Episode 5. The Golden Days of the Ritz

In London, the three main rehearsal room places for professional bands during the 1980’s were John Henry’s in North London; Nomis Studios in Shepherds Bush which was owned by the former manager of The Yardbirds, Marc Bolan and Wham – Simon Napier Bell and The Ritz in South London owned by a delightful man named Peter Webber. Both John Henry’s and Nomis where professionally run businesses and at various times in them I have met some of the great names in rock music. Their studios were clinically clean with great sound systems; Nomis looking more like a hospital reception centre than a rehearsal room suite and John Henry’s employing some of the most experienced roadies/technicians from bands such as ELP and Deep Purple. The Ritz was professional as well but once you entered it, you left reality behind and encountered a group of people that came from a different time.

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The small black door was the entrance to the Ritz. The first arch can be seen to the right.

Picture courtesy of and ©Google Maps

The Ritz was built in a railway arch under the Wimbledon branch of the District Line, close to East Putney Tube station in 1976 by a man named John Turner, an-ex 1960s bass player, music shop owner and the future manager of NWOBHM band Rock Goddess. He eventually sold it to an eccentric gentleman, the aforementioned Peter Webber, himself a veteran of the 1960’s being the Sales Manager for HIWATT amplifiers. Peter was one of the easiest going men you could ever meet and believed that a rehearsal room should be comfortable as well as professional, thus when you passed through the innocuous looking security gate and entered the main building, you walked through hanging beads to see Turkish rugs on the floor, joss sticks burning, soft sofas and a few dogs and cats wandering around. Wherever you looked there were small artifacts from different countries, old furniture, faded posters and more often than not, a couple of people sitting on flight cases smoking a joint. Many bands preferred this atmosphere and it attracted some of the eighties pop greats including Go West, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Curiosity Killed The Cat. The ground floor had a preparation area where hire equipment was serviced and prepared for tours as well as a small workshop where repairs to amplifiers could be done. Next to that was a lounge stocked with a selection of magazines that nobody read (Town & Country, Tatler, etc) a TV and a large sofa: this was immediately adjacent to the rehearsal room. The preparation area lead out into a courtyard where trucks could be loaded with the hire gear and there was also a large storage area above it which eventually became the area where all the drums were kept and serviced. An open staircase above the workshop led up to the offices which were closer to the rail line and hence a bit more subject to things falling over as the commuter trains clattered overhead.

The rehearsal room where such luminaries as Duran Duran, The Clash, Take That and Blur worked their stuff out.

Peter’s staff where an eclectic bunch. Apart from himself, the only other two full-time members were Simon Taylor who ran the day-to-day operation, taking the bookings and recruiting the freelance staff for various jobs and Jim who…well I never quite found out what Jim actually did. Peter really was an English gentleman and could sometimes be seen strolling across fields in the early morning with his dogs wearing a Sherlock Holmes style cape and doffing his Wool Packer hat with a cheery ‘Good Morning!’ to anyone who passed his way. In complete contrast to Peter and compared to everyone else there, Simon seemed quite normal. He was efficient, organized and practical and the one who constantly had his feet on the ground. Both Simon and Peter were there almost every day and Simon’s devotion to service along with Peter’s ex-salesman charm made a formidable team. As for Jim, he was usually found stretched out on the sofa in the lounge in various states of inebriation depending on the time of day and how close it was to pay-day. Jim was one of the original roadies from the 1960’s working with (according to him) almost every British band apart from The Beatles and The Stones. Having fallen on hard times, Peter had taken him in and looked after him. The one gig he used to still do as a roadie every year was the Rock and Roll revival festival featuring Freddie and the Dreamers, The Tremeloes, etc and when that came around he was a different man. Sober, smart, clean and hard working, it was the 1960’s that he longed for and missed. To be fair to him, he did clean the rehearsal rooms and prepare them for the bands and he was a never-ending source of bad jokes and the occasional good one, everybody loved him.

 

Aside from these three there were people, such as myself, who Peter very kindly employed on a part-time basis for the Ritz. We were usually between tours and used to phone up and let Simon know we were available for a few days or weeks depending on when our next gig was. Quite often there wasn’t anything but Peter would employ us for a few days just in case somebody phoned and wanted some equipment delivering or a one-off show came up that somebody needed a roadie for. In this case, we would arrive at the Ritz about 10am and sit around talking and servicing equipment until about 5pm to give us something to do. One such person was a guy named Steve Baker who claimed he was an electrician but in all honesty, wasn’t. He, like me, often used to take on jobs wiring houses or repairing amplifiers to make a living and on one such occasion, installed a heater and light in John Turner’s house but somehow mixed up the wiring so that when John turned the heater on, the light went off and vice-versa. Steve was a bit of a genius when it came to radio electronics though and developed a wireless guitar system, forming the company that became a leader in wireless systems - Trantec.

 

One glorious summer day I walked into the Ritz and saw a little guy sitting on the floor surrounded by a Yamaha drum kit which he had taken it too pieces. Stripping it right down to every nut and bolt, he had a variety of cleaning fluids and rags and was lovingly polishing every part before reassembling it. He looked up at me, smiled and said ‘Morning’ in a Irish accent and I replied ‘Good morning’ back to him before going upstairs. That day, Simon told me there was nothing booked that I needed to so would I mind helping the fellow downstairs with the drums and I went back downstairs to help the little Irishman. It was a delightful day and we spent it stripping down drums, cleaning and talking about bands. Come the end of the day we had stripped and cleaned two and a half drum kits and with a cheery goodbye he said he’s see me tomorrow. The following day he was there again and we picked up from where we left off. This continued the next day at the end of which he said he was off on tour and wouldn’t be in for a while so I bid him farewell, shook his hand and off he went. Suddenly realizing that I didn’t actually know who he was, I went upstairs to ask Peter who told me that he didn’t know who he was either. Apparently he had wandered in three days before and had noticed that some of the drums were dirty and started cleaning them. Peter thought Simon had given him the work and Simon thought Peter had. They discovered this at the end of the first day but decided that it was probably just best to let him do what he wanted. To this day I have no idea who he was – not even his name. He never asked for payment and I never saw him again.

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We received some odd requests. Someone wanted two stained-wood bass cabinets which I built for him and I forget who it was because he ordered them by phone and never collected them.

Peter’s office was in a time warp – 1942. A lover of 1940’s Britain, the place was decked out like a World War II Operations Room. The communication from his office to his fleet of vans was through a Shure Unidyne microphone plugged into a vintage transmitter, the signal often fading in and out requiring some adjustment from the big knobs and dials on the front. In the middle of the floor was a giant map of the UK with miniature models of drum kits, Marshall amps and cabinets, keyboards, etc placed on various cities. Every day, the models were moved by a rake to the next city to help keep track of where the equipment was at any time exactly the same as enemy aircraft were plotted on a map by the British Air Force in World War II.  All around the shelves were valve radios – some working, some not - old instruments, record players, a few autographs including Frank Sinatra’s and even a gas mask. There was always something new to discover.

 

I used to love hanging out at the Ritz. Now unrecognizable, it has moved from its original location at 110 Disraeli Road around the corner under another arch in Esmond Street. Peter has long since retired and runs a village pub in Devon.; his treasured artifacts went with him and the studios are now run by Peter’s children, Ben and Lee. Jim died many years ago and Simon moved on to managing music stores, another expansion of the business but the trains still run and rattle overhead at the new location and that’s a nice gentle reminder occasionally of what I like to call, the golden days of the Ritz.

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Peter’s Pub. Stop by for a drink and chat. The Pigs Nose, East Prawle, Kingsbridge, Devon, TQ7 2BY.
Picture courtesy of and ©Google Maps