Denmark Street: Britain’s Answer to Tin Pan Alley

I spent last weekend in London which, ironically, is why I didn’t have time to write about London last week. Fortunately, I kept myself very busy up there, and as such have a number of things I can discuss in more detail. One of the mornings was taken up on a walk around Covent Garden and St Giles. While on this walk – taken from a guidebook – I found myself in Denmark Street. I’d known the name, but I didn’t know much about it, so I endeavored to do a little research.

The 108-foot long street may look unremarkable from a geographical position. At the southern end of Camden, with no tube station to call its own, and traffic only permitted in one direction, one could be forgiven for thinking that it isn’t worth mentioning. Originally situated on the grounds St Giles Hospital, a leper house, opened in the 12th century by Matilda, the wife of Henry I, was here. Having passed through several hands since then, during the reign of James II the area was developed and the street named for Prince George of Denmark, the husband of Queen Anne.

The area around Denmark Street was known as the rookery, an accidental slum. Home to plague, pestilence, many brothels and those who enjoyed a drink or eleven, the street gained a negative reputation. By the end of the 1800s, it had been mostly cleared up, but remains one of the very few London streets to still have “17th century terraced facades on both sides”. It held a number of residents who are still known to us today including Dr John Purcell (a doctor specialising in “the vapours”), painter Johann Zoffany, and Jacobite Sir John Murray who made his home here until a day where he was carried off by some strange men. That may be a story for another time. In the early 1800s, the street became one for businesses and offices to set up, and it then attracted Augustus Siebe, who invented the diving helmet. A blue plaque in the street acknowledges him.

But Denmark Street doesn’t begin forming its later reputation until 1911 when Lawrence Wright, a music publisher settled in and founded the journal for musicians Melody Maker. By the end of the 1950s, the street had become known as Britain’s “Tin Pan Alley”, and was full of music publishers, writers, singers, recording artists and anything else connected with the industry. Singers in the 50s starting taking songs from those writing in Denmark Street, and Lionel Bart, who went on to write Oliver! started working in the industry here.

In the 1950s, however, artists had started writing their own songs, and didn’t need writers anymore, so the street went out of fashion for a while, at which point it changed tack and started opening recording studios instead. Songs ranging from “I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” to “You Really Got Me” started to come out of Denmark Street and once it was seen as the place you had to be if you wanted to make it in music.

One of Denmark Street’s familiar faces, the late David Bowie

Once the Rolling Stones had settled in to record there, a panoply of stars made their way to the street. Reg Dwight had started working at a music publisher in 1963, and seven years later he had changed his name and given the world “Your Song“. Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and others all found work here and it became one of the coolest places in London. But it wasn’t just music producers here. In the seventies, guitar shops and a comic book store were installed on the street.

In 1980, disaster struck the street. Several unlicensed nightclubs were running in the street, and with badly maintained fire exits. When John Thompson, a local criminal was ejected one night in August that year, he returned and ignited the ground floor of one of the buildings housing a nightclub. Thirty-seven people were killed, and Thompson spent the rest of his life in prison. Another criminal is also associated with the street – the serial killer Dennis Nilsen. He worked at a job centre in the street and is notable for one Christmas bringing in a large cooking pot to help prepare the Christmas dinner. Unbeknownst to his colleagues, this was the very pot in which he had boiled the heads of his victims. A charming man.

In 1992, the last music publisher moved out of the street, and now the street is almost nothing but instrument shops. The owner of Andy’s Guitars, Andy Preston has tried to have the area rebranded as “Music Land”.

The whole area has been declared a Conservation Area, and the street itself has eight listed buildings, all Grade II, and while there are often talks of the place being redeveloped, there are protests from the current occupants about that who insist that it should retain its original character. To this day, the street will be known by those into music as an important location. Several of the shops specialise in guitars, but others sell sheet music, DVDs, and other instruments. The basement of number 22 is still a recording studio, and has been since 1954.

Although, as anyone can tell you, I am not particularly musically inclined, but even I could sense the importance of the place as I walked down it. It’s so small, and I’ve probably been through it many times before, but I’ve never really acknowledged its significance. Anyone with a love of music should pay a visit, just to say they’ve walked in the footsteps of the greats. May they forever live in, in Denmark Street.

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