As the heat descended on Denmark Street the thoughts of the music trade turned to ice cream, portable fans and above all, flocks of visitors from abroad – the financial lifeblood of Tin Pan Alley. Sid Bishop recalls the guitar tourists of the 1970s.
Whoopee, summer had finally arrived to cheer up our damp and shivering population, and everyone in the retail trade was rubbing their hands in glee. The instrument dealers in Denmark Street were certainly no exception, and one word was buzzing on all our lips… ‘Tourists!’
No one working in Denmark Street could fail to notice the stream of foreign visitors who habitually spent serious money buying equipment every summer. I once sat down and tried to calculate the amount of our seasonal trade that was accounted for by foreign visitors, and I came up with an extraordinary figure of 85 per cent during the peak months of July and August; only the Christmas season came anywhere close in terms of shifting stock and earning money. Guitars seemed to be their number one target, as I’m guessing that amplifiers, being bulky and heavy, would certainly attract significant excess baggage charges, as would drums and most keyboards.
Back in the ’70s and ’80s the overwhelming majority of these customers came from Eastern Europe or Russia, as good quality instruments were virtually impossible to obtain in their own countries at the time. We had some regular visitors from as far afield as Japan, some of whom we got to know quite well owing to their regular annual jaunts. We also had a significant number of French or Spanish buyers, and many from the Scandinavian countries. Greeks, too; for some reason they would usually go nuts for Rickenbackers. I have little idea what the situation is in the street these days concerning foreign guitar buyers, although I would think that many might now be Chinese or Korean, and quite a large number from African countries too, but this will depend on the sterling exchange rate.
I recall with some amusement that most conversations would start with ‘Hello, have you Stratocaster Fender?’, often accompanied with a dreadful sketch on a piece of crumpled paper that looked as if it had been drawn by a nine-year-old. If their grasp of English was totally nonexistent, we just had to decipher the crumpled paper. Somewhat bizarrely, money was very often carried in knotted socks, presumably as a security measure; very effective, I should think. On many occasions I had noxious, mouldering banknotes counted into my hand – presumably these had been hoarded for many years in expectation of a future visit to England.
At the other end of the scale I can recall a visit from an Arabian gentleman, swathed in white robes, accompanied by his entourage, who asked me what the most expensive guitar in the shop was. I offered him a certain limited run Gibson Les Paul that we happened to have at the time. He said ‘Okay’, and snapped his fingers at the nearest of his flunkies, who opened a briefcase. The case contained not sandwiches but thick piles of sterling, a couple of stacks of US dollars, and wads of various other currencies. Rarely have I seen so much cash in one go. The flunky peeled off the required amount, barely depleting the contents of the case, handed it to me, and off they all went, back to the Middle East with the Les Paul… a gift for a very fortunate young relation, or so I was told. This was not a unique occurrence. Nigerian kings were also a good source of income – and there seemed to be quite a few of them!
It wasn’t all foreigners, of course. With the UK festival season well underway, higher-profile pro bands would be gathering themselves together for another tour. We supplied a lot of equipment directly to outdoor festival organisers, both PA and backline, though as time passed it became more usual for them to rent what they needed for the duration of the event. The bands themselves usually liked to appear on stage with something new, and would top up their collections in readiness for the flurry of summer gigs. Without getting into a name-dropping exercise, we always were very happy to get the likes of Mott The Hoople, Free, Skid Row, Yes, Widowmaker and Jeff Beck come through the door, as we were confident that they would never fail to buy a guitar, or two… not to mention piles of leads, effects pedals and sundry other goodies – and of course strings by the boxload. But in the fullness of time another summer would fade into memory, and we would start getting stocked up ready for Christmas.