Richard Lysons, Were You There? Popular Music at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall – 1951-1996: Book Review

By Dave Russell

On several occasions while trawling through Free Trade Hall programmes, I have found myself wishing that someone might one day invest the time and effort required to produce a proper record of the remarkable number, quality and variety of musicians that had graced the venue. Little did I know that Richard Lysons was already well underway with the task and the results of his labours are gathered in this closely researched and thoroughly enjoyable book. At its core is a chronological listing of performers, mainly from the field of popular music but with sufficient attention shown to classical concerts and the political meetings, charity events, school speech days and other such civic occasions, to give a full flavour of how well this ‘very grand village hall’ hall served its community. It is not a book to read sequentially but one to dip into and browse, a process made easy by its excellent index. Lysons’s documentation demonstrates the breadth and complexity of ‘popular music’ as experienced by its fans, with the hall catering for every conceivable sub-culture. In 1954, Billie Holliday’s appearance (which she abandoned after microphone failures) was followed a month later by the annual Gaelic League concert; Bob Dylan’s first visit to the hall in 1965 was preceded by a concert by Tony Bennett and succeeded by one from Shirley Bassey. Short but informative mini-biographies are given for most performers and these provide the reader with some of the book’s greatest pleasures. This particular reader revelled in the nostalgia generated (albeit of acts seen in locations much further south) but also learnt a lot and wondered why he had never encountered Anna Russell, ‘singer, pianist and comedian’, who treated her 1958 audience to a ‘humorous synopsis of Wagner’s Ring Cycle’. The book is well illustrated with plentiful reproductions of programmes and posters and striking performance photographs of visiting American blues artists taken in the early 1960s by Brian Smith. Overall, this is a most useful contribution to Manchester’s musical history.

Richard Lysons, Were You There? Popular Music at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall – 1951-1996. Manchester: Empire Publishing, 2020. Hardback, pp. v-xiv, 1-272, £20

You can purchase Richard’s book here.

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