The first time the Rolling Stones played Eel Pie Island, legend has it that there were only 12 people in the audience, one of whom had too much indulged in Newcastle Brown Ale and had fallen asleep.
By the time they finished their weekly residency five months later, they had a record deal, a full-time manager, a small army of fans and a reputation as Britain’s most popular band.
When Rod Stewart first went to the island, he was a poor 19-year-old who worked at London’s Highgate Cemetery during the day and subway stations at night. Within two weeks, he was a full-time singer, touring the UK, with a wardrobe of three-piece suits and a growing collection of enamored female groupies.
An image of the Rolling Stones from a documentary about them on Eel Pie Island
An image of the Eel Pie Island Hotel from the documentary Rock’n ‘Roll Island
Meanwhile, 16-year-old Eric Clapton was so poor that he would swim across the Thames to avoid paying double the amount to cross the bridge from Twickenham to Eel Pie Island.
“We wore our clothes on our heads, swam across the river and got wet with our pants on the other side,” his wingman Dave Brock recalls. Brock went on to find fame as the front man for the psychedelic rock act Hawkwind, while Clapton secured a job as a guitarist for the Yardbirds and then John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers.
The venue where these – and many other – future pop legends got their big break was on the ground floor of an impressive but rather run-down three-story building, the Eel Pie Island Hotel.
Built as a riverside resort for wealthy Victorians on the tiny nine-acre island in the middle of the Thames, it had fallen into disrepair by the mid-1950s. Then, in an extraordinary 15 years, the tatty ballroom became one of the best live music venues in Europe.
The widely forgotten story of how it shaped everyone’s careers, from the Kinks to Elton John, David Bowie and Pink Floyd, is the subject of a new BBC Four documentary called Rock’n’Roll Island, now available on iPlayer.
It tells how the hotel became a talent factory and influenced an entire generation. Like the Cavern Club in Liverpool or the Hacienda in Manchester a few decades later, it was at the center of a cultural revolution. And like many chapters in rock ‘n’ roll history, the story is about sex, drugs and excess.
Jazz musician George Melly once said that in its heyday ‘you could see sex rising from Eel Pie Island like steam from a kettle’. Martin Turner, of the rock band Wishbone Ash, remembers that “as soon as you entered, the marijuana weed hit you right away … you couldn’t smoke anything and just got stoned in the room.”
No wonder the venue was considered every parent’s worst nightmare. An outraged local newspaper, whose reporter visited the island undercover, called it “a beatnik-ravaged bank shelter.”
A passport to Eel Pie Island. Until the 1950s, the island was only accessible by boat
In 1956, Arthur Chisnall, a prosperous antique dealer with a bohemian taste, bought the hotel and hired jazz acts (mostly from the United States) to entertain young gamblers in the ballroom used for tea dancing in the 1920s.
A prominent philanthropist, Chisnall thought the venue might attract local teens who were at risk of going off the rails. He offered them support and advice on education before letting them listen to visiting bands.
Young people had other ideas. When a bridge connecting the Twickenham was constructed in 1957, it was easy to visit. And with very few other locations where young people could dance, drink and kiss without attracting any problems, it quickly became a huge success.
In June 1961, on the club’s fifth anniversary, Chisnall was interviewed by News of the World and made the following surprising statement: ‘This place started out as a jazz club. Now it is one of the largest political discussion centers in this part of Greater London. There are 8,386 members. The bands only play on weekends.
During the week, members block the bar while discussing all kinds of serious topics. Two years later things went really well when Chisnall signed the unknown Rolling Stones to play every Wednesday night for five months in exchange for £ 45 per performance.
August 28, 1960: Two women in tight jeans during a rave at Eel Pie Island, Twickenham, Surrey
It wasn’t long before the line to enter the hotel stretched across the bridge to the mainland. Gina Wa, who went to the gigs as a schoolgirl, recalled: ‘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 became famous. We have never seen them again. ‘
The young people who flocked to the hotel were given a ‘passport’ as a ticket, copies of which are now valuable collectibles. It said: “We ask and demand, on behalf of His Excellency Prince Pan, all those who are concerned with giving the bearer of this passport all the assistance he / she needs in his / her legal business of jiving and in general cutting a carpet. ”
One of the gamblers at Stones’ first appearances was a Rod Stewart, who was deeply impressed by Mick Jagger. “The singer was able to hold the attention of the room and I remember thinking the band was great,” he once recalled.
“But I had the nagging feeling that I could do that too. I could draw a few people with a guitar. . . so why couldn’t I take it up a level and captivate an audience on stage? Stewart got his chance.
While he was busting at Twickenham train station one evening, he was approached by one of the hotel’s resident performers, a six-foot singer called ‘Long John’ Baldry.
He told me he proposed relaunching his band as Long John Baldry and the Hoochie Coochie Men. He wanted me to join for £ 35 a week, ”Stewart recalled. “So I jumped on it? No.
I did what every good 19-year-old boy would have done in the early 1960s. I told him to ask my mom first. She said yes – and soon Stewart was one of the top acts, known as Rod ‘the Mod’ for his signature tight pants, and coveted by teenage girls.
He was not the only artist to find a sex symbol. According to Steve Hackett, of Genesis, who used to go there in the late 1960s, “A friend of mine said,” When you’re on stage as a man, you’re advertising yourself, aren’t you? “.
I hadn’t thought about it because I just wanted to make music, but … I found out it’s part of many women’s fantasies. Peter Frampton, a school friend of David Bowie’s, says of the hotel, “There was just a crowd of screaming girls. They all came up and I remember that by the time I got into the dressing room I barely wore a shirt and was completely covered in scratches. ‘
Perhaps the sexual debauchery and noise inevitably began to attract locals. In 1967, the council revoked the hall’s license and called the rotting dance floor a danger.
It reopened the following year under new ownership, as Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden. In keeping with wider musical trends, the blues, R&B and rock bands that had previously played were replaced by a generation of heavier acts like Black Sabbath.
Ultimately, squatters and anarchists settled in the hotel. Hundreds lived in 1970, although it still hosted acts, including Pink Floyd and David Bowie.
In a memoir called Eel Pie Dharma, a resident, poet Chris Faiers, shared how he lived among ‘200 files, hippies, runaway school children, drug dealers, petty thieves, heroin addicts, artists, poets, motorcyclists, American hippie tourists, au pair girls and Zen philosophers from across around the world ‘who consumed massive amounts of LSD and opened up a sex room for orgies.
Over time, windows were smashed, the ground floor flooded, and doors removed. In 1971, after a mysterious fire, the Eel Pie Island Hotel burned to the ground. Today, the site is a block of luxury apartments selling an average of £ 1.2 million each. But for historians, the memories that linger are invaluable.
Rock’n ‘Roll Island is available on BBC iPlayer.