Regent Sounds – The Most Historic Shop on Denmark Street
Under new ownership since 2010 this newly refurbished guitar shop has a loyal and varied customer base and its rich musical history makes it a key London destination for many visitors.
Denmark Street appears on surveys from the 1730s. The area around it was a large rookery, a slum that had developed in the 17th century. This had been cleared by the end of the 19th century, but Denmark Street was one of the few roads in London to keep 17th century terraced facades on both sides.
The street first became associated with music in the late 1900s, when music shops that had thrived on Charing Cross Road moved to Denmark Street because of the substantially cheaper rents. Its location on the fringes of Soho, just a stone’s throw away from the West End theatres, meant it soon became a locus for sheet music publishers who sold their work to orchestras and musicians who worked nearby. They were followed by managers and promoters, and this put virtually everything concerning the music business on one small street. With so many musicians in the area and its similarity to the area around the Brill Building in New York, the nickname Tin Pan Alley soon became commonplace.
In the 50s, independent studios were virtually unheard of. Recording studios belonged to record companies and men in white coats would operate the machinery. So when Ralph Elman opened Regent Sound Studio – largely as a studio for acetates – at no.4 Denmark Street with several others following suit, music was placed back in the hands of musicians. This power shift signified huge changes in the music industry and proved a catalyst for the evolution of Rock and Roll.
In 1961 Elman sold Regent Sound Studio to James Baring, an aristocrat and flamboyant Etonian who, as well as being a keen aerobatic pilot, was heir to Barings Bank. He completely embraced 60’s youth culture and was great friends with artists and musicians, many of whom later recorded at the studio.
In early 1964, The Rolling Stones recorded their hugely successful first album at Regent Sound Studio. Keith Richards said in an interview “We did our early records on a 2-track Revox in a room insulated with egg cartons at Regent Sound. It was like a little demo in Tin Pan Alley, as it used to be called. Denmark Street in Soho. It was all done on a 2-track Revox that he had on the wall. We used to think, oh, this is a recording studio, huh? This is what they’re like? A tiny little backroom. Under those primitive conditions it was easy to make the kind of sound we got on our first album and the early singles, but hard to make a much better one.” The album stayed at #1 in the UK for 12 weeks, with the band returning to record most of their second album 12 X 5 at Regent Sound Studio.
The studio was so small that there was hardly any definition between the instruments, so the band couldn’t avoid putting down on tape an approximation of their live sound of the time. In their bid to get away from the major record company studios with their strait-laced tie-wearing producers, the band loved the sound of the primitive and cramped studio.
Producer/Manager Andrew Oldham said of their time recording “We did the first album in about 10 days. We’d decide to do a tune, but Mick wouldn’t know the words, so Mick would run around Denmark Street to Carlin Music to pick up the words to something like Can I Get a Witness? He’d come back 25 minutes later and we’d start.”
The Rolling Stones weren’t the only band to make use of Regent Sound Studio. Through the 60s and 70s it played host to many other bands and artists including The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, Mott the Hoople, Donovan and Black Sabbath – who recorded their hugely successful song and album Paranoid at the studio.
Drummer Dale ‘Buffin’ Griffin of Mott the Hoople recollects: “Silence indeed had been trying out one unsuccessful singer after another, and the band was about to give up all hope. Six hours of auditions for a new singer/pianist had been grim. Only two hours remained of the time booked at Regent Sound Studio and no one even remotely suitable had shown up. [Silence] trudged grudgingly the few doors up the street back into the studio where Bill Farley offered a faint glimmer of hope. He ‘knew a bloke.’” Sure enough, that “bloke” was none other than Hunter. And although he didn’t quite resemble the rock star he would turn out to be, Guy Stevens saw something in Hunter that he liked and offered him the job. The band, though, took its time in welcoming Hunter into the band. In fact, ironically enough it was Tippins who was the first person who talked to him. However, once Hunter began to shed pounds, let his hair grow out and write songs, the band was excited, and with Guy Stevens taking full control over the band, the rehearsal sessions smoked.”
Not all the artists who recorded at Regent Sound Studio were popular with the neighbours. Speaking to Darby Dorras of Smoke Radio, Baring once said “Jimi Hendrix was a lovely guy, but loud as you know, and he was the only guy that in the middle of the (recording) session (at the Denmark St studio) a guy came round from next door at the Labor Exchange, and said: ‘Guys we can’t actually carry on work at the Labor Exchange because we can’t hear ourselves speak.’ And it was a fact that Hendrix was so loud that not only could they hear him in the Labor Exchange next door, but us in the control room had difficulty in distinguishing what came through the wall, and what came out of the speakers – so it was in fact (laughs) quite difficult to balance him… So Jimi was very kind and very nice, and he said ‘Ok guys, we’ve had a good rehearsal, we’d better find somewhere else to make our noise’ and that was (laughs) it.”
In the mid 60s Regent Sound Studio opened another studio. This was in basement premises on the corner of Tottenham Court Rd and University Street and became known as Studio A, with the Denmark Street branch being named Studio B. It was set up in what had been a dance studio run by the Clark Brothers and it had a solid state transistorised mixer and a state-of-the-art analogue 4-track multitrack tape recorder built by the Swiss company Studer, that also manufactured Revox tape machines. In 1966 and early 1967 the only other London studio with a 4-track was Abbey Road. This extra technology meant The Beatles would use Studio A when they couldn’t get time in their ‘home’ studio, and it ultimately led to Fixing A Hole being recorded for Sgt. Pepper’s at the studio. Studio B in Denmark St had a much more economical setup.
With the presence of many more advanced studios such as Abbey Road, Olympic Studios and Trident Studios, Regent Sound Studio on Denmark Street became overshadowed by the new technology and closed. In the following years no.4 Denmark Street saw many changes. In 1978 science fiction, fantasy and horror book and comic shop Forbidden Planet occupied the premises before moving to a larger space. The well-liked Helter Skelter bookshop then followed their residency. After closing, no.4 Denmark Street became the guitar shop Regent Sounds and traded for just over six years before a change in ownership in 2010.
The new owners of Regent Sounds refurbished the shop and commenced trading as a guitar shop specialising in Fender and Gretsch guitars. They are well aware of the history of the shop and the importance of the street as a whole:
“The heritage of the street and the shop itself has created a special environment with many of its famous past musicians, artists and engineers regularly popping in, as well as many modern famous customers.”
As active musicians themselves the new owners have created a friendly and relaxing atmosphere where customers can try guitars, receive knowledgeable advice or simply browse. They are proud to be part of the legendary history of Regent Sounds and Denmark Street.