My previous blog on Ready Steady Gone was about the unveiling of a heritage plaque commemorating a Newcastle venue called the Club a’Gogo – a club that came to an end in 1968. This article features another commemorative plaque marking an event that took place in 1973, five years after the Club a’Gogo closed. The second plaque is over 500 miles from Newcastle but the two plaques have a common link.
The connection is a man who has featured a lot on this website over the years and who died in France exactly fifty years ago today. In the late 1950s and early 1960s this man’s vision and energy changed Newcastle’s night life and music scene for the better by establishing several clubs that were on a par with some of the vibrant London clubs of that era. The same man played a large part in shaping the course of rock music. He was jointly responsible for introducing the world to one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of popular music. At the time he died his name was not that well known so consequently his passing went largely unnoticed. Although the circumstances of his death only caused ripples in the north east they had a devastating effect on the population of a small French village. Something that is still engraved in the memory of the community of that village to this day and continues to be marked with annual remembrance services. The man in question is Mike Jeffery and the French village is La Planche in western France.
My earlier article described how Mike Jeffery opened the Club a’Gogo over six decades ago. On the 8th September 2022, sixty years and a few weeks after the venue first opened the Club a’Gogo was honoured with the plaque. Quite rightly, the plaque acknowledges Mike Jeffery’s achievement and displays both his name and the name of his business partner at the time, Ray Grehan.
Many of those who attended the plaque’s unveiling ceremony were regulars at the Club a’Gogo in its heyday between 1964 and 1967. People went to the Gogo for the music, dancing and to see the great bands of the day. At the time they probably had no interest in the club’s roots as a jazz venue or its founder, Mike Jeffery. In fact in 1964, although Mike Jeffery still owned the club he had left the north east to concentrate on the career of The Animals who he “discovered” at the Gogo in 1963. Some years later he went on to manage Jimi Hendrix along with Chas Chandler, The Animals bass player.
Even as a musician who played at the Club a’Gogo in 1965 and 1966 I knew nothing back then about Mike Jeffery or the part he played in shaping the Newcastle music scene. It is likely, therefore, that the majority of ex-Club a’Gogo members and north east fans of Jimi Hendrix are unaware that today marks the 50th anniversary of Mike Jeffery’s passing. He was only 39 when he died in a plane crash on 5th March 1973.
Over recent years Mike Jeffery has been the subject of very bad press over the way he managed The Animals and, in particular, Jimi Hendrix. Many people believe that Jeffery was either directly or indirectly responsible for Jimi Hendrix’s untimely death. Nevertheless, the way in which he changed the northeast music scene in the sixties and brought enjoyment into the lives of thousands of people cannot be denied. Neither can his influence on rock music for developing the career of Jimi Hendrix. Who knows what else Mike Jeffery may have achieved but for his premature death in La Planche, France in 1973.
La Planche in the early seventies was a small farming community in the Loire-Atlantique area of France. It was quiet, sleepy with not much happening on a day-to-day basis. However, fifty years ago La Planche became the centre of a momentous event – a disaster that had a devastating effect on many lives in France, Spain and the UK. The incident continues to play a part in the psyche of La Planche villagers. Two Spanish passenger planes passing through French air space on their way to the UK were involved in a horrific accident. A Douglas DC-9 flying from La Palma, Mallorca appeared to collide with a Convair Coronado en route from Madrid. The DC-9 exploded in mid air killing all 68 passengers and crew members. The Coronado suffered damage to a wing but was able to safely land at Cognac airport with no loss to life.
The incident involving the DC-9 and Coronado happened on 5th March 1973 at 12.52pm fifteen miles from Nantes at a height of around 29,000 feet (approximately 5 miles). People in the small village of La Planche were going about their daily business. Some farmers and labourers were working in the fields surrounding the village whilst others were engaged in their lives as normal. Some people reported seeing a flash in the sky when the two planes came together. However, it would be around 25 seconds later when the sound of an explosion reached ground level that most of the villagers stopped what they were doing and looked towards the sky. By this time the broken DC-9 and debris from the accident had started falling to earth. It would be a further 20 seconds before the wreckage, frozen bodies and luggage landed in and around the village of La Planche.
Shortly after the midair collision when the skies had cleared thousands flocked to La Planche in order to find out what had happened and offer assistance. Police and ambulances from the neighbouring town of Aigrefeuille-sur-Maine were among the first on the scene. In the meantime the mayor of La Planche, Monsieur Richard was coming to grips with the unfolding tragedy. With the help of locals and the available gendarmes, Mr Richard began gathering up bodies and body parts. Using a tractor and trailer corpses were transferred to a field on the outskirts of the village before being covered over and then placed in makeshift coffins.
The world’s press focussed on the La Planche incident trying to find an explanation for the accident. Was it pilot error; a systems malfunction or more likely the result of a strike by air traffic controllers who had temporarily been replaced by military personnel?
The following day stories about the air disaster started appearing in the press all over the world. Newspaper reports included eye witness accounts of the collision some of which were not easy reading. One witness said she had seen the sky illuminated with streaks of light and flaming torches and then watching the fuselage of the plain landing near her home. Others described the condition of bodies following their five mile plunge to the ground – “… they were broken and completely torn apart.” Several newspapers reported that a two year old baby was among the casualties.
The Times newspaper was quick to publish a list of the passengers and crew who had died. The victims were mostly either English or Spanish citizens with only a few from other nations. Some papers picked up on the fact that several notable people lost their lives. Among those mentioned in later press reports were the race horse owner, Lady Ashcombe from Newbury and Michael Jeffery.
The Times also reported on the row that had broken out between the French and Spanish governments. Both the Douglas DC-9 and the Coronado were Spanish owned planes. Spain alleged that the accident occurred due to negligence by the French military air traffic controllers. France put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Coronado’s Spanish pilot.
Several days after the crash the mayor had the grisly task of trying to match up unrecognisable bodies with the list of passengers and crew supplied by Iberia Airways. In an era that preceded DNA testing by several decades this wasn’t easy but, nevertheless, Monsieur Richard was able to accomplish the task in a few days. After a week most of the bodies and human remains had been repatriated allowing families and loved ones to arrange funerals and cremations in their countries of origin.
Although the loss of 68 lives is tragic, the disaster could have been much worse. There should have been a further 39 passengers aboard the wrecked DC-9 plane. They missed take off because they were travelling from Menorca and their connecting flight to Palma airport in Mallorca was late. The other plane involved was able to land safely with no loss of life or reported injuries to the to the 107 people on board. Unlike the air disaster in Scotland in 1988 in which residents of the town of Lockerbie were killed and buildings were destroyed by aircraft wreckage, no lives were lost on the ground at La Planche. Apart from damage to ploughed fields, the infrastructure of the village remained intact.
Eventually a commission of enquiry was set up to determine the cause of the accident. The conclusion was that there was a failure in communications between the aircraft and air traffic control. This failure resulted in the pilot of the Coronado making an unauthorised manoeuvre which caused the planes to collide.
The people of La Planche erected a stone monument near to the place where the victims bodies and human remains had first been placed. A plaque was attached to the monument as a permanent reminder of the day that aeroplane wreckage and bodies rained down on the village. In 2003, on the thirtieth anniversary of the event, a further plaque was added to the stone monument. None of the victims are named on either plaque but those of us with an interest in Mike Jeffery know that he was one of 68 passengers who perished.
Today a special memorial ceremony will take place at La Planche to pay respect to the 68 passengers who lost their lives in the skies above the village fifty years ago. The community will commemorate the 50th anniversary with a religious service. This will be followed by a wreath laying at the site of the monument and then by an official commemoration at the Salle de La Passerelle where newspaper articles relating to the event can be consulted.
Half a century has now passed since the collision between the Douglas DC-9 and the Convair Coronado. Information about the crash can still be found on the internet and in books about air accidents. Most of these reports focus on the cause of the accident and are aimed mainly at people who want to read about the grim side of aviation history.
Apart from the community of La Planche and relatives of the victims, the human side of the tragedy has largely been forgotten. However, I believe it’s likely that interest in every aspect of the crash will be revived in a few months time. An author friend of mine has been thoroughly researching the life and death of Mike Jeffery for the past ten years for a biography he is writing. In the course of his investigations my friend has interviewed many people who played a key part in Jeffery’s life. There will be a lot of new revelations in the forthcoming book. Amongst other things, it will reveal shocking new facts about the air accident at La Planche in which Mike Jeffery perished.
I’ll be writing about the book once it has been published later this year. Watch this space!