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.
I have very fond memories of spending a lot of time and money in Helter Skelter, which was always an essential port of call when visiting London. Sad to see the 12-Bar going too.
It’s very sad and your despondency really serves to illustrate that developers usually get their way at the expense of historical context, emotion and cultural-fabric. It certainly applies to Denmark Street. Although I live at yon end of the country, it’s a place/feeling that seems to have been part of what I learned and understood about the British music scene. Once it’s gone, it’s gone…
Regent Sound brings back odd memories having recorded there a few times. I think the control room was up a kind of periscope on the second floor. And that funny white painted peg board everywhere. Can’t say I will miss it too much. What I did miss was the Little Paradise cafe in Charlotte Street which became the Bank of Cyprus. Money rules in London, it always has.
Many thanks for your great blog. I have really enjoyed your comments, observations and insights this year. I was pretty much a lapsed fan of jazz but your blog has reignited my interest. Thanks and all the best for 2015. Keith.
Thanks, Keith. That’s good to hear.
Another great piece Richard and thanks for your wonderful blog throughout 2014.
Even pre-teens, Saturday would often see me and a parent visiting Schott’s in Gt Marlborough Street to buy sheet music for Etudes by Sor or Carcassi or some such worthy classical guitar stuff. If I had my way, this was usually followed by some serious nose-pressed-on-window action to stare at the exotic electric guitars down Denmark Street. To be honest, even as an adult, I still indulge in a spot of window shopping! Strange then that my only electric instrument, a black Tele, was bought for me by George Goad in LA and delivered at the Mexican Grand Prix.
And congratulations on getting the Berlin desk, as Harry Palmer might have said.
Thanks, Eric. I do the same thing, hoping to see a Gibson J-200 jumbo with double scratch-plates, as used by the young Everlys (before they got their own signature model). You can’t do much better than a black Telecaster, though: the working man’s guitar, never known to play a dishonest note. Happy new year!
Bought my black maple neck Tele from Macaris in the 70s. Trouble is, I only went in to buy strings!!
I couldn’t agree more. I bought my first 12-string from Macari’s and was back the other day, 45 years later, for a harmonica. For what it’s worth the petition is here:
The above link for the petition sent me to a page where I was asked to create a google mail account. Here’s another, more direct link:
Morgan I wonder if we at the campaign might count on your support please email me at email@example.com .Richard apologies for re-appearing but we need support and help with this campaign from musicians who care.
Happy new year….it’s better when you write books.
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Always visit Denmark Street when in London even if I am not a musician, just very interested in music. Great vibes and fantastic shops with vintage guitars and such, one of the best things London has to offer.
Richard. Thank you for your piece here. We are hoping to be on Andrew Marr’s BBCTV Show on Sunday the 10th to further raise awareness regarding decimation of St Giles, Soho, and London’s West End in the wake of Crossrail and it’s bastard cousin Crossrail 2. Stage 2 and Stage 3 of Denmark St redevelopment via ‘planning amendment applications’ to Camden Council loom, too, to the further erosion of the rear of the southside of Denmark St. Please sign, share and tweet the petition, which reached 23,000 today. https://www.change.org/p/alex-bushell-don-t-bin-tin-pan-alley/u/9163976 as Peter Brown’s link is in error and does not work. Henry Scott-Irvine (Campaign Organiser-Founder for Save Denmark St)
What a beautifully written piece; such a shame about the subject matter. My first visit to the 12 Bar was this year, to write reviews for Folk Radio UK and give both the club and the artists some much needed profile – I’m glad I had the chance to do so before it closes. More proof if any were needed that progress isn’t always progress.
The 12 Bar moves to Phibbers on Liverpool Rd off Holloway Rd as The New 12 Bar Club on Jan 17th. The old building now has full English Heritage Grade 2 listing throughout as a result of the campaign and cannot be demolished legally, nor have any ‘change of usage agreements’ implemented. Hopefully, it will re-open as a new venue in late 2015.
Thanks Henry, good to know.
Let’s just hope the building doesn’t “accidentally” fall down during redevelopment.. If it does we all know where the finger of suspicion will firmly point!
The fallen leaves are straight out of the rookery: cutpurses and vagabonds dressed in syd-era ruffle shirts and chewing duchy originals. An underground music scene that will have to tunnel further down than the new rail extension
Great article, my favourite street,but I am a guitarist! Just realised when I said I loved the Mingus ‘Oh Yea’ album, I was listening to side two! It’s like wild jazz with Procul Harem (or should I say Bach) ECCLUSIASTICS, I,m so parochial! Happy New Year Clive
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Procol Harum? Really. I wrote their biography the Ghosts Of a Whiter Shade of Pale for Omnibus Press and most of their CD liners … And I once spotted you at Westway Studios. Best wishes and HNY 2014
I love Ecclusiastics — and Hog Callin’ Blues. Happy new year to you, too, Clive.
…and Eat That Chicken! Happy New Year y’all.
THE BLOW MONKEYS SONG FOR DENMARK ST, SOHO, AND CHAIRING CROSS RD ..ISSUED TODAY GLOBALLY .. THANKS TO DR ROBERT. WHAT A GREAT BALLAD… SHARE/TWEET https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFkGsmOfQ5Q
Lions of Charing Cross
Oh woe is me. Having been born at 37 Old Compton Street in 1946 above a delicatessen started in 1892 by my Italian grandparents which lasted until 1962, the proposed vandalism of Denmark Street is symptomatic of the times in which we live.
I have a personal reason to abhor this proposal. From the late 60s, through to her untimely death, JoAnne Kelly and I would regularly meet at the Gioconda, then we’d move on to a pub not faraway (name escapes me) and there we would find Steve Rye. Sadly both are no longer with us. Disney Land Denmark Street looms large methinks……
I will always associate Jo-Ann Kelly with Sunday nights at Bunjies folk cellar (not a million miles away).
If it is the only street in London to retain the facade it does, I’m surprised the various Heritage groups aren’t making a big noise to save it.
Before music there was another business centred in Denmark St – it was the home for deep sea diving merchants. There’s a plaque about halfway down the street on the South side noting the fact.
English Heritage, The Georgian Group, and The Society For The Protection of Ancient Buildings aka SPAB) have all been brought in by The Save Denmark St Campaign says Campaign Organiser Henry
I just looked again at your photo of Denmark Street. Isn’t that Bill Bailey about to cross the road? The empty saxophone shop reminds me of the big new shiny store I passed on Hampstead Road recently. And I remember many years ago, after an inspiring demonstration at college by the wonderful Gary Windo, I came here hoping to find my own dream instrument.
Sean Body was a gentleman – and always a keen supporter of people writing books about music. I always visited when I was in London. It was a real shame when his rent went up and Helter Skelter had to close as a physical retailer, and a much greater shame when he succumbed to illness. I don’t know how anybody affords to live in London let alone run a business premises there. Maybe it’s just market forces; maybe all things really must pass.
Except greed, that will always be with us.
Denmark Street has been an essential port of call on all my visits to London since 1977 and I’ve played at the 12 Bar quite a few times, about the only place in London that would ever have me bless them. Richard I teared up reading your piece, I could feel your love for old Tin Pan Alley. It’s being destroyed by idiots, greedy, cultureless moronic idiots.
If you demolish our history and alternatives we will be left with coldness.
Do you really think that forein developers brings a good vibes to Lnd?
Why do you do this?
I met my husband in the offices DJM in October 1975. Very fond memories of the area and often pop down Denmark Street now. Will be very sad to see it go.
Very sad to hear all this. In my double career as a bass player and book publisher I have two reasons for regret. When I was a book publisher, Sean of Helter Skelter books was a good customer of mine and I sent many hours selling – and buying – books in there.
And later I bought my beautiful Wal fretless bass from the Bass Centre just across the road.
Very sad to think this will all disappear.
bill bailey in shot ?
Thanks for that piece Richard. I have so many reasons to hope against all the odds that the Street can be saved. As a teenager I was in thrall to the guitar shops and would stare lovingly and covetously at the seemingly unobtainable Gibsons, Fenders and Rickenbackers on Saturday afternoons in Soho.
Years later Helter Skelter was my brainchild and Sean, Hilary Cranny and I were equal partners in the shop. I worked there every weekend for the first year and put all of my collection of books and memorabilia into the shop. One of the great thrills of the time was tracking down Anthony Scadutto and asking him, rather nervously on a call to New York, if he would be at all interested in us republishing his – at the time – seminal Dylan biography. He was delighted to have it back in print and did not want an advance, that we would have struggled to pay!
The same year we opened the shop my then band “Chancers” played at the 12 Bar which was a great place to play. My wife and I also saw the great rockabilly band Run Devil Run play at the 12 Bar – my great friend and musical collaborator Mark Warren is the guitarist – and immediately booked them for our forthcoming wedding.
I still go to the 12 Bar and the Alley Cat, which is in the basement of the old Helter Skelter and was the venue for my 40th birthday party back in the late 90s. I also still frequent the guitar shops and am just as covetous of the guitars, only these days it’s Gibson acoustics.
Destroying Denmark Street or its character seems like a wilful, mad and criminal act and I have some time ago signed the petition to save the Street. Thanks for raising the awareness via your blog. Is there any chance we can save it?
I still have my Hohner Pianet from Argent’s and accordion from Macari’s bought in the 1980s and carried back to east London by tube. Mr Macari Snr. was a fine accordionist and kept them in the shop alongside the faster-selling instruments. Not that I’m any good at either pianet or accordion but it’s a unique place, and I hope the new and the old can co-exist happily.
Not far away, the London Review Bookshop near the British Museum shows that independent shops still have a place. The proliferation of chain shops and purveyors of overpriced, over-milked, versions of “coffee” is a blight on our cities and towns.
No.6 was of course home to Hipgnosis. The sleeve design company I joined as assistant in 1980. While we designed for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Paul MacCartney our neighbours The Sex Pistols would rehearse in the yard behind when they weren’t hanging around the top floor flat. Happy days…
Johnny Rotten wore his infamous “I Hate Pink Floyd T Shirt” at this juncture!
Hello Andrew! Do you remember the delapidated staircase, missing one if not two steps before we could reach the Hipgnosis office?!! Hope you’re well & happy. Long time xx
Hi Caire – wow you’ve a good memory! I’ve long legs so it was less of an issue for me… 😉 Be great to catch up – how about a coffee in Denmark Street?
Great to read your article. I was 5 in 1970 but was lucky to be taken to denmark street ny my dad who was fighting to establish himself.in the UK music industry. His friend ownes.a studio on denmark street and so dad would use it to record the acts he managed or published. I remember going to that studio around 1970 to listen to one of his bands….the name of the band? …..Osibisa…..
Happy new year…. good job
Over the past 5 decades, I spent a lot of time, and a lot of money, in and around tin pan alley.
Something the upcoming generations will never be able to experience – such a sad loss to the heart of music culture in London 😦
What’s next on Boris’ list? Carnaby Street? Shocking that these plans to destroy our heritage gets approval. London will become one big shopping mall.
Why is it we seem to be incapable in this country of allowing our heritage to continue to play a role in our cities. If/when Denmark St goes, and Berwick St market (where I used to work) will no doubt be soon to follow Soho will have lost its heart. Spain, France, Italy etc. all seem to manage to combine the old and the new without gutting whole areas full of history.
Very fair point and one we are raising with MP’s right now – Henry Scott-Irvine (Campaign organiser Save Denmark St )
When I was four years ago for the first time in London, left me time and I was walking without
goals streets. Suddenly, I wandered into the alley where my heart leapt. It had Stores
musical instruments and bars, where she played music. Breathed on me Sixties léta.mVše I took a picture and since I already had a lot of time, so I decided that if I go next time for a trip to London, it was only because,
I could calm down this street to enjoy. But I forgot to write her name! Once home to the pictures I saw on the board reads: Denmark Wed !!! Previously I have no knowledge of it and how impressed !!! Destroying the genius loci. Sorry for bad English.
Josef Bures, Czech Republic
I have some nostalgia for Denmark Street in a way that – not being a musician – has nothing to do with music.
As a young teenager, about 35 years ago, I would head to Denmark Street to visit the original ‘Forbidden Planet’ book/comic shop (and, not long after, its sister shop just around the corner in St Giles’ High Street). Forbidden Planet was then very different from the much larger and slicker operation we now have in Shaftesbury Avenue.
Passing the multitudes of guitars on show in neighbouring shop windows, I was aware back then of the street’s status as a centre of musical activity.
In the 1990s I worked for some years in two shops – one in Haymarket and the other in Litchfield Street. When I go into the West End now I’m very conscious of how bland and anodyne it has become. A huge number of quirky shops, cafes and pubs have simply vanished – so although the fate of Denmark Street is regrettable it isn’t, sad to say, too surprising.
As a teenager in the 60s, I often caught the train down from Manchester to visit Denmark St and Shaftesbury Ave, as these were nationally considered Britain’s answer to New York’s vibrant W48th St. I bought my first pro drum kit from Len ‘Doc’ Hunt in nearby Archer St (1967, and still have it), and over the following decades have patronized the shops that managed to stay in business. It’s really sad to think that this much cherished part of London is under threat, unlike many other European cities that are keen to preserve such pieces of history. Modern doesn’t always mean better, but alas, we now live in times of greedy international corporations who care not a jot.
Reblogged this on 51st Parallel and commented:
An excellent blog post on the accelerating cancer of gentrification in Soho. Londoners have to get off their backsides and get passionate about this before it is too late. Once this is lost, it won’t come back.
Exactly. Sign the petition here https://www.change.org/p/alex-bushell-don-t-bin-tin-pan-alley Join the website here http://savetpa.tk Facebook page here https://www.facebook.com/groups/1478349292397593/?fref=ts
walked thru thr 4 many, many , many out of it nites, 2 get home (grays inn). loved walking thru history … leave it alone u pigs….. think wat it wod look like in 50 years … work on the inside of these places …….not the outside
Over the last few years I have seen similar distraction of a village atmosphere and forced closing of small enterprises in Union St
I and other business hang on but this I know is temporary and sooner rather than later I will also have to close I literally cannot maintain my business with spiralling rental costs due to redevelopment of area and rentals based on a willingness to pay over the true value.Costs only massive corporates could afford to pay are turning this area into another London anonymity faceless and supportive of one side of a working economy
All very sad
All part of what I am told is progress
Richard, I love this piece. I am on a Facebook Group “Save the 12 Bar” who are trying to save Tin Pan Alley.
One small thing I’d like to point out. Indeed you are right, Irving Mills office was on Denmark Street but it was also the office of my grandfather, Jack Mills, who founded Jack Mills Music in New York in 1919 and then with his brother Irving, founded Mills Music in the late ’20’s. Irving always seems to get the credit for discovering Duke Ellington and rightfully so. He also gets some criticism as well. But my grandfather was the one who founded the company, was less ‘flashy” and stuck to the business of music publishing. Happy to send you photos of Mills Music ON Denmark Street if you’d like to see them. And Cyril Gee who ran Mills Music on Denmark Street is around but semi-retired. He was the one that told me the story that Reg Dwight was the tea boy at Mills in the ’60’s and on Cyril’s last birthday, Elton sent him a very nice card and flower arrangement. Classy.
Hope to connect at some point! Best
what a shame, london just gets uglier and uglier
Only just caught up with your fine piece (thanks to Seb Scotney’s link). Even before I got to the mention of Elton John, it brought back memories of passing Dick James and Elton walking along Tottenham Court Road, unrecognised by anyone but me – must have been 1970 or 71. I was also reminded of yourself coming on BBC London to talk about Osibisa, on our then new jazz show – that was definitely 1971. Thank you for that, and for this coverage, and for your blog generally.
Where’s John Betjeman? Come back, all is forgiven. The layers of London are as unstoppable as geology. The Soho of the sixties and seventies without cell phones felt like liberty.
no mention of kpm studios at number 21. some good tracks came out of there in the 60s.
Thanks for making people aware of what would be a great cultural loss as well as boon to tourism that should be protected at all cost.
Also as much as bringing back many memories.
Also my great uncle Lawrence Wright would be quite upset about it!
Interesting read…. The first time I produced a session was at the Regent Sound Studio in Denmark St – back in 1966. Several years later I was signed to KPM Music and did demos there. I had forgotten all about the the Giaconda until reading this… Thanks for the trip down memory lane
Hi Richard. A journalist friend of mine sent me your very interesting but rather sad article. My nickname for many years was Mr Tin Pan Alley. I spent most of the 60s in and around the street. Please get in touch. Would love to chat more about the street. Graham
Hi Graham. Phil (bass – Mick the Baker) here. Like you, I spent a lot of time, and money, in Denmark Street over the years. Be sad to see it all disappear.
Hi Graham, I also remember those good old days. I work for David Platz at Essex Music No 4.in 1958. This will be a sad times for me. Although, when I left the street they said it was going to be pulled down and that was 1963. I’m sure there must be many of us still left who have great memories of the good old days.
Hi there…..please find attached a video we have produced highlighting the issues raised by the recent ‘developments’ in Denmark Street and Soho in general.
The song is entitled The Ghosts of Denmark Street ( by Glamweazel)…please feel free to use it as you see fit in your ongoing campaign….please keep up your good work!
All the best
Jerry T Jones (0797 1458015)