When it was built in 1635, it was a stable. Then it was a forge. A grainy, black and white photograph taken in 1914 shows three blacksmiths working metal there while a fourth looks into the camera in a curiously languid pose. Surrounded by tools that hang from the walls, he stands beside the furnace – a hot, black box raised a few feet above ground and lodged in the solid brickwork. I would come to know this place well, 90 years later, as the stage of the 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street in north-east Soho, the furnace reduced to a gaping hole with a wooden sign above it: “The forge, 1635”.
Perhaps “reduced” is the wrong word. It was transfigured, turned into the heart of a different kind of forge. Jeff Buckley sang there, fully formed and beautiful, back when he was best known as Tim’s boy. Pete Doherty tore through a set with the Libertines when he still had something to prove. And Joanna Newsom introduced Londoners to her weird world in 2004, opening her set with an a capella wail. Voices were found and reputations were made. Since it opened in the early 1990s, the 12 Bar Club was what boxers might call a “stepping stone” – you punched for a knock out in that ring before you could go on to the title fights.
It was hardly a conventional location for music. The capacity was small – some 150 could fit in, if not comfortably – and the balcony level made it difficult for those below it to see the heads of standing performers. It was too poky for loud bands and if there were more than three members, musicians had to expect a guitar head in the eye, or worse. But this sense of shambles brought with it a clubhouse mentality: the stakes were low, so why not have a high time of it?
But that was then. In half a year, Soho has lost the nightclub Madame Jojo’s and now the 12 Bar Club, both casualties of the area’s seemingly relentless regeneration. Madame Jojo’s had its license revoked last November after an altercation outside the club; it soon emerged that plans to demolish it had been approved by the council months earlier. The 12 Bar was served a “break clause” of 30 days notice in December (the venue will continue, if only in name, at a new site on the Holloway Road). To the Consolidated Group, the company in charge of the Denmark Street redevelopment, the area is a “run-down corner of London”. To those who know and love the street, it’s “Tin Pan Alley” – where the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix first recorded and every other shop sells guitar strings and plectrums. It’s no wonder that more than 25,000 people, Pete Townshend and Marc Almond among them, have signed petitions protesting its destruction.
On 11 January, the 12 Bar Club held its send-off show, an all-day party soundtracked by dozens of bands. When I arrived at 7pm, queues stretched around the building and the corridor of scaffolding by the back entrance was full of revellers, all marking the end of an era with booze and cigarettes. Among the familiar faces from years of playing at and going to the venue, I saw the 12 Bar’s music manager, Andy, his wild hippie hair wilder than usual. “Glad you could make it,” he said. Thanks, Andy, and goodbye for now.