In 1981 I was 15 years old, sans dosh and still at school. On school holidays my peers managed to find themselves on beaches and ski resorts. Me? No such luck. I went busking on the London Underground; it seemed like the perfect holiday job.
I couldn't (still can't) sing, but was making decent progress in perfecting the twiddly guitar bits needed to accompany my buddy Simon, who could (and still can) sing and strum some chords. Simon was blessed with David Cassidy-esque boyish good looks and between us we could carry off a set of Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Springsteen and Stray Cats tunes. During those few weeks twice a year, we made the tunnels of Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road and Marble Arch our stage and London's 500,000 commuters our somewhat un-captive audience.
And if Tottenham Court Road was our stage, then Denmark Street was our back-stage. When guitar strings broke under the pounding of ‘She Loves You'; when batteries for mini-amps failed; when chords needed checking; Simon and I needed no invitation to traipse down to Denmark Street and haggle over capo prices between guitar vendors neatly lined up for our perusal. If Wanjo offered a packet of Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings for £3.99, then we reckoned Rose-Morris might do the same product for £3.49. Ker-ching!
Denmark Street became our Mecca, our green room, our Ankur Watt and our Woolworths. But even beyond Denmark Street as a supplier of picks and strings, Denmark Street became our guitar red light district. Just a few blocks away from what was then a real red light district, Denmark Street showed its guitar porn in its windows to provide Simon and I with a daily drool of Gibsons, Fenders and Guilds. Starting at the St Giles Circus end, Hanks Guitar Shop was home to the 12-Bar Club (now suspended on a crane in St Giles Circus for future deployment) and three shambolic floors of second-hand guitars. Hank took on the persona of his inventory - literally and figuratively; all over the shop, but always open to a negotiation and somehow celestially-connected to each and every guitar under his roof.
At the Charing Cross Road end of Denmark Street, Rose Morris offered the street's closest thing to modern retail. Brightly lit and well-organised, Rose Morris became a different experience in its basement from its street-level space. But of course, all the good stuff was downstairs!
The dark and dusty nooks of Denmark Street's guitar shops were fiercely guarded by a small army of hairy, T-shirted rock shredders. This rare breed of shop-based Cerberuses watched over their objects of desire using a variety of weapons ranging from body odour to shredding skills that your average punter could only dream of. By 1983, Simon and I were greeted by Denmark Street's guardians of the fret-boards with merely a mildly dismissive sneer; a marked upgrade from the outright hostility of previous years. On a good day, they would grant us a hands-on strum with a vintage Gibson L-4 or 60's US Fender Strat. Ah, those moments when we could dream. Maybe, just maybe, one day, one of these objects of such intense desire might be ours.
A generation or so onwards and the dreamscape of Denmark Street remains intact. Indeed, near-future plans include a full modernisation of the whole area, building on the footfall of the new Crossrail / Tottenham Court Road intersection and creating an iconic new entertainment, music, retail and artistic hub for London. Shop owners are understandably suspicious of big change and make no mistake; big money is being spent to deliver this future-looking vision, but Denmark Street 2020 looks set to re-confirm its status as the Yellow Brick Road for every wannabe musician, producer and song-writer.