Appreciation: Denmark Street, The Original Heart & Soul of London’s Music Scene

Denmark Street - London

Those who knew Denmark Street as ‘Tin Pan Alley’ in its heyday lead a rally cry against the homogenisation of an area steeped in the blood, sweat and tears of the world’s greatest musical luminaries.

Old Denmark StreetThere are few thoroughfares in the world that boast a greater influence on the music we listen to today than Denmark Street. On this seemingly insignificant byway, The Rolling Stones recorded their first album; David Bowie lived in a camper van outside the Gioconda cafe, where he met nutbag rocker Vince Taylor who inspired him to create Ziggy Stardust; Elton John (then Reginald Dwight) was an office boy at Mills Music; Bob Marley bought his first guitar here, as did Adam Ant and Paul Weller, while the Sex Pistols lived and recorded at No.6. If that’s not enough, almost every UK band since, from Oasis to Kasabian to Royal Blood, has found equipment here.

“I can’t think of a more historic and important street for music in the world,” says Adam Ant, who first gazed longingly at the guitar stores and watched the pop stars walk by in the Sixties.

“I did all my demos there for every song starting with Kings Of The Wild Frontier in 1979 up until recently. It’s heaven. Pop out to Soho for a drink. Break a guitar string and buy one next door. Everyone likes to come to Soho; Denmark Street has real history.”

Initially, the street backed onto St Giles Rookery, which, in the 16th century, housed a gallows alongside a cage for prisoners who were awaiting the rope. Subsequently, during the early 19th century, the vicinity, described as a “Pandora’s box of pollution, plague and pestilence”, housed beggars, thieves, ne’er-do-wells and street walkers, its slums providing refuge from the officers of the law, who would seldom have the nerve to venture into the warren.

Lionel Bart
Songwriter Lionel Bart enjoyed huge success with Oliver!, based on another former ‘resident’ of the area, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist

Indeed, the area inspired Charles Dickens, who lived less than a mile away in Bloomsbury, to write Oliver Twist. Consequently, ten years after the book was published – initially in serial form – in 1837, the area was demolished (with the exception of Denmark Street, one of the few walkways in London to retain 17th-century terraced facades on both sides). Its criminals and prostitutes moved east to the Old Nichol ghetto off Shoreditch High Street.

Denmark Street Feels The Music

Meanwhile, metal workers set up shop in Denmark Street, after which the street became a locus for sheet-music publishers, who sold their work to the orchestras and musicians working in the pubs and theatres of the West End. Back then, in the 1890s, just like a DJ would today download a new tune from the internet, you simply walked up to Denmark Street, bought sheet music and played it. Indeed, Soho then was a hive of music halls, bawdy bars and moody drinking dens where the pianist ruled the roost (it was where Robert Louis Stevenson set Mr Hyde’s nocturnal misadventures c.1886), knocking out the popular tunes of the day such as “Ta-ra-ra Boom De Ay” and “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built For Two)”.

It’s a liberty what they’re doing to London. We need seedy little venues that put on six bands a night – Adam Ant

As such, Denmark Street boomed and earned itself the nickname “Tin Pan Alley” (perhaps taken from its New York counterpart or the metal workers’ pan making) and all manner of musical enterprises set up on the street: instrument stores, more publishers and then magazines, the first being Melody Maker, which ran from 1926-2000, and later NME (previously The Musical Express And Accordion Weekly), whose first issue hit the stands in March 1952.

By this time, the street was in full, unabated flow as the centre of British music. Every door housed a publishing company such as Mills Music at No.20, Box & Cox at No.7 and Essex Music at No.4, all of whom found songs for the day’s pop stars. Others, such as gay pop entrepreneur Larry Parnes, made a career from finding handsome young bucks such as Tommy Steele and Billy Fury in the coffee bars of Soho, before sourcing hit songs in Denmark Street and propelling them to the top of the UK pop charts.

The undoubted “King of Tin Pan Alley” was, of course, Lionel Bart, a Galician Jew from Stepney who penned “Living Doll” for Cliff Richard, “Little White Bull” for Tommy Steele and the theme song for the 1963 James Bond movie From Russia With Love, sung by former milkman Matt Monro. It was
Bart who wrote the musical Oliver!, perhaps inspired by the area’s lurid history. “I can imagine Bart running up and down the street shouting, ‘I’ve got a song and it’s a hit!’” smiles Adam Ant. “Malcolm McLaren loved him and that’s why he got a place for the Pistols there. He’d run around thinking he was Lionel.”

But Bart was part of a dying breed as, by the Sixties, the street was transforming. Ralph Elman had opened Regent Sound Studio at No.4 initially for songwriters to make demos. It was bought in 1961 by James Baring, an aristocratic, entirely flamboyant Old Etonian who was heir to Barings Bank. He was an avid lover of Sixties youth culture and all the excess that went with it.

Baring, by giving bargain-basement rates to his fledgling rock-star friends, enabled these young singer-songwriters to record (whereas before it was too costly) and put the music back under the control of the musicians. This consequently ushered in the creation of UK rock’n’roll.

rolling stones in denmark street
The Rolling Stones on Denmark Street, 1964,
after recording their first album

Baring’s pals, The Rolling Stones, recorded their first album The Rolling Stones on Denmark Street in 1964 featuring Phil Spector rattling a brandy bottle with a coin in it. “We did our early records on a two-track Revox in a room insulated with egg cartons at Regent Sound, recalled Keith Richards. “Under those primitive conditions it was easy to make the kind of sound we got on our first album and the early singles, but hard to make a much better one.”

Still, the album stayed at No.1 in the UK album charts for 12 weeks.

“We did the first album in about ten days,” recalled producer/manager
Andrew Loog Oldham. “We’d decide to do a tune, but Mick wouldn’t know the words, so Mick would run around Denmark Street to Carlin Music to pick up the words to something like “Can I Get a Witness”. He’d come back 25 minutes later and we’d start.”

Undeniably, Regent Sound Studio’s client list reads like a who’s who of Brit Sixties and Seventies rock acts. Among many others, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, The Who, Mott The Hoople, Donovan and Black Sabbath all recorded there, while Jimi Hendrix upset the workers at the labour exchange next door by playing so loudly that they couldn’t hear themselves think.

But Regent Sound Studios wasn’t alone. Other studios opened up, including Denmark Street Studios, where The Kinks recorded “You Really Got Me”, with Jon Lord of Deep Purple on piano. (Legend had it that Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page played the distorted guitar line on this chart-topping track but last year, The Kinks’ Dave Davies revealed, “We never used any other guitarists on any Kinks hits!” Page admits his recollection of this period is hazy.)

While Regent Sound Studios closed to become Regent Sounds, specialising in Fender and Gretsch guitars, Denmark Street Studios continues today among the myriad instrument stores, such as Macari’s, Hanks’ Guitars, Chris Bryant’s, Sax.co.uk and Wunjo’s who, since the Seventies, have made the street their
own. In London, if you want to buy an instrument, Denmark Street is still
the only place to go but this little haven, devoid of McDonald’s or Starbucks, that musicians, punks, indie wallahs, metal heads, rockabillies and rockers could call their own, is now under threat.

Recently, the street has become something of a cri de coeur for those wanting to keep London “real”. Developers have moved in and closed down two of London’s true rock’n’roll landmarks, one being the grungy 12 Bar Club, where locals could hear live music every night. A first-rung-on-the-ladder venue, it was where Adele, The Libertines and Jeff Buckley started out.

With it went Enterprise Studios – one of the city’s only affordable rehearsal spaces – and a gaggle of instrument stores to boot. Of course, this is part of
a bigger problem, which is the insensitive redevelopment of London and especially Soho that has already killed off other venues such as the Astoria, The Metro Club, Madame Jojo’s, The Intrepid Fox and The Vibe Bar. Pretty soon we will have lots of hotel rooms and flats for visitors but nowhere for them to go.

the jacques denmark street
The Jacques from Bristol. 
Two sets of brothers (Fin, Elliott, Jake and Oliver Jacque) take a jaunty, cockney pop angle and inject it with a tinge of New York rock. See the group’s latest videos at thejacques.co.uk

“It’s a liberty what they’re doing to London,” adds Ant. ”In the punk days, I could do six gigs in six venues in a week in Soho and Denmark Street but most are shut down now, so what are young bands going to do? We need seedy little venues that put on six bands a night. There are so many great young bands who need a start. It’s what we do well so we have to help; we need to hold on to these venues.”

But Denmark Street is still there, as are most of the music stores. The only way they will remain is if budding musicians ditch purchasing instruments online, get down there, try out the instruments – as guided by a true expert – and buy one.

“Denmark Street is nirvana for musicians and songwriters,” concludes Ant. “We gotta keep it going.” ML