Gimme Shelter

The Rolling Stones launched their career in a social therapeutic club, designed to help troubled youth with communication skills. The club became legendary in rock ‘n roll history but its therapeutic roots have almost been forgotten.

Eel Pie Island is a small patch on the River Thames famous for the underground club that earned a place in 60’s history for hosting the cream of jazz bands and rock n’ roll outfits.

Less well known, is the story of how the club was created as a therapeutic environment to help troubled youth.

Its place in music history has been recounted many times over the years but its therapeutic past has almost been forgotten. At the time, it seems only to have been discussed in a 1969 article published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry.

The club was created by junk shop owner and sociologist Arthur Chisnall. He was both a music fan and, what we would now call an outreach worker, concerned about disaffected youth.

As a music promoter, he got the cream of the American jazz and blues scene to play the club, which attracted punters like the recently formed Rolling Stones, who were just discovering the electric-tinged blues sound that they would later champion. They shortly became the house band.

But the idea was to create a club where kids could turn up and socialise, encouraged by the underground vibe, while the staff would encourage interaction and social communication skills.

The 1969 International Journal of Social Psychiatry article described the therapeutic approach:

How is therapy accomplished? Workers at the Club convey an accepting and non-judgmental attitude toward the members. A new member can come as frequently or infrequently as he wishes and thus regulate his attendance in accordance with his ability to accept the situation, so that the Club is minimally threatening to its participants. The Island’s somewhat rakish reputation surely contributes to its appeal for many youngsters…

Communication is so central to the Club’s therapeutic rationale that the only dimension on which members are classified by the staff is in terms of their being part of either a high-, medium-, or low-communication culture. Other forces making for therapy are conversations initiated by the staff, the music itself, vocational help, and identification with the Club’s founder.

In fact, Chisnall made a point of making sure people were matched with suitable friends inside the club, what we would now called ‘enhancing social support’, while putting members in contact with suitable support organisations and agencies if needed.

Musically, the club started out as a jazz club but its “somewhat rakish reputation” increasingly attracted London’s growing rock ‘n roll scene hosting The Rolling Stones, Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Bowie, Rod Stewart, Pink Floyd, The Who and Pink Floyd, among a host of others.

The club, and the social therapeutic experiment, closed in ’67, apparently because Chisnall couldn’t pay repairs demanded by the police, and the building was eventually destroyed in a fire in 1971.

Nowadays, Ell Pie Island is widely recognised as the father of the 60’s rock n’ roll scene but it is hardly known that it was also the father of community intervention projects that use everything from hip hop to graffiti to get troubled kids into a positive social environment.

Link to locked ’69 article “A Social-Therapeutic Jazz Club in England”
Link to BBC piece on its musical legacy.
Link to book chapter on the same.

3 thoughts on “Gimme Shelter”

  1. Thanks, great read.

    I’ve always been interested in the didactic role of music, especially in term of revolutionary and social action (Scroobius Pip…) but also when it comes to communicating with ‘the yout’ as they say over here.

    BTW, you should have a thank you button somewhere 😉

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