England's Oldest Hitmakers

In the beginning the ideal pop tune was as simple and irreducible as an egg, and once it had entered your head you couldn't drive it out with any device short of frontal lobotomy. It had to be so in the early days of the entertainment industry (pop songwriting got going sometime between the 1830s and the 1870s, but the business was just approaching adolescence in the early 20th century) because there was no radio and few could afford gramophones. People heard pop tunes at shows—revues, pantomimes, operettas—and reproduced and communicated them by singing or whistling. Technology has since made whistlability optional; these days the only musical form that lives and dies solely on the basis of its mnemonic adhesion is the advertising jingle. The mammoth 106-track Bear Family compendium Round the Town, on which the earliest recording was made February 7, 1901, includes tunes so elemental that they've survived, if only through some intermediary agency. "Daisy Bell," for example, a hit for Katie Lawrence in 1893, we know from Hal the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey (I had actually heard it "sung" by a demonstration computer two years before the movie came out).

Music hall was, roughly, the British counterpart to the American institution of vaudeville. Acts toured constantly, appearing on stacked bills in theaters all over the country, singers and comedians alternating with magicians, trapeze artists, dramatic monologuists, "eccentric" dancers, and animal acts. All classes and all segments of the population attended these shows, if not always at the same venues. Although they waned after World War II, both institutions took a very long time to die. In America the form survived longer than the content—as recently as the 1970s, James Brown was touring with a revue that included ingenue singers, comedians, and a fashion show.

In Britain the music itself lingered on. Some of the monuments on this package, whose narrative thread runs through the late '20s, kept performing into the '60s and found themselves sharing bills with Cliff Richard and the Shadows. But by then the stuff had apparently been woven into the double helix of British pop. The Kinks, once they were done inventing heavy metal, reverted to a music-hall default setting, brilliantly updated; the Beatles invoked music hall on any pretext; even the Rolling Stones gave it the occasional whirl (e.g., "Something Happened to Me Yesterday"). Meanwhile, "Henry the Eighth," a major hit for Harry Champion in 1911, was a major hit for Herman's Hermits in 1965, and years later you still couldn't get away from it—on school buses and at summer camp it was as inevitable and pestilential as "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." As if it were a dormant virus seeking a population that hadn't been immunized, it was released as a single only in America.

'Arry Champion: 'E got married to the widow next door.
Photographs courtesy of Bear Family
'Arry Champion: 'E got married to the widow next door.


Round the Town: Following
Grandfather's Footsteps;
A Night at the London Music Halls

Bear Family import
Buy Listen

The selection here is not an impartial X ray of the genre. Notably—and wisely—it omits the sentimental morbidity, the dying mothers and dead babies bathed in a golden syrup that would send any contemporary human racing for a purgative. Neither does it dwell much on romance, also a subject usually glued shut with tears and sugar; patriotic themes, too, are thankfully limited. Instead it throws every kind of novelty at the listener, like so many dead cats over a fence. Music hall is best remembered for its novelties. If novelty is defined (as the current Britannica entry has it) as a type of song designed to sound unlike anything else on the charts at the time, then music hall, a culture of novelties, was something of an oxymoron. Then again, since its musical range and character were kept purposely narrow (simple, catchy, buoyant, major-key), its novelties were primarily verbal. Songs capitalized on vogue expressions, on recent inventions, on current events—although without much trenchant satire of the sort that could spark discontent—and worked 10,000 variations on the comedy of marital strife. Accents, mostly cockney but occasionally northern, were deployed for comic effect. Enunciation was generally crisp. Rhymes fell into place like billiard balls in the pocket.

Actually, the performers were themselves the novelties, each embodying some character type, at once broad and singular. At this remove it's hard to say whether Mark Sheridan was parodying an identifiable stock figure with his monocle, flaring coat, high-water bell-bottoms, and ruthlessly cylindrical top hat, or whether he just put together an eccentric outfit of his own devising (his song "I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside" sticks in the mind like gum on a shoe, in any case). George Formby, father of an identically named and more famous son, is photographed looking like a failed Paul McCartney after a long bout of the grippe, and playing what might be a ping-pong paddle as if it were a guitar. The very fetching Happy Fanny Fields escaped from America, where she was one of a zillion "Dutch" (that is, German-accented) comedians, to London, where she cornered the market. Phil Ray clipped his lines as if doing so would save him money, and his extraordinary band played catch-up with the resulting jagged tempo. The perkily boyish Vesta Tilley and the commanding Ella Shields were male impersonators, the latter's deep voice particularly convincing. The rubber-faced Dan Leno, a household name in his day, was one of a number of performers here for whom a mere snatch of song sufficed to lead into a spoken comedy routine, which regrettably doesn't translate all that well into contemporary laffs. Marie Lloyd, buxom and toothy, was also a huge star, and you can understand why—she exuded a jolly, earthy, carefree sexuality, so much so that the stiff Americans couldn't handle her (she "traveled openly" with a jockey who was not her husband, for one thing, and for this was held at Ellis Island until her promoters bribed her way out).

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