Tin Pan Alley

Read our guide to the indie-rock guitar-buying Mecca that is London's Denmark Street - aka, Tin Pan Alley.

Seconds away from the Centre Point building and just off Charing Cross Road, rocker’s pub The Intrepid Fox on St. Giles High Street hints at the nature of the goings-on of Denmark Street, aka Tin Pan Alley.

The original Tin Pan Alley was established in the late 1800s in New York, on 28th Street between 5th Avenue and Broadway, to be precise. After the American Civil War, New York began establishing itself as an important capital for performing arts. Music was becoming an integral part of life with more and more people attending concerts and learning how to play instruments. The retail of sheet music and musical instruments became a lucrative business, and whereas publishing houses had previously been scattered around the major US cities, they were popping up in dozens in this section of Manhattan.

Legend has it that the name ‘Tin Pan Alley’ was first coined by journalist Monroe Rosenfeld, who was staying in the area and used the term to describe the discordant sound of many pianos being pounded at once in the demonstration rooms of the surrounding offices, which he likened to the sound of tin pans being hit. Another less likely myth is that in the days before copyright laws for music had been introduced it was not unusual for plagiarists to sit outside rehearsal studios and write down each note a composer played as he was creating a new piece.

To stop this from happening the composer would pay someone to stand outside banging a tin pan, making it nigh on impossible for anyone to overhear the music being played within. In any case, the phrase caught on, and soon came to signify any area with a high concentration of music publishers and musical instrument shops, hence London having its very own Tin Pan Alley. While the golden age of New York’s most musical street began to fade in the late 1920s due to the Great Depression, London’s was only just starting, and it would continue to swing throughout the 60s and 70s.

Despite the area having a somewhat insalubrious reputation over the centuries – the Angel pub on St. Giles High Street was where those destined to be executed at Tyburn were permitted their last drink; in Victorian times it was overrun by petty thieves and prostitutes, an image it has struggled to shake off - publishers and specialist music shops were attracted by the cheap rents and proximity to Soho’s theatres and music halls. The shops on Denmark Street supplied the orchestras performing locally with instruments, accessories and sheet music.

Rehearsal rooms and recording studios didn’t start appearing till the 1960s, the first being Regent Sound Recording Studios at number 4, which opened in 1963. Up until this point, studios usually belonged to the record label, with the executives being largely responsible for the final sound of a record. With the advent of the independent studio, the musicians had more control over the finished product.

The Rolling Stones recorded their debut at Regent; Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles and David Bowie would also record here or at Tin Pan Alley Studios a few doors up, helping to change the face and sound of the music industry in the process. Much like when the first few shops moved in 60 years earlier, struggling musicians lived, socialised and worked on Denmark Street because it was cheap. The Sex Pistols inhabited a makeshift abode above number 6 (now home to Vintage & Rare Guitars) before leaving when they couldn’t afford the rent, recording their early demos in the space beneath – you can actually buy an EP entitled ‘The Denmark Street Demos’ which includes their first single ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and ‘Pretty Vacant’.

In the days before Ziggy Stardust dazzled audiences worldwide (and way before becoming the richest musician in the UK) David Bowie slept in a van outside the Giaconda Café, a favourite meeting place for musicians, which after several incarnations has today reinvented itself as the rather more refined yet still affordable Giaconda Dining Room. Bob Marley purchased his first guitar from one of the shops, Elton John’s first hit ‘Your Song’, was written on a Tin Pan Alley rooftop, and Joe Strummer and Co would rant about politics while sipping their tea in one of the caffs. It’s no wonder The Kinks named a song after the street.

Today, it seems hard to believe that such a short stretch of road was once so influential. The recording studios and publishers have been replaced by guitar shops, PA retailers, a saxophone specialist, and a couple of hairdresser’s. The site of Regent Sound Studios became Helter Skelter in 1995, a music bookshop much beloved of music buffs that was forced to close a decade later when the rent was increased by a criminal 40%.

In more recent times number 4 has been the site of various bars and live music venues which seem to change hands as often as the seasons. The 12 Bar Blues Club at number 26 is the only constant, having been in existence in its current guise since 1994. Countless acts have performed at this minuscule venue before achieving fame, including The Libertines, Regina Spektor and Jeff Buckley. Rose Morris, a shop selling everything from cymbals to pickups, is still going strong after 90 years of business, but there are plenty of new kids on the block such as The Alley Cat bar and live venue, ensuring that the clattering of Tin Pan Alley will continue for years to come.


[i]Authour:[/i] Leila Hawkins