Tuesday, 14 June 2022

No Stairway!! Tales Of A Denmark Street Guitar Salesman


No Stairway!!

Tales Of A Denmark Street Guitar Salesman

by Stuart Penney

Down the way from the Tottenham Court Road

Just round the corner from old Soho

There's a place where the publishers go

If you don't know which way to go

Just open your ears and follow your nose

The Kinks – Denmark Street (1970)

It’s probably true to say there are more guitar shops per square yard in Denmark Street than almost anywhere else in the world.  Running for only 60 yards (54 metres) between Charing Cross Road and St. Giles High Street, this short thoroughfare on the fringe of Soho in central London has been the epicentre of the capital’s musical instrument retail sector for decades, with almost every building in the street operating as a guitar store or related business. 

Despite massive disruption in recent years caused by the below ground construction of the Crossrail project (finally opened in May 2022 as London Underground’s Elizabeth Line) which wiped out parts of neighbouring Charing Cross Road and Dean Street and at one point looked like taking Denmark Street with it, the street has survived against the odds.  Since many buildings are Grade II heritage listed, the future of the famous thoroughfare now looks somewhat more secure than it did just a few years ago.

Denmark Street was established in the late 17th century and named after Prince George of Denmark (1653 - 1708), the husband of Queen Anne who reigned over Scotland, England and Ireland from 1702 to 1714.  As West End streets go it had a fairly unremarkable history until 1911 when the music publisher and composer Lawrence Wright opened premises in the basement of number 8.  Then, in 1926 he founded Melody Maker, one of the world’s earliest music weekly publications, specifically to cover dance band music.  In 1952 the New Musical Express started life in Denmark Street, joining songwriters, pluggers, recording studios and long-established music publishers, such as Campbell Connelly, Francis, Day & Hunter, Keith Prowse and Southern Music, earning the street the nickname Britain’s Tin Pan Alley.  

The list of famous names connected with the street is virtually endless, but to name just a few: in 1964 the first Rolling Stones’ album (and most of their second) was recorded at Regent Sound, a small demo studio at 4 Denmark Street. A year later Elton John (then plain Reginald Dwight) worked as a humble post boy at publisher Mills Music, located across the road at number 20.  Donovan’s earliest recordings (including his first hit single “Catch the Wind”) were made in the basement of Southern Music publishers at number 8 and a decade later the Sex Pistols lived and recorded at numbers 6-7 Denmark Street. 

When I began working in Soho in 1967 almost all the premises along Denmark Street were occupied by music publishers and related businesses such as demo studios, agents, song pluggers and the like.  Sheet music was still big business and musicians, bandleaders and arrangers would come in search of the next hit song.


There was also the famous La Gioconda cafe which, until 2014, operated at number 9.  On any given weekday in the late 60s you might see Elton John, David Bowie and other up-and-coming musicians drinking coffee in the Gioconda while waiting for their big break to come along. 

Denmark Street circa 1964

Music publishers were the lifeblood of Denmark Street for more than half a century but in the early 70s they began to disappear.  The 1971 arrival in London of giant American publishing conglomerates such as Music Sales Ltd caused a major shake-up of the industry and many long-established UK publishing houses were swallowed up or merged, leaving their Denmark Street premises to an entirely different kind of business - the musical instrument retail stores.  The point of this brief history lesson is to emphasise that until the late 60s there were absolutely no guitar shops in Denmark Street, at least not as we know them today.

The Selmer store in the 60s

There were plenty of guitar stores nearby, of course.  Just around the corner at 114-116 Charing Cross Road was Selmer, possibly the biggest store of its kind in the West End at that time and a Gibson main agent.  Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, the Beatles and countless other famous faces shopped there and the guitars they bought were responsible for some of the greatest rock music of the 60s and 70s.  Selmer also owned the smaller Lew Davis store located at 134 Charing Cross Road and it’s thought that it was here Clapton purchased the now almost mythical 1960 Gibson Les Paul he played on the famous “Beano Album” in 1965.  The Lew Davis store was renamed “Selmer: The Little Shop” in 1966.  Like most of the West End music stores of the 60s and 70s, Selmer’s is long gone and today a Mexican restaurant occupies the iconic building with its twin pillars still dominating the entrance.

The Selmer building today

Also in Charing Cross Road was Macari’s.  Established in 1958 in north London as "the Musical Exchange", this family-run store has occupied several locations in and around the West End over the years, including a brief stay at 22 Denmark Street in 1966-67.  They finally closed their Charing Cross Road store in 2022 and moved out to leafy Haywards Heath in Sussex.  

Orange Music, who would soon become world famous for their amplifiers, opened a retail shop in nearby New Compton Street as early as September 1968, while Pan Music, makers of Impact amps, were located above the Flamingo Club in Wardour Street.  Today, no trace of the Orange Music building at 3-4 New Compton Street remains, and in fact the street no longer exists at the Charing Cross Road end.

The UK Rickenbacker agents Rose-Morris opened their store at 81-83 Shaftesbury Avenue in 1967.  The location gave its name to the Japanese made mid-price Shaftesbury guitar brand and Rose-Morris sold decent Rickenbacker, Fender and Gibson copies under that appellation for a decade or more.

Also located in Shaftesbury Avenue were Sound City and its sister store Drum City.  The Beatles' famous dropped "T" logo was conceived at Drum City by owner Ivor Arbiter and first applied to Ringo Starr's bass drum head in May 1963. Ringo continued to buy his drums here throughout the 60s, Sound City was almost as legendary as Selmer and Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles and the Stones all shopped there. 

But possibly the most famous West End guitar store of all and probably the first to operate out of Denmark Street was Top Gear.  Smaller than Selmer’s and Sound City, Top Gear nevertheless always seemed to have the best stock of rare and vintage instruments and it was routine to see famous faces from the rock and pop world buying, selling, or trading guitars in there.

op Gear opened at number 5 Denmark Street on Saturday, March 8, 1969, and they took their first Melody Maker advertisement the same week.  Among the mouth-watering items on offer in that ad were 60s Fender Stratocasters for £75, plus Gibson ES335s and Rickenbacker 12-strings for £150 apiece.  Even allowing for inflation that’s a fraction of what those guitars would sell for today.

I was a regular visitor to Top Gear during the 70s, for the most part idly browsing and daydreaming of expensive American guitars I could never afford.  But I did eventually buy and sell a few items there, including a Gibson SG Special and a Fender Telecaster.  But the most memorable (not to say regrettable) sale of all was the beautiful 1963 Gibson J200 acoustic (the Elvis model) I traded in September 1976.  Together with a Shaftesbury bass (a cheapish Rickenbacker copy) they gave me £250 for the pair.  One of only 96 examples shipped in 1963, that Gibson J200 alone would be worth around £10,000 today but, hey, that was all the money in the world to me back then and, when all’s said and done, a guy has to pay the rent.

Sadly missed. My 1963 Gibson J200 and the Top Gear receipt

Despite the impressive array of high quality rare and desirable guitars covering the walls, Top Gear (and its sister store Guitar Village located at 80 Shaftesbury Avenue) always seemed a little down at heel with threadbare carpets and little or no thought for the décor.  This was all part of its ramshackle charm.

Rob Marsh behind the counter at Top Gear

This blog recently caught up with Rob Marsh, who worked as a salesman for Top Gear (and occasionally Guitar Village) during 1974.  We spent a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon talking guitars and recounting stories of the many rock celebrities he encountered at the store.  He told us what life was like at the sharp end of the guitar retail world at a time when the vintage market was still in its infancy, when 50s Stratocasters sold for £100, and a 1959 sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standard could still be yours for around £400. 

Rob with some of the impressive Top Gear stock

Q: How did you land the job at Top Gear?

I saw an ad in Melody Maker.  I’d actually been offered a job at Ivor Mairants and just before I was due to start there, I got a phone call from Top Gear offering me the job, which I was happy to take.  The woman who interviewed me (at Ivor Mairants) was Mrs Mairants, Ivor’s wife, and she came across as a bit of a dragon.  When I went for the interview, I was told sternly “we dress smart casual here, not like some of the other shops where the rock & roll layabouts go”.  She introduced me to Ivor himself, but he seemed totally disinterested.  She said, “I’ll offer you the job, but I don’t want you ringing me up saying you don’t want it later”.  I said, “Oh, no.  I won’t do that”.  But a few days later I was offered the job at Top Gear, so of course I had to ring Ivor’s wife and tell her.  She wasn’t pleased. 

Editor’s note: Ivor Mairants Musicentre was a high-end specialist guitar store which opened in 1958 on Rathbone Place, on the north side of Oxford Street.  Ivor himself was a famous dance band jazz guitarist, making hit records, appearing on radio and TV and compiling many tutorial books.  After 61 years on Rathbone Place, the Ivor Mairants store closed its doors for good in December 2019.

If Walls Could Talk. Len Morphew and Rob Marsh at Guitar Village

Q: People tend to think that Denmark Street has always been full of guitar shops, but I believe Top Gear was virtually the only one until well into the 70s

Well, that’s right.  There were plenty of guitar shops in the West End, but at that point (1974) there were only two shops in Denmark Street.  There was Top Gear on one side and a shop called Rhodes over the other side, who sold more than guitars.  I believe they were owned by Orange Music who were a few streets away in New Compton Street.

Orange Music in New Compton Street

Around the corner in Charing Cross Road, you had Selmer’s and a few doors away there was Macari’s.  At that time though, Denmark Street did have all the music publishers, little recording studios and talent agencies.  And the famous La Gioconda Café, of course.

The First Top Gear Melody Maker ad March 1969

Q: Looking at the early Top Gear Melody Maker ads they were advertising “original sunburst Les Paul Standards” for around £400.  Did you get many of those through?

No, not while I was there.  They were all pretty-much pre-sold.  We did buy in a couple of three pick-up Les Paul Customs.  One was ex-Steve Marriott, and the other was from a guy called Dave Ball who I believe had a Procol Harum connection.  The Steve Marriott guitar was black with white pick-up surrounds and the other one was kind of a cherry red, which I hadn’t seen before.  They were priced around £325 + VAT but they didn’t sell very well.  There didn’t seem to be a lot of interest in them, but as for (Les Paul) Standards, we didn’t have any on the wall while I was there. 

Ed. Note: Dave Ball joined Procol Harum in 1971, replacing Robin Trower 

Q: I seem to remember that 1958-60 three pick-up Les Paul Customs were considered more desirable than Standards back then

No.  The buzz at the time in the shop was for the Sunbursts and some did come in, but they were customers’ guitars.  For example, Bernie Marsden came in to show us his '59 Les Paul “The Beast” and obviously there was a lot of excitement about that. 

On the subject of those ads.  The Melody Maker would come out on Thursday and occasionally on the Friday morning there would be someone on the doorstep waiting for us to open at 10.30.  A couple of times it would be a Japanese fellow who had flown over to London especially.  He’d point to the ad, and it would be something like a Les Paul Junior, the Leslie West guitar.  He’d pay the money and he’d be gone, purely on the strength of the ad.  

Q: In the very early Top Gear ads the Gibson Flying Vs were listed, curiously, as “Flying Arrows”.  Any idea why that was?

I do remember that, but I don’t remember us referring to them that way.  We had an original Flying V, one of the ‘58 or ‘59 Korina ones and I think it may have still been there when I left.  I think we referred to the Vs as “futurists” for some reason.  The famous American guitar collector Robert Johnson used to come in.  He was a real southern boy and he’d tell us firmly (adopts exaggerated Texan accent) “They were never called futurists!”

Q: Robert Johnson had an original Gibson Explorer too, I believe?

Yes. He’d show us pictures of his guitar collection, which was very impressive.  Don’t quote me on this, but I believe he also had a prototype Epiphone Les Paul, double cutaway made in Kalamazoo.  I think his dad worked at the Gibson factory.  

Q: I’ve seen a picture of that.  He’s standing with it next to Billy Gibbons who is holding a Les Paul Junior

That’s right.  One day Robert came in carrying two guitar cases.  He had a 1950 Fender Broadcaster in one and a 1960 Les Paul Standard in the other and he left them with us while he went shopping in the West End.

Ed. Note: Robert A. Johnson is an American guitarist and collector.  At the age of 23 he was auditioned by the Rolling Stones as a possible replacement for Mick Taylor.  Between 1974 and 1977 he toured as lead guitarist for John Entwistle's Ox.

Q: I suppose £400 for a guitar back then would be the equivalent of close to £6,000 today?

It was still a lot of money, yeah.  I was earning around £35 a week then, and I had no money left over.  We didn’t exactly live hand to mouth, but it was pretty tight. 

Q: Tell us about other interesting guitars you encountered

Well, there was the Flying V I mentioned earlier.  That ended up with Mick Ralphs of Bad Company.  We also had the occasional Gibson Firebird come in.  Vintage Fenders weren’t that popular at the time.  We had a 50s Telecaster that was going nowhere.  There was very little interest in it.  But the real top-quality guitars were usually sold before they went on display, so a lot of stuff that went on the wall, I suppose you could call it second division. 

Q: You also met Badfinger while at Top Gear?

There was a room down in the basement where Badfinger rehearsed.  They virtually lived there, but it must have been very well soundproofed because we never heard a sound.  They were all very quiet, well-behaved lads, but their road manager was a little more garrulous.  He’d come up for a cup of tea and I’d ask what was happening and he’d say something like “Oh, we’ve got a gig at the Greenwich Town Hall tonight”.  I found that amazing because I had this vision of them being one of the biggest bands in the world at the time.

I told him I was a fan of the band, particularly their big hits, “Day After Day”, “No Matter What” and “Baby Blue” but he said they had moved on and were now a rock & roll band.  He told me Pete Ham had left the band and they were on the lookout for a keyboard player.  I mentioned I played a bit of keyboard and he said I was welcome to audition.  I politely declined knowing I was nowhere near proficient enough.  It would have been a good story to tell though, wouldn't it?

Ed. Note: After completing the album Wish You Were Here in mid-1974, Pete Ham left Badfinger and was replaced by keyboardist / guitarist Bob Jackson.  However, Warner Brothers said they would drop the band if Ham quit, so he agreed to return, and Badfinger completed a tour as a five-piece.  Pete Ham sadly killed himself a year later in April 1975.

Q: Tell us more about Steve Marriott

I once called in the shop on my day off and saw all these guitars leaning against the showroom wall and among them was a Les Paul Standard.  “Wow!  I wouldn’t mind that” I said.  Then a voice behind me said “Oh, I’d never sell that!”.  I turned around and there was Steve Marriott. He’d brought a bunch of guitars in, and we did buy several from him.  One was a very early model Gibson 330 in rare natural finish with dot neck markers.  It was a lovely guitar, and the staff couldn’t put it down.  It played so nice acoustically without even being plugged in.  It was only a matter of time before one of the Top Gear staff said, “I’ll have that!”, but then Marriott’s roadie came in later and said, “Steve always said if he ever sold that guitar, I could have it”.  So that was the end of that.

Steve had an unfortunate habit of swapping parts on his guitars.  For example, the three pick-up Les Paul Custom he sold to Top Gear only had one original PAF (“Patent Applied For”) pick-up.  He had removed and replaced the other two PAFs with later humbuckers.  He also put incorrect cream pick-up surrounds on it.  We only found out about the pick-up swap later, much to my embarrassment.  I believe Robert Fripp owns that Les Paul now.

Another interesting guitar Marriott traded in was an Epiphone Dwight.  The Dwight was a subject of interest on the Top Gear Facebook page (see link below).  I was able to confirm that Steve Marriott sold it to us, and Top Gear staffer Guy Mason swapped his Strat for it.  Sadly, Guy died in 2014 and we heard his widow sold the Dwight.  

Ed. note: The Epiphone Dwight is a very rare solid guitar based on a re-badged Epiphone Coronet.  It’s said that only two batches of Dwight guitars totaling 111 instruments were made in 1963 and 1967 for the students of the Sunny Shields Music Studio of East St. Louis, Illinois.  Joe Bonamassa now owns one of these, naturally. 

Q: Did Steve ever trade in stuff he shouldn’t have sold?

No, but Gary Moore did.  One day he came in to sell an Echoplex (echo unit) and other bits of equipment, but no guitars.  And the next day he came back - or rather he was brought back by the management - looking rather sheepish and he bought it all back, because apparently it wasn’t his to sell.  You see all these big names and think they are making huge amounts of money but it’s often not the case.


Top Gear Guitar Tales:
One day in late 1972 Paul McCartney bought a rare Gibson Everly Brothers acoustic, a Dobro and a few other items from Top Gear, paying with a Rothschild bank cheque.  The staff helped him load the purchases into his Lamborghini Espada parked half up on the pavement outside the store.  It was just another day for the boys at Top Gear.  The Gibson Everly Brothers guitar was later seen on the 1973 TV special James Paul McCartney and was also used during the Wings’ Red Rose Speedway album sessions.  (Information from the Top Gear Facebook page – link below).


Fender book by Ken Achard

Q: What do you remember about the staff members?

Two brothers, Craig and Rod Bradley, ran the place.  Rod worked in the office with the other staff, including Ken Achard, who wrote the Fender book, and Craig managed the shop.  The brothers lived in Brighton and Craig later went to work in their warehouse there and Ken became the manager of Top Gear.

Book by Top Gear manager Ken Achard

Ed. note: Top Gear staffers Ken Achard and Sid Bishop (writing under his given name Ian C. Bishop) published several acclaimed Fender and Gibson reference books in the 70s.  

Gibson books by Sid Bishop

Q: The same people also owned another store, Guitar Village on Shaftesbury Avenue, I believe?

That’s right.  I also worked there occasionally.  Guitar Village had only two staff members, a permanent one and we’d take it in turns for someone from Top Gear to go and work there for the day.  I preferred working at the Denmark Street store because there was more going on.  

When I started in early 1974 the manager of Top Gear was a fellow called Mark Moffatt, a well-known Australian musician and producer who I’m still in touch with.  He left and they made Sid Bishop the manager. 

Working in the back room at Top Gear was Roger Giffen, who went on to work for Gibson in America.  He has made guitars for people like Roy Wood, and he runs his own company now making boutique guitars. 

Ed. Note: Sid Bishop played guitar and sitar with the Deviants, appearing on their 1968 album Ptooff!

Q: Do you remember when the Ernie Ball custom gauge strings came out?  Guitar stores would have a huge box of strings on the counter and customers could make up their own custom gauge sets.

I do remember that.  Ernie Ball finally got it right.  Before that, some of the gauges were ridiculous.  Fender would have sets with 10s on the top to about 38s on the bottom.  And Gibson had their Sonomatic strings with a wound third.  But Ernie Ball standardised things with their Slinky sets and those gauges are still with us today.

Ed. note: in the early 70s Ernie Ball was the first company to offer mix-and-match light gauge guitar strings suitable for blues and rock.  

Beat Instrumental magazine ad June 1969

Q: When we were just starting out in the early to mid-60s, £1 for a set of strings was a huge investment.  Often, if the top E string broke, you’d try and join the broken ends together

Tell me about it!  We had those awful cheap brands like Kay, Cathedral and Black Diamond.  It makes you wonder; we talk about the beauty of some of the vintage 50s and 60s instruments but imagine them with those (heavy) strings on, played through the amplification of the day. 

Q: And flatwound strings were still popular back then

Well, Rickenbackers left the factory with high tension flatwounds back then.  As well as being a retail shop, Top Gear were also national distributors for Peavy (amplifiers), Barcus Berry (pickups), Guild and Rickenbacker.  And before the Rickenbackers could go on display they’d have to be re-strung, because they came with flatwounds. 

Q: How did you come to own your 1962 cherry red Gibson ES335?  

In the late 60s there was a big shop in Watford called Hammonds and they sold sheet music, pianos, organs and guitars.  My friends and I used to hang around there all the time.  When we got a little older and a bit more game, of course, we’d go up the West End.  But just down the road from Hammonds was this little music shop where they sold second-hand stuff.  That’s where I saw the 335 hanging on the wall.  

It wasn’t exactly what I was chasing, but I went back there with my dad to check it out and it was gone.  The shop owner said it belonged to a mate of his who lived nearby.  So we went around to his house and the bloke brought it out in this battered old case and said I could have the guitar and a little Linear amp for 55 quid!  And I promptly sold the amp a few days later for 5 or 10 quid.  The guitar was a ’62, so it just missed being a dot neck.  It had one PAF and one patent number pick-up and at one stage it had had a Bigsby tremolo, but it was gone by the time I got it.  The pick-up covers had been removed, as was the fashion in the late 60s.

Q: Did you bring the guitar to Australia with you?

Yes, I did, and it’s still here.  It’s now owned by a guy who runs a guitar school in Perth.  I never really wanted a 335 at the time.  Like everybody else back then I wanted a Les Paul, which was completely out of the question.  And I would have even preferred an SG, but I don’t like them at all now.

Denmark Steet in the 70s - Top Gear on the left

Q: What do you remember about the Les Paul Special Bob Marley bought from Top Gear?

Mark Moffatt says he sold it to him in 1973, I think.  Mark left early 1974 and I replaced him. Marc Bolan bought that Les Paul first but didn’t like it, so he brought it back and Bob Marley came in and bought it a few days later.  Then the guitar was damaged.  It fell over and the toggle switch punched through the top of the body, so the guys at Top Gear fixed it a number of times with different oversized switch plates.  At one point they wrote "Riddum" and "Trebill" on the temporary switch plate which apparently Bob thought was highly amusing.  But I suppose that wouldn’t be considered PC today.

We had a few instances like that.  Tony Hicks from the Hollies came in and bought a single pick-up Les Paul Junior.  He brought it back because he couldn’t keep it in tune and one of the Top Gear staff guys bought it.  There was a banjo downstairs in the shop that used to belong to Tony Hicks.  I often wondered if it was the one he used on the Hollies 1966 single “Stop, Stop, Stop”. 

Ed. Note: "Riddum" and "Trebill" relates to the two pickup settings "Rhythm" and "Treble".  See below for a link to the full story of the Gibson Les Paul Special Bob Marley bought from Top Gear.

Denmark Street in 2022. The disruption continues - photo by Robert Penney

Q: Did you get a lot of celebs trading gear in?

Yes, we did.  I remember Ian Hunter (Mott the Hoople) came in once, complete with his trademark sunglasses, and sold us two Les Paul Standards - obviously reissues - and we couldn’t believe it, on the fretboard where the mother of pearl fret markers were, he had put lines right across using liquid paper.  I think he possibly used it for open tunings.

John Entwistle came in a couple of times.  I remember making him a cup of instant coffee.  I sold Tony McPhee (Groundhogs) a cheap acoustic for one of his students.  The Bay City Rollers came in one day.  They traded in two (second-hand) guitars on two new guitars and didn’t even try the new ones out.  They just said “We’ll have that one and that one” and took them without playing them.  They seemed like nice enough lads, though.  Mike Oldfield often used to come in and so did Hank Marvin.  

Q: What did Hank buy?

Hank never bought a bloody thing!  He used to come in and just hang out.  He’d park his battered old station wagon half up on the pavement outside and come in and hang out.  He was always very welcome, but I don’t think he ever bought anything.  Allan Holdsworth came in all the time as well.  Lovely guy.

Q: Meeting the great Allan Holdsworth must have been a thrill?

Allan came in the shop a lot and he was always very quiet and unassuming.  We showed him many different guitars and he always dazzled us with his playing.  One time he sold us a Gibson 335, but he had cut a hole in the top below the neck pickup in an effort to reposition it.  Sadly, he had made a pigs ear of it and hadn’t finished the job properly.  (TG luthier) Roger Giffen had to fix a repair plate over the hole.

Rob Marsh with his Gibson ES335

I had my own 335 at the time and the case was shot so Craig (Bradley) let me swap mine with the case Allan’s guitar came in.  It was a genuine Gibson heavy duty case and had "Marshall Tucker Band" stenciled on it.  I sold my Gibson 335 together with Allan’s old case years later in Australia, much to my regret.

I once loaned Allan my 335 for a week, apparently for some sessions in Switzerland with Jack Bruce.  He returned it personally to my flat in Queensway, stayed for a coffee and we had a good chat, but he never mentioned the sessions.  He wouldn't have admitted it, but he was struggling at the time.  The UK was all about the Bay City Rollers and glam in 1974.  He was such a nice fellow.  I was glad when he found deserved success and felt really sad on hearing the news of his passing.

Q: What about Mike Oldfield?

One day when we were quite busy this little fellow came up to the counter and said “I bought a (Fender) Twin Reverb (amplifier) yesterday and I’d like to return it and get a Guild 12-string”.  I asked one of the other staff guys “Do you know anything about someone buying a Twin Reverb yesterday?” and he said “Yeah, that was Mike Oldfield”.  But he just wandered in.  He was so unassuming.

We sold him a Gibson SG Junior at Guitar Village around 1973.  He played it a lot back then, including on the Tubular Bells LP.  Mike was a great player, the guitar solos on stuff like “Moonlight Shadow”, “Portsmouth” and “Blue Peter Theme” are bloody good! 

Hofner Colorama

Q: Finally, tell us about the time Mike Rutherford from Genesis came in to buy a Hofner

As I said earlier (before we began recording the interview), Rutherford and his pal came into Top Gear one day.  They were scouring the West End looking for a Hofner Colorama, of all things!  I told him I used to have one when I was learning to play and he replied "Everyone used to have one!”  I said I thought they weren’t bad guitars and while the pickups were not nearly powerful enough for lead, they were good enough for rhythm.  He said that was exactly why they were seeking one for their current recording.

Ed. Note: The Hofner Colorama was a cheap solid electric guitar made for the UK market between 1958-65.  It appeared with several different body styles during a seven-year production run, but the two versions made between 1962-65 during the Beat Boom were the most popular.  The 1964 Selmer catalogue lists the guitar at around £30.  These 60s budget guitars have since acquired an ironic, kitsch value and today the Reverb website shows original 60s examples priced at US$1,500, or more.

After Top Gear Rokas shop took over at 5 Denmark Street

Footnote: After Top Gear moved out in the late 70s, the store was taken over by Ron Roka who had previously worked as a guitar builder / repairer in the back area of the shop.  Today, the store is occupied by Wunjo Guitars, the latest in a line of high-profile guitar retailers to occupy the famous premises at 5 Denmark Street.

5 Denmark Street today - photo by Robert Penney

Rob Marsh now lives in Perth, Western Australia and is the WA agent for Melbourne-based Maton Guitars, possibly the pre-eminent Australian acoustic guitar maker.

Read the definitive story of the Gibson Les Paul Special Bob Marley bought from Top Gear HERE

Thanks to the excellent Top Gear Facebook page for some of the information. Visit HERE

Check out this 1951 Pathé News item on Denmark Street HERE


  1. Fantastic read!

  2. Replies
    1. Also good to see the old adverts - I was reminded that my first amplifier was a Selmer Treble ‘n’ Bass 50 head.

  3. Your usual high standard, Stuart - thanks for another great read (or "content" as The Young People are calling it). Early seventies, I was hoping to find a second-hand Harmony Sovereign on Shaftesebury Avenue (they were big on the folk club scene back then, in both senses of the word). Failed, but in some shop or other (my memory's not like yours), a single-fronted place, I saw a sweet-looking D25 copy, new, for the even-then incredible price of 25 of your Earth Pounds. It played as sweetly as it looked, and only needed a decent set of bridge pins - duly bought - to make it perfect. The very Martin-esque logo on the headstock was K. Yasuma, New Ance. It was a beauty - single layer spruce top, bowed back, clean inlays, pickguard blended into the varnish, a class act. I anted up for the fibreboard box it didn't come with and when I got it home showed it off to my friends, one of whom was so amazed by the quality/price ratio he took the next available train into town to score one himself. They had one - I can't remember the asking price, well out of my friend's range, but the seller's sad tale was they sold one a few days back at a disasterously low price by mistake! I kept it for many years, only losing it recently when I sold all my stuff to move to Siam.

    1. Thanks Tim, great story. The Harmony Sovereign was a very playable mid-price US guitar, used by Jimmy Page on the early LZ albums. As for the Yasuma Newance brand, they are known as "the lawsuit guitars" now due to their similarity to Martins. Made in Japan, so obviously decent quality.


How Sweet the Sound! - The Story Of Amazing Grace

  From Milton Keynes to Manhattan - How a 200-Year-Old Hymn Became the Biggest Hit of 1972 by Stuart Penney For a couple of years in the ear...