If you haven’t got round to checking out Rob Baker’s Nickel in the Machine blog yet, you are missing out – it’s a fascinating trip around the murkier side of the celebrities and demi monde that inhabited twentieth century London. In his day job Rob is a TV producer, but is concentrating more and more on writing, having recently launched The London Project in an interactive version for the iPad, and he is also currently researching and writing a book about Teddy Boys. Get more of Rob’s daily updates of vintage goodies on twitter @robnitm
Denmark Street – The Kinks
Down the way from the Tottenham Court Road
Just round the corner from old Soho
There’s a place where the publishers go
If you dont 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
You got 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
Regent Sound Studios is a shop in Denmark Street just off the north end of Charing Cross Road and these days mostly sells Fender guitars, but a lovely reconstructed sign above the window illustrates its former life as a tiny but famous recording studio. In November 1963 The Rolling Stones made some demo recordings there, mostly new songs they had recently been practising and playing during their nationwide tour. The band so loved the sound of the primitive, cramped studio, with egg-cartons as soundproofing and curtains on the wall to deaden the sound, that they became the first band to use the studio to record their master recordings, in a bid to get away from the major record company studios with their strait-laced tie-wearing producers.
In January 1964 they started to record their first LP, eventually to be called, simply, The Rolling Stones. The studio was so small that there was hardly any definition between the instruments and the band could hardly avoid putting down on tape an exciting approximation of their live sound of the time.
In February they started recording their future single ‘Not Fade Away’, a cover of Buddy Holly’s original. They were in the middle of a grueling tour and the group were tired, fractious and hardly speaking to each other – and they’d almost given up working out how to record the song. Their manager Andrew Oldham phoned his friend Gene Pitney – the American music star, who was currently in London, for inspiration. Gene Pitney was currently having a huge hit in the UK and the US with 24 Hours From Tulsa.
Gene Pitney and the producer Phil Spector suddenly turned up at the studio along with several bottles of inspiring brandy. Unsurprisingly the mood turned much for the better and the recording of Not Fade Away and its subsequent b side ‘Little By Little’ were at last recorded. Phil Spector is listed as playing the maracas on both the recordings but his instrument was actually an empty cognac bottle hit with a Half-Crown coin.
It’s worth noting that in early 1964 Phil Spector was at the absolute height of his fame and in the preceding year had produced ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and ‘Then He Kissed Me’ by The Crystals and ‘Be My Baby’ and ‘Baby, I Love You’ by The Ronettes – undoubtedly some of the greatest pop records ever made. The self-confidence of twenty year old Andrew Oldham who had decided upon himself to produce the Rolling Stones’ first recordings must have been phenomenal. Oldham himself said of his early career as a producer – “I didn’t have to be technically proficient. I didn’t play an instrument, wasn’t an engineer or a technician, but I had a vision.” Soon after, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger returned Gene Pitney’s favour and wrote ‘That Girl Belonged To Yesterday’ for him. It was their first song to become successful in America and Pitney’s endorsement certainly didn’t hinder them finding favour there.
Denmark Street had been a musical street since the late 19th century, with music publishers finding a place next to London’s West End theatres. Both the UK’s famous music magazines, Melody Maker at number 19 and the New Music Express at number 5, started publishing in there. At number 20 Elton John- (then in 1965 simply plain old Reg Dwight), worked as an office boy for one of the large music publishers, Mills Music. He was paid just £5 per week and couldn’t have dreamt that within just eight years he would apparently be responsible for an incredible 2% of the world’s entire record sales. A few years before superstardom Elton also recorded at Regent Sound studios when he churned out an unknown number of soundalike recordings for Woolworth’s own label Embassy Records.
In 1965 the American folk-singer Paul Simon walked into Mills Music proudly presenting two new songs he had recently written, The Sound of Silence and Homeward Bound. Unfortunately homeward bound was exactly where the man responsible for listening to new music sent him when he rejected the songs for being uncommercial and complicated. We can only hope that occasionally he and the man at Decca records who first auditioned The Beatles would meet up at their local pub, shake their heads sadly and wonder what might have been. Simon, after the rejection, decided to start his own publishing company called Charing Cross Music and has subsequently, and sensibly, kept the rights to all his music ever since.
At number 9 in the Street, the Giaconda Cafe was a mod hang-out and this was where David Bowie met his first backing band – the Lower Third, and it was where he met Vince Taylor, the failed ‘leather rocker’. Vince’s real name was Brian Holden and he is known mostly these days for recording, as Vince Taylor and his Playboys, ‘Brand New Cadillac’, a song later of course covered by The Clash on London Calling. He had moved to France earlier in the decade and had become a leather-clad rocker and Elvis-like hero to French audiences. Taylor eventually became the inspiration for Bowie’s famous alter ego –
“I met (Vince Taylor) a few times in the mid-Sixties and I went to a few parties with him. He was out of his gourd. Totally flipped. The guy was not playing with a full deck at all. He used to carry maps of Europe around with him, and I remember him opening a map outside Charing Cross tube station, putting it on the pavement and kneeling down with a magnifying glass. He pointed out all the sites where UFOs were going to land. He was the inspiration for Ziggy. Vince Taylor was a rock n roll star from the Sixties who was slowly going crazy. Finally, he fired his band and went on-stage one night in a white sheet. He told the audience to rejoice, that he was Jesus. They put him away.”
By June 1972, the month that Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album was released, Vince Taylor had managed to rebuild his career in France and brought out an album called “Vince is Alive, Well and Rocking in Paris” sadly not many people noticed he was still alive, let alone well and rocking, and after spending much of his life in prisons, psychiatric institutions and pretty much continually ‘out of his gourd’ he died in 1991 in Switzerland at the age of 52.
In the seventies the Giaconda snack bar became a punk hang-out with groups such as The Clash and The Slits wasting their hours drinking tea. A few doors down from the cafe the Sex Pistols rehearsed and lived in a grotty flat above a shop at number 6 (they eventually left after struggling to find the measly £4 weekly rent). To this day Denmark Street is still obviously part of the music industry but is now almost completely dominated by musical instrument shops (an exception is the excellent but tiny 12 Bar Club music venue) and the Giaconda Cafe is now just an average Indian Restaurant called Spice Spice. Although possibly I’m wrong and it’s so good they named it twice.
I’m not sure if Denis Nilson, the infamous serial killer who murdered at least fifteen men in his flat in North London, had a musical note in his body but for some time in the late 1970s and early 80s he worked at the Job Centre at 1 Denmark Street. In 1980 (which would have been right in the middle of his killing spree), he offered to help with the food for the office Christmas party and brought along a huge saucepan. Former colleagues only realised during the trial that this was the same saucepan that had been used to boil the heads of several of his victims.