Tin Pan Alley: The Rise Of Elton John

Keith Hayward (Soundcheck Books)

Remember when rock was young?

We Brits like to take our music seriously.

Even in today’s fast-shrinking economy, the homegrown music business is still a big
deal. And like any other great British institution, the act of making and selling our national songs comes bundled with a bounty of anecdotes, colourful characters, myths, lies and landmarks.

Tiny Denmark Street, off London’s Charing Cross Road, is an innocuous-looking thoroughfare today, populated largely by guitar shops, a cafe, a newsagents and two bars. But it glows with a rich and glorious, if complicated, past.

In the 1950s and ’60s (and preceding decades), it’s fair to say that this street was to the music publishing world what Fleet Street used to be to daily newspapers. All the bustle and chaos and cut-throat music dealings of the early rock’n’roll era went down here.

In the famous Giaconda coffee house, rock’n’roll deals were signed, sealed and delivered over frothy cuppas. A few doors down at Regent Sound Studio some of the greatest records of the 1960s were laid down on tape – including all those classic early Rolling Stones r’n’b covers.

And knocking nervously on doors of agencies and publishing companies up and down this street in 1963 or ’64 would be young wannabes like Bowie, Stewart, Beck and Bolan: all in their smartest corduroy blazers and skinniest ties; all relentlessly pursuing the dream of pop fame and fortune.

Among these hopeful amateur musicians tirelessly punting his trade was one Reg Dwight of Pinner. He was a shy, bespectacled lad – and a bloody good pianist. He could write a decent tune, too.

Keith Hayward’s tome fastidiously records all of Reg’s comings and goings from his schooldays to his 1970 breakthrough as Elton John. And what a breathless journey it is, taking in thousands of

Transit van road-miles, hundreds of demo recording sessions, hours of bedroom songwriting stints and (inevitably) knockback after knockback from the powers that be.

But while this book is necessarily anchored to Reg’s personal career path, the picture that slowly emerges through the meticulous detail is a much more general one. Through his documentation of the rise of companies like Dick James Music, singers like Long John Baldry and producers such as Gus Dudgeon and Tony Hatch, Hayward opens the reader’s eyes to the early rock’n’roll business models and work ethics. And, truly, it couldn’t be more fascinating.

Seemingly, none of the  key players from those heady days has been left uninterviewed for this project. All the old cats are here. And their memories have been nudged mercilessly to provide an almost diary-detail collection of recording session specifics and minutiae. Oh, and the secret all-night downtime studio sessions squirreled away by Hookfoot (and the tour shenanigans of Bluesology) will be welcome manna to anybody who enjoys a good ole rock’n’roll yarn.

Of course, if you happen to be an Elton John fan then so much the better. You will love the way Reg’s life as jobbing songwriter is picked apart, unveiling a few integrity-light recording sessions for the Pickwick type of knock-off record as well as all the cooler, bluesy stuff.But even if the glam-specced one has never really impressed (and this reviewer raises his hand as a member of that camp) you will still find plenty of Denmark Street folklore to keep those pages turning. And with development plans afoot to butcher yet more of this area (the legendary Astoria has already been flattened) stories such as those waiting to be discovered in this book might soon be all we have left of Tin Pan Alley.

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