“Chicken in a Basket”: Musicology, Social History and Nightclubs


The Place, Hanley, 1975


I was thinking about some research ideas and I happened on a quote about Maxims, a  discotheque in  North Staffordshire, that opened in 1969, in Hanley, and later moved to Newcastle-Under-Lyme. The club celebrated twenty years of business in 1989. (Evening Sentinel, 28 Nov, 2014) In 1975 the local ‘what’s on’ guide for Stoke-on-Trent described Maxims as ‘the most breathtakingly beautiful discotheque in the Midlands.'(The Place Passbook, 1975, p.2.) To me, this phrase generated a number of ideas that centred on provincial life in the 1970s. Notions of the ‘dinner party’, the ‘aspirational’, the ‘sophisticated’  and the ‘important’. A night out in provincial Britain, it seemed, had become a way to see and be seen. The provincial nightclub was an area where musical performance enabled elements of status and display.

Lunchtime  Venues and Evening Meals: Two for One

On investigating further I discovered that there was a large number of discotheques in the region that were  not only nightclubs, but also places where you could have lunch or dinner in a ‘sophisticated and elegant setting’. The business lunch was a high-profile marketing idea where business could be conducted at lunchtime in a nightclub arena. In the 1960s The Place in Hanley had an oval plate with the menu printed on it. For the evening these disco restaurants became places to have a meal before taking in a show and dancing the night away. In a sense they had become entertainment centres. You could eat, drink, dance and be entertained in the same building. It could, indeed, be ‘breathtaking.


In addition these clubs had guest DJ’s, often high profile people from Radio One, comedians and live bands such as Little and Large, The New Seekers and The Three Degrees. In other words they reflected the Working Mens’Club experience closely. Yet, here is the difference: these provincial clubs were viewed in a sophisticated and elegant way. A dress code was enforce1973%20mcd, ties, shoes and smart wear. Membership was often required and the décor reflected what was considered to be sophisticated and chique (Velvet seats, mirrors, chrome and tiles.) They were designed to be ‘breathtaking’. Were they a diversion from the ennui of labour? Perhaps. Were they aspirational? Almost certainly. There are many questions to be answered about class, aspiration and status, together with the escape from the ennui of labour, c.1969-1990. In the final analysis, as I grapple with this new research, the themes of labour history: class, community, gender and region appear over and over again.

Is this Musicology or Social History?

The short answer is that this foray into provincial nightlife uses music as an agency to explore social networks and the identities that grew from them. Hence it is musicology and social history. The approach taken in ‘Chicken in a Basket’ bridges a gap between musicology and social history. Indeed Dave Russell recently wrote about the Batley Varieties nightclub, in West Yorkshire, in the Journal of Social History. ‘Glimpsing La Dolce Vita: Cultural Change and Modernity in the 1960s English Cabaret Club'(2013) and this comes at the end of a period of convergence that embraced an interdisciplinary approach.

In 1979 William Weber saw that musicologists and social historians had similar interests. Yet he still saw musicologists as scholars who tried to find meaning in musical scores, and social historians as researchers who tried to find historical significance in social groups. The link between music and the development of social networks had not yet been fully formed. Weber wrote:

I see strong similarities between recent interests of musicologists and the search among social historians for a clearer historical vocabulary. Just as musicologists are trying to arrive at a more accurate sense of how scores used to be played, so social historians are struggling to define what social groups meant to people in the past. Even if unanimity is in short supply in both fields, we all respect the past and ask that it be heard and seen in its own terms.[1]


Dave Russell made a call to study music to understand social history, together with the need to embrace an interdisciplinary approach, in his 1993 article, ‘The “Social History” of Popular Music: A Label Without a Cause?’[2] Major inroads into exploring music as an interdisciplinary study were made by the ‘Music and Cultures Research Group’ in the Open University’s Music Department, consisting of Trevor Herbert, Martin Clayton and Richard Middleton. The group’s stated purpose was to ‘pursue research in the cultural study of music, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary approaches drawing on musicology, social history, anthropology, ethnomusicology, cultural theory and other relevant areas.’[3] The key text that resulted from this group was a collection of essays covering many aspects of the conjunction between music and culture.[4]

Significant research also emerged from the conferences of The Royal Musical Association’s Biennial Conferences on Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain, from 1997 onwards. These conferences have been crucial gathering points for scholars from a wide range of disciplines including musicology, cultural social and economic history, politics, sociology and cultural geography.[6] Significantly the work has been enriched by interdisciplinary dialogue.[7] Critically, as Rachel Cowgill maintains, these conferences ‘have long since squashed the notion that musicologists are not interested in the broad contextualization of music and its significance as a cultural practice.’[9] This evolution and acceptance of social history within the discipline of musicology was recently expressed in 2012 at the Centre for the Study of Music, Gender and Identity (MuGI), based at the University of Huddersfield, who argue they are ‘unique within the research context of music as a discipline in our exploration of the relationship between music, gender and identity in diverse cultural and chronological contexts.’[10

‘Chicken in a Basket’ is a fledgling research project that is another attempt to explore the interdisciplinary challenges in musicology and social history. As musicologists the more we move away from the printed score the more the waters become muddied, yet this is where we can find some good fishing.

[1] William Weber, ‘The Muddle of the Middle Classes’, 19th-Century Music, Vol. 3, No. 2 (November, 1979), p. 185.

[2] Popular Music, 12/2 (May 1993), pp. 139-155.

[3] < http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/music/musiccult.shtml> accessed, 6 October, 2011

[4] Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert and Richard Middleton (Eds.), The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction (New York, 2003), < http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/music/musiccult.shtml> accessed, 6 October, 2011.

[5] Martin Clayton, Trevor Herbert and Richard Middleton (Eds.), The Cultural Study of Music, p. 1.

[6] <http:/www.cardiff.ac.uk/music/newsandevents/events/conferences/13MNCB/aboutMNCB.html> accessed, 15 May, 2013.

[7] See, for example, Bennett Zon (Ed.), Nineteenth-Century British Music Studies Volume 1(Aldershot, 1997); Jeremy Dibble (Ed.), Nineteenth-Century Music Studies Volume 2 (Aldershot, 2002); Peter Horton and Bennett Zon (Eds.), Nineteenth-Century Music Studies Volume 3 (Aldershot, 2003); Rachael Cowgill and Julian Ruston (Eds.), Europe, Empire and Spectacle in Nineteenth-Century British Music (Aldershot,2006) and Paul Rodmell (Ed.), Music and Institutions in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Farnham, 2012).

[8] <http:/www.cardiff.ac.uk/music/newsandevents/events/conferences/13MNCB/aboutMNCB.html>

[9] See the previous website.

[10] < http://www.hud.ac.uk/research/researchcentres/mugi/> accessed, 2 January, 2014.



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