ROCK LEGENDS OF EEL PIE
The Rolling Stones have the location as their starting point
By York Membery
THE THAMES at Twickenham is more genteel than rock 'n' roll.
However one island in this stretch was the starting point for bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Who.
In the week its role is recognised with a blue heritage plaque, YORK MEMBERY tells its story.
It would be hard to imagine a less likely launchpad for the cream of British rock than a peaceful river bank in leafy Twickenham.
But just a stone's throw away is Eel Pie Island, once home to the Eel Pie Hotel and the Eel Pie Island Jazz Club where just about everyone who was anyone in the British Sixties rock scene from The Stones to Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton to Pete Townshend played before shooting to stardom.
"It was one of the best places to hear blues bands at the weekends, " says Ian 'Mac' McLagan, one-time keyboard-player with the Small Faces who played there with the Muleskinners in 1963.
COOL FOR CATS: Eel Pie island was a hot venue for bands and their fans
And some believe the hotel might have been a venue for tomorrow's rock stars but for a mysterious fire that left it nothing but a smouldering ruin.
Eel Pie Island has always been an unusual spot and has had some famous residents including the first Dr Who, William Hartnell. In the 1830s it was a fashionable resort for well-to-do Londoners and known for its eel pies, hence its name.
Until 1957, when a footbridge was built linking it with Twickenham, it could only be reached by ferry.
The legendary Eel Pie Hotel itself dated back to the 19th century, when it was frequented by Charles Dickens, and in the Twenties and Thirties played host to tea dances.
Until 1957, when a footbridge was built linking it with Twickenham, it could only be reached by ferry
By the Fifties its heyday was long behind it. Then Arthur Chisnall, a Kingston junk shop owner, had an idea: he thought it would be an ideal venue for weekly jazz dances featuring George Melly, Acker Bilk and other jazz heroes so he hired a room and opened a club that proved an immediate success.
Before his death in 2007, Melly described the run-down hotel, with its ornate columns and arches, as "something from a Tennessee Williams novel", adding: "In those days you got to the island by boat and you had to pull yourself across on a rope. It was fairly primitive."
The dawn of the Sixties saw teenagers embrace the new British R&B scene and Chisnall was forced to book the movement's hot bands.
"Ironically, he was not very keen on rhythm and blues, " says Gina Way, a west-London-based promoter, who used to go to the gigs when she was a schoolgirl. "But with the emergence of bands like the Cyril Davies All-Stars and Alexis Korner, and the appearance of The Rolling Stones, he saw that this was the direction music was going."
The move paid off. The Eel Pie Island Jazz Club was packed out every Wednesday night and in the course of a few years established itself as a must-play London venue for up-and-coming bands.
Among those who played there between 1962 and 1967 were Long John Baldry's Hoochie Coochie Men (with Rod Stewart), John Mayall's Bluesbreakers (featuring Eric Clapton), The Tridents (with Jeff Beck), The Moody Blues, The Yardbirds, The Who and The Stones who had a residency there on Wednesday nights for several weeks in 1963 playing to sell-out crowds of 250. None of the bands seemed to mind having to lug their equipment across the narrow bridge.
EEL PIE: 'Rod Stewart would be dressed up to the nines'
"I began going in 1964 and among the fi rst bands I saw were The Rolling Stones who were fantastic, " says Way. "At the end of their residency, Mick said they were about to release a single but joked that they would 'be back soon' unless the tour was successful and 'they become famous'. That's what happened of course and we never saw them again."
One future rock star often to be seen at the club was Rod Stewart, invariably dressed up to the nines and "on the pull" if he wasn't there to sing or catch a band. "He was known as 'Rod the Mod' back then, " says Way. "Although Long John Baldry used to call him Phyllis. I don't know why."
Another regular was Ronnie Wood - long before he joined The Rolling Stones. " I remember once going in and having a wee upstairs in a broken bucket and when I came down I saw it was leaking on to the stage!"
Gigs at the club had a special feel. Chisnall even issued novelty Eelpiland Passports (Passport To Pimlico-style membership cards) which have since become collectors' items.
"The fact that you had to walk over a footbridge (or in the jazz days go on a chain ferry) over to the island, made concerts there feel exclusive, " says Way. "There were two little old ladies at the end of the footbridge who collected one old penny as a toll fee and who always said 'Thank you, dear' as they took your money."
Admittedly not everyone was there for the music. The local paper dubbed the club a "beatnik-infested vice den". And Trevor Baylis, the inventor of the wind-up radio, who fi rst went to the Eel Pie Hotel in the late Fifties and now lives on the island, recalls that it offered other attractions: "It was pretty wild. If you wanted to pull a bit of crumpet, it was the place to go."
However, the Eel Pie Hotel was falling into disrepair and the owner could not afford the £200,000 the police deemed necessary to make it safe. The hotel was forced to close, sounding the death knell for the club and squatters soon moved in, wrecking the place.
In 1969, the club briefly reopened as Colonel Barefoot's Rock Garden, welcoming prog-rock bands such as Black Sabbath, the Edgar Broughton Band and Hawkwind.
"We felt honoured just to tread in the footsteps of all those great bands who'd preceded us, " says Hawkwind's Dave Brock.
However in 1971, after a demolition order, the Eel Pie Island Hotel burnt down "in mysterious circumstances". Arson was suspected but no one knows for certain and the remainder of the building was demolished to make way for a townhouse development. It was the end of an era.
Well, almost. Ten years ago, Way and her promoter husband Warren Walters launched a new Eel Pie Club at a pub in Twickenham, which has since played host to The Pretty Things, The Kast-Off Kinks (featuring three of the original band members including drummer Mick Avory) and the Groundhogs among others.
This Friday a plaque dedicated to "The Music Legends of Eel Pie" is to be unveiled on the bank opposite the infl uential island, along with bronze casts of the handprints of some of the musicians who played there.
Among those at the ceremony will be members of The Yardbirds and Hawkwind, although sadly, Chisnall died two years ago. Later The Yardbirds will perform at nearby Twickenham Rugby Stadium.
"The Eel Pie Hotel proved a launching pad for so many bands who went on to greatness, " says Baylis. "It's only right that its place in British rock history should finally be recognised."