Denmark Street and regeneration: slow death or triumphant rebirth?

I have a smallish piece in the current issue of Uncut about the changes about to strike Denmark Street, known to Londoners as Tin Pan Alley and historically one of the most important streets in London for the music industry. It began as a place where sheet music was sold and soon attracted other aspects of the industry: publishers, managers, songwriters, shops selling instruments, studios. Its importance was such that both NME and Melody Maker started here, while in the 70s it was home to Hipgnosis, the design studio responsible for many of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin’s album covers.

The street’s heyday was the 1960s however, when musicians would shop for guitars in between visiting managers and publishers or recording in one of the studios, Regent Sound or Central Sound. The Rolling Stones and The Kinks came here, so did Donovan and Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Elton John, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck. A popular dive was La Giocondo, a cafe/bar in which most members of the nascent R&B revolution visited at some point or other – David Bowie was said to practically live there.


In later years, the street declined in importance – although when Malcolm McLaren was looking for a rehearsal space for the Sex Pistols he was delighted to find room in Denmark Street, installing his upstarts in the heart of the traditional music industry like Greek soldiers inside the Trojan Horse. It was a pretty squalid space, but handy for Soho. Graffiti from their stay was recently rediscovered inside a cupboard.

The street continues to have a music association, mainly in the form of its many instrument shops but also through the 12 Bar Club. How long it can retain that heritage in the face of the rapacious demands of the London property market combined with the way we play and consume music, remains to be seen.

Denmark Street is located in St Giles, one of the last untameable parts of central London. This was the location of Hogarth’s splenetic Gin Lane and would later be one of Victorian London’s biggest rookeries. It remained a troubled place throughout the 20th century, a centre of homelessness through which you would regularly see zombie armies of smackheads marching in bedraggled fashion in search of a score. To some, like Owen Hatherley or Robert Elms, its shabbiness is appealing, and I certainly enjoy its timewarp feel.


But that is over. The accursed Centre Point, one of the most soulless pieces of architecture in London, is being developed into luxury flats, while nearby is Renzo Piano’s lurid Central St Giles development – that’s those blocks painted in hideous Balamory primary colours. The driver here is the new Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road, which has released a flood of development money into the area, washing clean the grime of history. London is now getting too big, too rich, to allow anomalies like St Giles to continue to exist.

The important scheme in terms of Tin Pan Alley is by Consolidated Development. They are building a mixed-use block on St Giles High Street with the slightly bizarre title of the OuterNet. It promises, among other things, to revolutionise the way we shop. This development will back on to Denmark Place – the alley just north of Denmark Street – resulting in the destruction of some buildings there, as well as one building on the north side of Denmark Street itself. This is to create pedestrian access for the huge flows of people expected to use the new Crossrail station.

At the same time, and starting later this year, properties along the south side of Denmark Street will be refurbished following those on the north. That includes the 12 Bar, which is, I was told, close to collapse. Campaigners fear this will spell the end of Denmark Street as we know it, with rents rising and traditional retailers – the ones selling drums and guitars – forced out. To stop this happening, they want to make Denmark Street a conservation area, limiting use for any incoming shops in the same way Hatton Garden is for jewellery.

When I spoke to Lawrence Kirschel, the owner of Consolidated Development, he was desperate to assure me that he wants Denmark Street to retain its link to the music industry – indeed, he wants to enhance it by building a new venue, installing a rock hall of fame in the form of statues of Tin Pan Alley-associated musicans along Denmark Place, and offering any vacant shops to ‘music-related’ enterprises. He sees the music heritage as the key selling point for the whole enterprise, a way to drive tourists to the OuterNet’s shops and bars.

Kirschel seems genuine, but developers often do. He points out, reasonably, that he has owned Denmark Street for 20 years, and could have kicked out the instrument shops at any point in the past few decades if he was so inclined. The refurbishment, he said, is something he had put off for years but was now necessary as many of the buildings were in a poor state of repair, something reflected by the rents they currently pay.

Although Kirschel wants to retain Tin Pan Alley, he was less keen on the idea of a conservation area being imposed (what landlord would?) arguing that “any restriction on use is the dilution of creativity”. However, he also admitted that “developments usually mean sterility”. Somehow, he has to straddle this narrow line, and create something new that doesn’t kill the spirit of the old.

It’s a challenge, and one that is rarely met successfully however well-intentioned the developers may be – and assuming they are not just paying lip service to the notion of tradition or have a very different interpretation of it. Kirschel’s line is that he wants to bring the music industry itself back to Denmark Street so Tin Pan Alley is more than just instrument shops. Part of his scheme features short-stay apartments, which will be aimed at touring musicians.

He knows getting the industry to co-operate will be difficult. Kirschel is a previous owner of the Marquee Club on Wardour Street, now a Conran restaurant. He says he tried to keep it going but got no support from the music industry. If the industry wants to keep something alive, he says, they need to back him. Whether the music industry has any will to do so is another matter.

Part of the problem is that the music industry is now so fragmented. Independent labels can’t afford to function in central London – many can’t afford to be in London at all – while the major labels brood out west, thinking up new ways to flog back catalogues to deep-pocketed ageing musos. With Crossrail causing the demolition of the Astoria, there are few venues left in Soho – Kirschel says his will be the first to open there since the war – and much of what the industry used to offer – everything from recording an album to releasing one – can now be done at home via the net

So what would really keep Denmark Street? A musician friend who occasionally shops on Denmark Street thinks the instrument shops need to become more specialised, more discerning – when he was trying to purchase a pedal steel recently, there was only one for sale on the entire street. Maybe more people would visit Denmark Street if they know their more obscure requirements will be serviced. He also suggested the installment of cheap rehearsal space as a way of drawing genuine musicians to the area – although I’m not sure whether a bunch of sweaty indie kids is the clientele Kirschel is hoping to attract. As it is, if the plan requires the help of the music industry for it to work, I’m not optimistic.

27 responses to “Denmark Street and regeneration: slow death or triumphant rebirth?

  1. Great post. I was interviewed twice by Resonance FM when their studio was on Denmark Street, and I assume they decanted to current studio in south London because they had to. Developer should invite Resonance back on an affordable rent as part of the bulwark to keep the street real and not turn it into an expensive and cartoonish “rock hall of fame” byway. (BTW, I dislike the Renzo Piano development too but orange and green are not primary colours. Sorry. Just sayin'(

  2. It’s all about rents. If rents are too high, small shops can’t afford to keep expensive stock that hardly anyone wants. That’s the way London has been going for at least 50 years. The amazing thing is that the process of interesting small shops being driven out isn’t yet complete.
    By the way not everybody dislikes Centre Point and it is of course Grade II listed, To me it now looks like some of the best architecture of its period, and the reflections from its west side can be a wonderful sight in a winter sunset. When it was built, any building that high in that location would have been vilified, just as the Shard is now by some, while others love it.

  3. …And of course the café was La Giocond_a_ (now re-opened as an Italian restaurant).
    Excellent summary of the issues, if I may say so. I wonder how much we’ll come to regret Crossrail in years to come – or at least this particular station. So far all the attention has been on the impact of the Eastern Ticket Hall on St Giles and Tottenham Court Road itself Camden To Transform Tottenham Court Road Area, but with footfall through the station projected to exceed that of Heathrow Airport(!), what will be the impact of the Western Ticket Hall (Dean St) on Soho?
    We all know Soho is currently undergoing rapid change as the ‘temporary’ post-war consents to the conversion into offices of war-damaged Soho housing stock continue to expire; but the real character of the area has long been held to be due to the fact that no transportation routes run through it. Will the Dean Street development change all that?

  4. Fascinating to learn more about this street as we watch it change before us. I was surprised to find steak restaurant Flat Iron’s second outfit had appeared on Denmark Street, but clearly they’re just jumping on the Crossrail-development spillover early…

  5. I gather that Macari’s pay a six figure sum per year on rents (allegedly) according to a former employee. So is this a similar scenario for other traders rent wise ? If this is the case its hardly ‘affordable rent’. Money will squeeze out the worthy. The rock statues suggestion have a horrid spirit of Disneyfication so redolent in failures like now the long gone, god-awful Rock Circus in the tacky Trocadero, deemed to be a replaceable and up for redevelopment, too. The statues suggestion also has a funereal implication to it. It resounds like a clarion call to remind us of what is currently ‘going going gone’ and not of what might be. This idea is utterly reminiscent of the pictorial hoardings around the Crossrail site in Soho Square that show us the lost landmarks of Soho. Gee thanks Crossrail for reminding us. If one wishes to gauge how corporate ideas are useless, one only needs to recall the British Music Experience exhibition space in The Dome (aka The 02). What a dull two dimensional disaster that was with half of the exhibits broken or damaged. As for the music shops in Tin Pan Alley? Mail order-styled instrument shops are now in place. Wunjo’s the Australian mail order company has replaced three stores of repute. Andy’s Drum Store has gone as has Rod Argent’s keyboard shop. The specialist music stores are moving out. They aren’t moving back in. The developer has some worthy ideas that hold my respect. But the long tail theory for this street to remain or resume as a place of musical heritage can only be achieved through rent subsidy – not ‘going rates’ – or its well and truly game over. The death of our collective musical heritage lies in the balance here. Every musician in the land is watching Thousands of them signed our petition. (11,150 and counting). Henry Scott-Irvine of The Save Tin Pan Alley Campaign

    • Henry, I have no idea where you got the impression that Wunjo is an Australian mail order brand [?!]

      Brian, who owns the Wunjo shops, is very firmly from Scotland. I spoke to him the other day and he says he’s never been to Australia in his life. They started out on St Giles High Street in 2002 and moved into No. 20 Denmark Street in 2006.

      Wunjo are hardly a mail order company either. I suppose you could possibly ask them to send you an instrument in the post, but it’s not what they do usually. Out-of-town and out-of -country companies like GAK (Brighton) Anderton’s (Guildford) and (Germany) are genuine mail order retailers.



      • Wunjo’s. I know Brian (from Scotland) and the comment made a year ago was based on information given prior to my having met Brian at Wunjo’s . Rents have now the possibility of being frozen through a Section 106 Clause which we negotiated without a fee for and on behalf of all of the shops in conjunction with the developers and the civil servants at Camden Council.

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  8. “He also suggested the installment of cheap rehearsal space as a way of drawing genuine musicians to the area”. Um, isn’t that what Enterprise has already been doing for years behind the 12Bar? 11 cheap but very functional rooms, usually sold out with a dedicated and regular client base.

  9. Enterprise Studios will be demolished in November. But i guess you already know this. This cannot be stopped now. Denmark Place will be demolished. Camden Council’s Planning Committee sanctioned this.

  10. Every time in the U.S. they find a piece of history, although very recent, they transform it in a museum, and protect it and preserve it. Funny that Europe and U.K. do exactly the opposite. For me it shouldn’t be a matter of money and business, obviously leading to a unavoidable death of the small and not-profitable enough shops and venues. The whole area should be transformed in a museum.

  11. My first encounter with Denmark Street was back in about 1985 when the Forbidden Planet bookshop was there. We travelled up for the day from Portsmouth and gawped at fabulous guitars in the windows of all the music shops before buying armloads of otherwise unavailable US import fantasy books from Forbidden Planet.

    Changes will come. They always have, they always will. It is what London is all about. We should remember Tin Pan Alley for what it was and what it did, not what it is now.

    • I have peeked into the 2017 Crossrail terminus buildings and seen the future. The Tokyo-isation of the area is imminent as it metamorphoses into a vast hi tech zone that recalls Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner as it dwarfs its Georgian neighbour Tin Pan Alley – the street of guitar shops.
      I met up with Laurence Kirschel of Consolidated Developments on September 17 regarding the future of Denmark Street. I viewed a hand carved wooden architect’s model of the proposed St Giles environs next to Centre Point. In addition I saw a CGI 3D video that further revealed how it might be.

      The central focus will be Mr Kirschel’s brainchild, ‘The Now Building’. This incorporates vast fully retractable walls that reveal the dazzling ’Outernet’ – two cinema sized screens that will be wholly interactive and web connected, selling a ‘virtual’ world to all hands free devices, taking London well and truly into the 21st century. To say that is both epic and innovative merely understates what has been devised here. Mr Kirschel assures us that this will be neither like Tokyo nor anything that anyone will have seen anywhere on the planet. He may well be right.

      This multi media area of modernity, however, presides like a brand new bully next to a cowering old Denmark Street, incorporating a purpose built subterranean rock venue for 800, along with apartments, pop up shops, band rehearsal spaces, and a Hotel. Meanwhile, yards away Tin Pan Alley remains filled with music instrument shops that collectively fear for their somewhat uncertain existence as further planning applications to Camden Council are all but inevitable. These plans will no doubt tweak those already passed in November 2013 so the continued development process will be a slow one until 2017.

      Unlike most of the multinational property developers Mr Kirschel has a background in music related properties in Soho, having overseen the move of The Marquee from Wardour Street to Charing Cross Rd from 1988 until 1996, among a portfolio of Soho notables. As the owner of virtually all of Denmark Street, he has promised that a variety of music related shops will remain in the street. Furthermore, he is fully aware of the street’s historic significance. He has to be as many of these historic buildings are the concern of organisations such as English Heritage, The Georgian Society, The Society For The Protection of Ancient Buildings, The Seven Dials Trust, and Camden Council, who are all collectively monitoring every single move that Consolidated Developments continue to make.

      The shops that back onto to Denmark Place on the north side will, in many instances, have their back shop areas severely curtailed. These we are told can move upwards to the first floor. This will enable new shop windows to the front and rear of these retail outlets. Denmark Place will be demolished in early 2015 along with the rear of St Giles High Street, leaving only the original front wall standing.

      Renovation work to Denmark Street we are told will actually begin on the south side in 2016. This process will move to the north side in 2017 prior to completion. We have been assured that modern day building maintenance methods will mean that the retail outlets will only have to vacate their premises for up to two weeks; an honourable promise that seems to be wholly optimistic, quite frankly. Assurances have been given by Consolidated that rents will “never reach six figures for any music retail outlet in the street, ever.” Rents are already at five figure annuals.

      Plans regarding Brook Mews to the rear of the south side of Denmark Street are still in the pipeline, but work here, too, seems to be inevitable.
      The Old Forge (c.1635) that is currently The 12 Bar Club at 27 Denmark Street will have to be underpinned to cope with Crossrail travelling directly beneath it, alongside the heavy building work that will be taking place in Denmark Place in 2015.

      Celebrities and rock stars with an association to the street where are you when we need you?

      Asides John Robb of the online magazine Louder Than War and Gary Lammin of the Bermondsey Joyriders, the only support shown thus far has been in the shape of a few tweets on twitter.

      Come on celebs you can do a lot better than that!
      Contact the campaign to Save Denmark Street and the old forge aka The 12 Bar Club at 27 Denmark Street, here
      Henry Scott-Irvine
      Campaign Organiser

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  14. He claims to want to keep the heritage of music shops, but at the same time wants a rock hall of fame – a truly terrible, naff idea which has tacky tourist tat written all over it. London is morphing into a culturally dead zone for visitors, business men and tourists, like downtown Dubai or Singapore. Money ruins places like London, whereas Paris has specific laws which retain small business and specialist shops – the very reason people go there and make it a desirable place to live. London is losing all of that thanks to property developers and lack of any planning or regulation which favours established communities and businesses.

    • Amsterdam, Paris, and Berlin have ‘one tax’ scenario’s for small business retail. Shops should become stakeholders as they are in mainland Europe. Sadly, we don’t, but rate exemption in areas of special interest or uniqueness would be the way ahead, fully tying in with the European model.. These areas should be called Heritage Zones. I have called for this on BBC TV News and in the press.

  15. The supine response to crass high-rise development from the Mayor’s Office under the Livingstone and Johnson regimes over the last 15 years or so has allowed greedy developers to pursue their vision of Dubai-on-Thames unchecked. There are developers and architects committed to evolving a modern London vernacular acknowledging the legacy of the past for both commercial and residential property but they are unrecognized and unsung. City-block wide development driven by tsunamis of funding from international capital markets have overwhelmed and intimidated an increasingly threadbare planning oversight for all parts of London.

  16. abstract andy

    How come none of these ‘historic’ buildings are NOT listed ?
    Ive been going to the 12 bar and the tattoo shop for years, as know the characters round there, also having rewired/alarmed enterprise studios and visited the underground passages so can understand certain structural issues but once buildings like this go the area loses its timeline and context and obviously history which IS priceless (of which not much remains in london post great fire !)
    I shall visit and pay my respects

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  18. I started work at 15 in Denmark St – 1956. I worked for Francis, Day & Hunter, then Lawrence Wright Music. Whenever I come to London I walk down the street and try to see the ghosts…..all is so so changed

  19. Chris nails it. Video here. Most of the street is listed folks. But will it save it?

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  23. The bookshops in Cecil Court, including old music seller Travis and Emery – have survived due to a sympathetic landlord

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