By the time rock ’n’ roll came to Britain in 1955, the music hall was already pretty much finished. There had been a time – back in Victorian and Edwardian days – when it was the biggest thing in working-class culture, but that position had been undermined in the 1920s by the rival attractions of the cinema and the wireless; it needed only the emergence of television in the post-war years to bring the edifice finally tumbling down.
For a brief moment, some in the entertainment industry hoped that rock ’n’ roll might arrest the decline; after all, here were acts that people wanted to see in the flesh rather than just watch on television. Consequently, the early British rockers were put on variety bills, so that if you went to see Cliff Richard in 1959, you’d have to sit through a succession of comedians, dancers and jugglers, before you got your twenty minutes of rock.
But it wasn’t a happy compromise. Rock fans found the supporting bill tedious, while those who wished to see comedians, dancers and jugglers didn’t much want to be surrounded by bored teenagers waiting their chance to scream at their idols.
There followed another brief moment, one when it seemed as though the traditions of the music hall (particularly its cockney roots) might be blended with rock ’n’ roll to create something specifically British.
You could see it in hit singles like Tommy Steele’s ‘What a Mouth (What a North and South)’ and Lonnie Donegan’s ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ (both 1960). You could see it in the way that Johnny Kidd was obliged to follow ‘Please Don’t Touch’, his great self-written debut, with a cover of the old George Robey and Violet Loraine song ‘If You Were the Only Girl in the World’.
And, at its best, you could see it in the work of Anthony Newley and Lionel Bart. The latter’s ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’Be’ (the original version, not Max Bygraves’s bowdlerized re-work) set an account of the decline of prostitution and gambling in Soho to the standard doo-wop chord sequence.
Though it’s mostly associated with comedy, the brief cockney revival at the turn of the 1960s was an interesting moment in British pop. Even those who’ve been dismissed as novelty singers were conscious of what they were trying to achieve. ‘I wanted to sing something that wasn’t a (poor) imitation of American, but something that was genuine and original,’ commented Mike Sarne, of ‘Come Outside’ and ‘Will I What?’ fame. ‘That was my intention, to make English pop.’
Both those Sarne hits came in 1962, the year that the Beatles first broke into the charts. After which, it appeared, there was no mileage left in memories of music hall. American culture was the future now.
The Beatles turned away from the first generation of British rock – they covered not a single song, even on the Star Club and BBC albums, while John Lennon was particularly disparaging of the compromises made by the early stars. ‘We’ve always hated him,’ Lennon said of Cliff Richard in 1964. ‘He was everything we hated in pop.’
And the Rolling Stones were even more determined to break with British showbiz, as Mick Jagger made clear: ‘England has such a small show business community that if you don’t become part of it and join the Variety Club and do charity work, then you’re looked upon as some kind of weirdo. I tried not to be part of it.’
In both cases, there was a subsequent rowing back as the drugs kicked in and the range of permitted influences widened. By 1967 the legacy of music hall was to be heard on Sgt Pepper and on the Rolling Stones’ ‘Something Happened to Me Yesterday’ from Between the Buttons, while the Kinks had already got stuck in. It was all still there, a musical motherlode waiting to be mined. And indeed it was to be mined, extensively, by the stars of glam rock.
That, though, is a whole other story. For now, I just want to celebrate those who kept the tradition alive, with half-a-dozen covers of music hall songs from the 1960s.
Dusty Springfield, ‘What Did She Know about Railways?’ (1968)
We’ll start with a good ‘un (though bear in mind that we’re saving the best for last). As Dusty Springfield explains in her introduction, this classic by Marie Lloyd (1870-1922) is the first song she sang at an audition, and she does a fine job of channelling the cheerful innuendo of the original.
It wasn’t Lloyd’s best known piece to use the imagery of railways to tell the tale of a provincial girl getting into trouble in London – that’d be ‘Oh! Mr Porter’ (here in a version by Norah Blaney) – but it is a rollicking good runner-up in those stakes. There are two hooklines, which is why it’s sometimes known instead as ‘She’d Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before’. And that’s a fair summary of the cheeky tone.
I know it’s close to heresy, given that she’s the woman who gave us ‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself’ and ‘I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten’, but this is my favourite Dusty recording. I’m fairly sure Marie Lloyd would have approved of the way Dusty’s commitment to performance outstrips any reverence towards the material.
Alma Cogan, ‘Hold Your Hand Out, Naughty Boy’ (1965)
Florrie Forde (1875-1940) was an Australian singer who was at her peak in the Edwardian era, singing songs like ‘Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?’ and ‘Down at the Old Bull and Bush’ (the latter being an import from America).
And then there was this, a series of vignettes of men bragging to each other that they really don’t waste their time with foolish girls – only to be then corrected by an eavesdropping woman who has evidence to the contrary.
In the original it has long verses setting up a scenario for each occurrence of the chorus. Alma Cogan’s version, however – from her 1965 self-titled album – dispenses with all that, and just uses the chorus. Admittedly that means we lose the gay subtext, but I still think it works rather well; apart from anything else, it’s quite a long chorus. Anyway, I’m always a sucker for this kind of gently rockin’ arrangement, and she’s in great voice.
Herman’s Hermits, ‘I’m Henry VIII, I Am’ (1965)
I know we’re taking a turn for the worse here, but don’t worry – we’ll get back on track in a bit.
This is a song written and sung by Harry Champion (1865-1942), and was a nice bit of comedy in his hands. Not just the conceit of the chorus – a woman is marrying her eighth husband, every one of whom has been named Henry – but the verses:
I left the Duke of Cumberland (a pub up in the town),
Soon with one or two moochers I was holding up the Crown.
I sat upon the bucket that the car men think their own,
Surrounded by my subjects I was sitting on the throne.
Out came the potman saying, ‘Go on home to bed.’
Said I, ‘Now say another word and off’ll go your head.’
Regrettably, when Joe Brown and the Bruvvers revived it in 1961, they dropped all the verses and – much more than on the Alma Cogan record – they’re really missed. The chorus is far too slight to sustain even a 2-minute song.*
Well, I think so. Except that Herman’s Hermits then took Joe Brown’s version, simplified it still further and went to #1 in the American charts. As sometimes happens, it turns out that the public aren’t quite in tune with my taste.
Clearly the Hermits knew it was all a bit embarrassing, since they didn’t release the single back home, but having got a taste for this sort of thing, they did some further covers, including a saccharine version of ‘Oh! Mr Porter’ and a horrid mutilation of Albert Chevalier’s ‘My Old Dutch’, where they stomp all over the delicacy of the phrasing.
Charlie Drake, ‘Only a Working Man’ (1965)
Like Florrie Forde, Lily Morris (1882-1952) was a good comic singer who lived long enough to be filmed – though the absence of an audience is always a handicap to the footage that survives of music hall stars.
This was maybe Morris’s best song, a splendidly sarcastic account of a bone-idle husband told from the perspective of his long-suffering wife: she takes him his breakfast in bed, together with the racing papers, before going out to work.
All of which means that a fair bit of the comedy is lost when it’s sung by a man. Nonetheless, here’s Charlie Drake with an adaptation that was used as the theme to his sitcom The Worker.
If you like Charlie Drake, this’ll no doubt have fond associations for you. I was never much a fan and I’d rather stick with Lily Morris myself.
The Bonzo Dog Band, ‘Hunting Tigers Out in India’ (1969)
You see, I told you we’d get back on track.
For years, I assumed that this terrific satire on the English in the days of the Raj, released on the Bonzos’ Tadpoles album, was one of their own. It seemed so right in their hands, and indeed so right for the anti-imperialist tone of the late-1960s, the era of Carry On Up the Khyber and Flashman.
But, of course, it turns out to be an old song, very much in the tradition of music hall, if not quite music hall as such. There were recordings in the 1930s by Hal Swain and His Band, by Jack Payne and His Band and by Leslie Sarony. I don’t know which was the earliest, but the latter is obviously the best, what with Sarony being something of a favourite of L&U. His might even be better than the version by the Bonzos themselves – but only just.
The Mojos, ‘Goodbye, Dolly Gray’ (1967)
Now this is a really great record. ‘Goodbye, Dolly Gray’ was written as a military romance song for the 1898 Spanish-American War. But hostilities were over so quickly – little more than sixteen weeks – that it never really got an airing. So it was sent over to Britain the following year for the Boer War. And happily that conflict went on for years, during which the song gained great popularity. It was also revived for the First World War.
This version, however, was the last-but-one single released by underrated Merseybeat band the Mojos, and I think it’s both the best take on the song and their best track, a rolling piece of white soul that should have extended the song’s life into the Vietnam era. It didn’t. The group hadn’t had a whiff of the charts since 1964 and this did nothing to restore their fortune.
In fact, on balance, it seems a shame that the only one of these to be a real hit was the Herman’s Hermits record. There might have been a bit of a music hall revival going on, but no one said it was going to be profitable.
* As the always excellent Sweet Words of Pismo Tality points out, Joe Brown’s explanation for why he didn’t include the verses to ‘I’m Henry the VIII, I Am’ was that he simply didn’t know they existed – he’d only ever heard the song as a pub singalong and hadn’t encountered Harry Champion’s original.