Denmark Street

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London’s Tin Pan Alley

Denmark Street, off Charing Cross Road, WC2


Some businesses left Denmark Street during its 'regeneration'
Some busi­ness­es left Den­mark Street dur­ing its ‘regen­er­a­tion’

Den­mark Street was laid out in 1687 and named in hon­our of Prince George of Den­mark, who had mar­ried Queen Anne four years ear­li­er. Eight of the street’s orig­i­nal prop­er­ties sur­vive today – and two of these were upgrad­ed from grade II to grade II* list­ing in 2016.

The street is sit­u­at­ed in the area once known as St Giles’s, which was long a cen­tre for the print­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion of bal­lad sheets, also known as broad­sides, which were then sold far and wide by itin­er­ant hawk­ers.

The 20th-cen­tu­ry suc­ces­sor to the broad­side trade was the pub­li­ca­tion of sheet music and the first such pub­lish­er to set up shop in Den­mark Street was Lawrence Wright (who also com­posed under the name Hor­a­tio Nicholls), in 1911. He began in the base­ment of num­ber 8 and after the First World War moved to 19 Den­mark Street – which he named Wright House. Wright found­ed the Melody Mak­er mag­a­zine here in 1926, main­ly as a vehi­cle to pro­mote his own songs.

Soon after­wards the pub­lish­ers Camp­bell Con­nel­ly moved from Tot­ten­ham Court Road to Den­mark Street and it began to gain a rep­u­ta­tion as London’s Tin Pan Alley, a nick­name bor­rowed from the area around New York’s West 28th Street.

By the 1940s most of London’s music pub­lish­ers were locat­ed here and busi­ness thrived. This geo­graph­i­cal con­cen­tra­tion had a sound eco­nom­ic ratio­nale. Pro­fes­sion­al singers (who in those days rarely wrote their own mate­r­i­al) would reg­u­lar­ly make the rounds of all the pub­lish­ers, lis­ten­ing to their lat­est songs and choos­ing which they want­ed to per­form, so it made sense for the rivals to be locat­ed in close prox­im­i­ty to each oth­er.

The New Musi­cal Express, which became the Melody Maker’s great rival and ulti­mate­ly absorbed it, was launched at 5 Den­mark Street in 1952. Two years lat­er, Ralph Elman, a ses­sion vio­lin­ist, opened a record­ing stu­dio in the street. Regent Sound fol­lowed in 1962 and soon almost every square foot of Den­mark Street was devot­ed to rock and pop music, with pub­lish­ers in upstairs offices (no longer requir­ing shop win­dows to dis­play their wares), instru­ment and equip­ment retail­ers at street lev­el, repair­ers in rear work­shops and record­ing stu­dios in base­ments.

Just open your ears and follow your nose
’Cos the street is shakin’ from the tapping of toes
The Kinks, ‘Denmark Street’ (1970)

 
Many of London’s great­est musi­cal acts rehearsed or made ear­ly record­ings in Den­mark Street, includ­ing the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Small Faces, David Bowie (who even lived on the street in a camper van for a while) and the Sex Pis­tols. From fur­ther afield, Paul Simon, Jimi Hen­drix, Ste­vie Won­der and Bob Mar­ley also record­ed here. The Gia­con­da Café, which was at num­ber 9, was the musi­cians’ favourite haunt. Eric Clap­ton, Jeff Beck and Pete Town­shend bought gui­tars at Rhodes Music.

Although it’s not what it once was, Den­mark Street is still Lon­don’s prime loca­tion for the sale and repair of musi­cal instru­ments, but what remains of its unique char­ac­ter has been fur­ther erod­ed by the regen­er­a­tion scheme accom­pa­ny­ing the impend­ing arrival of the Eliz­a­beth line (Cross­rail) at Tot­ten­ham Court Road sta­tion. The devel­op­ers stat­ed that no build­ings would be demol­ished on Den­mark Street itself, that exist­ing retail­ers would be retained and that con­struc­tion work would be phased so that they could stay open and keep trad­ing through­out the process. How­ev­er, some busi­ness­es have since closed or moved else­where – though most still appear to be thriv­ing.

Hanks acoustic guitar shop window (new premises as of 2011)

Selected addresses:
Hanks acoustic guitar shop (shown above), 27 Denmark Street, London WC2H 8NJ
Regent Sounds Studios (now a guitar and amp shop), 4 Denmark Street, London WC2H 8LP
12 Bar Club, 26 Denmark Street, London WC2H 8NL
Nearest station: Tottenham Court Road (Central and Northern Lines)
Further reading: ‘Street of Song’, an excellent chapter in Suggs and the City: My journeys through disappearing London
NearbyCharles II in Soho Square