In Denmark St
Manager Leon Powell strums his guitar at Regent Sounds in the space once occupied by the studio where the Rolling Stones recorded their first album. This was just one of many wonders that Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I discovered when we spent an afternoon exploring Denmark St recently, in the company of Henry Scott-Irvine of Save Tin Pan Alley. With the vast overbearing Crossrail construction site immediately to the north, this whole place appears to be teetering on the brink, leaving Colin & I fearing we were witnessing the end of Denmark St as we know it.
Named after Prince George of Denmark, this ancient thoroughfare originally led from Charing Cross Rd up to the gates of the leper hospital, that stood upon the site now filled by Renzo Piano’s gaudy citrus-toned corporate plaza, beyond which lay the notorious rookeries of St Giles.
Around half of the houses constructed in the sixteen-eighties still stand, anchoring the street in London’s past even as it became celebrated as a favoured destination for pop musicians in the modern era. Almost everyone you care to name – from The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Jimi Hendrix, Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Marley, Lou Reed, The Clash and David Bowie – frequented Denmark St, recording music, composing songs, collaborating, acquiring instruments and partying. Guitars have been manufactured in this street since the time of Queen Anne and there is still no better place in London to go and buy one.
We were entranced by the wonderful displays of old guitars in all shapes, colours and designs, tempting us into the shops, some of which retain their seventeenth century panelling, hung today with instruments from floor to ceiling. Henry introduced us to Tim Marten, the last guitar maker and repairer in Denmark St, who has worked here since 1978. Next door, we visited the Early Music Shop where guitars and lutes and all manner of exotic historical stringed instruments were for sale. Then Henry took us into the back yard to view the shed where the Sex Pistols lived in 1975, before leading us up to the rooftop where Elton John wrote ‘Your Song.’
From the roof, we could see how much of the cityscape has already been destroyed, with Denmark Court erased and the backs of buildings on the north side of the street demolished. A seventeenth century forge was surrounded by scaffolding, about to be moved by the developers. We peered into the crater of the construction site, extending to Tottenham Court Rd, with Centrepoint looming overhead and the reverse of the facade of St Giles High St framing the scene. Henry understands the new development will eventually extend as far south as Shaftesbury Avenue, threatening the Odeon Covent Garden distinguished by its elegant stone frieze.
Only a few of the buildings in Denmark St are listed and the cultural life of this street as a centre for the music industry has been thrown into disarray, with some businesses already gone and the lively warren of small office spaces, recording studios, rehearsal spaces, workshops, bars and clubs curtailed.
It was a poignant experience to meet the music enthusiasts, songsters and old rockers of Denmark St and be welcomed into their dens so kindly, even as they are perched upon the precipice of an uncertain future. Yet for the meantime, Tin Pan Alley retains its irresistible charisma. You can still walk into any of the shops and witness impromptu concerts given by performers of significant talent. I was inspired to place my faith in the lyrics of the celebrated song, ‘You can’t stop the music.’
Tim Marten, the last guitar maker in a street where guitars were made since the days of Queen Anne
The oldest doorway in the street, dating from the sixteen-nineties
Ron Smith, proprietor of No Tom Guitars
Jane Palm-Gold, Historian of Denmark St, standing outside the eighteenth century silversmith’s workshop where the Sex Pistols lived in 1975
The Sex Pistols toilet, now Grade II listed
Angel Music was closing for good on the day we visited
The rear of buildings on the north side of Denmark St
Henry Scott-Irvine, campaigning to Save Tin Pan Alley
Photographs copyright© Colin O’Brien
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