thu 13/08/2020

Rock ‘n’ Roll Island: Where Legends Were Born, BBC Four review - remembering rock's big bang | reviews, news & interviews

Rock ‘n’ Roll Island: Where Legends Were Born, BBC Four review - remembering rock's big bang

Rock ‘n’ Roll Island: Where Legends Were Born, BBC Four review - remembering rock's big bang

Eel Pie Island was London's answer to the Cavern, but what emerged was less genteel

Island in the stream

“Friday night is Amami night” – that was the ad that ran from the 1920s through to the 1950s for a brand of “setting lotion”, a delightfully old-fashioned term. Those were the days when young women stayed home and did their hair, in preparation for a Saturday night out. Perhaps some of the girls (they weren’t yet “chicks”, maybe “birds”) in the late 1950s used the product when they went to Eel Pie Island, one of the country’s legendary music scenes.

The nine-acre island in the Thames, just above the river’s only lock, was the subject of BBC Four’s documentary Rock ‘n’ Roll Island: Where Legends Were Born in the long-established Friday-night rock-slot. No longer Amami night of course, but now we’re all in, and will be on every other day of the week for some time yet, which makes these programmes especially welcome. We’re probably even watching live, just like the old days!

Cheryl Robson’s film, narrated by Nigel Planer, was certainly a diverting 60 minutes. The programme’s focus was on the 15 years from 1956, when the run-down old Eel Pie Hotel was to London what the Cavern was to Liverpool, and at much the same time. The roll call of bands and artists who strutted its mouldering, sagging stage included the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Pretty Things, the Tridents, with whom Jeff Beck played, and Bluesology, which featured a rather serious young pianist whom the world would soon know as Elton John. Long John Baldry was there, too – and walking back to the station one night he came upon a busker, to whom he took a shine. Long John thought he was an old tramp but asked him to join the band. It was Rod Stewart, who’d had “a couple of bevvies”. Long John “saw great potential in me as a blues shouter”.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Eel Pie Hotel was a genteel establishment, the place well-behaved couples went to ballroom dance. In the second half of the century, there was nothing at all genteel about the establishment that Arthur Chisnall ran with the express goal of promoting local bands, initially jazz. It was run as a club, a membership card required to gain entry, which allowed the serving of alcohol. In what must have been rather modern for 1956, hands were stamped upon entry – “a badge of honour”, a sign of coolness.

It was Brian Rutland, a trumpeter who ran the Grove Jazz Band, who had started the ball rolling, but it was another trumpeter, Ken Colyer, “the Guv’nor”, with his love for New Orleans jazz, who was the dealbreaker. So obsessed was Colyer that he joined the Merchant Navy in order to get to the Big Easy, where he ignored the colour bar to play with black musicians who were later invited to Britain.

The only place to hear black music in the 1950s and 1960s was on American Forces Radio, the records rare and available only on import from specialist stores. Art students in particular tuned in to the blues – the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Howlin’ Woolf, Muddy Waters et al – which soon merged with the raw rock sound of young British bands to become rhythm ‘n’ blues. Alexis Korner was a driving force: his band, Blues Incorporated, featured “a bald bank manager-type guy” named Cyril Davies, a blues harmonica player who played “the most exciting music since Little Richard”. Korner and Davies were “innovators of British blues… an inspiration”. Both men encouraged new talent, Korner pushing the Rolling Stones who recorded a celebrated version of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Booster” in 1964. So it was that the Stones, the Yardbirds and others returned the blues to America, where white audiences were exposed to it for the first time. The Stones played more than a dozen gigs on Eel Pie Island before they had their first hit.

The Eel Pie Hotel was “a sort of youth club with great music”, a place where “stuff was going on” that caused seismic changes in British culture. Kids could listen to bands while making out in the bushes outside – no wonder parents frowned! Accessible via a footbridge, though some, including Eric Clapton, swam across to avoid the toll, it was “a bubbling cauldron”, a magnet for teddy boys, bohemians and beatniks. Steve Hackett remembered it as “foggy, misty, cold” – but that only added to the atmosphere.

The club lost its license and closed in 1967, reopening briefly as Colonel Barefoot's Rock Garden. Free, Mott the Hoople, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple all played, the latter heading home with £300, the Island’s most expensive gig ever. The spirit however had gone and in 1971 the hotel mysteriously burned down.

Eel Pie Island, “the big bang of rock music”, is now a townhouse development, and the music born there is celebrated in the Eel Pie Island Museum in Twickenham. The documentary ended with a heartfelt plea for more live rock venues – the only way that young musicians can truly develop and prove themselves. Today is “tribute city”, observed Catherine Feeney and Nikki Lamborn, of Never the Bride, who asked: “If the Stones were on X-Factor would they make it?” A good question.

In what must have been rather modern for 1956, hands were stamped upon entry - 'a badge of honour', a sign of coolness

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