Tin Pan Alley Plaque, (c) Chris Wilkins-Molloy, 2021

Denmark Street WC2 – London’s Tin Pan Alley

Denmark street is a thoroughfare only 100 yards long, linking Charing Cross Road and St Giles High Street, but it punches well above its weight in London’s music heritage.  A plaque on Number 9 commemorates the Gioconda café where many musicians of the 1960s and 70s met and found inspiration – those who eventually became famous included David Bowie, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, and the Sex Pistols.  However, the link with popular music actually dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Denmark Street looking east, (c) Chris Wilkins-Molloy, 2021

The theatreland connection

Denmark Street dates from the 1680s-1690s. It was named after Prince George of Denmark, who married the future Queen Anne in 1683.  Both sides of the street still have townhouses that have survived from the early eighteenth century. It was part of a development aimed at London’s growing middle class.  By the nineteenth century, however, those with the money to do so were moving further west to cleaner air, and the houses mainly became commercial properties, many given over to metalwork trades.  Indeed, there is a plaque to Augustus Siebe, pioneer of the diving helmet, on one of the buildings.  Then in the early twentieth century came the changes which eventually led to the street becoming known as ‘Tin Pan Alley’ – not a reference to the metal workshops which had been located here, but a phrase adopted from America, denoting an area given over to the popular, commercial music trade. It’s thought this might be a derogatory term for the sound of cheap instruments being played, sounding like a load of tin pans!

Denmark Street looking west, (c) Chris Wilkins-Molloy, 2021

From the late nineteenth century, theatres, music halls and concert venues were fixtures on nearby Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road,  Denmark Street, with its cheap rents and proximity, became the preferred location for music publishers. Here they were on hand to provide sheet music for the popular musical entertainments of the day, for both amateur and professional musicians.  Lawrence Wright was the first publisher to set up his premises on Denmark Street, in 1911, and by 1926 he had set up what became an icon of the music press, Melody Maker. In the 1950s a rival to this publication was also founded on Denmark Street – the New Musical Express.  From this era, nearly ever premises on the street housed a business connected to the music industry, whether it was sheet music publishing, the music press, sound studios, song-writing companies, or instrument retail and repair shops.  The ‘Tin Pan Alley’ nickname now became firmly established.

Ambitious office boys and homesick American songwriters

The street hosted many names that went on to achieve great fame in popular music – even if they weren’t always recognised at the time.  A young visitor from America tried to sell his songs ‘The Sound of Silence’ and ‘Homeward Bound’ to Mills Music at Number 20, but they rejected them as being ‘uncommercial’.  They must have been kicking themselves when he went on to worldwide fame as one half of Simon and Garfunkel!  In 1964 The Rolling Stones – still performing live in 2021 – recorded their first album at Regent Sound Studio at Number 4.  And in 1965 Mills Music did employ an office boy with some musical ambitions – his old teacher told him, ’When you’re 40 you’ll still be some sort of glorified office boy, or you’ll be a millionaire’: the young man’s name was Reginald Dwight, better known as Elton John. It was on Denmark Street that he and Bernie Taupin formed their enduring creative partnership, which did indeed make them millionaires.

Hanks, Denmark Street, (c) Chris Wilkins-Molloy, 2021

‘Punk ground zero’

n the 1970s Number 6 Denmark Street became what some would call the mother lode of the punk revolution in popular music.  Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols, bought the lease of the property for £1000, and band members Glen Matlock and Steve Jones were soon living in the studio flat there located above rehearsal space. After the Sex Pistols broke up, Matlock remembers jamming there with Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Mick Jones of the Clash, and the 1980s synth-pop band Bronski Beat.  Later, members of girl group Bananarama also lived at Number 6. The building still has graffiti left there by John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, lead singer of the Sex Pistols.

Sixty Sixty Sounds, Denmark Street, (c) Chris Wilkins-Molloy, 2021

The death of Denmark Street?

From the 1990s, Denmark Street was home to the 12 Bar Club live music venue, where Adele and The Libertines got their breaks as performers.  But times have moved on again – the 12 Bar Club closed more than five years ago, and the music journals are long gone, along with the recording studios and rehearsal spaces. The guitar shops are hanging on in the face of the Cross Rail developments at Tottenham Court Road Station. The landlord of most of the properties on the street is a huge business conglomerate – a long way removed from the spirit of punk. In 2014 the columnist Simon Jenkins declared in the Evening Standard that Denmark Street was ‘a mere ghost of its past’. The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have since impacted on all forms of live entertainment. So is the music of Denmark Street doomed?

Outer…what?

The Now Building, (c) Chris Wilkins-Molloy, 2021

It seems all is not lost. When travellers emerge from Tottenham Court Road tube station by the huge Centre Point tower, they encounter a giant gold box covered in large LED screens. This is the Now Building, which lies adjacent to Denmark Street and incorporates some back parts of the properties on the street’s north side.  This is the most visible part of the Outernet development, which aims to provide three new live-event spaces linked to displays on the screens.

LED Screens ,Denmark Street, (c) Chris Wilkins-Molloy, 2021

One venue will have a capacity of 2000, below ground, while another will be at 26 Denmark street in the old 12 Bar Club building. The Outernet project will also feature recording studios that will be available to the public free of charge. There will be dedicated busking spots, and the instrument shops on Denmark Street have been guaranteed long leases.  The downside in some people’s eyes is that this will all be accompanied by corporate branding and relentless advertising.  Still, come back to Denmark Street in six months’ time and you may find a Tin Pan Alley for the 21st century.

Sources

The London Encyclopaedia, edited by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert, Macmillan, 1983

Streets of St Giles, Camden History Society

The Guardian, 20 Jan 2015, ‘Why London’s music scene has been rocked by the death of Denmark Street’ by Marc Burrows

GQ, 8 September 2020, ‘The £1 billion plot to end the 100-yard war on “Tin Pan Alley”’ by Thomas Barrie

Image at top of page is of the ‘Tin Pan Alley’ plaque, (c) Chris Wilkins-Molloy, 2021

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