'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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

    Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

    Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
    Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

    The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

    Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

    Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
    Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

    Meet Japan's AKB48

    Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
    In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

    Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

    The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor