'A social club for The Beatles': return to rock'n'roll clubland

In the Sixties and Seventies, tiny clubs played host to the biggest music stars. Now some of them are reopening. Nick Hasted drops in

The blue plaques by the unassuming door off Carnaby Street which leads down to the Bag O'Nails give clues to the history locked below: "Jimi Hendrix Experience played here 25.11.66", and "Paul McCartney met Linda Eastman here 15.5.67". Descending into the basement, through the wood-panelled alcoves of the long, low club to a deeply recessed, dark stage, a chill runs through me. It's hard not to conjure Hendrix playing a foot away, two months after touching down in England.

When the Bag O'Nails reopens next month, it will join a growing trend for such frissons of historical hip. Clubs that were presumed long lost, from Swinging London haunts such as the Bag and Scotch of St James to Liverpool's equally iconic post-punk breeding ground Eric's, are attempting to come back to life.

"It was like a social club for The Beatles, they would come down after working in the studio," says Giovanni Baldino, who has worked for over a year to restore the Bag O'Nails. "We've kept the same styles and layout. The stage is original, we haven't touched that. If you close your eyes, you can imagine Paul McCartney was sitting there."

A mile across London's West End, The Scotch of St James reopened in near-secrecy last year. A tatty moose-head, shot in 1915, is at the head of these stairs. The animal was in a similarly unfortunate state when George Melly visited for a snapshot of the new pop-club scene in 1965. The raised, roped-off table reserved for The Beatles and Stones when Melly visited showed the demarcations of the new pop democracy. The Scotch, Bag O'Nails and rivals such as the Cromwellian were members-only playgrounds for the era's fiercely talented working-class elite.

"It's very challenging," admits Baldino. "We're not going to be able to reproduce the sort of music that was played in the Sixties, because there's no one out there that can actually come up with it. We want to revamp the Bag O'Nails as a music club, but it's 2013." Grant was more bullish late last year. "We had ambitions to make it a renaissance – to have musicians first, and then an eclectic mix of characters. I didn't want it to become a mausoleum to the past. Jack White has played down here, Mark Ronson." Stepping into the Scotch's basement did feel like cracking open a pharaoh's tomb. During two nights there I talked to rebellious tenants facing eviction from south London's Aylesbury Estate as well as a heavily Hendrix-influenced R'n'B band, Melody Nelson. But the powerful ghosts of the 20-year-old Pete Townshend and Dave Davies holding forth in its discrete booths haunted its present. Dark again this week in uncertain circumstances, the building's second life as the Scotch already seems in doubt.

When New Order's ex-bassist Peter Hook returned to Manchester's clubland last year, he turned Factory Records' old offices into the Factory club. In Liverpool, across the road from the steady heritage business of the rebuilt Cavern in Mathew Street, the 2011 reopening of Eric's, the breeding ground for local bands such as Echo & the Bunnymen and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark between 1976 and 1980, has provoked fury from its old patrons. "Eric's is dead… don't dig it up," says Big In Japan's Jayne Casey.

Ethan Allen, the club's music booker, is unapologetic. He remembers stumbling into what had become an anonymous beer-cellar for the pub upstairs. "We realised that this was Eric's. If you walk into the dressing-room, all of the graffiti's there from the Seventies. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up, thinking, 'in this room, the Sex Pistols and the Ramones have played'. And you think, 'what a waste, that it's just being used for storing beer and dirt'." Unlike London's historic private clubs, Eric's has rejoined Liverpool's regular gig circuit.

None of these clubs can mend their broken pasts, or repeat them. But, like the 1811 Napoleon cognacs left temptingly on display in the Bag O'Nails, experiencing them is a strange sort of time-travel that's hard to resist.

The Bag O'Nails relaunches on 1 March, and formally reopens in April (www.bag-o-nails.com)

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