opened the door to success for hundreds of other young artists. And they were still teenagers.
“It got to the point that if there wasn’t some kind of rowdiness, I was disappointed,” frontman David Lennox says. “If we only got the kind of response that other bands usually got, we thought we’d done something wrong. One time I was late to a gig and a rumor had gone round that I’d been knocked down by a bus and killed. Thousands of girls in tears! We put in a great show that night – that would have been me making it up to them.”
“Every morning when you got up, there were already girls in the common stairway outside the apartment," Mair recalls. "You had to sneak under the front door window into the kitchen to have a cup of tea before it all started. My mum got to know a lot of the girls – she’d bring them in, give them tea, and tell them it was time to go home before their families wondered where they were.”
The Beatstalkers were so big that they even sold out a 2,000-capacity ballroom without even being there. Billed as “Not the Beatstalkers,” fans paid to see life-size cardboard cutouts, with a phone onstage held to a microphone so they could hear Lennox wishing them well from their studio. “It’s not as if they thought we’d be there,” Mair says. “They knew exactly what they were paying for!”
Having become the biggest band in Scotland, the natural move was south to London, and the band secured a record deal under Moody Blues producer Denny Cordell. That was when things began to go off the rails: Cordell thought he knew what kind of music the band should record, and the band thought he should know.
Only he didn’t – he rejected the offer of “Hang on Sloopy” as “too commercial.” (Later, an offer from the Kinks’ Ray Davies to write song for them was also rejected.) The result was a series of lukewarm singles that die-hard fans didn’t recognize as Beatstalkers music.
Worse still, their debut single “Everbody’s Talking ‘Bout My Baby” sold 80,000 units on release, which should have put it in the Top 10 – but due to a lack of infrastructure, only two record stores in Scotland returned sales figures to London, and so only 5,000 sales were registered. If the true figure had been reported, they'd have secured the kind of investment they needed to climb higher up the ladder. By that time the band had sold out a two-week residency in London’s famous Marquee club, toured with Marc Bolan, the Kinks and many others, and were an undoubted force to be reckoned with on the live scene. Only industry failures let them down. “We were just so young,” Lennox says. “We didn’t realize those people wouldn’t know what they were doing. And the gigs were still going well, so we didn’t know what we were losing out on.”
Listen to the Beatstalkers' 'Ev'rybody's Talkin' 'Bout My Baby'
A move from Decca to CBS records was orchestrated by Kenn Pitt, who was already Bowie’s Svengali, and had also ousted the Beatstalkers’ original manager, Joe Gaffney, who’d steered them so well up until that point. Pitt, as determined as Bowie was that the future Ziggy Stardust was going to make it, believed the Scottish band could be his vehicle, and put them together in the studio.
“David’s talent was obvious,” Lennox says. “But he was still learning how to use it. The stuff he was writing meant nothing to us. ‘Silver Tree Top School for Boys’ was based on a true story about a scandal at a rich boys’ school. We were from Glasgow! It meant nothing to us. He wanted it sung a very specific way and I just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t written for my voice. It was written for Anthony Newley because that’s who David was into. David played rhythm guitar and backing vocals, and I remember being in the recording booth, glaring at him while we sang it. ‘Silver Tree Top School for Boys?’ I’m from Govan – I’ll lamp you!”
Listen to the Beatstalkers' 'Silver Tree Top School for Boys'
Which is not to say Bowie was unpopular with the band. “He was a very nice guy,” Lennox recalls. “We got on like a house on fire. Although he was always selling me charity scratch cards because his dad sold them. Every time I saw David Bowie, it cost me money. And he was always borrowing cigarettes from me. It seemed like I was the only person in London who could afford cigarettes!
“You could say he climbed over us to improve his own career, but it wasn’t personal. He wouldn’t have done anything to deliberately damage us. The thing was, as far as the label were concerned, we were the band. We were going to be big. David just hadn’t learned to control his talent yet. If it had been a year or two later … ”
“I remember David trying to get Davie to sing ‘When I’m Five’ in an English accent,” Mair adds. “Here were were, a band that had got his far by sounding the way we wanted to sound, and all that was being taken away from us. It was a very strange time.”
Despite lackluster sales, the band continued delivering unforgettable live shows. One of their trademarks was that every song had its own dance, and as a result, dance-crazy music fans of the era felt more involved with them than with other acts. While some concerts were designed to be enjoyed in silent appreciation, Beatstalkers shows were parties, and as far as most of the fans were concerned, they were Beatstalkers too. Their approach gave them successful visits to Germany and continued circuits of the U.K. – but as time went by and styles changed, the step up to the top flight began to seem less likely. When their van, complete with all their equipment, was stolen, they decided to call it quits.
Listen to the Beatstalkers' 'You'd Better Get a Better Hold On'
“I’m a great believer in the time being right for things,” Mair says. “We’d just been offered an appearance on the BBC, and we were starting to talk about buying new gear. I just said, ‘Maybe it’s time to stop.’ We’d been thinking about it for a while. Davie and I had already been talking about what we’d do after the band ended.”
“I retired when I was 23,” Lennox notes. “I didn’t want to be a pop star any more. I wanted a proper job.”
Bowie, of course, went on to achieve iconic status; while Mair went on to join the Only Ones and the others found success in their own chosen fields. Yet one of the most important parts of their story is that, despite the disappointments, they remained friends throughout – an almost unheard-of situation in the music world. The fans remained faithful too, so much so that, when the Beatstalkers staged a one-off reunion in Glasgow’s legendary Barrowland Ballroom in 2005 (once the scene of their record 14-night residency), they sold it out with almost no advance publicity at all.
“We hadn’t seen each other in years, but it all fell into place,” Mair says. “It was also the first time we all heard that the van keys had been copied at the repair garage, and Jeff Allen had been followed across London so it could be stolen when he parked it. Jeff went, ’I told you I’d locked it! All those years and you thought I’d split up the band!’”
Watch the Beatstalkers Perform 'Watch Your Step'
“The management were totally wrong to even consider Bowie as our songwriter,” Lennox reflects. “But he had talent, and all the money’s in the songwriting. What a mismatch. I still think David was out of time in the chorus of ‘Everything Is You.’ But I loved it.”
“In retrospect, I like the idea of David Bowie being around at that time – but only with history,” Mair says. “At the time we thought, ‘He's all right for B-sides … ’ and that’s how we approached it. But Bowie had unbelievable confidence. I think most singer-songwriters are quite shy and they can't make a judgment on their own songs. He would come in and go, ‘I’ve got this song,’ and he’d sing it like he was onstage, and he’d sell the song by being so confident. I can still visualize him, coming to the studio, going, ‘Try it like this, this is how it goes.’”
Bowie made one more notable contribution to Mair’s history, if not the Beatstalkers’. They’d remained friends, and when “Space Oddity” became a hit in 1969, Bowie went looking for Mair, and found him at London’s Camden Market, selling his custom-made leather boots that had become uniform for most of the fashionable bands of the era. On hearing that Bowie had yet to be paid for his chart-topping success, Mair told him, “You can have a pair of boots on me. Freddie will fit them for you.” At which point a young, yet-to-be-famous Freddie Mercury, who worked as Mair’s assistant, knelt down and fitted David Bowie’s boots. “I wish I’d had a camera,” Mair shrugs. “I wish I’d had a camera for a lot of it!”
Listen to the Beatstalkers' 'Everything Is You'