The Surrey Delta - how the Blues claimed our county’s musical heart
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Before they met in the 1960s, Surrey and the blues would have seemed unlikely bedfellows, but our leafy suburbia took the music born from slavery to its heart. Here, Matthew Williams follows the journey, from the Rolling Stones’ early gigs in Richmond and the rise of Clapton, Page and Beck through to the present day
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine December 2016
As far as geography, lifestyle and pretty much everything else goes really, the only thing that Surrey and the plantations of the deep south of the States have in common is that, well, they’re both not in the north of their respective countries.
Yet something about the primal sounds and tribal grooves of the blues music that originated in those fields managed to cross the Atlantic like it was just taking a stroll to its local juke joint – usually via Chicago, a quirk caused by the Great Northern Drive, where African-Americans were ‘encouraged’ to leave the south for the northern industrial cities, but that’s a story for another day.
Suffice to say, the music of BB King, Son House, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and the rest of the often world-weary, hard-living innovators implanted itself seamlessly into the lives of British teenagers, particularly in this quiet corner of Surrey and south-west London.
“It’s not that we especially had anything in common with the American blues musicians, who were mainly from deprived backgrounds, but it had a certain appeal to teenage angst I guess,” said Bramley-based BBC Radio 2 rhythm and blues host Paul Jones, who organises a hot-ticket blues event at Cranleigh Arts Centre every Christmas, when I spoke to him for Surrey Life in 2014.
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Whatever the reason, ever since its first appearance on our shores, blues music has firmly ingrained itself in the Surrey psyche – something few would have predicted before the ‘60s (well it’s not exactly stiff upper lip to lay out life’s woes from a stage at ear-splitting volume, is it?).
What is more, alongside guitar wizards such as Jimi Hendrix, our county would also go on to shape the sound of things to come. Eric Clapton (from Ripley), Jimmy Page (from Epsom) and Jeff Beck (from Wallington) all grew up among our tranquil country lanes and leafy suburbs – and all three would play in Kingston-based purveyors of blues cool, The Yardbirds. Later, Clapton would also go on to be an integral member of ‘60s supergroup, Cream, known for their brand of psychedelic blues rock.
They weren’t the only ones flying the flag here, either. Now regarded as British rock royalty, the Rolling Stones were another blues-driven beast in their early days in Richmond, as they plotted their bid to conquer the Merseybeat of The Beatles with their transatlantic mishmash.
Fusing these rock ‘n’ roll influences with the genre, a generation of English guitarists and bands would go on to create a brand of blues that wore its influence proudly while also sticking a hand grenade beneath its original form. The blues’ quiet, torn soul became louder and louder and, well, LOUDER, as rhythm & blues, blues rock, heavy metal even, developed, ripped apart, mutated and reassembled the genre – and the story continues...
Today, the blues’ influence has perhaps never been more prominent. Not only did it lead to the stadium rock that annihilated coliseums worldwide, but it also ignited the hip hop samples that transformed the way people produced music, can be heard in the ghostly midnight whispers of some trip hop and electronica and, if you watch Later with Jools Holland, you’ll usually recognise the hypnotic riffs, heartbroken vocals and rolling drums in at least one of the artists, however hard they’ve tried to bury the influence.
In fact, things are even starting to come full circle now with the Rolling Stones releasing a new album of blues covers this month – featuring Eric Clapton, no less. This takes them back to their rhythm & blues roots, when they performed at the likes of Richmond’s Crawdaddy Club and Eel Pie Island in the ‘60s. It’s not just Mick, Keith and co who are getting nostalgic however…
Ever since 2000, the reborn Eel Pie Club in Twickenham has been setting out to preserve the memories and music of this special era with their live concerts – often featuring star-studded line-ups.
“I used to go to Eel Pie Island as a teenager,” says the modern club’s co-founder, Gina Way. “That was in the days when the Rolling Stones, Long John Baldry and The Hoochie Coochie Men (which included Rod Stewart), The Tridents (with Jeff Beck) and The Downliners Sect played there. I realised then that it was a very special place and a force of creativity.”
Interestingly, the reincarnation of the club came about because of a collaboration with, of all places, The Museum of Richmond. In 1998, it was 35 years since the Rolling Stones last played in the area, so the museum hosted an exhibition to mark the anniversary. Off the back of that, Gina and her husband, Warren Walters, put on a charity Yardbirds concert at York House, Twickenham, to benefit the museum.
“We were allowed to sell 400 tickets and we could have sold the concert three times over,” says Gina. “Giorgio Gomelsky, the Stones’ original manager, came over from New York; Arthur Chisnall, who hosted the original Eel Pie Island Club, came along with inventor Trevor Bayliss who lived on the island for many years; Michael and Barbara Pendleton, who ran the Marquee Club and organised the Richmond Jazz Festivals, also attended; and Channel 4 televised the event.
“This was the first time UK rhythm & blues had been celebrated in the area since the ‘60s, and we were approached at the time by a local musician, Tom Nolan, to start a club preserving the heritage of the R&B music of Eel Pie Island. The rest, as they say, is history. Nowadays, the Eel Pie Club has nostalgic revellers visit from as far afield as Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Hungary and the USA.”
Just down the road, originally at The Station Hotel opposite Richmond Station and then at Richmond Athletic Ground, The Crawdaddy Club was another of the big guns of the British R&B scene.
Set up in 1962 by the aformentioned Giorgio Gomelsky, who would also manage the Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds, it was the first residency for the Stones and helped to launch the likes of Eric Clapton with The Yardbirds, Paul Jones with Manfred Mann, Long John Baldry and Ray Davies before he started The Kinks. The club was re-established as a monthly event back in 2011, with former Stones’ bassist Bill Wyman attending the launch.
The original club’s founder Giorgio, who passed away in January of this year, must surely be one of the most important and yet overlooked characters in British music.
Moving out of Richmond, you find the Boom Boom Club in Sutton led today by Paul Feenstra. Something of a gig-organising legend, this enterprising encyclopaedia of music knowledge was awarded the lifetime achievement award at this year’s British Blues Awards. What he doesn’t know isn’t worth knowing…
“I’ve been promoting music for 35 years now,” says Paul, “including eight at the Worcester Park Club – which was voted into the top three independent blues venues by Mojo magazine – and 14 years at the Boom Boom Club.”
His own path into the music industry is a story in its own right. Starting out in Copenhagen, he worked in a hotel/theatre run by Irish and Iraqi owners.
“They had a row and asked me to help out by reading the English contracts,” Paul explains. “It was fun – we had Rod Stewart, The Kinks, Santana, Bowie etc – but I never thought of it as a job then.
“When I came back to the UK, I became a music librarian, which gave me opportunities to book things as an outreach worker – talks, films and eventually music – and it all went from there. I’ve run the likes of the Mean Fiddler and Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London, as well as Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, various long-forgotten venues in Kingston, a few big-bash events near Guildford etc. I also ran a venue in Cheam for a while, which the Stones and other luminaries played.”
Over the years, the likes of Stan Webb Chicken Shack, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Albert Lee, Ruthless Blues and The Hamsters have all played the stages of Pete’s events. Current blues rock stars, Joe Bonamassa and Walter Trout, performed early shows in Sutton too.
“Another key figure we’ve booked is Otis Grand, an award-winning American blues guy who has lived in Croydon for years and almost single-handedly kick-started the blues scene, both in Surrey and the UK in general,” continues Paul. “Then there’s effects guru Roger Mayer, who helped create the pedals that shaped the sounds of Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and other pathfinding guitarists. He’s still based in Worcester Park and often attends our shows. I could go on…”
Fittingly for the DIY nature of the blues, there’s plenty of stories of things not quite working out at his club nights too: from Jimmy Page turning up to jam with a band who’d forgotten to bring a spare guitar to Jeff Beck looking to drop in but getting lost on the one-way system to the Boom Boom Club. We’ve all been there...
In heartland Surrey, venues have come and gone over the years, but many will remember the likes of the Gin Mill Blues Club in Godalming; the Wooden Bridge Hotel and the Bottleneck Club in Guildford; Blues at Browsers in Lingfield; and many more. However, our county’s connection with blues music is an enduring one some 50 years after it originally came to prominence. While the tales of The Yardbirds, Cream etc are well-documented, the musical lineage continues to this day.
“This April, the latest incarnation of The Yardbirds will help to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Boom Boom Club,” continues Pete. “On another point of local interest, following in the footsteps of Clapton, Beck and Page, Surrey-based guitarist Ben King was one of the most recent incumbents of the band’s guitar hot seat. He learnt the ropes at Guildford’s Academy of Contemporary Music and played with the band for 10 years from the age of 22.
“Right now, I don’t think there’s ever been a better raft of up-and-coming blues rock bands, who write, perform, record and produce themselves.”
Such is the continuing obsession with the blues that, as well as the Boom Boom Club and regenerations of historic Richmond club nights, any discerning music-lover can easily get their fix. To give you a small flavour, there’s Surrey Blues Society, which has around 100 active members and runs jam sessions in Guildford, Dorking and Farnham; the Surrey Blues Club in Hersham; the Surrey Blues Jam events at The Castle in the village of Outwood; regular nights at The Three Lions in Farncombe; Cellar Bar Blues at Farnham Maltings etc. You get the drift – you don’t have to look far to find blues notes floating through the air.
So the candle is held as high as ever for the scene and the good news for us all is that there’s a new generation of musicians and music-lovers looking to fan the flames, inspired by the blues-heavy sounds of modern bands including The Black Keys, The White Stripes and Royal Blood – as well as the old classics, of course.
Guildford in particular, which has never shied away from a few heart-wrenching guitar licks, remains something of a hotbed. Whether it’s the bands taking to the stage at the likes of The Boileroom or musicians carving their path at the town’s Academy of Contemporary Music, the blues still provides an essential building block for so many new acts.
“Even though the ACM is renowned for its modern approach to music education and its many contemporary artists, the blues’ influence is still very much alive and well within our Guildford base,” says Ace, guitarist with acclaimed British rockers Skunk Anansie and head of creative industry development at the academy. “It’s the fundamental root to so many forms of contemporary rock.
“We have successful alumni such as Carmen Vandenberg playing the guitar and writing with Jeff Beck, as well as world-class tutors such as Mike Goodman and Nat Martin who are masters of the art when it comes to teaching essential and advanced styles on the guitar.
“Also, modern alternative rock bands here, such as Hyla and Revelry, have elements of the blues in their heavier riff-based songs and rock out live venues like the greats always have over the years.”
Surrey woke up with the blues one morning in the ‘60s and its mojo has been working ever since. As quickly as much-loved music venues have shut, new ventures have opened for its loyal followers’ tribal gatherings.
There’s a simplicity and openness of expression to the blues, which makes it just as escapist today with all our First World Problems as it did for the founding fathers slaving in the fields. The stories may be very different, but the raw human emotion remains the same.
• For a record collection worth of Surrey music stories, delve into our archives throughout surreylife.co.uk
Get your kicks
Here’s just some of the regular music nights waiting to shake your blues loose in Surrey
• Cellar Bar Blues at Farnham Maltings, Bridge Square, Farnham GU9 7QR. Web: farnhammaltings.com
• Crawdaddy Club at Richmond Athletic Ground, Twickenham Road, Richmond TW9 2SF. Web: crawdaddyclub richmond.com
• Eel Pie Club at The Patch (upstairs at The Cabbage Patch), 67 London Road, Twickenham TW1 3SZ. Web: eelpieclub.com
• Farncombe Music Club at St John’s Church, St John’s Street, Farncombe GU7 3EJ. Web: julianlewrymusic.com
• Surrey Blues Club at Hersham Sports & Social Club, 128 Hersham Road, Hersham KT12 5QL. Web: hershamsportsandsocialclub.co.uk
• Surrey Blues Jam at The Castle, Millers Lane, Outwood, near Redhill RH1 5QB. Web: castleoutwood.co.uk
• Surrey Blues Society hosts jams in Dorking, Guildford and Farnham. Web: facebook.com/SurreyBluesSociety
• The Three Lions Live Music Nights, 55 Meadrow, Farncombe GU7 3HR. Web: threelionsfarncombe.co.uk
If you’re hosting or playing an upcoming blues music night in Surrey that’s not mentioned above, please get in touch with us by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org