Category: Arts Culture

Denmark Street Blues

Denmark Street Blues

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.

Atheist meets God in novel conundrum

Atheist meets God in novel conundrum

Last night Mrs Preen attended two book launches, one at the Reform Club in Pall Mall, the other at Waterstones in Islington. I know it seems unlikely, but women are allowed into The Reform and have been since 1981. So early days, but some of the members are still visibly shaken. Not that they didn’t try to exclude the wife. She was almost slung out on account of bare shoulders and shockingly primitive shoes – sandals.

As there were government ministers present they served scallops, steak tartare and a daikon radish dip guzzled down with fine Club claret. I was not invited, but the second event proved more down-to-earth – they served peanuts. I know that, because I ate most of them.

As to what book was launched at The Reform I forgot to ask (call yourself a journalist?) but I can tell you at Waterstones Simon Edge unleashed his latest novel ‘The Hurtle of Hell’. It’s the story of an atheist who meets God. Full disclosure: he’s an old friend. Simon that is, not God.

The author read the opening chapter where the hero, Stefano Cartwright, almost drowns, has a near death experience, and travels along a bright white tube of light where he reveals: ‘I think I just saw the eye of God.’

This is Edge’s second novel. The First was the Hopkins Conundrum which as improbable as it may seem involved a Welsh pub landlord, his faltering love life, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and a covey of shipwrecked nuns. Simon likes to paint on a broad canvas.

Talking of painting, the latest novel’s cover was created by cartoonist David Shenton, which as you can see from the picture is fortunate, as he looks like God.

‘The Hurtle of Hell’ is packed in my suitcase and will be coming with me on holiday to Italy next week. I’m sure Stefano will make a great travelling companion.

Click here to bag yourself a copy.

Shakespeare in Albert Square

Shakespeare in Albert Square

Shakespeare in Albert Square? To be or not to be: you muppet! No, not EastEnders Albert Square, this one is tucked between Clapham Road and South Lambeth Road in our little piece of heaven that is either Oval, Stockwell or Vauxhall depending on your point of view or which estate agent you talk to.

Albert Square SW8 is quite a grand affair with high, white, hansom houses that stretch five stories and ring this pleasant patch of green that is overseen by a fine example of that London wonder, the London Plane. Local legend has it that one of the houses contains Joanna Lumley.

Every June, a Friday evening is given over to an alfresco production of a Shakespeare play. Last night the Quite Right Theatre Company gave us a rip-roaring version of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. They sang, they danced, they spoke verse, they battled the wail of planes descending into Heathrow, they didn’t flinch as motorbikes roared round the square and they remained unperturbed by growling dogs and the munching, wine swilling residents of our community.

For a modern audience, The Taming of the Shrew is freighted with a few problems as it deals with Petruchio trying and succeeding in taming his wife Kate. It doesn’t quite fit with the #MeToo generation, but Izzy Daws, who played Katherine, didn’t look like someone who would put up with any kind of misogyny. Plus, she has some great lines: ‘If I be waspish, best beware my sting.’

But with due respect to the actors, the plot may not have been uppermost in people’s minds last night, as this event is never quite sure if it’s a play with a picnic or a picnic with a play. Whatever it is, it’s a great communal event where children turn cartwheels, dogs steal from picnic baskets and you meet friends you haven’t seen in a while. Come back next year Quite Right Theatre; you bring the play and we’ll bring the picnic.

Urban Axe Throwing

Urban Axe Throwing

If you get it right the axe spins gracefully through the air and hits the target with a satisfying thonk. If you get it wrong, it falls clattering to the ground. Welcome to Urban Axe Throwing, taking place at a railway arch in Vauxhall; it’s like darts on steroids.

The firm, Whistle Punks, set up the Vauxhall part of their operation just over a year ago. On the night I went with two friends there were around thirty, mostly young people present, both men and women.

You sign up online, it costs £29 per person, and are immediately given some ground rules. Turn up smelling of alcohol and you’re out, and no you can’t throw an axe at a picture of your ex. There was a two-minute safety brief at the start of the event, and unusually in these circumstances, people were actually paying attention. Flying axes seemed to concentrate people’s minds.

You warm up with some practice throws (it’s not as easy as it looks by the way) to get your eye in and thereafter there’s a competition. My two mates made the semi-final, I’m ashamed to say I did not and so wasn’t covered in blades of glory.

I asked the winner of the competition, who was spectacular, if he’d done it before. He hadn’t and seemed as bemused as the rest of us as to how good he was.

You conclude by throwing two axes at once and doing some trick shots; well let’s say you attempt to do some trick shots. The whole thing lasts for 90 minutes, which seemed the perfect length of time.

Apparently, the sport, if you can call it that, comes from Canada. There, itinerant lumberjacks are won’t to while away the evening chucking axes at trees, but that’s Rural Axe Throwing, nobody was wearing red checked shirts in Vauxhall.

From a money-making perspective there’s one big flaw with Whistle Punks’ business model. They can’t sell beer. If you think of an equivalent night out, perhaps darts, snooker or bowling, these are always accompanied by alcohol. Not an option when people are chucking large lumps of lacerating metal about the place.

The axe wrangler who looked after us did a great job, was very upbeat, roaring ‘Bullseye’ when someone hit the spot. But beware, even the pros can get in trouble; he recently dislocated his shoulder.

Want to try something a little different, perhaps release a bit of pent up irritation? Then chucking axes at a wooden target might be just the thing. Next team building event for the office?

Thanks to Gyuri Szabo for the  wonderful pictures: check out what he does here.

Vexed in Vauxhall

Vexed in Vauxhall

With apologies to Noel Coward and his poem ‘There are bad times just around the corner’.

They’re miffed at the Nine Elms intersection

They’re vexed in Vauxhall, outraged at Oval

And Fentiman Road, so I’m told, is on the verge of insurrection.

The President of the United States has been at it again and people round our way are not happy. First, when commenting on the new US embassy, he called our neighbourhood ‘off location’ – bloody cheek. Now at a rally in Michigan over the weekend he ramped up the war of words calling our locality ‘lousy’ and ‘horrible’ ahead of his planned visit to the UK in July.

Time to fight back south London and extol the benefits and merits of life (just) south of the river. So, with my Tourist Authority of Lambeth (unofficial) hat screwed firmly on my head here is why you, along with the most powerful man in the world, should take a stroll round our manor. Dodge the deadly bullets of Madame Tussauds, the London Dungeon and M&M World and take a trip to Lambeth.

  • First up there’s Battersea Park, perhaps the best park in London, which now boasts an excellent restaurant, the Pear Tree Cafe.  You can go boating on the lake or dangle from a zipwire, play football and marvel at the remnants of the Festival of Britain.
  • There’s a thriving gay scene headquartered at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern just south of Vauxhall Station.
  • There are so many bonkers buildings along Nine Elms Lane, including the new US Embassy, perhaps we should be marketing ourselves as the New Dubai.
  • We have art galleries: Tate Britain  and Damian Hurst’s Newport Street Gallery that was designed by the same Swiss architects that brought us Tate Modern.
  • Then there’s Little Portugal spread out along South Lambeth Road which includes the Estrella Restaurant  where you can sit outside and enjoy the sun, while sipping hot chocolate and nibbling on a nata.  A little further along is the local favourite, the Canton Arms, a gastro pub of note. I’ve not tried it yet, but we have a new place on Clapham Road: 24 The Oval which looks promising.
  • People are raving about Wright Brothers Seafood Restaurant at Battersea Power Station. They specialise in oysters, in case a basket of bi-valves is your thing. While there, you’ll also be able to take a look at the Battersea Power Station restoration; one of the biggest housing developments in Europe.
  • There is the huge Nine Elms Sunday Market, which can be a little on the scummy side, but if you want to indulge your inner Martin Amis you might want to give it a go. Close by is the newly located New Covent Garden flower market, but for this you are going to have to get up early. It opens at 4am. Come Christmas, it’s fun to pick up your Christmas tree there for a fraction of the normal London price.
  • Underneath the railway arches and strictly for the more adventurous we have Urban Axe Throwing and you can get to grips with the VauxWall climbing centre.

We should encourage Donald Trump to come to our neck of the woods and see what he’s missing. I’m sure we can assure him of a rousing reception.

(Now it’s over to you, local inhabitants, what have I missed?)

Plastered at the Tate

Plastered at the Tate

In 1897 when the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) was nearing completion they got the plasterers in. And plasterers being plasterers, did what plasterers always do, they left a hidden note to be found by future generations. They got their wish.

This was placed here on the fourth of June 1897, Jubilee year, by the plasterers working on the job, hoping when this is found the Plasterers Association may be still flourishing. Please let us know in the Other World when you get this, so we can drink your health.

Signed: N. Gallop, F. Wilkins, H. Sainsbury, J. Chester, A. Pickernell (secretary)

The writer, perhaps the secretary, is hesitant to say whether plasterers fetch up in heaven or hell and opt for the ‘other world’ but given the lovely, humorous nature of the note I reckon it must be the former.

How much of their work remains, I have no idea, but I like to think that some of the UK’s greatest paintings hang in front of their smooth plaster work. This evening I plan to raise a glass and drink to the health of Messrs Gallop, Wilkins, Sainsbury, Chester and Pickernell.

Seventy years later

Just over seventy years after this note was written a callow youth visited the Tate for the first time. I was 16 years old and a pupil at a dreary boarding school in the Midlands. A school trip was arranged to visit the Tate Gallery in London. I didn’t have much interest in art and knew nothing about the artist whose exhibition we were going to see. All that mattered was escaping school and getting to London.

I’m not sure I’d ever seen pop art before, but I knew right away I loved it, particularly when we learnt that the artist, Eduardo Paolozzi, had made robots for the exhibition and at the last moment had carved them up and dumped them in a skip. When you’re a teenager at school in Rutland you feel like carving your life up and putting it in a skip. Here was something I could work with.

I think there were also some Warhol’s on display; possibly the Marylyn screen prints. It was all so new and so fresh, I couldn’t get enough of it. I now live around the corner from Tate Britain, but I’ll never forget my first visit.

Stealing art from Tate Britain: It’s child’s play

Stealing art from Tate Britain: It’s child’s play

I went back to Tate Britain yesterday to take a last look at the ‘Impressionists in London’ exhibition. (It closes on 7th May) I was a bit rude about it on a previous occasion but wanted to see Monet’s wonderful fog shrouded pictures of Big Ben and parliament once again.

I got there bang on 10 o’clock when the gallery opens, brandished my member’s card, and made directly for the Monet’s which are in the penultimate room. Although other punters were invading the earlier rooms, I had the Monet’s and the Whistler Nocturnes to myself.

Wandering out through the Duveen Galleries, the main space opposite the Millbank entrance, I spotted a young couple with two toddlers. The kids were charging about among the statues and generally having a great time. I guess it’s the combination of the open spaces where they can run plus the colours and strange shapes of the art that appeals.

All of which reminded me of an occasion, years ago, when my three-year-old daughter and I paid a visit. We walked in to one of the galleries and were met with the unusual sight and sound of a security guard wearing a blaring walkie-talkie. Perhaps he was upset by one of the more visually arresting Francis Bacon pictures, but he was babbling into a microphone while the radio on his belt was turned up full, so everyone could hear the anodyne chat coming from the control room. There was no emergency underway.

Of course, even though people were irritated, being British, nobody said anything. If you listened closely you could just hear some gentle tutting. Finally, I went up to the guy and asked him to turn down his radio as it was getting on everyone’s nerves. He gave me a shirty look, had me figured as a poncey, pretentious git, but complied.

Meanwhile the daughter was making her way, at some speed, into the next room. When you want three-year-olds to move they stick like glue, but they can give Usain Bolt a run for his money if so minded. I followed closely to see her bearing down on an Anthony Gormley sculpture of fruit laid out on the floor at perfect toddler level.

I kind of knew what was going to happen. Just as the security guard entered, she grabbed a silver pineapple and looking very pleased with herself tore out of the room. The guard approached with a menacing look that seemed to indicate all his Christmases had come at once and that the pretentious, poncey git was going to get it with both barrels.

Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, and before plod could say a word, I raced after the toddler, wrenched the pineapple from her hands, put it back on its pedestal and within thirty seconds the two of us were standing outside with the security guard sucking up the dust from my departing heels. There are some fights you can’t win.

Close-up of a girl's face
Jenny Saville

Last word: Yesterday I also went to see the ‘All too human’ exhibition at Tate Britain. It has spectacular paintings by Freud, Bacon and Kitaj. It also introduced me to a wonderful artist I’d not come across before: Euan Unglow.

Younger painters feature in the last room and the severe close-up of a woman’s face by Jenny Saville really needs to be seen. The exhibition is on until 27th August: Don’t miss it.