De ye mind the Mem?

Musician and singer Trevor Keys talks to the Sentinel's Olga Bradshaw about Saturday night's showband night in 'The Mem' and recalls his early days as a band member, and Signett.

First of all Trevor, how did Saturday night go?

It was very good, aye. There wasn't as big a crowd there as there was last year, but that is expected, because they were making a film last year which was a big draw, you see. The cameras were all there and people were part of the film. The cameras weren't there on Saturday night.

This was your second year, wasn't it?

Yeah, This was the second year.

What sort of set were you playing?

I was playing the old showband set - the 60s. Roy (Arbuckle) was on first with Different Drums, and it was magnificent. He did an hour. They are very, very talented the four of them are. Absolutely, I was mesmerised for an hour watching them. They were incredible.

Then Les Thompson, Jim McGonagle, Michael Goodman and Jim Arbuckle went on as a four piece and played for an hour and then Roy joined them near the end of their stint. And it was about 11.20pm before we went on.

Really?

Uh huh.

How long were you on?

We played to 1am.

That was a late stint.

It was. It was a long one, but I believe in giving value for money, so...

Would you have played sets that length when you were in the Signetts in their heyday?

We woud have played 9pm til 2am. We would have played five hours in those days. I remember one time in the RAF in Ballykelly we started playing at 8pm and there was a band from Belfast. They were a jazzy big band, and we played 8pm to 9pm, they played from 9pm to 10pm, we played 10pm to 11pm, they played 11pm to 12 midnight, and we played until 1am and they played 1am to 2am, we played 2am to 3am and they played 3am to 4am. That one was to 4am in the morning.

I bet you were popular when you got home!

It was a one off. We knew beforehand that it was going to be a long, long night. We had our tea, then we had supper and then we had breakfast before we left. (Laughs) But that was just a one-off.

Can I take you back to your early days in The Mem, do you remember your first gigs in there?

Oh yes. it was definitely 'the' place to play. There was a resident band there for quite a while, from I think it was either Enniskillen or Omagh. Different bands played there as well. It was some spot.

Can you remember if any of the big Showbands like the Clipper Carlton played there?

I'm not sure if the Clippers would have played there, but if you had have asked any 'old' musician in Derry if they had ever played 'The Mem', everybody played 'The Mem', every single one of them played 'The Mem'.

Was it like 'the joint' to play?

It was. It didn't matter what religion you were, you went to 'The Mem'. There was no such thing as 'religion' in those days. The dance halls in those days were The Corinthian ballroom, the Guildhall, there was the one down the Strand Road, there was The Embassy, there was loads of ballrooms in Derry at that time, and then you had the Borderlands in Muff. We played there on a Friday night where we were the resident band on a Friday night for a couple of hours and then the big bands would have come on like The Clippers, The Royal Showband, The Every Showband, and all these other big, big names, they would have come in and played for a couple of hours after us. That's where I learned my trade. I didn't go home, I sat and I wateched every band and I learned from that.

So you learned from the bands - you didn't go for music lessons or anything like that?

No, no. I never took a music lesson in my life.

Really? How many instruments can you play?

Well I'm more of a singer than a musician, but I play guitar and bass.

That's more than most.

Well, I wouldn't say more than most, but I get away with it at my age, you know?

Did your parents despair of you?

Not really. When I was being brought up I went to church a lot. I would have got up on a Sunday morning and would have went to Bible class, and then I would have went to church at 1pm and then I would have went to another Bible class in the afternoon, and then I would have went to church that night and then I would have went to the Guildhall, which was another meeting, so I was brought up the proper way. In those days Sunday was Sunday, and that was it. The first time that I announced that there was a band looking for me to play on a Sunday night because their guitar player had taken ill, I said to my mother and father and they were not happy. My mother said: "If you are playing with that band, you walk round the corner and make sure they pick you up for they are not coming to the front door."

Really?

Aye.

Did they think that this might have been an indicator for a mis-spent youth?

Not really. It was just that you did not do things like that on a Sunday. You kept Sunday as a Sunday.

Those old showband days were a fabulous time for meeting your future spouse, did you ever do weddings?

In those early days you wouldn't have done wedding gigs.

Really?

Weddings in those days were just quiet things, and it was very seldom that weddings had bands. You would have went to a wedding, had your meal and then you would have gone home. Now it is a big thing. In the early days you wouldn't have played. I can't remember playing at any weddings at all.

Right.

Umm hum, yeah.

It's amazing how cultural tastes change.

Yeah, yeah, it's completely changed.

Well, did many of your friends meet their partners in The mem?

A lot, an awful lot of people did meet, yeah. Not maybe my friends, but a lot did meet. The stories have been told in the Journal and the Sentinel over the past 10 years about...it all came out last year when this film was being done. It was very well done. There was an awful lot of people on there talking about meeting in The Mem and marrying from The Mem, so...it was good days.

Do you regret the way society has gone now, when you look back at how things were for you? Do you think now is...

Well, what killed the dance was the disco, and also what killed it was the drink. In those early days no ballroom had a bar. All they had was a tea bar, so there was no such a thing as a bar. People would go into pubs, have a drink and then come into the dances and then some of the clubs began bringing in bars to the dances and that was the ruination of the dances. But once the bars came in then the restrictions came in - so you were only allowed so many in the hall. I have seen 5,000 or 6,000 in the Borderland in Muff, I've seen maybe 3,000 in The Mem where it would only hold 300 now, because of the licencing and the Fire Authorities. People used to be bursting to the doors, standing shoulder to shoulder, you couldn't move but it is a different ball game now. Disco ruined that. A lot of ballrooms were turned into discos.

Was it because people realised there was money in it, or was it just the trend?

It was the trend. People moved with the trend, you had to.

Yet and all the bands seem to be popular still and have not lost their appeal.

The showband era died. There is no showband as such anymore. It is all country bands - any of the big names you have now are all country bands, but I tried to retain the showband tradition and on Saturday night about 80 per cent of what we did was showband. It lasted there for a while - the likes of George Jones would do a showband thing in the Millennium Forum or do seven nights in Belfast and it would prove very very popular, but the people cannot get up and go out to dance halls because there are none. Whenever I do play someplace the people say: "Why can't this come back again".

Do you think there is a niche for that in the City? Do you think it might take off if it was here?

There is a need for that in this City. If someone in a hotel or whatever, decided they were going to plough resources into getting something like this off the groundthere is an awful lot of people out there, some of them grannies and grandads now, and all they are doing is looking after their grandchildren while their sons and daughters go out, and there is nothing out there for those people to go to. There are a few tea dances and things starting...

Oddly enough, I was just about to ask you about that. Maybe that's why the tea dances are so popular and well attended.

They are popular, but at a tea dance you get a boy standing up at a keyboard playing anything. That's what you get at tea dances. That said, they are popular because people can get up and do all their old waltzes. But that's all there is for them, there is no place for a showband playing and playing the showband music.

The whole scene has vanished.

The whole showband scene has gone but it would be great if it could come back again.

Do you see when you do the likes of the 'Do Ye Mind The Mem?, do you get any younger people coming out to them?

There are some younger people who do like the showbad era.

You know in America you have these halls where you can go and do swing dance and jive and they are largely tee-total, but there just doesn't seem to be the same appetite for that kind of thing here.

No there doesn't seem to be. The problem is drink. I'm not against drink, and people can go out and drink and enjoy themselves, but there are other people who go out and drink and can't enjoy themselves. That doesn't help matters either because people want to fight. But that's society today and it is the drink that's doing it.

It's sad, isn't it.

It's not nice, not nice at all. Any of the dances I've done in the Stardust over the last 10 years, people loved it and came and wanted to go to it and there was not showband type of bands about, it was all two and three-piece groups, you know, so...I hadn't a showband there on Saturday night, but it was showband material that I was doing. A showband would have seven or eight members and I had four, but the important instrument to have is a trumpet. So we had guitar, bass, drums and trumpet, courtesy of Eamon McGonagle from Carndonagh, and that gave it that showbandy feel.