Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
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The Prince of Denmark Street (1)
On a cool and overcast morning in late September 1986, I stood on the corner of Denmark Street and Charing Cross Road, looking down towards St Giles High Street. I'd first noticed the little street in early 1971, when, aged seventeen, I'd answered an advert in the back columns of Melody Maker. A lyricist called Chris wanted a tunesmith to turn his words into hits. Older than me and seemingly, more worldly wise, he had a plan. He also had contacts. We sat drinking capuccinos in the Giaconda Cafe, just as countless would-be hit-makers and musicians had done before us. It came to nothing, of course. My immature and quirky chord structures of that time would never have done the job. Chris's lyrics would probably have suited the sensitive singer/songwriter style of the period but the two forces combined did not cut the mustard. We did later go round to see an A&R man though. Fritz Fryer, formerly of 1964 one hit wonders, The Four Pennies ( Juliet ) was incredibly kind. He gave us tea and he listened patiently to our work ‒ played and warbled shakily in his office by me ‒ before gently rejecting us. Fritz also taught me one really valuable thing, which I've never forgotten. He said that if a song is any good, then it will stand up by itself, sung by only one voice and accompanied by one instrument. You may adorn your work with all the flash production and technical fairydust that you wish, but, if it's a mediocre bit of writing, it still won't be a decent song.
That's how I knew Denmark Street and the Giaconda Cafe. Sure, since I was a wide-eyed 14 year- old, wandering around London's West End by myself or with friends, I must have passed the street. Maybe from time to time I'd even stopped to ogle the wares in the guitar shop windows. As a London messenger boy, a year later, I must surely have rushed down Denmark Street, or gone past it, many times. And yet, I never noticed its name. Perhaps it was simply because I hadn't been required by my job to deliver anything there. In later years, however, once I was in bands, I knew Denmark Street rather well. For it was here that all the guitar shops were located. My mum, once a singer of sorts herself, had known the place slightly. She knew it as "Tin Pan Alley". Here, before the beat boom of the '60s began to change the world, the trilby-hatted schmaltz merchants had held sway over the music world. Since the 1920s, in the upstairs rooms of Denmark Street's grubby terraces, men had sat in smoky offices bashing out formulaic sentimental stodge for the radio age. In an era where almost every backstreet pub and front parlour boasted a piano, sheet music was where the money had been. If Denmark Street's besuited battery-farmed songwriters could knock out a new tune, bribe someone to get it onto the radio, or maybe have it played by one of the big swing bands on a Saturday night, then the sheet music sales would almost certainly follow.
I came across an old book upon this subject. Tin Pan Alley, the memoir of Eddie Rogers, once one of Denmark Street's main movers and fixers, was published just as the Beatles were beginning to break. The book, unintentionally, depicts the breathtaking arrogance and greed of the people who then controlled the music. As the new songwriters of the beat boom emerge, the old guard are sceptical and resentful. They complain about the lack of craftmanship in the new songwriters, even if they grudgingly acknowledge that the young Lennon and McCartney do possess a certain something. They can already smell their empire burning and the rancour is palpable. It is timeless stuff. The old king wants to kill the young pretender. Men called Frank, Jimmy and Bert are reluctantly being forced to hand over the reins of power to younger men called John, Mick and Pete. The new generation isn't marching to a different drum, so much as dancing to it.
Denmark Street, though, street of dreams ‒ very many of them broken ones ‒ had seen it all before. It was destined too, that if my own young soul was was going to pass through to the heaven or hell of the music industry, then at some point it would also have to dawdle awhile down Tin Pan Alley.
The original Tin Pan Alley was in New York, located on the corner of 5th and 28th streets. It grew up around the turn of the 20th century, just as Vaudeville was gaining popularity, usurping the old-fashioned Minstrel Shows in the process. Here, again, we find our maze of publishers' offices and songwriting cells. Each cell contained a tunesmith frantically attempting to write his rent. On stiflingly hot New York summer days, the cacophany of hundreds of desperate fingers hammering at many pianos, came cascading from the windows over the street. Supposedly, the sound was redolent of hundreds of pots and pans being bashed, hence the name Tin Pan Alley. This, at least, seems to be the most common story.
Another explanation for the name, is that the publishers sometimes paid men to stand outside in the street hammering tin pans, in order to disguise the new melodies of their writers, thus preventing them from being stolen. I think we can discount this. As a songwriter myself, the last thing that I'd want, if I were trying to write a tune, would be someone making a racket outside the window. And anyway, as any songwriter will tell you, publishers are notoriously tight-fisted. I can't see one of them running to even an extra penny of expense. Tin Pan Alley in London,however, which didn't, so far as I'm aware, pick up its name until the 1920s, was almost certainly named after its American predecessor.
Denmark Street, for so many decades one of the main staging posts of the music business, is not just a place of upstairs rooms. There are cellars there too. And, with no exaggeration whatsoever, that D in Denmark Street may also stand for despair, darkness, disease and death. The songs and stars which over the years have emerged from its cells and studios, are merely a few diamonds found on a dunghill. Do come in. Follow me down these stairs now, won't you?
To be continued.