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Fifty Shades of Blue

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Sixties band Shades of Blue are to reunite in April to celebrate the 50th anniversary of winning the Army Beat Group Competition

Sixties band Shades of Blue are to reunite in April to celebrate the 50th anniversary of winning the Army Beat Group Competition
In the midst of the Swinging Sixties, the British Army was having a bit of a recruitment problem as long haired youngsters failed to find Service life groovy.

So in an effort to show potential recruits there was more to soldiering than ‘square-bashing and Brasso’, the order went out in 1967 to hold the first – and only – Army Beat Group Competition.

Four young soldiers from Detmold-based 20th Armoured Brigade who two years earlier had formed a rock band called Shades of Blue, entered and won the music talent contest – with two self-penned numbers. 

Five decades on and the original members of the band dubbed the Detmold Fab Four are reuniting on April 20 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the day they scooped the winners’ trophy.

The former Servicemen are Michael Trewhella, Royal Signals, from Boldon Colliery; Fred Bowes, Royal Army Ordnance Corps, from South Shields; Howard Dutton, Royal Tank Regiment, from Chester; and Roger Pollard, Royal Army Ordnance Corps, from Leicester.

When they meet up at a hotel in South Shields, they will not be playing but rather reminiscing about their experiences of the “huge” 1967 worldwide competition, which saw them outperform five other military rock bands in the finals.

Shades of grey - the beat group pose for a formal publicity shot in 1967, from left: Roger Pollard, Michael Trewhella, Fred Bowes and Howard Dutton

Shades of grey - the beat group pose for a formal publicity shot in 1967, from left: Roger Pollard, Michael Trewhella, Fred Bowes and Howard Dutton
Michael Trewhella, who played lead guitar and was lead vocalist, said: “In 1966 when Army recruitment was down, an MoD official noticed that due to the popularity of The Beatles and other well-known bands, many pop groups were being formed in the various countries where the British Army had bases.

 “An idea was put forward to show how modern soldiers of the 1960s could even become pop stars just like their civilian counterparts, and that soldiers could pursue many varied interests.”

But Shades of Blue were already well-established before the Army got on the beat music bandwagon.

Fred Bowes was the bass guitarist in Shades of Blue and now lives in Cyprus. He said: “We performed all over British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), not only in messes and military clubs but also in German establishments, including the Star Club in Bielefeld.

“We once played on an American base in Kassel to an all male audience, which was quite a feat as singing love songs to male soldiers is a challenge. But we did it and it went down a treat.”   

After forming in 1965, the group spent the first year playing popular songs of the day before beginning to write their own material. 

It was only natural that Shades of Blue would enter the Army Beat Group Competition, having built up a following and established themselves as a quality act.

Shades of Blue won the BAOR heat of the competition and then headed to London to compete in the finals held in the BBC Playhouse Theatre. The MoD ensured the event received wide publicity.

The judges were the top DJs of the time and comprised chairman David Jacobs, Barry Alldis, Alan Dell, Keith Fordyce and Murray Kash. The BAOR band won the competition with two self-penned numbers – I Want to be Free and Copplington. 

It was then that the band were dubbed the Detmold Fab Four.

“We were presented with a solid silver cup by the late, Sir Harry Secombe. As well as winning the cup, HMV provided the group with a day at a recording studio,” recalled Fred. 

“The group also performed on the Royal Performance of Fall in the Stars in the presence of Princess Alexandra. We were introduced by Judith Chalmers, who was a very popular and well known BBC presenter.”

Michael added: “The Army Beat Group Competition was reported in both local and national newspapers and the show was broadcast nationally by the BBC Radio.” 

The original Army Beat Group Contest poster from 1967

The original Army Beat Group Contest poster from 1967
On the band’s return to Germany they continued to play at various gigs across Germany. The foursome were even offered a recording contract by Major Minor Records, with whom they recorded two tracks.

The group also did a live recording at the BBC Radio Studios in Köln, where they recorded, among other songs, To Love Somebody.

They were on the brink of rock ‘n’ roll stardom in 1967 when the Army pulled the plug by posting all four soldier musicians, causing the band to fold.

Michael said: “Once we had returned to our units after winning the competition, the Army wouldn’t let us go back to the UK to promote the record. And they wouldn’t let us leave to pursue a musical career.

“We were split up and sent to different parts of Germany to stop us rehearsing.”

He added: “The Army Beat Group competition was a unique event because, after 1967, it was organised by NAAFI. 

“The cup that the Shades of Blue won is equally unique being the only one in existence carrying the British Army logo and the inscription Army Beat Group winners 1967.

“Back in the day, it was a huge event.”

Fred said: “None of the group members was a letter writer and over the years we lost touch with each other, but fortunately it was Michael who located us all and organised the first reunion 16 years ago.”

Howie Dutton, who played rhythm guitar in the band and lives in Germany, organised the next reunion, which took place in 2007 where it all started – the former Hobart Barracks in Detmold.

With all members now into their eighth decade, the group consider this could be their last reunion, but it will certainly be a night for them to remember.     

Michael said: “Each member is now 70-plus years old and it will be the last time all four original members will be together due to age and travel considerations. One resides in Germany, one in Cyprus, and two in the UK.”

“We all thought the Sixties were the greatest time of our lives and when the Merseybeat came on the scene, we were ecstatic,” added Fred.

“There were some great groups providing great music – not only the fabulous Beatles but groups such as Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Searchers, and also other bands from other UK areas such as the Animals, The Tremeloes, The Who and The Hollies.

“Most of us do not think much of today’s music but occasionally there is something we like.”

For Shades of Blue, the beat still does go on, if only in their hearts.