Did Hastings Pier Ballroom smell? by Peter Thomson


photo source: MilborneOne

Peter Thomson… I’m not sure why I feel the need to put this out there, and it all started as a couple of sentences, but here goes… Most visitors to SMART have strong recollections of the sights and sounds of Hastings Pier Ballroom (I suggest) from the 1960s to the early 80s. I’m right with you but consider this: the pier ballroom also used to smell. I didn’t know it then and was even less aware that it’s haunting whiff was almost unique. I say unique because that was the case until I encountered it elsewhere – hence “almost”. Very few life experiences have evoked a smell in my memory, but those which have usually reside deeply within my sometimes challenging childhood. Examples include my late mother’s mashed potato and being less than half a mile from the River Mersey. My teenage years were arguably even more turbulent but I discovered loud music and the boys in red were winning everything. Saved!

The origin of the pier smell – still less it’s attraction – is difficult to nail down but, on reflection, it was most likely a combination of some kind of floor polish, stale tobacco smoke, dusty old furniture (including deckchairs), a hint of burnt electricity and teenage sweat. Striking a chord with you or am I talking through my rear? I would hesitate to include other, nefarious substances as peripheral influences. Similarly, the location wherein I unexpectedly found the smell again excludes any possible seaside aromas from the mix. Past or present Hastings dwellers of a certain age know the pier in the early ’70s was a musical Mecca. Every tour listing published seemed to include Hastings (only later did we realise the notable exceptions). Regardless, history was made and the sights and sounds of those days echo daily within us and, thankfully, on this site. The other venues on that list were equally recognisable, and predated the modern arenas, while being one step up from the college circuit. Margate Winter Gardens; Newcastle City Hall; De Montfort Hall Leicester; The Dome, Brighton etc, all culminating in either the Finsbury Park Rainbow or, later, the Hammy Odeon. Just one of those gigs and you’d “made” it. It was in one of those iconic locations that I experienced nasal deja vu. Several years ago, this proud dad attended his eldest daughter’s graduation ceremony. It was while walking into the De Montfort Hall in Leicester that I was struck by the pier smell not experienced since??? There was I, gormless smile in place, transported to my teenage Nirvana. But this was before the Hastings pier fire so why was it such a profound re-awakening? I can’t answer that but it returned to me when I saw the fire on TV and has become more of an issue as rebuilding progressed. Like the music itself, that smell is etched upon my soul. I don’t know why this now looms before me and maybe I’m just nuts. I don’t have any strong views over who should perform at any pier reopening, and the smell of history is probably irrelevant to those considerations. We can’t possibly recreate it, even if others have managed to, unknowingly and unintentionally. Why should we want to? It was just one of those things; a nasal snapshot, and I needed to get it off my chest. Ahem – does anyone else know what the hell I’m on about? I took Mrs T to Venice for a day last summer. Venice smells, not uniquely but it’s an ancient seaport, so it should smell – and there the similarity with Liverpool (or Hastings) ends. While strolling through the narrow alleys and hidden piazzas, the sound of a busker started to echo around the locality. He wasn’t singing, but was beautifully strumming out “Wish You Were Here”. A snapshot; a perfect musical memory created in World Heritage surroundings that will always, somehow, be triggered through my nose.

Alan Esdaile… I always thought the smell was from the hot dog onions, damp and stale tobacco. God I can smell it now, just thinking about it!

Phil Gill… It always smelled of music, weed and patchouli oil in the 70s.

Peter Fairless… All of the above. Yes.

Dave Nattress… Well..having attended many a gig and had the privilege of playing there a few times with Damaris, I can honestly say I don’t really recall the smell, although backstage the facilities, (dressing rooms), were rather basic though!! However, the bar floor was always absolutely awash with beer but then the flares would often mop up so much of this. It was either spilled beer or an unusually high tide on gig nights! My recollection was that it took a lot of watered down Whitbread Tankard or whatever it was to get happy.

Pete Prescott… Yes it did smell. It’s strange that smell is the no 1 memory enhancer and music the 2nd.it smelt of the things you mentioned. Stale beer sweat and tobacco plus polish and damp. I still love the smell of village halls and old rehearsal rooms. It takes me back to happy days but I think the music loving youth are going through exactly what we did with their own favourite bands. Im sure one day they will write one day about the smells of The Tubman. I wish I had a time machine.

Peter Thomson… Exactly Phil, how can it possibly “smell” of music?

Phil Gill… It just can. Synesthesia.

Jeanette Jones… Nostalgia & all of the above;-)

Mick O’Dowd… I remember the Ballroom smell as eminating from the gas fires strung from the beams. There again , as quite rightly pointed out, there were many other contributing factors to add to the equation so I think it is maybe a combination of all of these. My other smell memory was of the Pier Cafe which smelt of steam all the time, even outside the door. Moving from The Pier to other smell memories Hastings Staion always smelt of soot and steam engines long after the last “puffer” had gone. Standing on the bridge above the line at West St.Leonards staion when a “puffer” came underneath covering you in steam & soot. Ahh those were the days my friends!

Dave Weeks… Definitely patchouli (and music of course) and those onions from the hot dog stall on the way in. I can remember the unique smell too.

Pete Fisher… with you on the weed and patchouli oil Phil (although the former was more likely the resinous variety of combustible)…I’d add stale beer and tobacco smoke to that, possibly with a whiff of salty sea air. As far as it smelling of music goes, I don’t remember that particularly from the Pier, but among other concerts I remember walking into Brighton Dome in 1969 to see Jethro Tull supported by Savoy Brown, and you could smell the valve amps (rows of Marshalls etc for both bands on stage), which had probably been on all day…

Colin Gibson… It was a horrible venue. As the late, erudite drummer Jack Peach succinctly put it “It’s a prairie with a roof on it”