The Story of the Ealing Club – University of West London
To a packed house at the West London premiere of documentary film ‘Suburban Steps To Rockland,’ directed by Giorgio Guernier, shown under the auspices of the Ealing Music and Film Festival.
Introductions to the key players in the making of this film aside, we were straight into what would prove to be a well-paced, fond reminisce from some of the legendary figures in British Blues and Rock about what they affectionately recalled as a dark, dingy, sweaty basement club that paid scant regard to health and safety, but would prove to become nothing less than the cradle of British rock.
The scene for the story was set well, evoking the repressive atmosphere of post war Britain and the ambitions of young people who had no memory of the war, no obligation to do National Service and crucially, had their own money to indulge their stylistic and musical choices in a way never seen before in this country.
This dank bolt-hole of a club was scouted as a likely venue by young Iranian-born entrepreneur Fery Asgari, for live bands to entertain his fellow Ealing Technical College students. Fery was in attendance this evening, but more of that later. Blues maven Alexis Korner and demon harmonica player Cyril Davies were looking for an alternative venue for their Blues/Rhythm and Blues evenings after success at the Jazz-based Marquee Club in central London, and Ealing more than fitted the bill.
In its short life, many young musicians would pass through its doors, some of them playing live for the first time, but certainly not the last. Under the warm encouragement of Korner and Davies, the founders of Blues Incorporated, the Ealing Club would flourish for a brief but hugely influential couple of years, before being overtaken by larger venues in the heat of the success of the very scene they had created.
The lack of contemporary footage at this vital venue is hardly surprising, but there’s no shortage of talking heads with stories to tell. The addition of black and white cartoon footage illustrates some of the anecdotes otherwise lost to time, but ultimately adds little to the narrative. Instead, we simply sit back and enjoy the stories from such luminaries as Eric Burdon (who is said to have hitch-hiked from Newcastle to London to visit the place and who recalled his baptism of fire, hearing the harmonica being played, amplified with a microphone) Paul Jones (who, grinning, recalled turning down the job of vocalist in Brian Jones’ new band) and Bobbie Korner (the long suffering wife of Alexis, whose house was regularly overrun with visiting Blues musicians from the UK and USA).
The film relies heavily on the stories of former club alumni, and sags a little in the middle, but is brought up to speed once more by a slight diversion via Marshall’s music store in Hanwell. Apart from supplying amplification for up and coming bands, the shop also acted as a means of employment for some of their members (Mitch Mitchell was one such willing wage slave) and an unofficial hangout for same. The challenges Marshall’s faced were very new; the tendency of certain musicians such as US émigré Jimi Hendrix to ‘kill’ amplifiers with constant overloading made the firm up their game.
A Q&A session closed the proceedings, with guests director Giorgio Guernier, amp maestro Terry Marshall (son of firm’s founder Jim Marshall) and The Birds’ Ali McKenzie making up the panel. Giorgio’s love of music made the project a no-brainer for him, and Terry’s recollection of the Hanwell shop and the club having what amounted to a symbiotic relationship, brought the tightly compact nature of the 60’s R and B scene into a sharp focus. Ali’s recalling his nightly excursions to one club after another made some of us envious of his good fortune to be born right place, right time, and to wonder where today’s young musicians gather for mutual support and competition. Terry oozes pride at the enduring fame of the Marshall brand, now as well-known as some fast food and cola brands, and infinitely better for you. Fery’s wry anecdotes about being caught cheerfully fly posting all over Ealing and then pretending he had little English got him off more than one police charge, were some of the best heard tonight.
Filled with stories of the chance meetings that formed now-legendary bands, and fondly recalled by band members who were only a few inches from being electrocuted in its damp atmosphere, and maybe a couple of years from international stardom, the Ealing Club has been justly commemorated here with the many contributions from former band members and habituees too numerous to mention. All this from a neglected space below the level of the railway lines at Ealing Broadway Underground Station, and due to be demolished to make way for the Crossrail project, it’s time it was commemorated by more than a blue plaque.