From the 50s to the present day, Tin Pan Alley played host to the NME and Melody Maker, the Sex Pistols and the Stones. However, the recent closure of 12 Bar Club and Enterprise rehearsal studios marks the end of one of London’s musical meccas.
Change is grindingly inevitable, and there’s not much point in fighting it. Areas you love get bulldozed, music venues close, society changes, the way we spend our time changes, the way we interact with the world changes. We adapt, we move on, and the revolution or the party or whatever, finds somewhere else to happen. It always does. Some changes, though, hurt more than others.
The redevelopment happening around Tottenham Court Road station in London is one that really stings, and not just because the quest for a posher looking train station has already taken two of the capital’s most endearingly grimy venues from us, in the Astoria and the Metro. Last week those changes finally rumbled further south, as the much-feared renovation of Denmark Street began.
Nicknamed Tin Pan Alley (because streets sound cooler when you name them after bits of New York), the 100-yard stretch right on the lip of Soho was, once upon a time, the centre of the UK music industry. The NME (or to give it its full title at the time ‘The Musical Express, incorporating Accordion Times’) and Melody Maker both had their early offices on the street, most of the major music publishing and management companies of the 50s and 60s were based there and the strip housed recording studios put to use by the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and Elton John. Bowie spent the 60s sipping coffee in the La Giocondo cafe, the Sex Pistols rehearsed at number 6 and, probably best of all, two of Bananarama actually lived there in the late 70s. Of course that’s the distant past – the managers, magazines and labels long ago moved on (though the Pistols left some grafitti to remember them by and since the 90s Denmark Street has been a promenade of near-identical guitar shops. We probably didn’t need all of them, but that’s not the point.
This was a tiny corner of London that retained its personality and escaped the signs of soft corporate power that pervade almost every other high street in the land – no chain stores or branded coffee shops, no Subways or McDonalds, and unlike the traditional “alternative paradise” of Camden High Street, no “I Heart London” keyrings, faux-wooden iPhone covers and badges saying “free the weed”. Admittedly all of that can be found just round the corner on Charing Cross Road, but its absence here felt meaningful. The big players may have moved out, but Denmark Street remained a bastion of the city’s genuine alternative culture, and one of the shrinking islands of central London that didn’t seem designed exclusively for tourists, hipsters or rich people, where musicians, metalheads, rockabillys, punks and indie kids, old and young, still felt at home. Central to this, at least until last week, were the 12 Bar Club and Enterprise Studios.
The 12 Bar is the latest casualty of redevelopment in the area. Built into a Grade II-listed building that was variously a 17th-century stable yard and a 19th-century Blacksmiths, the bar was a mainstay of the capital’s live music scene for decades: it was rough around the edges and a lot of the bands were rubbish, but there was live music every night, it was open late and it was satisfyingly cheap to get in. Everyone from Joanna Newsom to Jeff Buckley played there at some point, The Adverts’ TV Smith practically lived in there, the jukebox was great, the toilets were awful and regulars will remember the potent “corn whisky” served until a few years ago, a clear liquid ladled out of jars that could get you blind (possibly literally) drunk at £1 a shot. It was, in every respect, the perfect rock bar, and nowhere else in Soho is quite the same. Round the back was the Enterprise Studios, a grungy, rundown space with awful gear and terrible sound, but basically central London’s only properly affordable practice space. These, along with a handful of other shops, closed their doors for the final time last week, sacrificed on the altar of progress. It happens: the world moves on and we have to live with it, and you could … until you see what they’re building instead.
The area around St Giles, including the north side of Denmark Street bordering the gargantuan Centre Point tower (designed by Justine from Elastica’s dad, fact fans) is being remodelled as a large, multimedia building complex called Outernet, a fully web-connected “street scape,” with shops, cafes and a new performance space. It will, according to the marketing blurb, mean we can “interact with the brands we love in exciting new ways,” it will be “a new dawn for meaningful brand engagement” promising “branded real-time experiences that add value to people’s lives”. We’re told it will put “the heart and soul back in St Giles”, presumably with “branding”. A working area full of innate personality becomes another haven for tourists and those with cash to burn.
Decide for yourselves – there’s a handy promotional video here showing the new complex in all its terrifying electronic glory. Behind the adspeak is a weird dystopian vision, an emotionless touch-screen void where engaging with “brands” is the most important aspect of anyone’s day, and the gig-going experience is defined by the free MP3 you can download in the queue. It’s Blade Runner without the flying cars.
Perhaps the most insulting aspect is the developer’s continued claims that they, “care passionately about the local area and Tin Pan Alley and want to see the area’s fantastic music and cultural scene go from strength to strength”. According to a statement released in June last year, “the 12 Bar Club and existing music traders are at the heart of the area and keeping them has always been central to our plans”. Those plans obviously changed in December when the closure was finally announced – a petition signed by 26,000 people begging for the club to remain intact as part of the development plans was ignored.
On the one hand you can argue that little has changed – the 12 Bar Club has relocated a few miles north on the Holloway Road, we can buy our plectrums and jack leads online, and at the very least Outernet will contain an 800-capacity live music venue among its less horrifying features, which admittedly is something London badly needs. That’s all scant comfort to the like-minded Londoners watching another part of their city vanish, as yet another corporate entity puts “the heart and soul back” into a beloved institution by ripping it out altogether.
By Marc Burrows