Farewell to Tin Pan Alley
To live in London at the start of the 21st century is to enjoy a double-edged privilege. On the one hand there is access to a quite fantastic variety of creative activities and the energy that sustains them. On the other there is the widening gap between extreme affluence and the lives of ordinary people. The imminent fate of Denmark Street — London’s Tin Pan Alley — is where those two phenomena collide, with unhappy results.
For me, much of London’s remaining attraction lies in those places — a stretch of Berwick Street in Soho, the top end of Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury, the northern extremity of Portobello Road in Notting Hill — where independent and often eccentric enterprises still create a village atmosphere consonant with local history. Sooner or later they’ll all be destroyed by creeping affluence. Denmark Street is the latest to go, about to be suffocated by the gentrificational impact of the new Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road, a few yards away.
The north side of the street — the side you can see in my photography, taken before Christmas — is to be remodelled by the landowner/developer, who intends to erect luxury apartments in its place. Among the casualties will be several excellent musical instrument shops and the celebrated 12 Bar Club, which is due to close in mid-January.
Separated by Charing Cross Road from the eastern fringe of Soho, Denmark Street was laid out in the 16th century and named after Prince George of Denmark, the husband of Princess Anne, who would reign as Queen of England from 1702-1707. Of the original 20 houses, completed by 1691, eight remain, apparently making it the only street in London to retain 17th century facades on both sides.
Just over 350ft long, in the 18th and 19th centuries its location placed it in close proximity to the “rookery” of St Giles, a warren of tenements notorious for wretched poverty and every kind of vice, commemorated in William Hogarth’s series of coruscating engravings, Beer Street and Gin Lane.
A young composer and song publisher named Lawrence Wright set up his office at No 19 in 1911, and founded the Melody Maker there in January 1926. The launch edition included pieces on “Gramophone Record Making”, “The Banjo in the Modern Dance Orchestra”, and “America’s Idea of English Jazz”. In his front-page mission statement, the new publication’s editor, Edgar Jackson, made a point of thanking the composer Horatio Nicholls — described as “one of the finest and most popular composers of lighter music, not only in England, but throughout the world” — for “allowing us the privilege of publishing his photograph”. Horatio Nicholls was, in fact, the nom de plume of Lawrence Wright.
Soon Wright’s neighbours included Rose Morris, Campbell Connelly and a small host of other publishers, including the London office of Irving Mills, publisher of Hoagy Carmichael and Duke Ellington. In 1952 the promoter Maurice Kinn founded the New Musical Express at No 5, and two years later the NME began compiling the UK’s first singles chart, a sign of the shift away from the sheet music sales that had hitherto provided the favoured measurement of popularity. Southern Music, Essex Music and Dick James Music were other publishers with addresses in a street that became known as Tin Pan Alley (a name first applied half a century earlier, for similar reasons, to a stretch of West 28th Street in Manhattan).
By the 1960s a number of rehearsal rooms and recording studios had been opened. Regent Sound, at No 4, was where the Rolling Stones recorded “Not Fade Away”, their first big hit, and the whole of their first album. The Gioconda coffee bar at No 9 was a favourite meeting place for scuffling young musicians.
My own memories of Denmark Street towards the end of its heyday include a cup of coffee at the Gioconda with Elton John, who was contracted to Dick James Music and had just recorded what would be his breakthrough album, and a visit one afternoon in August 1970 to a cramped rehearsal room to hear a band called Osibisa. A collection of musicians from Ghana, Nigeria, Trinidad, Grenada and Antigua led by the saxophonist Teddy Osei, they were about to do for African music what Santana had done for Latin music, fusing it with rock in a way that made it highly palatable to young white audiences. Their potential was unmistakeable, and I wrote something about them in the MM. By the time I paid them another visit, six months later, they had released a highly successful debut album and played a gig at Eton College.
In the 1990s there was another reason to visit Denmark Street when my late friend Sean Body turned the ground floor of No 4 into Helter Skelter, a wonderful shop devoted to books about music, new and second-hand. Like Sportspages, an equally unique establishment 100 yards down Charing Cross Road, it would not survive the impact of online retailing.
The 12-Bar opened in 1994 in premises built in 1635 for use as a stables; its audiences have witnessed performances by Bert Jansch, Joanna Newsom, Jeff Buckley, Robyn Hitchcock, K.T. Tunstall, Seasick Steve and many others. Among its last gigs, on January 7, will be the “minimum R&B” of the Falling Leaves.
Rose Morris, amazingly, is still at No 10 and, being on the south side, might even be around to celebrate the centenary of its arrival in the street in 2019. I don’t suppose it matters much that the current proprietors of the restaurant next door, now called La Giaconda, can’t spell their own history.
In this very interesting piece on his blog, The Great Wen, Peter Watts spoke in August to the developer, Lawrence Kirschel of Consolidated Development, who made nice noises about respecting the street’s traditions but whose plans for a performance space and for erecting statues of famous Tin Pan Alley names do not encourage optimism. I think I’d rather Denmark Street disappeared altogether — following another of Kirschel’s properties, the Marquee Club on Wardour Street, into oblivion — than be transformed into a miniature theme park.