25p pints, naked dancers and David Bowie: DJ's memories as Doncaster Top Rank to 'return'

At the height of its popularity, Doncaster’s Top Rank suite was packed to the rafters, week in, week out with excited dancers and music lovers enjoying some of the biggest names in showbiz.

By Darren Burke
Wednesday, 15th June 2022, 12:49 pm

The club, which was the place to be seen in Doncaster in the late 1960s and early 1970s, hosted the likes of David Bowie, PInk Floyd, Status Quo, Slade, Edwin Starr and many more, during its heyday.

Memories of the much-loved Silver Street venue are set to be revived next month with a Top Rank reunion night which will see clubbers from gather to dance the night away to some of the biggest songs of the era as well as swapping tales of the heady days more than 50 years ago.

And leading proceedings on the night will be former Top Rank DJ Ken Holmes who was responsible for taking to the decks at the height of the popularity of the club which later became known as Rotters before a string of names afterwards including Elektrik Avenue, Ritzy, Visage, Trilogy and Kooky.

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Cantley’s Hawthorne Club will be the venue for the reunion on July 22 when Ken will be reunited with Chris Whiteley, another former DJ at the venue which operated between 1967 and 1976.

And Ken, who is still making a living as one of the area’s most popular DJs long after the music ended at Top Rank has been sharing his memories of the unique venue, which is sure to stir the souls of a generation of Doncaster night owls.

So if you’re looking for stories of dirt cheap pints of beer at just 25p, saucy tales of naked dancers, a revolving stage that was subject to high jinks and a rock star who once tried to chat up Ken’s wife, read on!

The Top Rank Suite was the name given to a chain of nightclubs in the United Kingdom owned by the Rank Organisation, the British entertainment business founded by media mogul J Arthur Rank in 1937.

Doncaster's Top Rank was the place to dance the night away in the 60s and 70s. (Photos: Ron Curry).

The firm’s famous ‘gong man’ logo adorned the front of the building, with Doncaster’s night owls eagerly queueing outside the shops lining Silver Street before climbing the stairs to the cavernous ballroom dance hall above.

And it’s there that clubbers would most likely come face to face with Ken, blasting out everything from soul and glam rock, reggae, pop and Motown in the club’s formative years.

He said: “I started off just doing Monday nights in the bowling alley, which was downstairs. It was a teen and 20s night.

"We didn’t have our own records at the time,” he added. “I had to go and collect the top 20 each week from a record shop in Doncaster called Fields.

"I’d just play the top 20 in full, then would have to take the records back to the shop the following morning!”

After the club’s star name DJ Ray Nortrop was sacked, Ken ended up being drafted in for more and more nights each week to keep the music playing.

He found himself disc jockeying virtually every day of the week – although his early days at the decks weren’t always the easiest.

"We had a house band back in those days, and the band and the DJ would take it in turn to provide the entertainment.

"We had a revolving stage and as it would be my turn to come on, the band would be devilishly jumping up and down to make the records jump and skip."

Regulars will probably recall that spectacular entrance being to the strains of the organ-led soul instrumental Green Onions by Booker T and The MGs.

But as well as recorded music, live acts were also a regular feature – with Top Rank bosses booking in an eclectic mix to suit all tastes.

“In the 60s, it was the likes of The Kinks, Freddie and The Dreamers, The Troggs, that kind of thing.

"Then when we had glam rock, it was the likes of Slade – they were the loudest band I think I’ve ever seen.”

The roster also included the likes of rockers such as Status Quo and Mott The Hoople – and rock icon David Bowie made a memorable appearance in 1972 when he brought his Ziggy Stardust alter-ego to Doncaster – and invited fans to his dressing room by hurling playing cards into the audience.

Added Ken: “The line-up really was all over the place. One week, you’d have reggae from Toots and The Maytals, next week, hard rock from the likes of Judas Priest. It just reflected the trends of the time, if they were popular, they’d get them in.

"To watch such big bands and names, so close up was surreal,” he said. “You’d hang out with them back stage and chat to them.”

And it was backstage where Ken had some of the most surprising and sometimes risque encounters of his lengthy career in the music business – including one with All Right Now rockers Free.

“The band had been playing when guitarist Paul Kossoff came backstage and started eyeing up my wife Carol,” said Ken.

"He said to her ‘what you doing after the show?’

"Why don’t you come out and have a good time with us? I don’t think he was thinking of going for a cup of tea,” he laughed.

And on more than one occasion, Ken said dancers and performers would give an unexpected eyeful as they raced to get changed between numbers.

”We’d be just sat there, having a drink and chatting,” he said, “when the dancing girls would rush in, strip off in front of us, throw their clothes on the floor and then hurriedly put a different costume on and rush out again.

"There would be all these beautiful girls, half naked in front of you without a care in the world with the lads’ eyes out on stalks.”

And it wasn’t just scantily clad dancers that raised eyebrows back in the day – beer prices did too.

"You could get four pints of Youngers Tartan Bitter for £1. That was 25p a pint”

“Mind, that was still more than you’d pay in the working men’s clubs and pubs. All the girls would be on brandy and Babycham, which was popular at the time.”

But it was also an era when all-night partying in Silver Street was very much not the thing.

"The last bus from town was 11,” remembered Ken. “So at 10.45 the place would empty out so no-one would miss their bus."

And getting into the venue could provide just as much entertainment as leaving it.

"We were above the old electricity board showrooms and the weight of nearly 2,000 dancing above would make the windows vibrate, wobble and bend to the beat,” he said.

A huge balcony swept around the venue, with both men and women using the view to eye up potential suitors on the dancefloor.

Added Ken: “It was heaving every single night. It wasn’t all perfect of course.

"You’d have skirmishes between lads and the doormen would chuck them out.”

And the bouncers, along with Ken and the rest of the staff also had to undergo a bizarre ritual before starting work.

"There would be a uniform inspection before every shift,” he said. “Anyone not up to scratch with their shoes or clothes or whatever would be given a ticking off and told to smarten up their act.”

But ultimately, it was all about the music – and Ken says that when he plays at the reunion night, it will purely be a selection of songs that featured at the club from the era between 1968 and 1976.

"I did a birthday party a few months back for a couple of girls who used to go to the Rank,” he said.

"They told me that the music I played set their tastes for the rest of their lives and they still love the stuff they enjoyed then today.”

"You don’t think you’re having any sort of influence, you are just playing records, so it’s wonderful to hear that you’ve helped shape people’s tastes.”

Ken also recalls the novel approach he had to take to playing his vinyl hits back in the day.

"There was no such thing as twin decks,” he added. “I had two separate ones, a few yards apart.

"So you’d have to have one playing and another tee’d up. There were no headphones so you’d have to try and guess the start of the record and hope for the best.

"When one was finishing, you’d have to race across the stage and get the next one playing.”

He is now busy drawing up his playlist for the July 22 reunion.

"It will be all the stuff that was popular at the time, no new stuff at all,” he said. “I want to cover all bases like we did back in the day, so it will be everything from Northern Soul to glam and reggae and pop and anything in between.

"I want everyone to roll back the years and take them right back to the Top Rank days in Doncaster.”

The reunion will be held at the Hawthorne Club in Cantley on July 22. Tickets and further details are available HERE