The Cradle of Rock: musical revolution in Kingston

While many are familiar with the Mississippi Delta’s reputation as the spiritual home of blues music, much fewer people appreciate the role played by the stretch of Thames that Kingston sits upon in heralding the rock revolution in the UK.

As post-war Britain was recovering in the 1950s, young people began seeking ways to spend their new-found disposable income, with the concept of the ‘teenager’ being born in the process. Television and cinema were enabling access to new ideas, fashion and music from across the Atlantic and the 1951 Festival of Britain marked a significant departure from post-war austerity, with millions across the country celebrating artistic endeavour.

Lester Square and the GTs

Lester Square and the GTs, including Top Topham and Chris Trengove, both Kingston RPM oral testimony interviewees.
Credit: Chris Trengove
Copyright Creative Youth.

Musically this period coincided with a British boom of traditional jazz, with several Kingston venues helping to develop a New Orleans inspired scene: the Jazz Boat was a converted barge on the Thames, complete with sails; Norbiton was home to The Railway Hotel, and Surbiton had The Bun Shop; while The Grey Horse on Richmond Road and The Fighting Cocks on Old London Road in Kingston’s town centre are two examples of old jazz venues still hosting live music today. As the trad boom took hold, esteemed names such as Ken Colyer, Acker Bilk, and Humphrey Lyttelton came to Kingston to play larger concerts at The Coronation Hall on Denmark Road.

Simultaneously many in the region began to be influenced by an altogether different Stateside sound. 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 Top Topham, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. The Rolling Stones, based 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.

Cliff Richard in 1962 at the ABC Cinema. Copyright Kingston Museum and Heritage Service.

Cliff Richard in 1962 at the ABC Cinema. Copyright Kingston Museum and Heritage Service.

Kingston’s importance in this musical story is underwritten by the volume of illustrious and innovative names that played live in the borough. 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, and The Who. The Cellar Club was at the forefront of the R&B revolution, with live performances from The Animals, Small Faces, and Cream, while Kingston Polytechnic was able to attract the likes of Yes, Queen, and Pink Floyd. The Toby Jug in Tolworth later typified the psychedelic and experimental direction popular music was headed – Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, and Jethro Tull were all performers, but perhaps the most significant night for the ‘Jug’ and Kingston’s live scene overall was in February 1972, when David Bowie publicly adopted his Ziggy Stardust persona for the first time.

Venues and other points of musical significance