I signed one of those on-line petitions the other day to ‘save’ Denmark Street. For those who don’t know, Denmark Street was once the Rock & Roll capital of London. I’m not entirely sure why I thought it was a place worth preserving. In my almost 40 years of visiting ‘Tin Pan Alley’ as it used to be called, I’ve received, almost nothing but snotty nosed, boot-faced condescension from the so-called sales people that frequent the music shops. Most of them look like roadies who may be wonderful at coiling cables but would struggle to sell water in a desert.
The patronising attitude must have seeped into the brickwork, because while the hair styles from 1970 to the present day may have changed their withering looks haven’t. But we’ll come to all that in a moment.
Denmark Street is located just east of Soho and branches off Charing Cross Road just south of Tottenham Court Road. It runs for only 300 metres or so but in its hey-day it was what Harley Street is to medics and what Fleet Street used to be to newspapers. It was the beating heart of London Rock & Roll.
In the 50s and 60s it was home to music publishers, but times changed, and it gave way to recording studios, music clubs and musical instrument shops.
In the 60s the Rolling Stones recorded their first album at Regent Sound located at 4 Denmark Street and Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote ‘Your song’ at offices belonging to music publisher Dick James. The 70s saw the Sex Pistols living and recording there. From 1994 until last year the 12 Bar Club played host to the likes of Jeff Buckley, Bert Jansch and KT Tunstall. It has quite a musical history.
Today, Denmark Street is the victim of a triple whammy: (can you have a triple whammy?) Creeping gentrification, the Crossrail development at Tottenham Court Road and I’m guessing the cold hand of Amazon.
Tin Pan Ally and I go way back, and over the years I’ve been there to buy all matter of guitar playing stuff, but I want to tell you about my first and last visits.
In 1970, I was a budding guitar player which made me virtually identical to just about every other 16-year-old in the western world. But where I differed from all the other players was not in talent, but rather that I had £15 in my pocket. Fifteen quid that was to be spent on my first proper amplifier and there was only one place to go to get it.
I was living with my parents in a village just outside Northampton and I bought an amplifier in a local junk shop that had come out of the Savoy cinema. It was massively heavy, produced almost no volume and was utterly useless.
It was decided, I was to go to London by train, buy an amplifier and return all in one day, ALL BY MYSELF. That rather dull, repetitive sentence does scant justice to the head-spinning, cart-wheeling excitement, that a day in London at the Rock & Roll centre of the universe conjured up. I could barely sleep, and what’s more, I had a new pair of jeans.
To my parents, a trip to London was a special occasion, dressing up was obligatory and I totally bought into that concept. Let me tell you about the new jeans. They were skin tight, and I’d taken my mother’s pinking shears to the generously endowed flairs that spread like spinnakers from my ankles. I looked like I’d been attacked by wolves. Topping them off was a psychedelic tie-dyed T-shirt and a World War 2 military great coat, the latter bought at an army surplus store. It had a small hole in it and I was always slightly bothered that it’s previous owner might have met his end while wearing it.
Top look I’m sure you’ll agree, except my mother didn’t. What DO you think you look like? You can’t go to London looking like that, was the general tenor of her remarks. If I was to retain that all important £15 a compromise had to be reached. And then I had a brain-wave.
Yes of course Mum, I’ll change my trousers and turn down the volume on my shirt. Rather a quick back down in the face of authority you might be thinking. To which I reply HA! You are underestimating the ingenuity of a 16-year-old. I had a largish shoulder bag that I used for carrying albums into which I shoved the ripped jeans and eye-melting T-shirt. Once aboard the train I changed outfits and, I like to think, looked magnificent. Surely, I’d meet rock stars in Denmark Street and we could exchange cool, sardonic nods of recognition. I might also meet girls, a commodity that seemed non-existent in Northampton.
Sadly, the rock stars must have been getting their heads together in the country that day and as for girls, well my extravagant look didn’t have the desired effect.
Because Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton cranked their axes through Marshall amps, I had to have one, but fifteen notes didn’t cut it, so I settled for a Park amplifier instead. This was grudgingly sold to me by a long-haired lout who could barely get out of his chair such was the industrial level of contempt he felt for the whey-faced plank-spanker standing in front of him. Walking out with my prized possession I was philosophical. Sod him for a game of soldiers, I thought, I now own a black, fifty-watt amplifier. Heaven on earth.
A week later I took it to school and someone nicked it. Rock & Roll dreams snuffed out.
Last month I visited Denmark Street in search of mid-priced acoustic guitar to take travelling. I was after an instrument that could get thrown around without too much concern if it got the odd dink or scratch. One massive improvement on being 16 now rather than in 1970 is that for £300 you can score yourself a highly playable, decent sounding guitar. The guitars I was brought up on were untunable and almost unplayable. Or was that my lack of talent?
So, I’m upstairs at Hank’s and the guitar jockey is handing out various specimens for me to try. Just prior to this visit I’d figured out quite a nifty version of the Gershwin classic ‘Summertime.’ It’s not exactly hard to play but involves a descending bass line and some rather groovy chord changes. Next thing I know the guitar sales person looks round and says, ‘Wow, that’s great, how do you do that, could you show me what you’re playing there?’
Young people today, they don’t have a clue how to behave.
In case you’re wondering about the guitar in the picture, it’s a Mexican made Fender Stratocaster that was produced in conjunction with Transport For London.
4 thoughts on “Denmark Street Blues”
Greatt story enjoyed reading it
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Great story! It was tragic about your getting your amp nicked at school. I’m not sure how you managed to carry the amp, though. How big and how heavy was it? I didn’t like the end of your story where you say you’ve just bought an ACOUSTIC guitar, though. I don’t think there’s much anyone can do with an acoustic guitar. To me it all sounds like Ralph “American Pie” McTell. As for me, I grew up in outer London, I got my first guitar at FDH in Charing Cross Road, just round the corner from Denmark Street. It was a Fender Strat copy made by RAVER with one of the two pickups missing. The sales assistant said the neck was slightly bent above a certain fret, but that over 90% of guitar playing was done below that fret, so not too much to worry about. I never had any problems tuning it, though. I used a set of pitch pipes. My first amp was a small battery powered one by AXAMP which was only a few Watts, bought either at FDH or in Denmark Street, about the size of a hardback book, a few months after I got my guitar. My first full size amp was a second hand valve amp by VOX, bought from a shop somewhere in Kent. I think it was 30 Watts. Me and my parents took it home in the family car. I’m fairly sure it was too heavy to carry. I learnt to pllay the guitar from the book “Lead Guitar” by Harvey Vinson, complete with a flexi disc, which gave me enough knowledge to start playing along with records by The Ramones, Patti Smith, The Damned, The Clash, and The Sex Pistols. The first song by anyone else which I played after just playing 12 bar Blues riffs from the Harvey Vinson book was “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones on just the E string. It took me at least a few months to learn how to play bar chords. I also had a much thinner book, called something like “Lead Guitar”, but I don’t remember who it was by. It had a Rickenbacker style guitar on the cover. The most useful thing about it was that it came with a set of labels to stick on a guitar neck which showed the notes at each fret for the fifth and sixth strings. A few months after getting a guitar, I also took up playing bass guitar, once more with a book by Harvey Vinson. It’s a shame about Denmark Street being threatened. This is all due to Thatcherite/neoliberal policies, as described in my blog and my book.
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Sorry you don’t think anyone can do anything with an acoustic guitar,Eric Clapton playing Layla on acoustic guitar should make the case,and by the way American Pie was by Don McLean
Being a keyboard player, I’ve bought all my instruments in Denmark Street. Although I recognize the attitude of sales assistants described, I have to say my recent visit and purchase from Rose Morris was completely different – some very helpful guys there.
I imagine they must suffer a lot from people just coming into try out instruments who then go on to to purchase online.
So I fully agree with supporting these shops. The online experience works for many things but not instruments.
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