Picture the scene: in a cramped booth lined with egg cartons, Mick Jagger is crooning 'Little by Little' while Gene Pitney tinkles the ivories and Phil Spector taps a coin against an empty bottle to mark the beat. That was how the Rolling Stones’ first album came into being – at least, if you trust Keith Richards’ memories. Which you may well choose not to, under the circumstances.
It’s certainly true that the Stones did spend a few days in early 1964 dashing out songs on an old two-track recorder in Regent Sounds Studio at 4 Denmark Street – and the rest is musical history.
But it’s only a small part of that history. Because this patch of Soho, and particularly Denmark St, has long been the beating heart – and the heart of the beat – of London’s music scene. It’s London’s Tin Pan Alley.
In the 1920s Denmark Street became a centre for music publishing; by the 1960s it was lined with writers’ and publishers’ offices.
Music shops followed the publishers to Denmark Street. In 1920 the Rose brothers and Victor Morris opened their eponymous store – it’s still there, and now the capital’s largest music shop. Macari’s – founded in 1958, now at number 25 – created the Fuzz Box effects pedal beloved of Jimmy Page, Pete Townsend and countless other axe heroes.
Studios blossomed in the 60s, bringing the stars to the street: as well as the Stones, the Kinks, Jimi Hendrix and later Stevie Wonder and Elton John laid down tracks here, while bands including the Beatles and the Sex Pistols jammed in minuscule rehearsal rooms. In fact, the Pistols lived at a flat above no 6, while a then-impoverished David Bowie reputedly lived in a campervan on the street.
Unsurprisingly, this area is the place to catch new acts. Long-time favourite 12 Bar Club at number 26 stages gigs seven nights a week, booking new and rising singer-songwriters for the intimate – OK, tiny – venue. Across Charing Cross Road on Manette Street, The Borderline is a basement dive popular for up-and-coming indie acts.
Just along Oxford Street, the 100 Club, originally Mack’s, has hosted jazz sessions since 1942. It’s still open, success assured by a chameleon booking policy that encompasses blues, R&B, punk and indie music – the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Oasis and Muse have all rocked and rolled here.
The infamous Marquee Club went through a succession of incarnations around here, when at 90 Wardour Street it hosted Bowie, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Cure, Joy Division and – of course – the Sex Pistols.
But it was in the Marquee’s first venue at 165 Oxford Street – now a bank – that an early lineup of the Stones played in 1963. Just a year later they’d be singing to egg cartons… and, a few months down the line, global rock stars.
Today, Denmark Street has an edgy, slightly ramshackle feel that suits its heritage, awash with tattooed, pierced musicians bantering and scheming. Everyone who’s anyone – or who wants to be someone – has picked up an instrument here: Bobs Marley and Dylan, Clapton, Townsend, and still they come. Denmark Place, a dingy alley alongside the 12 Bar, is aflutter with flyers calling for singers and musicians.
At number 4, Regent Sounds – where that first Stones album was nurtured into life – is itself being reborn as a specialist independent guitar shop. At the rear of the store, the wall of that vocal booth is plastered with Stones memorabilia (including frankly frightening shots of a pubescent-looking Jagger), while a small stage hosts in-store events.
Denmark Street is still a place where pipe dreams (or guitar, drum or bass dreams) are born. It’s a fascinating place to wander; after all, it’s good to visit dreamland every now and again. Even if it’s someone else’s dream.