How London’s Tin Pan Alley lost its soul

Andrew Loog Oldham on Denmark Street in August 10 1964
Young buck: Andrew Loog Oldham on Denmark Street in August 10 1964 - Richard Chowen/Hulton Archive

Somebody returning to Tottenham Court Road station for the first time in years might think they’ve got off at the wrong stop. Where there was once a narrow exit spitting pedestrians onto New Oxford Street, there’s now a gleaming glass monument to Crossrail. Facing the south-eastern exit on Charing Cross Road is a gold-and-black box called The Outernet with walls that open to the public so they can gawp at video installations and adverts emblazoned over walls and ceiling. It’s very new, very loud, very bright and all over Instagram.

That isn’t all that’s changed. The period buildings on St Giles High Street, once home to charismatic Korean restaurants, have had their fronts polished so aggressively they look like fakes, while the area around Centre Point is now a tidy public square. It’s easy to forget you are in St Giles, a no-man’s land that pedestrians used to scurry through nervously when seeking a shortcut between Soho and Covent Garden.

More familiar refuge can be found round the corner on Denmark Street. As explored in my new book, Denmark Street: London’s Street Of Sound, this stubby thoroughfare connecting Charing Cross Road with St Giles High Street could be, inch-for-inch, the most historic street in London. In an area that has seen much upheaval, Denmark Street remains, physically, just about the same: a string of human-sized three and four-storey buildings, several of which date back to the street’s construction in the 1680s. They are cleaner now – and there’s a gaping hole where No 21 used to be – but shop windows are still lined with gleaming guitars to entice the passing public. That’s enough to tell you that Denmark Street – aka Tin Pan Alley – is still dedicated to music.

Scratch the surface, and things aren’t quite so simple. Offices that once housed labels, managers, publishers, pluggers, agents, songwriters and studios have been transformed into rooms for Chateau Denmark, a “rock and roll boutique hotel” modelled on LA’s Chateau Marmont. The 12 Bar club, located in an ancient blacksmith’s forge, has been spruced up and renamed the Lower Third after one of David Bowie’s backing bands, but still hosts music events while selling expensive cocktails. The street, owned by The Outernet’s developers, has retained its hold on music, partly by design – it’s a good hook for publicity – but also because leases must be offered to music-related businesses, a concession squeezed from Camden council by campaigners who were worried the street would lose its heritage in the face of relentless regeneration.

Bill Haley and the Comets outside the Tin Pan Alley Club in 1964
Rock around the block: Bill Haley and the Comets outside the Tin Pan Alley Club in 1964 - Getty Images/Mirrorpix

That history is deep and rich. It includes figures like Casanova, gangster Ronnie Knight and Augustus Siebe, inventor of the diving helmet, but it’s really about music, which arrived on Denmark Street in 1911 with Lawrence Wright, a publisher who wrote songs under the flamboyant pseudonym of Horatio Nicholls. After a mining disaster in Whitehaven, Wright made a fortune selling sheet music of a song he owned called Don’t Go Down In The Mine, Dad. He gave half the money to charity and used the rest to move to No 8 Denmark Street.

He chose Denmark Street because Charing Cross Road was lined with bookshops and music was a branch of publishing. In the absence of recorded music, songs existed as sheet music that musicians could perform at home or in pubs, theatres and music halls: essentially anywhere you’d find a piano. Publishers would buy a song from professional songwriters, pair it with a performer and promote it through a plugger. Punters would hear it and buy the sheet music. The publisher, in the middle of this web, would get rich.

Wright modernised this business. He wrote songs, bought hundreds from the US and conceived publicity stunts such as offering £1,000 to anybody who could find a non-bendy banana after he bought I’ve Never Seen A Straight Banana. In 1926, he founded music weekly Melody Maker to promote his own catalogue. Around 30 years later, NME would be founded at No 5, and in 1952 publish the first UK singles chart, arguably the single biggest innovation to come from Denmark Street. Other publishers followed Wright to Denmark Street. Songwriters would compose in local pubs before walking down the street, playing new songs to publishers until they struck lucky. From Tin Pan Alley came South Of The Border, Sally, Harbour Lights and Teddy Bear’s Picnic, plus hundreds more long forgotten.

This cosy world was shattered by the Rolling Stones’ young manager Andrew Loog Oldham. He’d first come to Denmark Street in the 1950s trying to sell a song called “Boomerang Rock”, which he took it to Box & Cox at No 7, songwriters and publishers still living off the proceeds off “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts”. They passed. Loog Oldham next sent the Stones to record at Regents Sound, a ramshackle demo studio at No 4. The Stones created such a novel sound for their debut album that other members of the 60s rock revolution began to use the street’s studios.

Denmark Street c1970
Adapting to change: Denmark Street c1970 - Nicky J Sims/Redferns

The Beatles meanwhile signed to Denmark Street publisher Dick James, who was famous for singing the theme tune to Robin Hood. James recognised that the Beatles were different – gifted songwriters with personalities who played their own songs, a self-sufficient unit that did not require the support of a traditional publisher. He gave The Beatles a generous deal and focused on collecting royalties and protecting copyright. It made him rich but diminished the publishers’ role forever.

It was around this time that Elton John took an office job on Denmark Street, commenting wryly that he “arrived at my first job in Denmark Street just as Denmark Street went into terminal decline”. In truth, Denmark Street would prosper as musicians flooded in. They would meet managers and agents, eating cheap meals at the Gioconda café between sessions. Future Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page was a regular, as was David Bowie, who did his first interviews from the Gioconda. He met Marc Bolan when they were painting their manager’s Denmark Street office in lieu of actual work, and occasionally slept in his tour van – a converted ambulance – outside the Gio.

Following the musicians came the instrument shops – Macari’s at No 22 followed by Top Gear at No 5 – taking over ground floor spaces as the independent publishers were swallowed up by record labels. Even musicians got in on this act – Rod Argent of the Zombies opened a keyboard shop at No 20. The nature of the street may have changed but the focus on music was relentless. In the 70s, designers Hipgnosis created classic album covers for Pink Floyd at No 6, while the Sex Pistols rehearsed in the back yard. In the 1980s, an after-hours club for guitar techs became the 12 Bar, hosting artists like Billy Bragg and Jeff Buckley. In the 90s, the Acid Jazz label had an office on Denmark Street releasing chart-topping music by Brand New Heavies and Jamiroquai, while one of the world’s first internet-streaming services was founded on Denmark Street. There was even a music bookshop.

By the 2010s, most niche businesses had moved away but Denmark Street was still home to specialist instrument shops, while guitar repairers beavered away upstairs in sweaty workshops. Redevelopment began in 2015. For several years Denmark Street became a desert, shops concealed behind scaffolding. Now it’s back in business. As well as the returning instrument shops and new hotel, a studio is being built. Will it last? Denmark Street is nothing if not resilient. Its secret has always been its willingness to change, an illusion of romance disguising a commercial spirit that is as adaptable, determined and smartly cynical as the music industry itself.

Denmark Street: London’s Street Of Sound by Peter Watts is out now (Paradise Road, £20)