Tuesday 29 March 2016

You Have Made A Nice Old Mess Of It: Ten Outstanding Music Hall Retentions in Pop Culture

I've been researching music hall, and – forgive the obvious point  – I firmly believe it never went away. Or, Music Hall is Not Dead, It Just Smells Funny. Here are ten outstanding retentions of music hall in pop (sixties and seventies) culture. 
  1. Village Green Preservation Society, The Kinks 
Well, where do you start with The Kinks? The entire list could be Kinks songs, and it might look like… ‘Autumn Almanac’, ‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Harry Rag’, ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’, ‘Do You Remember Walter’, ‘She Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina’, ‘Death of a Clown’, ‘People Take Pictures of Each Other’, ‘Tin Soldier Man’… But topping the list is the song where Ray Davies actually gets activist on behalf of music hall and other endangered pastimes. Studying the lyrics, music hall isn’t mentioned, but Vaudeville and Variety amount to the same thing, and Mrs Mopp (Dorothy Summers) and Old Mother Riley (Arthur Lucan) are music hall stars. The sentiment is impeccable; the timing less so. The last variety theatre, The Metropole, on Edgware Road, was demolished in 1963, five years before the release of Village Green Preservation Society.

      2.  I’m the Urban Spaceman, Bonzo Dog Band

So what single characteristic defines music hall? Supreme sanguinity. The Victorian/Edwardian working-classes were as downtrodden and exploited as any class in history, but favoured raucousness and jubilation over misery in their entertainment. Inevitably, there’s a lot of wish-fulfilment of the ‘Champagne Charlie’ type, but one song, one wonderful song, plays off reality against dream world. In Gus Elen’s ‘The ‘Ouses In Between’ the singer goes to ever more absurd lengths to project a rustic paradise onto his East End hovel. At minimum, this takes a few handy props, like the bucket and beetles that stand in for a bee-hive, and imitation horns for the donkey. More strenuous effort is required when rope and pulley are secured to the chimney to afford a better view of the gasworks and appreciate its resemblance to a mountain range. The singer is no fool, and recognises the true state of things. The garden greenery consists of all the vegetables this coster didn't sell at market during the week. Something similar is happening in the Bonzos hit of 1968. It’s a heroically willed escape from reality, punctured by the last line, which hits like a bucket of cold water no matter how many times you hear it. 

     3.   Itchycoo Park, The Small Faces 

And Steve Marriott was surely the reincarnation of Little Tich! Psychedelia was the last hurrah of music hall, and Ronnie Lane went on to refine a down-home variety with Anymore for Anymore and his work with Slim Chance. 

     4.   Billericay Dickie, Ian Dury 

100 years after its heyday, Ian Dury epitomised everything great about music-hall. New freedoms meant he didn’t have to pussyfoot with innuendo in this graphic account of the sexual adventures of an Essex wide-boy. Nicely provocative and non-judgemental ("I'm doing very well"), it defines an attitude to life. New Boots and Panties (Stiff, SEEZ 4), with Village Green Preservation Society (Pye, NPL 18233) and, what else?, You Have Made a Nice Old Mess Of It by Gus Elen (Topic 12T396) and a double album from EMI called Music Hall Top of the Bill (World Records, SHB.22: it contains Gus Elen recordings from 1899!) are all essential music hall (ancient and modern) discs. Oh, and… 


     5.   Granny Takes a Trip, The Purple Gang 

The anthem of the London underground came from this Cheshire outfit, more in thrall to George Formby Snr than Jimi Hendrix. Banned by the BBC because of non-existent drug references, and concurrent in time and place with ‘Bike’ by Pink Floyd (they share a producer, Joe Boyd). As cheery and subversive as music hall, the weirdness at the end precludes it from the Top Ten. 

     6.   Our House, Madness 

The greatest out-of-time music hall combo ever, although you'll notice that the sense of community has expanded to include a ska element. And it works perfectly. Designed to appeal to a working-class mass audience, any one of Madness’s songs could fit the bill. They’re all, to a greater or lesser degree, wry, comic, energetic, welcoming: all those dominant music hall characteristics. Albert Chevalier used the term ‘Cockney Carols’ for his songs, but Madness pin down the locale even more precisely. These are ‘Camden Carols’, balancing love, humour and reality. ‘My Girl’ has the tender ambivalence of music hall love songs like Gus Elen’s ‘Mrs Carter’, but ‘My House’ is the one, with it's echo of ‘The ‘Ouses in Between’ and an unapologetic sense of pride. And let's not forget that Chris Foreman's old man is John Foreman, a broadside seller who set himself up as the Broadsheet King, produced songbooks for the Aldermaston marches, recreated and reprinted one of the prime texts of Victoriana, Charles Hindley’s Curiosities of Street Literature, and made an LP of music hall songs called The ‘Ouses In Between. This piece of trivial knowledge explains a lot.

     7.   Starman, David Bowie 

One obituarist said something on the radio about David Bowie being a throwback to music hall. He didn’t elaborate, and I was only half attending, but it got me thinking. The nearest I can find is this sweet “hail fellow” to an extraterrestrial. Cockney, tick. Charismatic, tick. Theatrical, tick. But would Ziggy have a welcome at The Bedford? I’m reminded of the words of Marty McFly in Back to the Future: “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.” 

     8.   Fog on the Tyne, Lindisfarne

And let’s not forget, the provinces had music hall too, many highly idiosyncratic, and with a strong regional identity. The most tenacious was Northumbrian music hall. Lindisfarne acknowledged the debt by including ‘Blaydon Races’ in live sets, and advanced the tradition with ‘Fog on the Tyne’, a paean to fellowship, community, the welfare state and the pub.

     9.   Mrs Murphy’s Budgerigar, Blossom Toes 

Getting back to psychedelia: the USA had Easter Everywhere and Forever Changes, whilst the UK offered The Move and We Are Ever So Clean. USA psychedelia channelled the dread and paranoia and turbulence of the times into genuinely consciousness-expanding music. UK psychedelia did much the same, but wanted to be back in time for tea (“Show me that I’m everywhere and get me home for tea” – George Harrison, ‘It’s All Too Much’). In other words, the homegrown article had been infected by damned music hall whimsy. ‘Mrs Murphy’s Budgerigar’ epitomises this strain of domestic psych. Actually, the conscious cultural overlap between the Victorian age and the nineteen-sixties would make a good thesis, with Sgt Pepper being a useful starting-point‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ is more Victorian parlour ballad than music hall. 

     10.   Five Foot Flirt, Cyril Tawney

“The thing that preserves I is my jo-vi-a-li-ty” sang Cyril Tawney, summing up the music hall ethos in a single sentence. And when the last theatre came down, music hall moved into the folk club, where, on any given night, might be heard traditional ballads, jigs and reels, rousing come-ye-alls, music hall retentions, recitations, art songs, children’s songs, regional songs, international songs, pre-rock ’n’ roll songs, rock ’n’ roll songs and self-penned songs by unlettered singers. In short, Variety. 

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