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.

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).

There was quite a bit of traffic between the continents before the first World War. The Brits sent over Vesta Victoria, who was forever being comically jilted, and Alice Lloyd, Marie’s younger sister, who was harmless and had a voice like a nine-year-old. The Americans countered with ragtime and blackface and the big hit of 1904, “Under the Anheuser Busch” (the lyrics had to be altered in Blighty, the indigenes not yet having been reduced to drinking Budweiser). The ragtime here is mostly courtesy of Irving Berlin, but the blackface is thoroughly English—aside from the pro forma insertion of a few n-and c-words, the songs are grave, dignified, and free of any attempt at dialect or accent. Then there was Pete Hampton, a bona fide black American who went over and stayed. His 1904 rendition of “Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home” is a forceful reminder of that song’s ragtime backbone for anyone who grew up in the days when it was the standard number eked out on TV variety shows by comedians, jugglers, barflies, Broadway hustlers, and anybody else who couldn’t sing.

This box set is a mixed blessing, in my life at least. It is awe-inspiring, to a degree, to hear voices warbling across the span of a century, knowing just how much business lies in the stretch between their breath and yours. Some of the tunes are quite memorable, some of them so memorable and so relentlessly peppy that you’d be inclined to hire a contractor to remove them from your waking and sleeping consciousness. I might find myself singing some of them, like Charles Coborn’s “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo,” although my affection for it owes something to the memory of hearing it sung in the sleigh-ride scene of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons. The two songs I unreservedly love are anomalous: Nat Travers’s “He’s Moved in a Bigger House Now” and Billy Bennett’s “She Was Poor, but She Was Honest” are the two numbers in the set that draw blood. A few months ago a letter writer to the Times reproached those rockist sorts who have distorted history in favor of old murder ballads while disregarding the genius of Jerome Kern. I plead no contest. The Travers and Bennett numbers, which were recorded in 1929 and 1930, respectively, are the only two songs I can imagine being sung in a deadfall in Limehouse by cutpurses and harlots. Their humor is harsh, their accompaniment skeletal, and “She Was Poor” is even in a minor key. But of course the cutpurses and harlots of Limehouse in 1910 or 1930 would have gone for the dead-baby numbers, no question; crooks have always been notoriously sentimental. These are the only two songs that could be sung today without too much ironic framing—not because innocence has been lost, but because it’s become an alibi. The veneer of innocence now just looks sick and guilty. The rest of the songs, with their unguarded smiles and tears and buoyant major-key airs, wave faintly at us from a psychological past as remote as Troy.