In the late 1950s and 1960s, the south-west London suburbs of Richmond and Twickenham were a hotbed for innovation in popular music. What can the history of this very local music scene tell us about youth culture more broadly?
It’s now almost sixty years since the first stirrings of British rhythm and blues. The scene began, not so much in the clubs of central London, but in the suburbs to the south-west of the city, located along the River Thames. The neighbouring towns of Richmond and Twickenham are near the rather less upmarket suburb where I spent much of my childhood, although I’m a little too young to have experienced any of this at first hand. However, armed with a copy of a new book, Andrew Humphreys’ Raving Upon Thames: An Untold Story of Sixties London, and accompanied by a couple of older-and-cooler friends, I recently set out on a walking tour in search of relics of this early popular music scene.
Sadly, there is very little left. After having lain derelict for decades, The Station Hotel, the original home of the Crawdaddy Club where the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds played some of their earliest gigs, is now a gastro-pub. L’Auberge, the coffee bar at the bottom of Richmond Hill where beatniks and then hippies gathered to trade gossip and other substances, has become a branch of Nando’s. A little further up the hill, there is no trace of Sandover Hall (another early venue for the Stones), Potter’s Music Shop, or the Hanging Lamp, one of the key sixties folk clubs.
Meanwhile, the Eel Pie Island Hotel in Twickenham, a youth club and venue where countless jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock bands performed in the 1950s and 1960s, has long since been demolished. The Island is now a strange oasis of upmarket gated housing, alongside artists’ studios and modernised versions of the boatyards that have been there since at least the eighteenth century. And yet, a short walk away, the Eel Pie Club continues to stage rhythm and blues tribute gigs in a pub in the centre of Twickenham; and there is the Eel Pie Island Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the legacy of this brief period in London’s youth cultural history.
Beyond nostalgia, why should any of this be of interest today? Andrew Humphreys’ book provides a wealth of detail on the major players and key events, along with some great illustrations; and the Museum is also very much worth a visit, perhaps particularly for ageing survivors of the sixties. But my aim here is not primarily to tell the story, but to explore what the emergence and evolution of this specific musical scene might have to tell us about the social changes of the time, and about youth culture more broadly.
Subcultures and scenes
Academic work on youth culture has seen many shifts of emphasis over the past fifty years. The early work on British post-war subcultures that emerged from the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1970s has cast a long shadow, but it was significantly challenged during the 2000s. (I’ve written about this at some length elsewhere.) For various reasons, later generations of researchers have questioned the idea of subcultures, and sought to replace it with rather more flexible ideas like ‘tribes’ and ‘scenes’. This ‘post-subcultural’ research focuses on the plurality, fragmentation and fluidity of contemporary youth cultures; and it argues that these shifting alliances are based as much on individual style and consumer taste as on social positions such as class. Youth culture is typically seen here as a matter of shifting and temporary relationships, rather than the ‘card-carrying’ membership implied by the notion of subculture.
The idea of ‘scenes’ is particularly appropriate to thinking about the role of music in youth culture, and how performers and fans tend to cluster together in particular geographical locations. The focus here tends to be on local scenes that develop in a particular region, city or neighbourhood, but there is also some attention to the relation between the local and the global, especially in the form of the international music industry. (Again, there has been a fair amount of academic debate about this idea: Dave Hesmondhalgh provides a sensible academic discussion here.)
In my view, these different ideas and terms are more or less appropriate, depending on which specific phenomena and which historical period we’re talking about. In the case of suburban south-west London in the 50s and 60s, one can certainly identify both clearly-defined subcultures and elements of a looser scene.
While it might seem implausible to most contemporary readers, some of the key youth subcultures of the late 1950s were based around different forms of jazz. Followers of ‘traditional’ jazz (derived from New Orleans in the 1920s) were clearly differentiated from those who preferred ‘modern’ jazz (American bebop and hard bop of the 1940s and 50s). At least in the popular imagination, each was associated in turn with a particular sartorial style, and preferences for specific stimulants or narcotics. Stereotypically, followers of trad jazz wore scruffy duffle-coats and jeans; while modernists dressed in a much smarter, Italian-influenced style. Traddies drank beer, while modernists preferred amphetamines. The former went on marches for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, while the latter hung out in espresso bars.
These distinctions can clearly be seen in the leading youth novel of the time, Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners, published in 1959, where the characters of the Misery Kid and Dean Swift represent the two groups. (I have written about this at length here.) These groups typically despised each other; and the confrontation between them rose to a head in the ‘rioting’ that disrupted the bucolic calm of the Beaulieu Jazz festival in rural Hampshire in 1960.
This division was certainly apparent in the programming of the Richmond Jazz (and later Jazz and Blues) Festival, which took over from Beaulieu as the leading national festival in 1961. In the programmes for these weekend events, which took place in the grounds of the Richmond Athletic Association, trad and modern jazz were largely segregated to different time slots. By 1963, however, a further addition is evident: the Rolling Stones appear at the bottom of the bill, along with other longer-established blues acts. Several key musicians were crossing over into ‘rhythm and blues’, while still keeping a foothold in various forms of jazz, Alexis Korner and the Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts among them.
The diversity and fluidity of the Richmond and Twickenham scene continued through the sixties. Artists appearing at the Hanging Lamp folk club, such as John Martyn, Al Stewart and Ralph McTell, appealed to rock fans as well, and they and their successors performed at the Eel Pie Island club – sometimes on different nights from jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock acts, but sometimes on the same bill, even alongside emergent heavy metal bands. Meanwhile, some modernists gradually transferred their musical affiliations, without dramatically abandoning elements of their style and appearance: modernists became ‘mods’, although elements of jazz (or at least ‘soul jazz’) were still part of their musical mix. Here again, members of the mod bands that eventually became the Who and the Small Faces (as well as David Bowie in his first incarnation as the leader of a band called the Manish Boys) were regular attendees and eventually performers at the Richmond and Twickenham clubs.
All this points to a considerable amount of fluidity: musical tastes, and associated aspects of appearance and lifestyle, were provisional and constantly changing. While particular subcultures can certainly be identified here, there was also a good deal of inter-connection and cross-fertilization between them. Just as the musicians moved across different styles, it seems fair to assume that the fans did so as well.
The local and the global
In these respects, Richmond and Twickenham at this time had many of the characteristics of a ‘scene’ – and in this respect it has a good deal in common with more celebrated popular music scenes like Liverpool and Memphis in the 1960s, or even Olympia in the 1990s or East London in the early 2000s. However, what remains striking is that this was an essentially suburban scene, rather than an urban or metropolitan one: it wasn’t happening in some kind of poverty-stricken ghetto. While neither town is (or was) socially homogeneous, Richmond in particular has always had pockets of considerable affluence, as anyone who has wandered along the Georgian terraces that surround Richmond Green will know. Twickenham is somewhat more middle-class and lower-middle-class, although again there are some very well-appointed historical properties along the riverside.
Many of the key musicians – including later rock behemoths like Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood – were brought up locally, or in nearby suburbs further south and west like Kingston and Teddington. The proximity of several art schools, which several of them were attending, was also part of the explanation. To be sure, performers based in the area would eventually play at central London clubs like the Flamingo, the Marquee and the 100 Club; but they also played at other suburban locations, especially to the west and south-west of London, like Ealing, Windsor and Sutton.
Yet the local was also directly connected with the global. A good deal of the music these musicians played was influenced by – and in some instances directly copied from – American sources, and specifically African-American ones. However, much of this original music was ignored and marginalised by the mainstream (white) music industry in the United States itself; and for young British fans in the 1950s and early 1960s, it was far from easy to obtain. The ‘traditional’ jazz (and some of the players) brought over to the UK by musicians like Ken Colyer was not in a particularly healthy state in New Orleans at the time. Likewise, the British blues performers of the late 1950s (Cyril Davies, Alexis Korner, John Mayall, Long John Baldry) and the early rhythm and blues acts, including the Stones and the Yardbirds – who also all played in the Richmond and Twickenham clubs – not only covered songs by African-American performers, but also encouraged many of them to come across the Atlantic to play in the UK. Some of the early bills at Eel Pie Island, for example, featured artists like John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and Howlin’ Wolf. Ironically, it was the white British artists who ‘discovered’ (or rediscovered) the authentic Black music of the United States – and eventually came to sell a version of it back to white America.
Economics and entrepreneurs
While one might view the emergence of such youth cultural scenes as a bottom-up, ‘grassroots’ phenomenon, it was by no means untouched by commercial influences. The south-west London scene emerged at a time when the popular music industry in Britain – or at least the part of it that particularly targeted youth – was just beginning to take shape. As I’ve described elsewhere, this is documented in books like Absolute Beginners as well as films like The Tommy Steele Story (1957), Expresso Bongo (1958, featuring Cliff Richard) and Beat Girl (1960, with Adam Faith). If these more mainstream artists would have been eschewed by the rising generation of rhythm and blues performers, their massive commercial success was an ever-present influence, and London’s version of Tin Pan Alley was never far away.
Bands like the Rolling Stones and their successors at the Crawdaddy Club, the Yardbirds, were rapidly lured away to much larger and more lucrative venues, in several cases returning only to purchase luxurious mansion homes later in the decade. Humphreys gives an entertaining description of what took place when the Beatles (who had of course emerged from a different music scene in Liverpool) turned up to see the Rolling Stones at the Crawdaddy Club. Yet even the trad jazz bands (like those of Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball, who both played at the first Richmond Festivals) were dependent upon the rapid growth of the popular music industry. Some were left behind by these developments, or chose to stay on the outside; but even for the ‘progressive’ and heavy rock bands who emerged in the late 1960s, many of whom played early gigs at Eel Pie Island (like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Cream), an anti-establishment, seemingly non-commercial ethos proved to be far from incompatible with accumulating massive wealth.
In this respect, it’s vital to consider the role of intermediaries or entrepreneurs in the creation and continued existence of such music scenes. However small it may be, a music scene requires an infrastructure of venues and meeting places, local and national media coverage, music shops, rehearsal spaces and recording studios, and so on; as well as promoters, managers, publicists, technicians, road crew and others. Humphreys’ book acknowledges the key role of entrepreneurs like Harold Pendleton (who set up the National Jazz and Blues Festival in Richmond) and Giorgio Gomelsky (an early manager of both the Stones and the Yardbirds). However, his most interesting portrait in some respects is of a lesser-known figure, Arthur Chisnall.
Chisnall (1925-2006) was a former junk-shop manager and self-styled social researcher, who in 1956 founded the weekend jazz club in the dilapidated Hotel at Eel Pie Island (known as the Eelpiland Club). He continued to run the Club as it gradually morphed into a rhythm and blues and then a rock venue. Yet Chisnall was not a music industry entrepreneur, or even a music enthusiast. His primary interest was in young people, and particularly young people who seemed to be at risk of losing their way. His large suburban house, about half a mile from the Island, became a kind of refuge for waifs and strays; and while some today might question his motives, Chisnall appears more like a benevolent, pipe-smoking vicar than an exploiter of innocent youth. He might be described now as a ‘detached’ or ‘outreach’ youth worker, in the sense that he was working in the community, rather than being employed by an arm of government. As he saw it, the aim of the Eelpiland Club was not primarily to make money but to provide a safe haven for at-risk youth: in a 1961 newspaper interview, he even described it as a ‘political discussion centre’.
In light of this, it’s perhaps ironic – although not entirely surprising – that the Club (along with elements of the Richmond and Twickenham scene more broadly) prompted the kinds of moral panics that are very familiar for students of youth culture. The illustration here is taken from a 1960 edition of the mass-market magazine Weekend, and comes curiously close to the style of the B-movie Beat Girl, released the same year – although it could equally have come from a feature on any number of apparently dangerous youth music scenes since that time. I remember my own parents talking in hushed and outraged tones about the (apparently) drug-fuelled behaviour of the Yardbirds (I must have been about ten at the time); and the bad press grew significantly by the late sixties, once the Club became the venue for regular heavy rock gigs under the moniker of ‘Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden’ (which hosted noted hippy bands of the time including Hawkwind, the Nice and the Edgar Broughton Band, as well as those mentioned above).
The Club’s reputation as a den of vice would undoubtedly have attracted even more teenage punters, but in 1969 when a large and chaotic hippie commune moved in and proceeded to trash what remained of the building, conservative locals were predictably scandalised. (Ironically, one of the aggrieved was none other than the Who’s Pete Townshend, who by then was living in a riverfront mansion just across from the Island, and had the gall to complain about the noise.) Chisnall struggled to defend the Club, not least against the licensing restrictions of the local council, and ongoing police harassment; although its fate was eventually sealed when the Hotel burnt down in a mysterious fire in 1971.
Something of the ambivalence of Chisnall’s role is captured in a short film in the documentary series Look at Life, apparently made in 1967. The film begins by showing young people flooding across the footbridge to the Island, and then crowding into the main ballroom, accompanied by a trad jazz band (curiously anachronistic for 1967, perhaps, although many of the audience seem to be authentic hippies). The commentary notes the attacks by local residents, fearing that the Club is attracting ‘hooligans’ and ‘undesirables’ who may be in ‘moral danger’. Yet it also shows how Chisnall – ‘a sociologist with no formal training’ – has apparently rescued many such restless and disaffected young people, leading them on to undergraduate study via a link with Coleg Harlech in Wales, and to careers in areas such as teaching and social work.
Through its portraits of these Club members, the film reflects contemporary concerns about the troubled condition of youth: young people, we are told, are ‘discontented’ and ‘searching’, and some believe they should be brought up free of adult restrictions. The commentary claims that ‘there exists at the Club a curious underground movement, a hidden grapevine that becomes available only when it is searched for’ – yet it is referring here not to the ‘movement’ of the emerging counter-culture, but to the youth-saving efforts of Chisnall and others like him.
Andrew Humphreys is largely correct to describe the story of the Richmond and Twickenham scene as ‘untold’: it isn’t even mentioned in most popular histories of 1960s London. Yet in recent years, the efforts of music historians and local residents have begun to remedy this. For those who are old enough to have been there at the time, this has a nostalgic appeal of its own; but, as I hope this post has shown, we can also draw some broader lessons from this story that might extend our understanding of the youth music scenes of today and tomorrow, and how adults have related to them. I’ll be writing more on this in future posts.
1963 jazz festival, Evening News: https://www.ukrockfestivals.com/richmond63.html
Hippies: photo by Mark Picthall: https://www.swlondoner.co.uk/life/19022021-podcast-londons-puzzling-places-the-radical-past-of-twickenhams-eel-pie-island