18 January 2010

Denmark Street

SONY DSC A small corner of the West End holds an impressive musical legacy.  Linking the crowded Charing Cross Road with the curve of St Giles High Street and the western end of High Holborn, Denmark Street predates Charing Cross Road itself, which only blazed through the teeming slums and rookeries to the west of Seven Dials in 1886-7, at the same time that Shaftesbury Avenue pushed northeast-wards. 

Denmark street got its name from Prince George of Denmark (1653-1708).  In 1683 he married Princess Anne of England, who later reigned as Queen Anne from 1702 to 1714.  Their marriage was successful in terms of their personal relationship, but it was blighted by the failure to produce an heir to the throne: of Anne’s 18 pregnancies only one produced a child who survived infancy, and this son, Prince William, died of smallpox aged 11 in 1700.

81002108a The street can be seen in John Rocque’s London map from the 1740s (right).  It’s just south of the intersection of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, which is still a hyperactively busy junction today, particularly with all the disruptions associated with the construction work for Crossrail.   

In the 19th century Denmark Street provided accommodation for one of London’s lesser-known inventors, the German-born engineer Augustus Siebe (1788-1872), who lived at number 5.  Siebe is chiefly famed for his invention of the first working diving helmet that gave birth to underwater civil engineering and commercial diving.  There’s a blue plaque in his honour above his old front door; currently it’s the only such plaque in the street.

But it’s the music trade that has given Denmark Street its modern persona.  As the Londonist explains, the street has been at the heart of London’s music scene for generations:

From the 19th Century, when sheet music publishers sought cheap premises close to West End theatres and music halls, the area has been closely wedded to all things that toot, twang and trill, and the block acquired the moniker 'Tin Pan Alley' in homage to a similar quarter of New York. Acts such as the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Hendrix, The Beatles and the Sex Pistols recorded key tracks here. Bob Marley bought his first guitar from a shop on the street, and both NME and Melody Maker were launched here […]

Although long past its heyday, the area remains a musical nexus. Shops selling instruments, rehearsal spaces and recording facilities line Denmark Street, mixed with the occasional tattoo parlour. Shabby Denmark Passage always has a few musos hanging around smoking. Part of the wall is given over to adverts for band members and gigs. And the intimate 12 Bar Club is possibly London's only music venue that includes a 17th century blacksmith's forge.

The Covent Garden website fleshes out the history in a little more detail, and points out that it’s still drawing music fans today:

Earning the nickname of London’s Tin Pan Alley in the 1920s, musicians have flocked to this renowned corner of Soho since its origins as a sheet music supplier in Victorian times. Most of the buildings date from the 1800s when it was considered a fairly inferior area with its proximity to the theatres and pubs of Soho. Rents were cheap, attracting struggling artists, composers, and musicians. Music publishers set up their businesses here around the 1890s, supplying the musicians of the orchestras at nearby theatres and music halls. In the 1930s, shop windows displayed pianos and guitars and the street was becoming renowned for music publishing […]

Ever since David Bowie notoriously set up residence in a camper van on the street near his studios, celebrity musicians have flocked here. Bob Marley famously bought his very first guitar here and Lou Reed whiled away many a "perfect day". Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller, Andy Kershaw, Eric Clapton and Beatles producer George Martin are frequent visitors.

Promotional buzz aside, Denmark Street has an enjoyably rundown and unpolished flair to it.  The grime is still authentic here, even amongst the shops selling eye-wateringly expensive musical instruments to aficionados and wannabes.  And along its short length pop music fans can tread the same footpaths as their heroes; after all, the Rolling Stones recorded their first album at Regent Sound Studios (formerly at number 4) and Elton John wrote Your Song here too. 

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