THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE OF MUSIC IN LONDON
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI
Camden’s Denmark Street, synonymous with London’s music scene since the late 1800s, is losing its influence under threat of urban redevelopment.
January 1994, winter. A kid of 16 and his mother walk in Central London, chasing an image; the place of an image; a fragment of a place in an image, to be more precise. They are lost. It is easy to get lost in 1994 – this is way before smartphones and knowing one’s location 24/7. These are days of pocket A to Zs, crooked geographical aids cluttered with miniature street names – instruments not of navigation but to better get lost.
At some point it begins to snow, confirming the falsity of the truism perpetuated by Londoners that it never snows in their city. They walk for quite a while, until somehow, at some point, the place of the image is found. The kid poses for a picture; the mother presses the shutter. And the picture comes reasonably well; no head nor feet cut out. Needless to say, I am this kid.
This was my first trip to London, and I was madly into music. Most of this trip was spent chasing sound and image with the patience and dedication of a bounty hunter. Day-long incursions into what was the monumental Tower Records, back then in Piccadilly Circus. Afternoons spent spotting music venues or the places where they used to stand. Days of discovering this or that corner featured in a music video or album cover. Much to my mother’s detriment, most of our holiday was spent getting embedded in the musical aura of this city.
On this particularly cold winter day I was after a simple piece of urban furniture: an unremarkable railing outside of a music shop. I had seen a photo in a book about the Sex Pistols: young faux rebels, one of them — I forget which one — leaning against the railing. And the only thing I knew was that the picture had been taken in London’s Tin Pan Alley.
The book and the original photograph of the band has long since disappeared from my life and, seemingly, from history – I can’t even find this image online. The road where both pictures were taken is still there but is also threatened by oblivion.
Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street, is in the central district of London known as St. Giles, a walk away from Soho, Chinatown, Shaftesbury Avenue and its theatres, Oxford Street and the hordes of shoppers. The nickname links back to New York. Like the place in Manhattan – and precisely for that reason – London’s Tin Pan Alley was the city’s favoured spot for music publishers since the 1890s. From the 1920s onwards it became a popular location for music shops first and for independent recording studios and music venues later.
The mythical Regent Sound Studios, for example, occupied number 4, from the late ’50s until the late ’60s. Many of the big names of British music stopped by Regent Sounds Studios: The Rolling Stones (who recorded their first LP here), Elton John, The Beatles, The Who, Genesis and Tom Jones, to name just a few.
Many other names not alien to musical stardom are connected one way or the other to London’s Tin Pan Alley. Rumour has it that David Bowie use to crash on the street, in a camper van; a more believable story has him hanging around in the local cafés with his pal Marc Bolan, of T Rex fame, concocting killer hairdos and musical revolution in high-heeled boots. Jeff Buckley and Adele released their soporific wails and pretty much launched their careers from the 12 Bar, which, until its recent closure, was one of London’s indie stalwarts. Bob Marley bought his first guitar in one of the local shops. And like him, many of the most renowned guitarists in the UK and the world patronised and continue to patronise the now dwindling shops in the street.
Some musicians took permanent residence on this road. Perhaps the most famous neighbours were the Sex Pistols, who used to live, rehearse and record in number 6, a couple of doors away from Regent Sound Studios and the handrail of my story. Their former residence was granted Grade II* Listed Status in March 2016, thanks to the graffiti Johnny Rotten and his gang left on the walls. The once despised and banned band is now perfectly respectable, its infantile doodles celebrated and protected by law. An irony that pretty much guarantees number 6 will stay in its current form for years to come.
Denmark Street has been under threat for some few years. The redevelopment of Tottenham Court Road Station — in order to accommodate the new Crossrail – has dramatically altered the area. Many old buildings have been knocked down in the surrounding streets, new ones have sprouted up, and this former grimy London spot – grimy enough to serve as the setting of Hogarth’s Gin Lane – is beginning to look coiffed up. And coiffed up in London means higher rents. Some music shops and places like the legendary 12 Bar have either closed down or moved elsewhere. Others remain, quite heroically, keeping the myth of London’s Tin Pan Alley alive.
A couple of days ago I took my daughter to Denmark Street and, after window-shopping guitars for a while, I photographed her holding the same railing I had held in 1994. There was something beautiful in seeing her pose for the camera in the same way I had – it was of course about us, about sharing my love for music with my kid.
It was also about Denmark Street still being there, about its uneven fight against the urban amnesia known as regeneration.
Regent Sounds Studios, 4 Denmark Street, London WC2H 8LP. Phone: 020 7379 6111. Open from: M-Sat 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sun 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.