Music and Kingston 1960s-1990s

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 went on to support the ascension of some of the biggest names in 20th century music history.

Randy Baldwin, who was born in Tolworth, was one of the early regulars at the Toby Jug pub, which – prior to being the unassuming stage for the birth of Ziggy Stardust- also hosted warm up gigs to bands such as Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall, Captain Beefheart and even Led Zeppelin, when they were still relatively unknown bands trying to make their way.  “The bands you saw there were just ridiculous!”, he remembers.

Round the corner, The ABC and Granada Cinemas doubled up as major concert venues, hosting the likes of Cliff Richard, The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Cilla Black, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who and The Beach Boys. The Cellar Club (the current site of Rose Theatre) was at the forefront of the R&B revolution, with live performances from The Animals, Small Faces, and Cream. The nearby Three Fishes was said to be a watering hole to Flip City, which would become Elvis Costello’s first band, and the Fighting Cocks would become firmly established as a hotspot for warm-up gigs and jam sessions for the likes of the Canal Street Band and The Yardbirds.

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 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 and a young Rod Stewart, after he was ‘discovered’ by Blues singer Long John Baldry busking outside Twickenham station

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.

Artwork for a bootleg copy of David Bowie's performance at Kingston Poly in May 1972

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 The 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 Student Union of the Kingston Polytechnic that took up 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 four 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. 

Not only a host for touring bands, but a hub for homegrown creativity, Kingston would also produce local talent that would go on to world acclaim, including Eric Clapton and Pete King. Later, in the early 1980s, The Fighting Cock’s resident band Objects Of Desire would go on to become Kula Shaker, one of the most successful bands of the ‘90s Brit-Pop era.  Other contemporary artists to call Kingston home, include Richard David James (AKA Aphex Twin) and rapper and grime artist, Stormzy.

As time has moved on, gentrification and rising rents have seen historic venues The Sir Robert Peel, The Cricketers, The Swan, Burton’s, The Grey Horse, The Toby Jug – as well as nightclubs McCluskey’s, The Hippodrome, Ama-gi and Essence – close down, reflecting the wider national crisis that has seen over 35% of the UK’s music venues shut since 2007. Our conversations with venue managers and landlords have shown one thing – that running a live music venue is not a money maker. From the days of Eel Pie to those few still live and kicking today, businesses were lucky if they broke even. It has always been- and remains – for the love of the music, and the people. 

The ongoing efforts of our venues still flying the flag for grassroots live music – The Fighting Cocks, The Grey Horse and The Lamb Surbiton – as well as new and emerging musicians, must be recognised and nurtured. AMP aims to honour and celebrate everyone who has contributed to this ongoing story and create new opportunities for our next generation of music-makers.

You can hear more how music the music industry has changed in the last 20 years in episode 4 of the AMPlify podcast here:

Explore the rest of the trail for more stories of Kington’s rich music heritage and future.

Ram Jam Records at the Grey Horse
Lambstock at the Lamb, Surbiton

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.