‘Eel Pie Island was a big hang-out for me, an ancient damp ballroom stuck in the middle of the River Thames reached by a rickety wooden footbridge. But you felt that you were heading somewhere truly exotic.
It was the place where I began to understand the power of Rhythm & Blues.’ (Rod Stewart)
Last week was a big week.
My daughter started at University.
I drove her there with a knotted stomach – hoping, praying, that these next years would be all that she hoped – the time of her life.
On the way I ceded control of the CD Player – she’s not exactly a fan of the usual fare I play – Howling Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Arthur Alexander.
First up was an Elton John compilation.
‘Crocodile Rock’ blasted out and suddenly these lines really hit home :
’I never had me a better time and I guess I never will’.
Proust had his Madeleine – I have Music.
As soon as I heard those lines I was beamed back there.
To The Island.
Eel Pie Island to give it its full cartographical title.
But, for us .. a raggle taggle band of would be anarchists and bohemians (in reality grammar school boys and girls, art school students and other assorted refugees from the ‘straight world’) it was always just The Island.
Spring and Summer of 1963.
The Time of My Life.
Crossing The River in the Moonlight by the Footbridge.
Crossing to a mysterious land where magic scenes and sounds were all around.
Arthur Chisnall’s Magic Kingdom where Music and Ideas and glorious youthful exuberance and madness reigned, unrestrained.
Blues, Ban The Bomb, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Pop Art …
Queueing up to get my hand stamped by Stan- usually with the name of an obscure African Country.
Clutching my Island Passport :
‘We request and require, in the name of His Excellency Prince Pan, all those whom it may concern to give the bearer of this passport any assistance he/she may require in his/her lawful business of jiving and generally cutting a rug.’
Drinking as much Newcastle Brown Ale as my belly could hold.
Escaping gravity as the sprung Ballroom floor of The Island Hotel see sawed up and down as we danced to Cyril Davies’ All Stars, The Tridents (with Jeff Beck), John Mayall’s Blues Breakers (with Eric Clapton) and Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men (with Rod Stewart).
Trying, desperately, to impress the impossibly glamorous girls in their sixties finery.
Someone said later that on The Island you could feel sex rising from The Island like steam from a kettle.
I certainly got burned.
I loved all those Bands – and The Artwoods and The Yardbirds and Georgie Fame’s Blue Flames.
But, But, from the first time I saw them, April 24th 1963, there was only one Band which commanded my total allegiance – The Rolling Stones.
Bear in mind they hadn’t yet made any records.
These Rolling Stones could be found, honing their chops, at The Station Hotel in Richmond or The Crawdaddy.
You might come across Keith or Mick or Brian shopping for Blues and R & B obscurities at Gerry Potter’s Record Shop on Richmond Hill.
These were The Rolling Stones before the legend.Embed from Getty Images
Before the national and international tours.
Before the Record Contract and the TV Shows.
These Rolling Stones were our secret.
And, Long before it became a slogan I was telling anyone who would listen (of course, there were precious few of those) that Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts (not forgetting Stu) were not only the greatest R&B and Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in The Thames Delta but very possibly, very probably, Hell … 100% for certain the finest in the entire world!
I knew that because I saw them play two dozen times on The Island between April and the end of September 1963.
Two dozen times I felt their growing power as a unit.
Their ability to play hot and cool at the same time.
Their ability to Roll and and Sway as well as Rock.
Their ability to lock into the Rhythm and ease into The Blues.
Their ability to get the joint absolutely rocking – Going Around and Around.
I knew because as soon as they hit the first note of Route 66 the floor became a trampoline!
Now, anyone could see that going on stage in front of an audience put 50,000 Watts of energy through Mick Jagger.
Energy he learned to control and channel – to light like a fuse to send that audience into blissful explosion.
Bill Wyman didn’t move much but his Bass held that energy in tension.
Brian Jones looked great and added the instrumental flourishes.
Charlie Watts and Keith Richards were the masters of Rhythm – born to play this Music.
Together they found gears unknown to their contemporaries.
And, they knew that you can’t exhaust your audience (and yourselves) by playing flat out all night long.
You have to be able to take the tempo down and cast a romantic spell.
You have to learn from the great Arthur Alexander about playing and pacing an R & B Ballad.
Through and with The Rolling Stones we became R&B and Blues afficianados.
We knew that there was a deep knowing in the seeming simplistic works of Jimmy Reed.
A deep knowing that most Bands either didn’t recognise or couldn’t find within themselves when they took on a Jimmy Reed tune.
The Rolling Stones knew.
And, listening to them we could feel in our guts that they knew.
One night they played a song I didn’t recognise.
Turned out it was one that Mick and Keith wrote together.
I thought – if they get the hang of writing given how great they are as a live band they might be able to expand their reach far beyond the Bluesniks like me.
They might even end up being damn near enough as big as The Beatles!
Somethings you never forget.
24 nights on The Island.
The place was packed.
Reeling and Rocking.
Sounds that sent us divinely crazy.
Reeling and Rocking until the Moon went down.
Ah … ah … that Joint was Rocking.
And so were we.
Reeling and Rocking through the Time of Our Lives.
On The Island.
Going Around and Around.
When I got back Home from dropping my Daughter off I looked through my old files and found this.
I laughed and took down my vinyl copies of The Rolling Stones debut LP and their first two EPs and played them as loud as my system would allow.
I tell you my Joint was really Rocking.
There’s an excellent Book on Eel Pie Island by Dan Van der Vat and Michele Whitby.
I also recommend the Oral History edited by JC Wheatley – ‘British Beat Explosion – Rock ‘n’ Roll Island’
There are 2 worthwhile DVDs – ‘Clinging To A Mudflat’ and, ‘Eel Pie and Blues’
A search of YouTube will yield other fascinating clips.