The 12 Bar Club is one of my favourite London venue
s. It's hidden away along a urine-scented winding passageway
, off Denmark Place
or Tin Pan Alley
, carved out of a seventeenth century forge
. It's minute: the stage
holds about four people if they don't move around much, a balcony lurches out over the main space, so low and close the performers can reach up and touch it. The total capacity
, at a squeeze, is about 120 really good close friends.
You can't bluff
it at the 12 bar. When you are singing and playing inches away, when every breath and every note curls into your audience's ears you haven't got a chance of faking it, flaking it, or not-quite-making it. You can see the sweat on a guitar player's fingers, and that's when you sit in the back row
. The beer is fine, the nachos are vast. The only downside is that chattering gits
can take over the space. Hisses and grouching have little effect--sharp words from the performer can sometimes shame them into shutting up.
The little tables up against the balcony railings leave creases in your knees (pressed against the wood) but give you a lovely view down onto the top of the singer's head. No inch of space, and everyone tesselating together as they lean over and peer.
It's a venue that people fall in love with: audience and musicians. Robyn Hitchcock
played a summer residency
there for several years. Once a week he'd play, an entirely different set each time. The fans would show up, for each and every gig
. Robyn has fans like that, but it's no hardship to go to the 12 Bar one night a week, and breath in familiar music and watch the others close their eyes and nod and murmur long-remembered words to themselves.
All sorts turn up there, from the shiny new and tentative, the obscure and the edgy, and the old hands who inhabit everyone's record collection. I've seen bands there on their first outing at a real venue
with a paying audience
(with the singer in tears and gasping after a furious row, and the guitarist struggling on bravely). I've seen big famous bands stripping down to the basics (three men, two guitars, and a toy drum slung around a neck). I've seen crap support band
s inching through their moments of glory. I've heard heartbreakingly lovely pop rock country punk and hymns
. I've sweated and frozen and danced and fallen asleep there.
The 12 Bar started life as a stable
, in 1635 but was converted to a forge for the St Giles parish
area. It stayed in this incarnation till after the first world war when the need for blacksmith
's had all but faded away. It mutated into a carpenter's shop until World War II, then faded away to be a storeroom. It edged towards its current life years later, when it was set up as a social club for the staff of Andy's Guitar Centre
. They would hang out and play together, and word began to spread. In 1994 it launched as the 12 Bar Club and began scooping up awards and love. It's about time we went again. It's been a while.