Our own cavern club
Among the terraced buildings on the east side of Bermondsey Street, just south of London Bridge, is number 47 – home to The Stage since 1978. The street still retains many 19th-century buildings dating back to the time when the Bermondsey district was replete with wool and leather factories and warehouses. However, the same area had become a rundown and forgotten part of town when the warehouse at number 47 was built in 1910. Fronted with glazed, white brickwork, it was initially used by a flag maker. Five years before The Stage took ownership, it was converted into office space, the drive-in and entrance to the rear closed up, and a lift installed.
The space ‘under’ the building has its own critical role in entertainment history, which The Stage itself has reported on since 1880. Beneath the five floors is a basement most notable for its low ceiling and broad, square pillars that intrude on the tight space, giving it a closed-in, almost claustrophobic feel. It is quiet, apart from the occasional sound of near-continuous traffic on the adjacent road.
What isn’t obvious is the famous music that was played here 40 years ago. “A dingy warehouse with a rehearsal room in it,” was how Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour described the building. So how did this maligned basement play its part in some of the most successful music of all time?
The Rolling Stones had become very successful in the six years since their inception, and needed more space and greater control of their recording time. Ian Andrew Robert Stewart (‘Stu’) was a co-founder of the Rolling Stones who became the band’s road manager. Himself an accomplished blues pianist who played on tour with the Stones, Led Zeppelin and others, he was known as the ‘sixth Stone’.
Stu ran the Bermondsey facility, taking a five-year lease from the summer of 1968 on the ground floor and basement to convert it into an equipment storage and rehearsal space, complete with a state-of-the-art tape recorder – a one-inch, eight-track Ampex MM1000, as good as that in Abbey Road at the time. This ‘rehearsal-space-cum-studio’ was to spawn the demos that became Let it Bleed, the Stones’ eighth album. Over the following three years, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St were also conceived in the Bermondsey basement.
When not in use by the Stones, the facility was rented out to other bands. In 1967, Stu lived with the Small Faces’ studio engineer Glyn Johns. He let the group use the space after frontman Steve Marriott left to join Humble Pie while the Rolling Stones were off being successful elsewhere.
“You might as well use the room – they never go down there. It’s a bloody waste of space if you ask me,” Stu exclaimed to Small Faces’ keyboard player Ian McLagan, who describes the studio as “only a cellar below a flag-maker’s warehouse, [but] it was everything to us. He’d had it painted and carpeted, and had a C3 Hammond [organ] with a Leslie [speaker], assorted guitar amps and a drum kit already set up”.
Here, McLagan jammed with remaining Small Faces’ members Kenney Jones and Ronnie Lane in the summer of 1969. They were then joined by Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart, forming new group Faces. “We’d be rehearsing in the basement at Bermondsey, and Rod would listen at the top of the stairs,” says Wood.
Stewart remembers that “you would walk in and there would be all these boxed, two-inch tapes and quarter-inch masters on the shelves with things like ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ and ‘Gimme Shelter’ written on them”.
Songs for First Step and Long Player, the Faces’ first two albums, were rehearsed there. Four rehearsal tracks on Five Guys Walk into a Bar – later released in 2004 – were recorded at number 47. Other bands to rehearse there in the late 1960s were the Spencer Davis Group and Noel Redding, who formed Fat Mattress. Procol Harum rehearsed the album A Salty Dog there, as well as recording the first track on the album Juicy John Pink.
However, it was more usual to go on and record rehearsed music at nearby studios, includ-ing Abbey Road and the Olympic Sound Studios. And by 1971, the Stones’ preference was the Villa Nellcote in the south of France.
Yet Bermondsey still played its part. On a visit back there in 1971, label manager Trevor Churchill noticed a pile of tapes in the corner of the room. These rehearsal recordings included what would go on to be the classic tracks Sweet Black Angel and Tumbling Dice on Exile on Main St. They also included a cover version of the Jimi Hendrix song Red House – proving the creativity of time spent in the basement.
Jethro Tull then rehearsed what would be their classic album Thick as a Brick there in December 1971. Ian Anderson recalls: “I would write music in the morning, and I would then take that piece of music in at lunchtime. We met up in the Rolling Stones’ rehearsal room down in Bermondsey, where we would rehearse in the afternoon and the evening.”
Recently returned from their fifth tour of the US, Pink Floyd had spent the end of 1971 composing new material – for their upcoming UK winter tour – at the Decca Studios, across town in West Hampstead. They followed this with two weeks of gig rehearsals in the Bermondsey basement – a crucial phase in honing what has become the third best-selling album of all time, the 1973 classic The Dark Side of the Moon, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary.
These rehearsals were likely the first time all the songs were played in single sequence. Following this, the band spent three days in production rehearsals at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, time used to add new lighting and a PA system to the latest composition.
All this in a basement in Bermondsey. Now quiet, still with some damp, it houses 133 years of entertainment history in the form of The Stage’s own archives.
Richard Game is the curator of www.thedarksideofthemoon.co.uk