It’s decades since the Ealing Club closed. With a capacity of 200 it had never made huge amounts of money. But the new film documentary Suburban Steps to Rockland recalls the club’s remarkable role in Britain’s booming R&B scene of the 1960s.
The Rolling Stones and The Who played early gigs there. But without a young Iranian who stumbled by accident into west London, the whole thing might never have happened.
Even at the age of 77, Fery Asgari still talks like a born entrepreneur. He admits to being “more or less semi-retired” although his business card still says senior property consultant.
In 1962 he took over and reinvented a small music club which was to have a bigger influence than more celebrated venues. Now Suburban Steps to Rockland tells the story of Fery and the Ealing Club.
He’d come to London as a teenager from Tehran. One day he and a friend left the Iranian embassy in Kensington and got chatting to a couple of English girls.
“We asked where would be a good place to study English and they said Ealing Technical College. I had no idea where Ealing was but we got on a bus and went there – and that was the next 10 years of my life.”
The art school at the college could boast various bands, many in love with the blues.
“I found myself helping to promote the music nights but it was hard to find a venue because the music was so loud.
“Then I was walking near Ealing Broadway station and I heard jazz and I followed it down the steps… and I found this little basement music club.
“Within a few weeks I was running the place. To start with we had jazz on Thursdays and Fridays and R&B on Saturday.”
Fifty-five years ago tastes were changing. Writer Paul Trynka has studied a rich era for British music. “There was a really wide range of tribes at that time. They were all intertwined but they had different followers.
“So you got purists like Brian Jones of the Stones who had a passion for a British form of Chicago blues – which people then called R&B, though it’s a long way from what we mean by R&B today.
“There was something like an arms race going on where musicians wanted to be the first to use a certain type of guitar or get a certain sound. Things were moving very quickly. People who wanted to be cooler than anyone else tended to like R&B. There was a rawness to it.”
Asgari recalls R&B initially as entirely a student scene.
“To start with there were two big names who really drew the college crowd. Cyril Davies was a fantastic blues harmonica player who died early – I think probably people don’t remember him much now.
“But Cyril played with Alexis Korner who was a genius with the guitar and later he used to do lots of broadcasting for the BBC.
“Students in those days were such lovely people – very well-behaved and not the way people became later. They didn’t have much money and they just drank cider. Saturday night it was five shillings to get in – that’s 25p.
“There was no problem with drugs until maybe 1964 when a few people began taking pills which I think they’d got from nurses. But I told them to leave. Eventually we got a violent crowd in but that was much later. In the good years we had celebrities turning up like Sonny and Cher.
“Cyril and Alexis attracted younger musicians just to listen. The excitement in people’s faces – I have never seen anything like it. When I first met the Rolling Stones they had come to the club to have a drink, to hear Alexis play and socialise. It was only later they started to perform.”
Suburban Steps to Rockland is a reminder of the big names who developed at the Ealing Club after the Davies-Korner era.
Sitting in his office (still in Ealing) Asgari gives a wry smile.
“But that was the problem: when groups got big they weren’t going to play a small venue like ours.
“When the Stones first played for us, Brian Jones would come into my office afterwards and we’d sort out the 50-50 split of the door money – it was Brian who was in charge of all their bookings. The first Saturday they played we took £7. By the time they played their last Ealing gig it was £33.
“When groups were getting started, they would beg to play. The club saw lots of groups who became famous like The Who and the Dave Clark Five. Not everyone became a star but quite a few people did.
“I could see the Rolling Stones taking off week by week. And they were a pretty good group: certainly we had much worse. After them came the Mann-Hugg Blues Brothers – which became Manfred Mann.
“The lead singer was Paul Jones and I think Paul and Manfred were two of the really talented people I knew in those days. But the same thing happened: we couldn’t pay the money the performers wanted. So they would go somewhere like the Eel Pie Hotel on the Thames, which could take far more people.”
Asgari finally closed the club in 1971 and the site has had a chequered history since. It’s now the Red Room and has an uncertain future. For the past 14 years it’s been run by Dubliner Cathal Curtis.
“In the last five years we’ve tried to put on more live performances: usually we’re live three nights a week. But in truth the live music does not make much money – we’re no longer in the glory days of the 1960s when a small venue could be full night after night.
“It’s obvious that in London small and medium-sized music venues are struggling. Every year it gets more difficult to get people through the door.
“The interesting thing is that the number of amateur or semi-pro acts who want to play would almost compare with the bands around in the 1960s. And I see groups coming in here with musicians in their 20s who could definitely make it to the next level.
“That’s how acts like The Who and The Animals got started. But in London now there are probably half a dozen small venues like the Red Room left. We’re proud of our history going all the way back to what Fery Asgari did and even before that. But if we go, where will the kids of 19 or 20 perform and learn their trade the way Mick Jagger and Brian Jones did 50 years ago?”
Suburban Steps to Rockland is due for cinema release in the UK in 2018.