Music and ‘The Poly’

Following the decades of the 1940s – 1960s, explored by Creative Youth’s previous project Kingston RPM (Records, People and Music), the borough’s reputation as a musical hub continued to thrive. As jazz and R&B gave way to rock and roll, glam, punk and hardcore, Kingston’s network of grassroots live music venues continued to support the ascent of some of the biggest names in 20th century music history.

While Rock ‘n’ Roll was beginning to reach a wide audience as it infiltrated the airwaves, others were sourcing and learning from rarer records by American bluesmen. Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed’s form of electrified Chicago blues were an enormous inspiration to The Yardbirds, formed from alumni of Hollyfield School on Surbiton Hill Road, and a springboard for its members, which over the years included Top Topham, Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. The Rolling Stones, a house act at Eel Pie Island and the Crawdaddy Club in  neighbouring Richmond, injected Rock ‘n’ Roll rhythm into the heartfelt soul of Blues, developing the 1960s R&B sound that would later open the door to heavier, psychedelic and more experimental styles of rock.

The Yardbirds rehearsing on Top of the Pops. Circa 1965. Photo: Alamy
Music performance at Kingston Univeristy

From the 1950’s onwards, the Kingston Art School student population provided a keen and captive audience for live music in the area, as new genres and sounds drifted over from the Atlantic and emerged from other parts of the UK. It was specifically for this new generation and the emergent new phenomenon of ‘the teenager’ that Eel Pie Island Jazz Club founder, Arthur Chisnall, set up the famed venue, in Twickenham, to provide them a space to call their own.

The club, founded in a dilapidated old hotel on a tiny enclave in the middle of the river Thames at Twickenham, would become the unexpected beacon for some of the biggest names in Rock ‘n’ Roll history, including a teenage David Bowie (then Davie Jones), The Who, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, and a young Rod Stewart, after he was ‘discovered’ by Blues singer Long John Baldry busking outside Twickenham station. Evolving into an underground mecca for the swell of new R&B obsessed youth, the venue issued intrepid clubbers who crossed the footbridge over to this mysterious isle, with a special ‘passport’ on entry that read:

“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. Given under our hand this first day of November 1963 PAN Prince of Trads.”

Eeelpiland Passport
LP cover of Time and a Word by Yes, 1970

Born in Kingston himself, Chisnall ran local junk shop ‘Snapper’s Corner’, which is where he observed the resident youth coming in to browse the dusty jazz and blues records, but having nowhere to go dance, or express themselves. Taking on the role of an informal social worker, Chisnall also helped many disaffected young people into work or adult education through mentoring and grants; recognising the alienation felt by this new generation and understanding the power of music in shaping their lives. 

He said of his ‘social experiment’: “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”.

Not only did ‘Eelpiland’ subsequently become a beacon for many of the world-class acts who graced the neighbouring pubs and clubs of Kingston in the following decades, but Chisnall also paved the way for the ‘Youth Arts’ centred approach that Kingston is proud to continue today, across its educational and cultural programming; such as at Rose Theatre, and through the work of Creative Youth, its new multi arts space FUSEBOX and associated annual festival FUSE International.

When the legendary jazz club closed in 1967, it was the unassuming Students’ Union of the Kingston Polytechnic that took on the mantle, bringing in artists on the cusp of world fame, with bands such as Queen, The Smiths, New Order and Genesis playing some of their first gigs on the humble stages of the University campus. Particularly in the earlier decades, when mid-sized venues were rare, the Poly’s various live music venues offered attractive and well equipped stages for emerging bands, not quite famous enough yet for the stadium venues in the big cities. As such, Kingston became a training ground for bands releasing and touring their debut albums or new singles, just before their stars would rise. 

Rob Seeley, who was Social Secretary at the Poly from 1972-3, whilst studying for a degree in Economics, Politics and French, witnessed the  birth of the Students’ Union’s staggering programming, helping to organise concerts at Penrhyn Road for David Bowie, Genesis, Lou Reed, Fairport Convention and Ralph McTell amongst others. He also ran a Folk and Blues Club at Knights Park, placing students and local singers on the billing with the likes of John Martyn, Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl, Roger Ruskin Spear (Of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band), Gallagher and Lyle, Stefan Grossman and The Spinners. 

“We were so lucky to have such great musicians coming to Kingston week after week,” he says. At times, however, the unfamiliar nature of some of the more experimental artists didn’t always go down so well with the crowd. Randy Baldwin, a regular on the student circuit at the time recalls being at the Poly when popular band Yes were headlining, and being supported by a then unknown, new band called Queen, fronted by an unconventional and eccentric young singer by the name of Freddie Mercury. “They were booed off stage!”, he says, “It just wasn’t what everybody wanted. Mad to think back on that!”.

Ticket stub Yes and Queen posted by Nick Elliott
Queen live performance

In 1983, both The Smiths and New Order were booked before they had a single released. As recalled by Julian Hickman, Social Secretary from 1981-84, by the time they came to play, they had both released what would become international hits; The Smiths with ‘This Charming Man’, and New Order with the interstellar ‘Blue Monday’. Julian recalls having to lock the doors to contain the swell at the sold out Smiths gig, which ended up being where they were signed by an American Executive from Warners Records. 

Later, in 1983, Nick Power would attend a rare UK gig of Kurtis Blow – the first commercially successful rapper and the first to sign with a major record label – on tour from his native New York City.

Nick recalls of the Poly’s gigs: “Regardless of your musical family, everyone would come along. Kingston was more rock orientated but Brit Funk and Hip hop were coming through. It was a great gig. It was the first time I saw someone back spin a record and go from one deck to another. They were so good they would run around the console and spin the song back at the exact point to continue the break. It was to use the term at the time, ‘Fresh’. Kurtis Blow worked the audience..” 

Kurtis Blow 1983 shared by Nick Power

Kingston Rocks article

In 2009, Kingston University Alumni spoke to some of the former students about their memories of this special time, when Kingston became the unlikely place where you could rub shoulders with Rod Stewart, and buy a pint for Eric Clapton, after coming out of your Geology seminar.

Read the excerpt from the 2009 article, written by Lynda Horsewood and published in The Kingston Review.

The Alumni recently caught up again with Robert Edwards, former sound engineer for the Student Union gigs who went on to become an award-winning sound director for the X-Factor to the Beijing Olympics. Click here to learn more

AMP Kingston:
Art, Music, Pop Fashion

The AMP Kingston Heritage Trail explores and celebrates Kingston’s rich music heritage from the 1960’s to the present day at key sites across the town.

Find out more and explore the map of venues.