The Street Where Life Is A Soundtrack


(Dagens Arbete No. 2, 2011)

On this curved, narrow basement staircase on 22 Denmark Street, the Rolling Stones stood smoking in the early days of 1964. At the time, they were recording their first album in the Regent Sounds studio across the street, but the owner would not allow any cigarettes inside. Thus, The Stones had to lounge here during breaks, with their leather vests and fringes and sulky lips.

We are now waiting for a girl who is supposed to add vocals in the basement on a recording of the Mediterranean disco music sort. The times have changed, the music is different, but the guitars still stand at attention and fill the wall space in every musical instrument shop in the street.

The Kinks’ strutting two-minute song ”Denmark Street” from 1970 has not managed to become totally out of date: ”If you don´t know which way to go/Just open your ears and follow your nose /´Cos the street is shakin´ from the tapping of toes/You can hear that music play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.”

We are in central London, in a passageway between noisy traffic and shiny, new office buildings. The shabbyness remains, the sooty, dented impression. Some of the house fronts peeking out have been here since the 1700’s. This is not a particularly long stretch; Usain Bolt would pass it in 19,19 seconds. If he runs toward the east from Charing Cross Road he will first rush past Giaconda Dining on his right, for many years an unassuming hole in the wall, later updated with an Indian menu, which now wants to be a posh establishment with white linen. Should he come from the other end, from St Giles High Street, he would have Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s old office dwellings to the right.

– There’s more talent now than ever, says Malcolm Dome at the Total Rock radio station, which broadcasts 24 hours from the third floor on 24 Denmark Street. But who knows about them or where they are?

He is the captain on a sea of records and music files. Along the walls, the piled-up CD’s create a mighty wave-like pattern, like an approaching surf.

– Rock music, he emphasizes, is now a lifestyle. We play everything from Slipknot to Moody Blues. It’s all about the intensity, totally losing yourself in it.

Denmark Street is steaming with popular cultural history. The name does not quite share the lustre of Carnaby Street or King’s Road or Portobello Road, but without this street they would all have had a worse soundtrack.

Before the massive break-trough of guitar bands in the 60‘s, this was England’s Tin Pan Alley; the publishers and composers were here, this was where notes and text sketches would be sent, this was where deals were made and contracts signed. Tin Pan Alley, the original, was the organized hub of American popular music from the late 1800’s up until the appearance of rock´n´roll and was located on West 28th Street in New York. An important part of the music industry was created when composers, lyricists and publishers joined forces to protect the copyright. An endless stream of songs have been written about musicians hoping to make it big in Tin Pan Alley.

In their description of Denmark Street, the Kinks speak ironically of the lack of understanding that met the new music pouring out when London became the capital of pop: ”You go 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.”

– During the 60‘s and 70‘s it was fairly inexpensive to live in central London, says Martin Brown, who works in the guitar shop Vintage & Rare Guitars on 6 Denmark Street. The rich people lived in other parts of town while hippies and musicians could find large, unfashionable Edwardian flats right here in the city center.

Gibson, Fender and Rickenbacker. Martin, Gibson and Hagström. They are here, all of them, the beautiful, classic, cool, scratched guitars with a world-wide market. A steady stream of men, almost exclusively men, from the upper teens to younger seniors, is moving through the premises, curiously touching the valuable articles, striking a few chords, softly meditating over the necks of the guitats.

Martin Brown pauses on a couch with an acoustic instrument. Hanging on the wall above him is a copy of Ronnie Wood’s black Greco. And the one next to it has to be Jeff Beck’s worn down, scraped Fender.

Brown himself has encountered so many well-known musicians, stalked by fans and media, that he can review his own musical career with a certain tone of crassness:

– I’d rather take the money than the fame.

Wearing a vintage military jacket with a vague Sgt. Pepper familiarity, Joshua Trigg brings us into the shop’s minimal backyard. He points a couple of flights up: that is where the guys at Hypnosis became famous for their Pink Floyd record covers. The tiny backyard building, nowadays cleaned out and on the ground floor marked by his father Chris Trigg’s – the guitar shop owner – interest in the American West, for a period was home to the Sex Pistols and also their rehearsal studio. Manager Malcolm MacLaren had them squeezed in behind the trash bins, and from there on it was history. No future. A fascist regime. This is where the documentary never made played out. Among the remaining graffiti on the walls is a less than flattering sketch of Sid Vicious’ girlfriend Nancy Spungen.

When we later run into Joshua Trigg again he is with his band mates from the Jackals. The last sun rays of the day hit the ground at Denmark Place, the alley that is the street’s small cousin and the back of the music venue 12 Bar Club. This is where the Jackals and numerous other bands rehearse in eleven cramped rooms at Enterprise Studios, an ongoing activity bouncing back and forth on basslines and drum-rolls, and with reasonable rents.

Checking in with the Grit, we catch their thoroughly sweaty workout session in preparation for an upcoming mini tour of Norway and Sweden, with much more energy than oxygen in the windowless chamber. The bass player whips the songs along the walls.

In the 12 Bar Club the performing bands rub noses with their audience. It’s a small, tight place painted in vivid red and pitch-black. Hey ho let´s go, says the owner’s Ramones shirt. Ruby Evans, who works in the bar, speaks in a John Lennon dialect.

– Liverpool is worn down, she says. I’ve lived there for so long, gotta go somewhere else.

Of course she is also in a band. And of course it’s here on Denmark Street that she hangs out.

Why, they have all been here to record or write songs or sip coffee or look at new guitars: Hendrix, Yardbirds, Bowie, McCartney, Simon & Garfunkel, Jamiroquai, George Michael…

– There are lots of good vibes here, a lot of music history, says producer Bruno Kassar down in the basement of Tin Pan Alley Studios.

But according to his colleague Steve Kent, today’s home technology and kitchen recordings make it difficult for a well-equipped studio to make ends meet. They have begun recording musicals from the West End and children can also come here and make their own records.

– Everything has become worse, Kent argues. Everybody’s gotten used to mp3 quality and can no longer distinguish between good and bad sound.

Many well-known music streets have over time been transformed into plastic kitsch or rigid postcard smiles. In Denmark Street, the self-confidence is of another kind; you do your own thing, string guitars, bend over mixers, deejay on the radio, rehearse until the song sounds good. With the exception of the fine linen at Giaconda everything is sagging as in an old London interior from a Kinks song by Ray Davies. A few flights up from Vintage & Rare Guitars a successful architect resides in his office, but his worn out Mustang in the street looks more like something the homeless have taken over.

– We have sense of community, but at the same time everyone works for himself, explains Malcolm Dome at the radio station. My own background is in biochemistry. In the late 70’s I started writing about music. I’m still waiting to get a proper, decent job. Don’t we all?

How long this history – and these dreams – will live on, nobody can tell, of course. The young waitress in the Tin Pan Alley Bar does not seem to understand that we’re joking when we ask who the guys in the band on the wall are. Se has never noticed the black-and-white photograph and does not recognize them. The Rolling Stones, we say, do you like them? Never heard of them, she answers.