Denmark Street: London’s latest culture casualty

They say if you love something, set it free. But what if you love a culture? A lifestyle defined by years of importance and relevance. What if that was being torn apart in favour of high-speed railways and state-sponsored ideas of culture and character?

Denmark Street has long been recognized as London’s Tin Pan Alley: the musical hub of the UK, where the bright and like-minded hung out and invented generation-defining sounds and ideas.

The names are endless and the stories timeless: The Rolling Stones recorded their seminal Brian Jones-led albums here, The Sex Pistols lived in and probably pissed out of the windows of No.6, Elton John wrote Your Song in the crowded Central Sound rehearsal rooms.

David Bowie, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, and anyone with any relevance to popular music in the 1960s either lived or created along Denmark Street.

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Music shops have existed along Denmark Street since the early 1960s

You only need to switch on a late night BBC Four music documentary to hear the stories of how Pete Townsend would swing by at the eleventh hour before a gig to grab a guitar, warmly shouting “Cool if I pay you later?” as he dashed out the door to make the show with a brand new Gibson.

“Although there’s a lot of Boogeyman stories going around, a lot of the independents will inevitably go.”
Seb, Hank’s Guitar Shop

It’s a place rich with culture. A place where independent businesses have not only thrived, but shaped and sustained the movements and cultures that have encompassed them.

New Musical Express was formed at No. 5 Denmark St. – as competition to the already-established Melody Maker, also created in the offices that hang above the street – remaining there well into the 1960s.

Forbidden Planet was based on the street in the late 1970s, and the music shops that are still there have served countless musicians of worth, not just in the city, but the world over.

So when plans were announced to tear it all apart and replace it with a new and improved Tottenham Court Road rail station, it obviously didn’t ring well with anyone.

What once represented the secluded pavements where the haunting voices of generations past and present went to sell their souls to record labels, trade their injured instruments, and launch themselves into relevance, would become just another emblem for gentrification in a city seemingly being hastily sold off to the highest bidder.

Not so much flogging a dead horse, as trying to force milk from its hooves. It was a confused, depressing attempt to sterilise something still relevant and inspiring.

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Gibson Les Pauls lining the wall of one of Denmark Street’s many guitar shops

It was January this year when Soho’s 12 Bar Club became the first casualty of the vast redevelopment planned for the area.

After an 18-month dispute with Crossrail, the venue – situated on the corner of Denmark Street that has seen the likes of Jeff Buckley, The Libertines, Adele and Jamie T through its stage doors – was finally closed down.

The closure saw a group of squatters, named The Bohemians, occupy the building, even managing to somehow keep it open against the pressure of redevelopers. Their manifesto: “Without culture, society cannot exist.”

It’s sadly a situation we’ve read about too many times. South Bank’s skaters faced exactly the same pressure when plans were announced to replace their world-worshipped skate park with yet more chain cafés and high-rent retail units.

And of course, progress is important. Times change and advancements are always being made that force legitimate demand for innovation and development, but these are places that still serve their purpose.

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One lonely poster advertising for a bass player hangs down one of Denmark Street’s alleys

Denmark Street isn’t simply defined by its nostalgia. For over six decades its been home to some of the most revered, respected independent music shops in the world, all of which are now being forced to work extremely hard just to stay alive, during a time where a bass pedal can be bought online and delivered the same day.

Pete Townsend recently stated in his plea to save Denmark Street from the wrecking-ball that “although progress is important, so are the local landmarks of our great city”, and that “a massive chunk of rock history will be lost forever” through the redevelopment of the area.

And this rings true when assessing the plans to redevelop places that have become cultural signifiers of the city.

A part of inspiring history is lost in the pocket of investors and landlords. And if the plans, as they seem to be, are to list parts of Denmark Street for protection whilst demolishing the entire surrounding areas, redevelopment effectively turns Denmark Street into a relic.

A museum piece – a blue plaque hanging somewhere near Soho stating “culture once lived here”.

History is lost to the mindless commutes of city types struggling from train stations in a postmodern haze, as they make their way to high-end office blocks and chain cafés.

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Wunjo Guitars, one of the UK’s most popular music shops, remains open on the street

Seb, who has worked at the prestigious Hank’s Guitar Shop on Denmark Street for five years, admits that although he’s grown a bit tired of talking about it and that “there’s a lot of Boogeyman stories going around by lazy journalists,” he thinks a lot of the independents will inevitably go.

“There will just be clothes shops lining the street, with a guitar in the window” he explains. “It already is a blue plaque in a sense. But the history that lies in the recording studios, and culture of the 60’s and 70’s will die when the music shops go.”

“The history that lies in the recording studios, and culture of the 60’s and 70’s will die when the music shops go.”
Seb, Hank’s Guitar Shop

There is hope though. There is no immediate threat to the independent music shops on the street according to Seb, who also explains “a lot has changed here, and will continue to change. But the shops are still here and I hope that will be the case for a long while longer. It’s a place that holds huge importance to people, even if a lot of that does stem down to nostalgia.”

By tearing places like Denmark Street and South Bank away, nostalgia is being forced on them, and if redevelopment exists to sustain and advance struggling areas, these redevelopment plans are entirely redundant.

The occupation of 12 Bar shows that people are not going to lie down whilst gentrification attempts to deprive them of their culture, but unfortunately it’s a fight that’s not far from over.

Whilst the 12 Bar may have been relocated a few miles north to Holloway Road, it’s little consolation for the fact that another part of London is quietly being deleted from our culture.

 


All images by Sean Littlewood