On a building site gazed over by the latticed middle finger that is Centre Point, Amy Lamé, writer, entertainer, sometime Pink List National Treasure and recently appointed as London’s first “night tsar” by Sadiq Khan, explained to a hi-vised, hard-hatted showbiz camera crew why flattening a patch of a area has been a good idea. “This is incredibly exciting,” she enthused: “We’ve got the infrastructure. London’s changing and having a night tsar is part of that. What a wonderful opportunity.”
That infrastructure is Crossrail. That opportunity is to be most conspicuously realized as what is shown in CGIs as a glass and gold-colored construction to be called the NOW building: perhaps NOW as in POW and in WOW. It will grace what site developer Consolidated Developments has suggested will become “the equivalent of New York’s Times Square in London”, a cultural piazza at St Giles Circus, beckoning from the teeming, expanding Tottenham Court Road transport junction where Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road meet.
There will be a ground floor “urban gallery” hosting exhibitions, product launches, award ceremonies, conferences and fashion shows and a “sky bar”. The development as a whole will include a hotel, shops, some intermediate affordable housing and, somewhere in the mix, what is described by one of the scheme’s consultants as “the London home of the Outernet”, this being a “a radical new technology-driven marketing, entertainment and information service housed in a super-flexible, digitally enabled streetscape” to be “wrapped around the main exit from the new Tottenham Court Road Crossrail station and spreading into Soho”. Below ground there will be a brand new 800-capacity hall for live music and other events. This last in particular pleases tsar Lamé.
“It’s time to change the conversation about the night-time economy, and start thinking about the benefits it brings,” she explained. “This is living proof of what we can do.” Lamé’s job is to protect and promote nocturnal fun. She is well aware that London has lost a lot of music venues in recent years – around 50, some 35% of them – due largely to soaring property prices inducing owners to shut down and sell up. The coming of Cross rail has intensified the trend. The Astoria on Charing Cross Road has been demolished to make way for it. Smaller nearby clubs have closed.
Given all this, especially the new performance space, you might wonder why the St Giles Circus project has inspired a lot of hostility and bad press, in particular from musicians and music lovers. There was a clue just a few yards from where Lamé held court. Preparing the site has entailed knocking down buildings that faced on to the narrow part of St Giles High Street except for their facades. Squatting against the backdrop of these propped-up remnants and braced with metal struts like an accident survivor in intensive care, is an early 18th century blacksmith’s forge that until last year had formed the stage of the 12 Bar Club at 26 Denmark Street, a short avenue of music history known as London’s Tin Pan Alley. The 12 Bar resided there for more than 20 years, before relocating to the Holloway Road in 2015 (and sadly not lasting there for long). Its remnant will be embedded within a new small “grassroots” performance space beside the main subterranean hall. “Living proof,” in Lamé’s words, “that it won’t all be shiny and new here”.
Her need to give this reassurance was telling. The salvaging of the 12 Bar relic, hoisted through space and time as if by some preservationist Tardis, shows how sacred to some the old place was. But it will not still the fears of those most perturbed by what is happening to the creativity cluster at the heart of the capital, whose main avenue Denmark Street has been for a century. For them, Lamé’s upbeat promise cannot compensate for the erosion of something less tangible yet more substantial than any digitally-enabled streetscape. They might call it the spirit of rock’n’roll.
There’s a pub called The Angel on St Giles High Street, just beyond Denmark Street. There I met Henry Scott-Irvine, who got straight to the point. “What is special and unique about rock music is that people like it to be scuzzy and old and with sticky floors and black walls in small spaces where young bands can start,” he said.
An experienced music documentary maker and researcher, Scott-Irvine started his career during a summer break from film school on Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff, working at 7 Denmark St synchronizing clapper boards (“they don’t do that anymore”). He loves its history of guitar shops and the rooms above them housing a beehive of agents, managers, publishers, instrument-repairers, all making a living from one performing art or another. He loved going to the 12 Bar Club – “I saw Jeff Buckley there, in 1994. It was one of the finest gigs I’ve seen in my life” – and is now the leading light of a campaign called Save Tin Pan Alley. He fears that peril has been impending since November 2013, when Camden council gave permission to the West End firm Consolidated Developments to hollow out the one-acre site to the north of it: “I could see that money was rolling in and creativity was rolling out. And I wanted to fight it.”
Others felt the same way. The club was squatted until Consolidated took legal recourse. By then, familiar battle lines had been drawn and familiar protests were being heard. As London booms, we hear them about Soho as a whole and from everywhere, about pubs and bookshops and street markets and football grounds. The cry is that greed and gentrification are turning London into a sanitized, corporatized “playground for the rich” and robbing the city of its soul.
Scott-Irvine is firmly in that camp. He anticipates the coming of the NOW and the Outernet with horror. “It’s dystopian hell. It’s a monolith for brands that people don’t even want, if you ask me – that’s what’s driving them. It will end up dead like the Elephant and Castle shopping Centre did and the worst aspects of Le Corbusier. Yet here we have it, in the new millennium. It’s just a box.”
He’s made every effort to hold back the tide, annoying Consolidated, nagging Camden council, raising a petition, speaking in court, generating publicity (this article is just the latest example) and tracking down a host of past and present Denmark Street inhabitants and luminaries for a film about the street to be called Tin Pan Alley Tales, which has just succeeded in raising the £21,600 it needs. He knows as well as anyone the roll call of agents, publishers, writers, producers and performers whose endeavors form the potent Denmark Street lore. These range from the Rolling Stones, who recorded their first album there in 1964, to Jimmy Kennedy, the man who wrote The Hokey Cokey and the Teddy Bears’ Picnic, to Charlie Chaplin, who co-wrote the lyrics to Smile in the street at the office of Keith Prowse in 1954.
He’s happy with what has become of La Giaconda, originally a cafe where David Bowie and scores of other stars and dreamers used to hang out and now a restaurant, but he hates the thinning out of the guitar and other instrument shops and what he says is an ongoing exodus of the sorts of people who’ve made the London music industry sing. That singing is certainly struggling to be heard just now, drowned by the sound of heavy vehicles and machinery as parts of the insides of old Denmark Street addresses are gouged out, refurbished and converted, some to be transformed into flats.
Amy Lamé and City Hall think Camden has placed enough conditions on the development, initially approved in November 2013, to ensure that Denmark Street retains its musical character. Under a provision called Tin Pan Alley Uses, protections have been negotiated for existing retailers in the properties Consolidated owns (which is most of them) and requirements written in that new tenants for any units becoming vacant must be reserved for businesses conforming to Tin Pan Alley Uses for six months.
Such measures did not previously exist. But Scott-Irvine doesn’t think them sufficiently strong: “They are vague enough to be open to interpretation. And rents will go up. They’re not going to multiply by five, but they will go up incrementally.” He suspects that individual rent levels are tailored to the landlord’s desire to see certain tenants moved out and otherwise retained for now, giving an impression that, so to speak, the beat goes on, but which will ultimately prove to be cosmetic. “It’s developer chess,” he says. “They’ve got every move worked out.”
Very little about the St Giles Circus development comforts him, despite Consolidated’s insistence that both its heart and its business head see the value of retaining the area’s special qualities. The company’s owner, Laurence Kirschel, told London writer Peter Watts in 2014 that he could have got rid of the guitar shops years ago had he wanted to and that the relatively low rents the tenants had been paying meant that some of the buildings were becoming dilapidated. Will the St Giles Circus scheme, as Watts put it, “create something new that doesn’t kill the spirit of the old?”
Iconoclasts and conservationists
The allure of Denmark Street has lasted long and travelled far. I first felt it years before I went there, thanks to self-immersing in pop music during my small town adolescence far from the capital. My sense of connection with it has a further, far more recent, dimension too. My youngest son bought a guitar there when he was in a teenage band and my youngest daughter auditioned for a film role in the office of a casting director at number 20, above one of the guitar shops (and got the part).
My children kindly indulged me as I imparting my bits of knowledge in the hope that, if nothing else, I could convey something of the magic that can brew in a city’s covert clusters, the backwaters of romance, difference and disrepute that the mainstream passes by. But the problem now for Denmark Street might be that the mainstream is at last devouring it fully, just as alternative music itself, be it punk, or skiffle, or disco, or psychedelic rock, or reggae, or indie or folk, has always been commodified for the masses. What was Denmark Street itself when in its prime if not a corridor of such popular commerce?
My fellow Guardian writer Simon Jenkins, though a London heritage defender and critic of Crossrail, wrote in the Evening Standard two years ago that the case for saving Denmark Street was a hard to make. Regretfully, he called it “a mere ghost of its past”, largely because the very making of music is different nowadays. He was “all for treating as historic the place where Pete Townshend bought his first Fender Stratocaster”, but doubted there are enough would-be, modern-day Townshends to keep Denmark Street the way it was halfway through the last century. The same can be said of recording and releasing music, things people can now do in their bedrooms.
And there’s more to music in London than Denmark Street. Some defenders of its milieu have looked young, but my son had never heard of it until I took him there. The band he was in rehearsed in a cheap studio in Stoke Newington, recorded in a smarter one in Forest Hill and played gigs at, among other places, the Borderline, the Nambucca, the George Tavern, the O2 Academy and Upper Street’s Hope and Anchor, not sticky-floored or smoky as it was in the punk and pub rock era when I went there, but still in business a generation on. As for core Soho’s creative industries, most of my daughter’s acting endeavors involve auditions in its tucked away corners or ADR tweaks in its warren of post-production studios. It’s not a dead zone yet.
As ever, there are ironies in all this: Henry Scott-Irvine wants musicians and their industry to buy leases in Denmark Street and turn it into a “music heritage zone”. Despite its current, blighted look he’s yet to accept that the music has to die and is understandably pleased that former Sex Pistols Glen Matlock and Paul Cook, who lived on Denmark Street for a while, are among those who’ve wished him well. But see how yesterday’s iconoclasts have become today’s conservationists. There are also other points of view: while the area’s more nefarious activities mean gritty authenticity to some, to others, not least some local residents, they are menacing criminality.
The space Consolidated is now changing, which takes in Denmark Place and Andrew Borde Street, has long been earmarked for a major makeover. Camden produced a development brief way back in 2004, to “ensure a comprehensive approach to development of the land at Denmark Place” and “maximize the benefits”. Phil Jones, the council’s cabinet member for regeneration, transport and planning, sticks up for the scheme. “London is changing and we want renewal, we want growth and we want jobs,” he says. He points out that local authorities can only do so much in the face of global economic forces that drive development, and that just saying “no” to developers isn’t an option for long, given their right to repeatedly appeal. “What we can do is to try to shape those forces of change so that some solid public benefits are built in.”
Those benefits or otherwise will, of course, be in the eyes of different beholders of the St Giles Circus project as it unfolds. Will it be bland and expensive or an engine of evolution, helping this celebrated niche of central London be reborn for a new age? Amy Lamé, whose exploits include chairing the successful campaign to save the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, a famous gay venue in south London, from demolition, is clearly hopeful. Mayor Khan, who has pledged to protect music and other cultural assets, such as cinemas, from threats posed by redevelopment and has set up a commission to support night time industries, will hope that this proves justified.
Henry Scott-Irvine, whose film looks worthy of your support whether or not you share his views, remains to be convinced. He does, though, allow that if Laurence Kirschel’s firm delivers all it’s promising there ought to be a statue in his honour. Perhaps we shouldn’t rule it out. After all, some people have even learned to love Centre Point.
Courtesy: The Guardian