Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
At the end of Denmark Street, where it joins St Giles High Street, stands the Church of St Giles in the Fields. The first Palladian style church in the country, it was built in 1734 by Henry Flitcroft, who has a nearby street named after him. A century earlier there'd been another church there, which replaced an earlier medieval church, long fallen into disrepair. Before that there was an even earlier Saxon church. The present church, we also find is on the former site of a leper's hospital and chapel built at the beginning of the 12th century, by Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I, William the Conqueror's youngest son. Leprosy ‒ a feared and fatal disease, whose cause people of that time knew little about ‒ was to be kept away from the main population at all costs.
"Gin Lane" by William Hogarth
The centre of London, before its West End grew up, had always been to the east, in what is now called the City. St Giles in the Fields really was in the fields back then. The site had been damp and marshy land just off a main Saxon road out of the town. Dampness, disease and death therefore seem to have been the prevailing themes around the area for at least a thousand years. There has also been a contrast of wealth and poverty. For here, where the million seller hits were written and recorded in the mid 20th century, you will also still find the chancers, the crackheads, the junkies, the thieves, the stunt-drinkers and some of the down-at-heel musicians who need to sell their instruments in order to obtain lunch money. It's seems that it's just always been like that.
"Beer Street" by William Hogarth
In early medieval times, a village of sorts ‒ shops and stalls providing goods and services to the leper hospital gradually grew up around St Giles. Merchants and great men wishing to move out of the City also began to build houses in the area. Pubs and hostels along the way now began to appear and soon, St Giles was a parish.
The poverty-stricken and reeking parish of St Giles also became the epicentre of the Plague, which in 1665, swept through London. Some sources of the time blame the area for spreading this disease which wreaked havoc on the wider population of the city and eventually upon the whole country. The overcrowded and squalid warrens of St Giles, with its scabrous attics, rat-infested cellars, its streets full of rubbish and ordure, was a place best avoided.
Round the corner from the church, in St Giles High Street is The Angel pub, a lovely old Victorian boozer, whose landlord in the mid 1980s, when I knew it, was an Ipswich man, whom I used to talk to sometimes. There's been a pub there for a long time. St Giles Church was also the last stop on the road for those poor souls en route from Newgate Prison to the Tyburn 'Tree' ‒ the gallows. Marble Arch now stands upon the site. At the Angel pub, the condemned were given a drink from the St Giles Bowl. The hanging cart would stop, along the way, somewhere near the end of Denmark Street and the ragged, stinking wretches destined for the noose were given their last drink. The St Giles Bowl contained, depending upon which sources you believe, either strong ale, or a concoction of alcohol and various narcotics to numb the victims, before they were launched into eternity.
In earlier times, there had been executions near St Giles Church, too. The alleys, gennels and courtyards north of Denmark Street, became known, from the early 19th century century as the Rookery. The Rookery was a continuation of the abject poverty, squalor and misery that had always been synonymous with the parish of St Giles. Poor people gravitated to the area in huge numbers, as they always had done. The mad, the drunk and the destitute ended up here. Later came the song-sheet sellers and the penny balladeers. This was the beginning of Denmark Street's long association with music, or what George Bernard Shaw called 'The Brandy of the Damned.' When they knocked the Rookery down in the late 1840s they cleared away with it much of the filth and degradation that inhabited its buildings and their cellars. What they replaced it with was a new thoroughfare called New Oxford Street. This is a strange, rather dark and windswept street which the traffic roars along, mostly, without stopping. It feels like a ghost street. I must have walked down it many times. There are businesses there too and yet, I've never really noticed much about it. It's almost as if it's a street that nobody wanted.
The area, as it was in the 18th century at least, is probably best illustrated in Hogarth's engravings from The Four Times of Day – Noon and two others Gin Lane and Beer Street. 'A cellar in Denmark Street' was once, according to the writer Peter Ackroyd, an expression meaning that you weren't doing very well for yourself in London.
"Noon" by William Hogarth
In that autumn of 1986, it was precisely to such a cellar, at 22 Denmark Street that the Cleaners from Venus arrived to begin their second album. Until that year it had been an 8-track studio. One of the last people to use it as an 8-track, in 1985, had reportedly been Ian Stewart, the Rolling Stones piano player, who died in December of that year. (TBC)
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.
St Leonard's Bees
Here, in the niche
Where the clock dial was
Beside the porch, the bees fly in
And taxi out in autumn sun
As if acknowledging as one
The Master's work was never done
And on this morning of them all
The church is open and the bells
Ring carillons of older lives
Reverberating through the wall
To one of England's oldest hives
Plague had made the churchyard fat
Musket balls had scarred the door
Rain had scoured the stonework thin
Gushing from a gargoyle's grin
High up on the oblong tower
While St Leonard's bees poured in
Mediaeval wheels had come
Rumbled up the rutted hill
Parliament had banged its drum
Cromwell's men had done God's will
Farther down, along the river
Sailing ships moored side-by-side
Creaked and listed in the channel
Trapped like lovers by the tide
While the distant City burned
Till St. Leonard's bees returned
Heard the clang of anvil, hammer
And the early engines stammer
Shared the air with Zeppelin
Still the bees came sailing in
Mariner and fisherman
Soldier, clerk and engineer
Christened, married, buried here
Knew this church, these bells
Lived and died in days like these
On this morning of all mornings
Now the old satsuma sun
Lifts its head in mid-September
While there's nectar in the cup
And the church is opened up
Still, they come, St Leonard's bees
Drifting in on days like these.
Spring and Port Lane
Let me see you home again
In the hat-pins of the rain
Timber Hill and Parsons Lane
Up Hythe Hill in heartbeats
This romance conducted here
After chips and pints of beer
Till we overcome our fear
Up the road to Jan & Phil's
Major cures for minor ills
I will bring your headache pills
In the traffic of the day
Greenstead Road to Lightship Way
Can I stop the cars to say
We are now an item?
Like two cygnets in the sedge
Moorhens on the water's edge
All along these banks I pledge
Love ad infinitum
Ernie Doe's to B&Qs
Hammered out in four-be-twos
Tell the whole wide world the news
I will still adore you
Till the lorries cease to rumble
Till the sales run out of jumble
Till the Uni towers crumble
I will tumble 4 U
Up Hythe Hill and home again
Past the rainbow on Port Lane
Hung there like a petrol stain
Walk with ghosts of engineers
Fishermen and cavaliers
Through the cavalcade of years
Up Hythe Hill in heartbeats
Up Hythe Hill in soaking jeans
Wind in trees, like tambourines
Only we know what this means
Up Hythe Hill in heartbeats.