‘Our House Is Haunted’
Every All Hallows’ Eve since time immemorial (or 2015, as we call it round here), we’ve featured a song appropriate for the season. And this year we are delighted to welcome into the fold the great George Formby.
According to the leading George Formby site, this is the recording he made as his audition for the Decca record label in 1932 – hence presumably the lack of orchestration – and it’s a very different Formby from his later, more famous incarnation. It’s also a better Formby, a really rather beautiful Formby.
His singing is lugubrious rather than cheery, and it drags, nervous and fearful, against a drawing-room piano background. It helps that the song is a cracker: a deadpan account of a man being terrified by a ghost in his house, while his wife remains suspiciously unafraid. Some of the detail is almost like M.R. James in its evocative abstraction: ‘I ‘eard things like knives being sharpened…’
The song, as it happens, was one of his dad’s, the original George Formby, the Wigan Nightingale. He never recorded it, but you can tell that the son is channelling the father. At the time, Formby Jr had yet to forge his own identity, was still trading on the idea of being a chip off the old block, and this recording is best seen as being virtually a tribute act.
You can hear the difference when, in 1936, now a successful artist in his own right, Formby re-recorded the song under the title of ‘The Ghost’. It’s not really very good – certainly not a patch on the first version. He’s playing it for laughs, he can’t keep the chuckle out of his voice, and that’s all wrong – it undermines the dark humour if there’s any hint of awareness on the part of the narrator. The arrangement is too gimmicky as well.
Incidentally, George Formby Sr’s record ‘I’m Frightened to Go to Sleep Again’ (c. 1917) is macabre enough for Hallowe’en as well:
I dreamt I was in Yankeeland, my misery was complete;
I thought I’d got a job to shove the armour on the meat.
Upon a lump of potted meat my little boots had tripped,
And in the chopping up machine I very nearly slipped.
Part of the joy of the recording is that he completely messes up the rhythm of the second verse, stops the band and starts it again. Then he screws up the second chorus as well. And he’s so self-confident that he doesn’t care. (Unless the mistakes are staged, of course, but I don’t think they are.)