Denmark Street was the heartbeat of the British music industry in its glory years.
Named after Prince George of Denmark, Denmark Street is but a few hundred feet in length. But from the 50’s through the 70’s, this stretch of road was ground zero for the British music business. The street was developed in the 1680’s and originally consisted of private flats. At the beginning of the 19th century, commercial developments started popping up.
The first music-related business on Denmark Street was one of the earliest music magazines, Melody Maker. Lawrence Wright set up shop at number 8 in 1926, before moving to number 11 after WWI. Another great music magazine, the New Musical Express, was founded at number 5 in 1952 and remained until 1964.
By the end of the 50’s, Denmark Street had become known as Britain’s Tin Pan Alley. Several music publishers and other businesses related to music opened their doors here. The most famous publisher was Dick James. Certainly, he was the luckiest. Not only did Dick James get a 51% share of Northern Songs (which published the early Lennon-McCartney catalog, as well as Harrison’s and Starr’s), he was instrumental in getting Elton John and Bernie Taupin together, eventually getting a piece of their publishing as well. Dick James became very wealthy indeed when he betrayed the Beatles by selling his share of Northern Songs in 1969 without giving the band a chance to buy his share of the company.
In the 60’s, Denmark Street was the place for musicians. History was in the making. Musicians who changed the course of the music were everywhere. At 15 years old, Reggie Dwight (soon to be Elton John) worked at Mills music (number 20). This is where he and Taupin wrote Your Song, Taupin wrote the lyrics sitting on the roof one morning waiting for Elton to turn up. Mills Music once turned down Paul Simon telling him that The Sound Of Silence and Homeward Bound were “uncommercial”.
At number 8, Southern Music had a recording studio as well where Donovan recorded early tracks. Session musicians such as Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones (later of Led Zeppelin) and Jon Lord (of Deep Purple) were often seen heading to one studio or another on Denmark Street to perform on countless songs that became huge hits. Although he doesn’t own it anymore, Argent Music – originally at number 20 and today at number 19 was founded by Zombies keyboardist Rod Argent.
Perhaps really putting this neighbourhood on the map were the Rolling Stones in 1964 who recorded their first album at Regent Sound Studios, an album that includes minor hits like Carol, Route 66 and their first big one, Not Fade Away. The studio eventually moved on, but their sales office remained. Black Sabbath, The Kinks, and Genesis are a few others who’ve rocked these walls. Today Regent Street Sound Studios (number 4) is one of many musical instrument shops along the street.
The Stones, The Kinks, The Who, Donovan, Jimi Hendrix and the Small Faces were often found forging relationships and signing contracts at the Giaconda Cafe (number 9). David Bowie recruited his first band here. Later, the Clash, the Slits, and the Sex Pistols could be found tipping back a few. Today, you can still pop in the Giaconda.
Denmark Street remained hip through the 70s. The Sex Pistols lived at number 6 and recorded their demos in a basement room purchased from Badfinger. Today, you can even see graffiti done by Johnny Rotten. The punk movement was the end of the street’s Golden Era.
In the 80’s Denmark Street found a way to live on in infamy. Unlicensed nightclubs found homes around Denmark Place. In August 1980, small-time crook John Thompson was removed from one of these clubs after a dispute, only to return to set fire to the place. With this, he killed 37 people. He was sent to jail where he eventually died on the anniversary of the fire in 2008. Also in the 80’s, serial killer Dennis Nielson worked at the job center on Denmark Street. His gruesome story is easily found online.
Peer Music, the last major music publisher moved on from Denmark Street in 1992. From then on, the street was home to music shops more than anything else. Today, thousands of musical instruments are available in just a few hundred feet along Denmark Street. Instruments for every need and budget. I saw a 1937 Martin guitar for almost 27 000 pounds (somewhere in the neighbourhood of $60 000). If you are in the market for a guitar, you will certainly find what you need here. I spent a couple of days with my local friend Leigh bouncing from music shop to music shop, drooling over all these instruments. In the end, I settled for a guitar strap as a souvenir for 40 pounds, still an awful lot of money.
Although there is a movement to save Denmark Street, it is currently under the threat of developers. Nearby Tottenham Court tube station is being refurbished and hugely expanded for the major London Crossrail project. This certainly threatens the ambiance of this neighbourhood. But for the time being, Denmark Street has an incredible story to tell rich with musical history, rock and roll landmarks, and anecdotes. You might even find yourself a gig on a corkboard advertising musicians and bands. Do a bit of research before going, then soak up the greatness all around you on this busy stretch of pavement in Camden.
Ray Davies penned a song called Denmark Street and recorded it with his band The Kinks.
Just round the corner from old Soho
There’s a place where the publishers go
If you don’t know which way to go
Just open your ears and follow your nose
‘Cos the street is shakin’ from the tapping of toes
You can hear that music play anytime on any day
Every rhythm, every way
You got to a publisher and play him your song
He says ‘I hate your music and you hair is too long
But I’ll sign you up because I’d hate to be wrong’
You’ve got a tune it’s in your head you want to get it placed
So you take it up to a music man just to see what he will say
He says ‘I hate the tune, I hate the words but I’ll tell you what I’ll do
I’ll sign you up and take it round the street and see if it makes the grade’
And you might even hear it played on the rock ‘n’ roll hit parade
Daytime, night time, every week you can hear that heavy beat
Now the walls are shaking from the tapping of feet
Daytime, night time, every day you can hear that music play
Every rhythm, every way
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Mike & Dianne