Tag Archives: camden

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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Speakeasy Made Easy

The British like to drink. It’s been part of our culture for so long that other countries struggle to keep up. We aren’t the heaviest drinkers in the world, certainly. It’s been estimated that we drink ten litres per person each year; the outright winners are Estonia who drink 12.3. But nonetheless, with it being such an important part of our heritage, it comes as no surprise that London is full of places to get tanked up.

Let the games begin...

Let the games begin…

How many? Well, that’s something for another day, but estimates range between four and seven thousand, depending on where you draw the borders and what counts as a pub or bar. You could drink in a different one every day for ten or more years. Today I’m just talking about one of them – BYOC.

There are actually three branches of BYOC in the country, two of them in London, but the following takes place in the Camden branch. I went there in May for a friend’s birthday. We’d been to a couple of other pubs in Camden first (which later turned out to be a mistake) and then turned up for our appointment at BYOC. Trouble is, it’s not exactly the easiest bar to find. When we did eventually find it, it was just a black door sandwiched between two nondescript shops, its name printed in small black letters on a glass panel above.

Why all the secrecy? Because BYOC is not your average bar. For one thing, it doesn’t have a liquor licence. It also doesn’t have any menus. BYOC stands for Bring Your Own Cocktail, which means you supply the alcohol that you want to drink. Then, with whatever you’ve selected, the mixologists add their non-alcoholic ingredients of fruit, syrups, juice and garnishes to produce cocktails specifically tailored for you.

There were nine of us there and we all chipped in to buy a good selection of drink, taking in a mix of gin, rum, vodka, tequila and prosecco. The mixologist assigned to our table said we’d probably get four or five drinks each in the two hours we were allotted (you have to book ahead of time, and that’s just how long you get). As it turned out, we made it through at least seven each.

The mixologists clearly know what they’re doing and have a cornucopia of non-alcoholic ingredients to make up whatever they want. You can specify what you want them to make, as we did a little later, but it’s just as easy to let them get on with it. They know what works and what doesn’t, and they’ll happily whip up some of the tastiest things you’ll ever drink.

A selection of drinks

A selection of drinks

Our first drink was a cool vodka and lychee cocktail with a raspberry floating in it, that worked almost as a palate cleanser, syrupy and sweet. For the second drink, the mixologist poured the whole bottle of rum into a glass bowl and created a rum punch, complete with edible flowers floating in it. (As a side note, if you’ve never eaten them, flowers taste exactly like you’d expect them to.)

While we drank the rum from cute glass teacups, the third drink was whipped up in the form of a gin and prosecco cocktail. These were followed by the strongest passionfruit margaritas in the world that had too much tequila for most of our tastes, but most of the group still managed to get them down, aided along by the previous drinks.

After that, we had very large shots of prosecco, which is an interesting sensation, and then a lurid green concoction of gin and cucumber. The final drink before we stumbled out into the evening was another gin, prosecco and raspberry cocktail. We’d drunk everything we brought in, apart from some dregs in the tequila bottle that no one was much keen on claiming ownership of. All in all, it was a fantastic night, although parts of it are a bit hazy.

The interior of the bar is gorgeous, compared to the unexceptional exterior, decorated entirely like a 1920s speakeasy. The music complements it wonderfully, and everything feels like you probably shouldn’t be there, again, like prohibition-era America and this is all top secret. We were sat at a blackjack table, complete with piles of gambling chips, but it’s all for show. I daresay if you bought some cards you could have a game or two, but the drink is really the priority here.

Alcohol is our friend.

Alcohol is our friend.

It’s not a place I think you could go to regularly, if only because the cost for two hours in there is £25 per person, but it’s good as an experience, and you definitely get your money’s worth. Obviously you have to also account for the cost of the alcohol you’re bringing in, but I would advise anyone going to not feel they have to splash out on the expensive brands. People on the table next to us had Beefeater gin and Grey Goose vodka, but we’d gone down a cheaper route and it definitely didn’t matter. Once everything’s mixed up anyway you can’t tell. I would also advise that you take a wide selection of drinks or you’re going to be limiting yourselves and the bartender. We had seven bottles between nine of us, and that worked out great.

The staff were very pleasant – we had a couple of mixologists over the course of the night – and BYOC prides itself on only hiring very experienced bartenders, all of whom know not only how to mix any cocktail you can name (as well as all having the balls to experiment and try new things all the time), but are knowledgeable on the history of cocktails, the scientific principles behind mixing and how to be a good host.

Get a group together and book yourselves a table at BYOC. It’s a great laugh and a genuinely good night out with a twist. My final piece of advice? There’s no need to go to anywhere else for a pre-drink. You just won’t need it.