Eel Pie Island promoter
Thursday 04 January 2007
Arthur Chisnall, club and concert promoter: born Kingston upon Thames, Surrey 3 June 1925; died Esher, Surrey 28 December 2006.
While the Beatles served their musical apprenticeship in Hamburg before being discovered by Brian Epstein at the Cavern in Liverpool, the Rolling Stones took their first, tentative steps with Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated at London venues. The gigs which really put the group on the map happened at Crawdaddy in Richmond and on Eel Pie Island at Twickenham in 1963.
Set up by a junk-shop owner, Arthur Chisnall, in 1956 at a run-down hotel on an island in the middle of the Thames, the Eel Pie Island Jazz Club originally welcomed trad-jazz musicians like Acker Bilk, Ken Colyer, Cy Laurie, George Melly and the Temperance Seven. But Chisnall also booked visiting US blues musicians such as Jesse Fuller, Buddy Guy and Howlin' Wolf.
The venue subsequently became a favourite haunt not only of the Stones, who had a residency there on Wednesday nights for several weeks in 1963, but also of British rhythm'n'blues bands like Cyril Davies' All Stars, the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, the Artwoods, the Downliners Sect, the Tridents with Jeff Beck, and Long John Baldry and his Hoochie Coochie Men featuring Rod Stewart.
No one even seemed to mind having to carry their equipment across the narrow bridge which was built to link Eel Pie Island to the river bank. Chisnall issued much-treasured Eelpiland Passports (a Passport to Pimlico-style variation on the usual membership cards) and presided over the goings-on at what was often described in the media as a "beatnik-infested vice den" but really functioned as a proto-youth club, keeping teenagers off the streets and out of trouble.
In All the Rage (1998), his autobiography, Ian McLagan, the keyboard-player with the Small Faces and the Faces, fondly recalls attending gigs at Eel Pie Island, playing there with the Muleskinners (as support to the Stones in 1963) and first meeting Rod "The Mod" Stewart, dressed up to the nines and ostensibly "on the pull", at the venue. "It was one of the best places to hear blues bands at the weekends," he said:
Part of the dance floor in front of the stage had rotted away underneath and it would bounce up and down like a trampoline under the weight of the audience. It was a smelly old place but it was good. The audience was full of musicians. Loads of them. Arthur [Chisnall] kept it going. He had a love for the music. I wish I could go back there.
However, according to Trevor Baylis (inventor of the wind-up radio), who first went to the Eel Pie Hotel in the late 1950s and now lives on the island, the place also offered other attractions:
It was wild. If you wanted to pull a bit of crumpet, this was where you came. It was so decadent it was unreal. There were loads of little alcoves to slip into if you were lucky. The boys were as bad as the girls. We all had to go to the clinic on the Monday!
Born in 1925 in Kingston upon Thames, Chisnall organised a few jazz concerts while serving in the Army during the Second World War, but by the mid-Fifties he was running a junk shop in Kingston and becoming interested in social trends and what was happening to the post-war generation.
Noticing the popularity of second-hand jazz and blues records amongst students from the local art schools, he decided to launch a venue to cater for their tastes. Chisnall convinced Michael Snapper, who owned the dilapidated hotel on Eel Pie Island, to let him put on trad-jazz bands there at weekends. Built in the 1830s, the Eel Pie Hotel had hosted tea dances during the Twenties and Thirties and, although it had lost its grandeur, importantly it still retained a large dance hall and a bar with a licence.
Starting on 20 April 1956, when musicians and customers still had to use a small ferry to reach the island, the gigs grew in popularity when a bridge was built the following year. Chisnall was mostly attracting jazzers, beatniks, and eventually mods and rhythm'n'blues fans keen to dance, drink beer and enjoy themselves away from their parents rather than cause trouble. The venture grew to such an extent that he began charging admission in order to pay the landlord and the bands. "I didn't know what impact I was having on the music scene," Chisnall said:
You've got to remember that my job was to create a world for people and I created that world. The people who were originally there were 300 art-school people and they remade themselves until, bang, you had The Who and the Stones.
Chisnall acted as a kind of outreach social worker, before there was such a thing, and helped alienated, under-achieving youngsters get into adult education or find gainful employment through his many contacts. He became well-known for his radical, informal approach to sociology and welcomed journalists and researchers studying this new post-war phenomenon the teenager, and what would subsequently be called youth culture. A film crew even made a documentary, Who Needs Eel Pie for Rank's Look at Life cine- magazine series, when the place was threatened with closure in 1967, the year Pink Floyd made their only appearance there, on 29 March.
The police often turned up in response to complaints from other residents on the island about weekend crowds of up to 500 and for years Chisnall managed to sweet-talk the officers away, but the venue was eventually closed down in 1967 when a raid found three teenagers without a membership card and Chisnall had to pay a £10 fine. "Our major crime was to teach people to think for themselves, an unforgivable sin," Chisnall reflected.
He carried on his campaigning work with the homeless and there was talk of renovating the premises, but the costs proved prohibitive and, after 11 years, Chisnall decided to move on. Squatters moved in before the premises reopened as Colonel Barefoot's Rock Garden in 1969, but a demolition order was issued and the hotel finally burnt down in a mysterious fire in 1971, putting an end to that colourful chapter in Eel Pie Island's history.
The indie group Mystery Jets have recently revived interest in the area, using a picture of the old hotel on the sleeve of their album and holding impromptu gigs at their rehearsal space there, while the Eel Pie Club, now at the Cabbage Patch in Twickenham, has welcomed several of the musicians who originally performed on Eel Pie Island for the odd jam-session. On 30 January, Radio 4 is due to broadcast a documentary about the venue's heyday.
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