Eel Pie Records draws on the rock ’n’ roll heritage of the Middlesex enclave that hosted early shows by the Stones, Sabbath and The Who. John Earls hears how the area is finally ready to make its mark in music again, 50 years on.
Twickenham town centre in 2018 is what you’d expect from a well-to-do suburb on the outskirts of West London: artisan cafes, craft-beer shops, candle boutiques and all manner of other stores to cater for residents who have done alright for themselves. It’s pretty – but it doesn’t exactly show any signs of rock ’n’ roll mayhem.
It was a different story 50 years ago when, under the stewardship of jazz trumpeter Brian Rutland, the nearby Eel Pie Island Hotel played host to early shows by The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Black Sabbath and Genesis. Rod Stewart sang there with the Hoochie Coochie Men, while Pete Townshend owned the nearby Eel Pie Recording Studios.
Head Over Eels
Although Cocteau Twins recorded at Townshend’s studio in the 90s, the Eel Pie name slowly became less ubiquitous once the music venue closed at the advent of the 70s. The studio was turned into flats a decade ago. Now, however, Eel Pie is finally flourishing in music again, thanks to two longtime local residents keenly aware of its connections.
Eel Pie Records opened in June 2017, a mix of omens coalescing three years after Phil Penman and Kevin Jones began talking seriously about the idea of opening a record shop. The vinyl revival made a new record shop seem viable; Eel Pie had a history to capitalise on and there wasn’t a record shop in the area. Above all, it was now or never before retirement for the two fifty-somethings, if they were going to live out their dream. Having become friends 20 years ago when their children were at school together, a shared love of music and football meant Jones and Penman’s pub discussions turned inevitably to how a record shop should be. “Opening a record shop was always our fourth-pint conversation,” admits Jones, at 57 two years his business partner’s senior.
Located at the back of classy local deli Ricardo’s, Eel Pie Records is a compact space that still manages to house a strong mix of folk, reggae, jazz, classic rock and a second-hand section with the occasional bargain (late-80s synth-pop trio Frazier Chorus’ second album Sue, complete with its bonus 12″ remix EP? For £6? Yes please!). Penman explains that new releases are essentially focused around 6 Music’s playlist. “6 Music has a mature audience, and if you go to gigs by the bands they champion, there’ll be an older crowd there,” he says. “If a new act isn’t on 6 Music, we probably don’t do very well with them. We’ve never sold an Ed Sheeran album; it’s just not what we do.”
The conciseness of Eel Pie’s stock is built on what the pair see as the mistakes of other record shops, trying to cater for too broad a range. Both veteran record shop customers, they despaired at how hard it can be to browse. “You get stores where everything is crammed in tight,” sighs Jones, who previously worked in local government for 35 years, mainly in social housing. “They’re dusty, and it amazes me that quite a few record shops don’t even play music when you go in – the owner will be listening to football on the radio instead.”
Eel Pie Records also wanted to differentiate from the well-respected Banquet Records in neighbouring Kingston-upon-Thames. As Penman and Jones acknowledge, Banquet already caters for virtually all new releases, specialising in dance, urban and pop-punk. Its weekly 400-capacity club nights have hosted everyone from Suede to Stormzy via Foals and Blink-182. “Banquet fits a much younger demographic,” says Penman, something of a Zelig character who has worked in the music-buying department at HMV and Woolworths as well as on the reissue catalogues of Rhino, Demon and BMG. “We keep up with what’s going on, but Banquet are more cutting-edge.” Banquet also doesn’t have a second-hand section, which accounts for around half of Eel Pie’s sales.
One band championed by 6 Music who do sell well at Eel Pie are Goat Girl – their drummer Rosy Bones is Jones’ daughter. “It’s hard not to say: ‘Oh, my daughter is their drummer’ whenever anyone picks up their album,” the proud dad beams. “I hope that’s gained them a couple of sales.” It’s not nepotism that has seen new music flourish at Eel Pie. Jones and Penman host a monthly night at The Eel Pie pub across the road, where they play favourite new releases to customers. “The obvious idea for a shop with our clientele would be to play classic albums to converts,” says Jones. “We felt that’s been done to death by now. If you’re passionate enough about music to buy vinyl, the chances are you’re still interested in new music, but you might not know what to look for. That’s what we try to help with, and the monthly events are also just a good social night out.” Customers are also offered an extensive range of coffees, though Jones admits its Rocket coffee machine was so expensive that “we’ll probably never make our money back!”
Other initiatives include Q&As, with DJs Don Letts and Gary Crowley having promoted their compilations at sold-out in-stores, and a range of T-shirts, badges and tote bags bearing Eel Pie Records’ simple turntable logo. “The merchandise is a profit sector, but more than anything, it’s a marketing tool,” Penman explains. “The logo spreads the word, as we’ve not spent anything on marketing apart from a very small amount in local newspapers. The Eel Pie name is a total godsend – our T-shirts go around the world to people who know its history. If you come to Twickenham and you don’t know the Eel Pie name, you soon will. At the same time, we still get people coming in to the shop who say: ‘I’m local, and I didn’t know you were here’. So there’s still room for more customers to find out about us.”
As well as Q&As, there have been occasional in-store gigs, with blues vocalist Errol Linton and Americana singer Robert Vincent having played. They’d naturally like to one day attract a veteran star with links to Eel Pie Island’s past for an event with the shop. “It’d be nice to get Rod Stewart or Mick Jagger to do something with us,” smiles Penman. “But we’d settle for someone iconic who we both love musically, like Ian McCulloch.”
Tentative formal links with the area’s history have been established, thanks to an Eel Pie Records stall at the recently opened Eel Pie Island Museum. Jones and Penman are cautious about expanding the Eel Pie Records name much more than its current state. There is vague talk about just maybe having a bigger store, but they believe the vinyl revival will probably peak in around five years before levelling off.
“There’s a glass ceiling, because mass consumption doesn’t belong in vinyl,” states Penman. “We’ve filled this shop, and expansion was never an objective. But, hey, we’ve only been open a year. Ask us again in another year and we might have a different answer.”
What’s popular with Eel Pie Records’ customers
Store managers Kevin Jones and Phil Penman’s tastes are broadly similar; Jones notes they tend to cross over when picking which new releases to play customers at the shop’s monthly pub socials. “We each pick a new album, and there’ll often be good-natured fights over who gets to champion certain records,” he says. “We’ll usually sell a dozen copies of the albums we play at the monthly nights, like the new Courtney Barnett.” The social last December saw Offa Rex, a spin-off of The Decemberists, win the shop’s Album Of The Year award for The Queen Of Hearts. “One of our biggest word-of-mouth sellers, and rightly so,” says Penman. They talk through every new and catalogue release they stock, with Penman explaining: “Kevin is more into 70s rock and psychedelia, while I’m a big fan of singer-songwriter Americana, reggae and dub. But we’re always both open to hearing new stuff we didn’t think we’d like.” Like any record shop, they’ve sold a lot of Rumours and The Dark Side Of The Moon – including a first pressing of the latter for £200. “Some customers come in virtually every day,” says Jones. “If you like vinyl, you tend to really love music.”
The Queen Of Hearts
Tell Me How You Really Feel
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Heaven And Earth