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In Denmark St

August 11, 2016
by the gentle author

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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17 Responses leave one →
  1. Jenny Sparidge permalink
    August 11, 2016

    Denmark Street really is such a special place, there is nowhere else like it in London. John Claridge, whose images The Gentle Author has published on Spitalfields Life website over the years as well as in a beautiful book, East End, has a connection to Denmark Street. In fact, the very number is featured in this blog. Number 25 Denmark Street, where John’s great, great grandfather, Daniel Claridge (1812-1875) lived from 1861 until his death in 1875.

  2. gabrielle permalink
    August 11, 2016

    I’m a Londoner with family going back hundreds of years and have so much respect for people who have the strength of character to fight to retain the many historic areas under threat of bulldozing. Time marches on but don’t trample on all of our history.

  3. August 11, 2016

    Very sad it’s going. I know people already moved out :(

  4. Annie S permalink
    August 11, 2016

    I did know something of this, it’s very sad – this street is a legendary part of the UK music scene and must be known around the world, do hope what’s left can be saved.

  5. August 11, 2016

    The philistines are at again when is this mindless destruction going to stop
    It’s the money god yet again raising its ugly head
    And destroying our lovely London history and what replaces this historic street , but yet another failed architect school dropout protest protest protest !!!!!!!!!

  6. August 11, 2016

    So sad to see the destruction of the London of my youth which continues at a frenzied pace. I recorded an album at Regent Sounds Studios with my underground Blues band ‘The Earth’ in 1968, and 47 years later it has been released on limited edition vinyl by Record Collector magazine. Not only the Stones recorded there, The Who, The Kinks, The Beatles ( Fixing a Hole ) and Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ among others all recorded there. My music publisher Mills Music was at No.20 ( Elton john was a tea boy there) and the street has a very special place in my heart. If you would like to read the story of my band The Earth ( with famous musician/producer Alan Parsons on guitar) – go to my website http://www.ianharris.me.uk

  7. August 11, 2016

    I used to love walking down Tottenham Court Road, down Charing Cross Road to Trafalgar Square. Since the huge building site of the Cross Rail development, it feels like an artery into the Wear End has been blocked. I hadn’t realised what a bad impact the development has had on Denmark St. Very sad.

  8. August 11, 2016

    How sad that this street is being destroyed now – hope some parts at least can be saved- Valerie

  9. Juliet O'Neill permalink
    August 11, 2016

    My Dad’s cousin was 1950s singer Ronnie Harris ( The Story of Tina ).
    There is a lovely video on Youtube of Ronnie recording with Ruby Murray at Tin Pan Alley in 1955 entitled Birth of a Record.

  10. pauline taylor permalink
    August 11, 2016

    I am sad to hear that yet another street with so much fascinating history is under threat, will we never learn, tourists come to London to see these streets that they have all heard so much about, but they will not come to look at hideous modern high rise buildings, we are shooting our selves in the foot, yet again. Seems to be something that we have no problem with lately!!

    Thank you again GA for more happy memories for me of all the musical instruments that my lovely cockney grandfather used to make in his workshop, I still have one of his dulcimers, just wish that I could play it!!

  11. August 11, 2016

    lovely post. it’s heart-breaking and criminal that this area is being re-developed.

  12. August 13, 2016

    Book shops on Charing Cross Road, guitars on Denmark Street. Coming out of Chinatown and chucking a left towards Tottenham Court Road will never be the same again. Added to which it’s got all sorts of implications for Mornington Crecent if they play the ‘Northern Vectors are Passive’ variant.

  13. August 13, 2016

    Geoffrey Sisley taught me classic guitar when I was a youngster. He did the popular teach yourself books and had a wonderful guitar with six accompaniment strings- great teacher and fine player. I think his studio was above Hanks. Sorry to have to say goodbye to Tin Pan Alley.

  14. August 13, 2016

    Why is none of this being featured in the national press? People from the provinces are horrified at the destruction of London, but we only know if we visit. London has become too expensive for many people to do so. Kids in London have visits to the great museums and galleries but again, the provinces are losing funding for their own venues, and few can afford to visit the capital. This is bad for al of us. How many music venues have been lost? And what happens in London inevitably spreads to the rest of Britain.

  15. Alan permalink
    September 26, 2016

    Please see one of the biggest mass murders that took place in Denmark Pl in the 1980′s now largely forgotten.
    http://www.london-fire.gov.uk/news/LatestNewsReleases_thirty-six-years-since-londons-deadliest-fire-since-ww2.asp#.V-i2N9R4Wf0

  16. December 12, 2016

    Got to applaud Henry S-I for his amazing and ceaseless work to record the history of this unique corner of Londons history. Well done Henry.

  17. December 12, 2016

    Please support Henry in this amazing venture to record a very important part of our British musical heritage.

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