Category: Music

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.

Clapton phones it in

Clapton phones it in

Last Sunday night (8.7.18) Eric Clapton played one of the British Summer Time gigs in Hyde Park. It was a glorious summer evening with the smell of hot-dogs, mixed with high notes of weed, wafting across the Royal Park. As the great sage of the blues guitar ambled on stage he muttered the immortal words: ‘It’s coming home’. Well if the footie’s coming home, the music had clearly missed its connection. The gig was as dull and dreary as cabbage. Perhaps the old boy’s past it.

OK, a little context is needed here. I’ve been a fan, off and on, for years. At school, my trigonometry text book (is trigonometry still a thing?) had the name of his band Cream written in psychedelic bubble letters on the cover.

Then in the 90s, friends of mine, the mighty Kick Horns, were Clapton’s brass section and I remember seeing some wonderful gigs at The Albert Hall.

Clapton made one album with Blind Faith, a band which featured one of my musical heroes Steve Winwood. Their only gig in London was at Hyde Park in 1969. As Winwood was also on the bill, I felt it safe to assume they would get together to thrill the crowds in 2018 as they had done all those years ago. Santana were also playing, and as Carlos and Steve have worked together it looked like a super celebrity mash-up of old mates was on the cards.

Earlier in the evening, both Winwood and Santana played blinding sets, but it was ‘Slowhand’ we had come to see. He started out quite low key with some mid-tempo blues, including Hoochie Coochie Man, and then became all but invisible with four acoustic songs including Layla and Tears in Heaven.

All of which may sound fine, but his heart wasn’t in it. Nobody was smiling on stage (not strictly true, the drummer seemed to have having a good time) there was no chemistry between the band members and Eric’s singing was at best perfunctory. Steve Winwood never showed up to partner with his old mate and it was left to Carlos Santana to spark things up when he came on to jam at the end.

Clapton didn’t even introduce his band which has the wonderful singer Paul Carrack in the ranks playing Hammond organ. If you don’t know the name, you’ll know the songs: How Long? The Living Years, Tempted. He has a fantastic soul voice but the only time we heard it was on the final song, which was the old Joe Cocker shout-a-long, ‘High time we went’.

Trust me, this is not the review I wanted to write, but for an audience to have a good time, the band need to have a good time. In truth Clapton barely turned up, went through the motions, and largely ignored the audience, some of whom started chanting ‘Football’s coming home’ during one of the more tedious segments.

For you completists out there, here’s the set list:

  • Somebody’s Knocking
  • Key to the highway
  • Hoochie Coochie Man
  • Got to get better in a little while
  • Drifitn’ Blues
  • Nobody knows you when you’re down and out
  • Layla
  • Tears in heaven
  • Lay down Sally
  • The Core
  • Cross Roads
  • Little Queen of Spades
  • Cocaine
  • High time we went (encore)
Jim Preen Soul Set: Short notice gig at the Bonnington Centre, Vauxhall

Jim Preen Soul Set: Short notice gig at the Bonnington Centre, Vauxhall

My band the Soul Set are playing the Bonnington Centre in Vauxhall this coming Friday 23rd February.

It’s a great little venue that’s a short walk from Vauxhall Cross, which is liberally sprinkled with busses and tubes (Victoria line). We will be dispensing great bucket loads of boogie, soul and blues from 8.30. Entry is free.

Let the winter blues give way to some summer grooves.

Bonnington Centre, 11, Vauxhall Grove, Vauxhall SW8 1TD

Live music venues – use ’em or lose ’em

Live music venues – use ’em or lose ’em

600 Club, Chelsea

‘Keep Music Live’

Took a trip to the 606 Club in Chelsea last Sunday to see Tony O’Malley, an old friend who fronts an excellent young band doing jazz, blues and soul numbers. Don’t worry I’m not going to review a friend’s gig here, but suffice to say Tony and his mates dished out great bucket loads of beautiful boogie.

I’ve been visiting the 606 since the 80’s when it sat slumped in a musical dungeon on the King’s Road. Then it was really cramped, dark and dusty with room for an upright piano and about twenty punters. The club now lives in more spacious premises on Lots Road, Chelsea close to the river.

It has the vibe of an old-fashioned jazz club with rickety bentwood chairs, a small stage replete with Yamaha grand piano and Ronnie Wood pictures on the walls. Even the food by jazz club standards is tolerable. The menu rarely seems to change but I generally go for Cumberland sausage with mash, largely because I’m either chatting with friends or listening to music and am not paying too much attention to what I’m gobbling.

If you look at their website you’ll see though the music is predominantly jazz, there’s also plenty of R&B, soul and blues. Heavy Metal; not so much.

If you are not a member you have to book a table to eat and you’ll pay a £10 or £14 music charge, that I’m reliably informed goes to the band.

Getting membership is a little byzantine. Essentially you must visit the club three times, and get a signed document to say you’ve done so, before you’ll be considered. Membership is currently £140 a year, and £90 should you renew. If you’re a member you don’t have to eat – yeah, I know it’s a little odd.

I was recently in New York where there seemed to be live music everywhere. Unfortunately, live music venues in London are closing left and right. If you have any interest in jazz or music that’s closely related, get down to the 606; you’ll be glad you did.

So you wanna be a rock & roll star?

So you wanna be a rock & roll star?

Perhaps you play guitar and sing or play the Venezuelan nose-flute and fancy placing your enormous talent before the discerning public. You need an urgent visit to an open mic.

You may well have heard about these vaguely intimidating events but don’t know how they work. Step forward Richard Gregory the open mic night king. He runs a website which is a sort of Trip Advisor for open mics. He lists the best and worst on offer and reviews what you can expect to find at various venues right across London. Summon up your courage, find one close to where you live and give it a go.

The majority take place in pubs, some in a separate room, others in the corner of a bar. They vary enormously, some are quiet shoe gazing events for whey-faced acoustic purists, others are noisy bare knuckle affairs. Choose your poison.

Many open mics are incredibly popular and you may need to get there in good time to get on the list. Music typically begins at 8pm, but you should get to the venue by 6.30 or 7pm to have any hope of getting on. There will be an organiser who runs the whole farrago so make sure when you arrive you find out who that person is and they are aware of your presence. The list may not open straight away and some are better than others at recognising who pitched up first; some also favour their mates. So keep an eye on this individual and when the list opens beat a path to the queue.

You will likely get to play two songs, on a quiet night you might get three. Your audience will often be made up of fellow musicians, a tricky crowd, but many are supportive especially if they discover you are something of an OM virgin.

A few ground rules for you:

  • You are performing and taking up people’s time and while the audience will cut you some slack, if you really can’t play, can’t remember your words, keep stopping and starting any residual goodwill, will soon fade away.
  • A personal plea from me – No Backing Tapes. I have nothing against Karaoke, but this is not the place for it.
  • There are usually around 20 or so slots a night and on a typical night around 5 acts will play in an hour – so you do the math as to when you might get on.
  • If you play guitar make sure it’s tuned up and unless you must use a pedal, perhaps a looper, leave them at home.
  • A quick stage entry and exit is vital to keep the wheels greased.
  • Listen and applaud other artists if you like them.
  • Don’t just turn up, play and leave, it appears rude.

These can be fun events, you won’t be paid but you will sometimes get free food and drink. Above all when you hit the stage look like you’re having a good time, because if you don’t it’s unlikely anyone else will. The range of talent is enormous from the gawd-help-us go away and practise for a year to the utterly sublime. Tempted? Give it a go.