We visit a new museum, celebrating the West London scene that gave the world the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Rod Stewart and many more
In the early 1960s, a dilapidated hotel on an island in the middle of the River Thames was the centre of a music scene that went on to conquer the world. The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and David Bowie all played early gigs here, in the 300-capacity ballroom of the Eel Pie Hotel.
It was not just the fact that it was on an idyllic island accessible only via a tiny footbridge that made the Eel Pie scene unique. The man who promoted the gigs there, Arthur Chisnall, was neither an entrepreneur nor, in standard terms, a promoter: he called himself a ‘social researcher’. On starting up his shows at the hotel in 1956, his intention was to give young people a place to go, to create a community centre for them at a time when the establishment – from parents to police to local councils – were still coming to terms with, or trying to ignore, the new teenage culture.
After Chisnall was forced to close his club in 1967, various other promoters put on shows at the hotel before it finally burned down in 1971. After that…nothing: while The Beatles’ old stomping grounds in Liverpool are the subject of tours and museums – the value of pop-culture tourism to the UK economy has been placed at £70m annually – the West London scene centred on their rivals, The Stones, was forgotten and is only now being fully celebrated and explored.
Long-time Eel Pie resident Michele Whitby published a book on the island’s musical history in 2011 and has amassed an impressive collection of memorabilia that she hopes will become a permanent museum. Until the end of October 2015, a pop-up exhibition, curated by Michele, is on show at Twickenham library, as she finalises plans for a permanent home.
In our podcast we visit the island to speak to Michele and, at the Eel Pie Museum, we meet Pete Watt, who has painstakingly compiled a week-by-week list of all the gigs held on the island in its heyday. That list is like a who’s who of British music from the 50s to the 70s, kicking off with jazz names like Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball and going right through the early 60s r’n’b scene to Pink Floyd, Genesis and even David Essex before its final demise. The Eel Pie story is a secret, forgotten footnote to a series of musical scenes that defined the 60s and 70s.
While the exhibition does include a montage signed by all the current members of the Rolling Stones, Michele Whitby says the exhibition is not really about celebrity or the possessions of the famous – it’s more a social history, a snapshot of an exciting moment in British history.
'When I first started researching it, the whole idea of the Stones and Rod Stewart playing here was really exciting to me,' says Michele. 'But the more I wrote, it became the lesser known people like Cyril Davies and Long John Baldry and just the stories of the people that became much more interesting. It became more real, more rich. It’d be great to have Eric Clapton’s guitar eventually but I don’t want people thinking they’re just coming to see a star’s guitar in a case. I want them to come and go round and think ‘Oh wow I wish I’d been there.’ Or ‘wow that’s really bought back my youth. And that seems to be what it’s doing, so that’s good.'
0-11 mins On Eel Pie Island with Michele Whitby, curator of the Eel Pie Museum. We visit the site of the old hotel and Michele talks about the start of teenage culture and Arthur Chisnall’s motivation for starting the club (from 5:00); how Rod Stewart was discovered on his way home from a gig at the island (from 7:10); Brian Jones calling Arthur Chisnell asking if the Stones could play at the island (from 7:50).
11-21.30 mins Archivist Pete Watt talks us through the Museum Hall of Fame – the massive list of gigs held at the Eel Pie hotel, discussing (among others) the Rolling Stones, The Who, Genesis, Rod Stewart, Jimmy Page and David Essex, as well as the island’s early jazz/skiffle scene.
21.30 Michele Whitby talks about the museum and the process of making it a permanent fixture in Twickenham.
Since we made this podcast in 2015, Michele has been offered a permanent home for the Eel Pie Island Museum in Twickenham and it is set to open in summer 2016. For the latest news on the opening date, please go to eelpiemuseum.co.uk or facebook.com/eelpiemuseum/