History of the Assembly Hall

The Assembly Hall is the youngest of Worthing’s theatrical venues and was given to the town in 1934 by Alderman Denton, who was Mayor of Worthing four times. He also gave the town Denton Gardens and The Denton Lounge which adjoins the Pavilion Theatre.

Worthing’s municipal authority was the first to subsidise entertainment in the UK, it is
therefore fitting that the largest venue is Part of the council’s own Town Hall complex.

The Assembly Hall is used for a myriad of events, from rock concerts to comedy; it is also the home of Worthing Symphony Orchestra, the only professional orchestra in West Sussex, who present a classical season each year. The Worthing Philharmonic Orchestra rehearse at the venue each week and the Alassio Concert Orchestra performs throughout the year.

The Assembly Hall has been named the second best acoustically equipped concert hall in Britain, beaten only by Birmingham Symphony Hall, and is therefore the perfect base for the orchestras.

The acoustics also lend themselves to the enhancement of the unique Wurlitzer organ concerts throughout the year. Worthing is fortunate to have been entrusted with the largest Wurlitzer organ in Europe which is played during regular concerts by leading organists.

Music from the Wurlitzer was broadcast regularly on BBC Radio 2’s The Organist Entertains as well as a broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters.
The organ received extensive restoration between 1976 and 1981 and has been refined over the years to reach its present state of excellence.

The venue welcomes a host of stars each year, in the past it has welcomed
Motorhead and the Band of HM. Royal Marines, to Jimmy Carr, Eric Clapton, Joan Collins, David Bowie and The Who.

Like the Pavilion Theatre, the carpets can be rolled away to reveal a fine fully sprung dance floor used in past times for regular afternoon tea dances and Ballroom events.

The stage is on three permanent levels and extensions can also be added to the lowest level for large concerts. There is a lift beneath the stage which raises the resident Wurlitzer organ into the view of the audience. In addition to the organ, two grand pianos can be housed beneath the stage at one time, making the Assembly Hall a fully customisable venue.

The Assembly Hall not only hosts a diverse range of entertainment but has always been a key community building. It housed the champagne reception and ball which marked the Connaught Theatre’s 50th anniversary on September 30 1985.

The Worthing gig scene 1966-72

Written by Thomas H Green

It’s strange to think of the bands who played Worthing in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. In fact, it seems almost unbelievable now, the names that performed at the Pavilion and at the Assembly Hall. How’s this, just for starters: Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Ike & Tina Turner, Pink Floyd, The Supremes, David Bowie, Janis Joplin, The Who, Bo Diddley, Genesis, Marvin Gaye, Jefferson Airplane, Black Sabbath, The Beach Boys, Supertramp, The Temptations, Cream, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Byrds, Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, Steppenwolf… Steppenwolf! Leather-clad and playing ‘Born to Be Wild’ where visitors now eat cake and drink tea at the end of the pier!

Promoter Freddy Bannister and his wife Wendy are primarily remembered for kick-starting UK festival culture. It was they who put on the Bath Festivals of 1969 and 1970, which inspired Somerset dairy farmer Michael Eavis to start Glastonbury, and it was they whose Knebworth events defined ‘70s rock gatherings. However, before all that, they developed their knack for promotion running concerts along the south coast. Bands would play a string of gigs, working their way from Folkestone in the east to Bournemouth in the west, and every Thursday night they hit Worthing.

The Time Machine will return to these gigs in future, in more detail and from a variety of angles, but to set the ball rolling, we spoke to Robert ‘Yak’ Yates who, from age 13 to 18, would attend almost every week. Then a schoolboy from Lancing, the son of a yacht captain and a secretary, he’d take the bus to Worthing every Thursday with friends, and watch a mind-boggling array of now legendary musicians.

The first gig he saw was Cat Stevens in the autumn of 1966, just after he’d released his first single, ‘I Love My Dog’. “He was very young, in tight velvet pants,” Yates recalls, “and you almost couldn’t hear him for the screaming girls, ten layers of them in front of the stage.” Hooked, he returned the next week for the Moody Blues. Then the week after that. And the week after that. And most weeks until 1972.

Along the way he caught Jimi Hendrix twice, the first time shortly after the Experience were formed in autumn 1966. The prime audience in Worthing then were teenage mods and Yates describes himself as “a kind of a pretend mod, a little school boy in a target tee-shirt and a parka”.

“The mods wanted to hear soul music,” he recalls, “and one band who played regularly was [Brit-Jamaican outfit] Jimmy James and the Vagabonds. We all turned up and there was a blackboard outside. It said ‘Sorry, Jimmy James Cancelled. Replacement Band From London: The Jimi Hendrix Experience.’ This wild man came onstage and started doing these incredible guitar feedback numbers and guitar tricks, playing the guitar with his teeth. Most of the mods walked out saying, ‘This is crap, it’s not soul music.’ In the end only 40 people were left, absolutely transfixed.”

He saw Pink Floyd twice, when they were still led by Syd Barrett (“Fantastic, the first truly psychedelic band with a lightshow”) and The Who many times, controversially suggesting, “They were almost the house band in Worthing – it wouldn’t surprise me if they played Worthing more than Brighton.”

He also saw many ‘70s greats before they were famous; Jimmy Page playing his guitar with a violin bow while still in The Yardbirds, The Herd with a very young Peter Frampton, and The Jeff Beck Group featuring an unknown singer called Rod Stewart (“very blues based – what an amazing voice”). But he also rated some acts that are now less well known, such as Family, The Alan Bown Set, The Move (“their singer, Carl Wayne, smashed up a television onstage with a huge axe”), Brian Auger and the Trinity (“with Julie Driscoll on vocals”), Simon Dupree and the Big Sound, and local soul-pop covers act, The Total. Meanwhile, the weirdest gig he ever saw there was “the American hippy Tiny Tim, doing ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ and other songs from the ‘30s and ‘40s in a strange high-pitched falsetto while playing the ukulele.”

Yates’ favourite Worthing gigs include Genesis with Peter Gabriel “singing in a succession of masks”, Janis Joplin (“Just incredible”) and Peter Green’s original Fleetwood Mac but, as he puts it, “The number one, no doubt about it, was David Bowie in the Assembly Hall. It was the week before ‘Ziggy Stardust’ was released [June 1972] and very short notice, only a few days prior publicity. They wanted a dress rehearsal of the Ziggy show for a typical English audience in a not-too-big rock venue, to see how it would go. Bowie came down with about three coachloads of entourage; wife, family, all the trendy Kings Road hippies from London. They filled up one side of the Assembly Hall. I’d seen him previously a couple of times as a folk singer doing Jacques Brel numbers with his guitar, but this was something else, this was a blinder. It was the first time I’d seen stage-diving, he came out dressed wildly, walked on the shoulders of the audience, his family all dancing like crazy, his wife Angie next to me going completely bananas. They infected everyone. I wasn’t a great dancer but even I joined them. Best gig I ever saw.”

By 1972 Robert ‘Yak’ Yates, having embraced the hippy lifestyle, left Britain to live in Ibiza. He drifted back across Europe over a period of years, living in Germany, Holland and the south of France, before settling, aged 26, with a Danish wife in her homeland. He took a degree in sociology and spent his working life in social psychiatry before retiring a year ago. He’s now 65 and still lives in Denmark.