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December 4, 2013

Book Soundtrack: The Past and Other Lies

Music forms such a powerful background to our lives, and this was no less true in the 1920s, even with the iPod as yet not even a pipe dream. Radio broadcasts in England were still in their infancy – regular “entertainment” programs (broadcast, crucially, from the Marconi Research Centre) had only begun in 1922 – but young people like Bertha and Jemima, from The Past and Other Lies, would nevertheless have been familiar with the popular songs of the day. What were they humming as they hung the laundry in 1926?

    1. “Bye, Bye Blackbird” in not one but two versions, one (Gene Austin’s) distinctly goopier than the other (Nick Lucas’). A year later, Miss Josephine Baker would record the same tune, for Hit #3. It’s the right lyric for a nation wishing desperately to shake off the bad times.
    2. The crooning Mr. Austin had another two boffo successes in ’26: The perky “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue,” and an appropriately dreamy version of “Sleepy-Time Gal” (Ironically, Nick Lucas would do well with the same song later in the year, albeit in an odd, uke-heavy version).
    3. You’d think there were only a handful of melodies in the world! Both Al Jolsen and Paul Whiteman had hits with “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along.” For our money, Whiteman’s peppy arrangement wins the day, but we couldn’t find it on Spotify.
    4. The musical comedy “The Girl Friend” produced a big hit in the form of the titular song. This version, by George Olsen and His Orchestra, has a perfect distillation of what I tend to think of as the 1920s Sound.
    5. The charts were not entirely a boys’ club, nor were they devoted exclusively to upbeat little numbers: Ruth Etting found success with “Lonesome and Sorry”; her vibrato-y vocals, combined with the plinking piano, provide a great hallmark of the period.

The middle section of the book takes place primarily in 1945, and my but the musical landscape has changed! Radio (“wireless”) is now of course in just about every home, and popular music is stitched into the fabric of every-day activities.

    1. Topping the charts is Doris Day’s gorgeous, career-making version of “Sentimental Journey.” If your soul could use a little soothing, this will stroke it behind the ears.
    2. Also pretty tough to beat: Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers and “Ac-Cent-Chu-Ate the Positive.” This must at times have been a tough maxim to follow, but boy is it easy on the ears.
    3. “Take the A-Train” was written in 1939, but became a major hit in late 1944. If you’ve got a jones for jazz, check out this zippy instrumental by Gus Deloof.
    4. Not zippy at all, but very lovely: Jo Stafford’s chart-topping cover of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” It’s an aching elegy for the boys who weren’t coming home.
    5. No list of England’s popular songs of WWII would be complete without Miss Vera Lynn and “We’ll meet again.” Dare you to stay dry-eyed.

By the most recent section of the book, it’s the early 1980s, but things are a bit grim in Blighty (I say this from firsthand experience). There’s no war on, but Mrs Thatcher’s policies, combined with a struggling economy, are provoking riots in the streets. For the most part, though, you won’t know it from the radio, as the government-owned BBC – at this point one of only two legal listening options – is determined to pump out the pep. Jennifer and Charlotte are probably hip enough to be tuned into one of the many “pirate” stations, but the high street was bopping to the following beats:

    1. “Making Your Mind Up,” as performed by the truly terrifying Bucks Fizz. Connoisseurs of the dreadful will not be surprised to learn that this little ditty won the Eurovision Song Contest 1981.
    2. “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis,” by Kirsty MacColl. There was a period – a very, very long period – during which this played on Capital Radio roughly once every ten minutes.
    3. “Tainted Love,” by Soft Cell. Maybe not the best music ever, but a decent counter to Bucks Fizz.
    4. “Don’t You Want Me,” by Human League. About on par with “Tainted Love,” I’d say, and that buzzy disco back-track is as specific to its period as the 1920s’ nasal vocals are to theirs.
    5. Looking at some of the chart-toppers – John Lennon singing “Imagine,” Bowie and Queen feeling “Under Pressure,” even Roxy Music’s oddball cover of Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” – might tempt you to think that as musical years go, England’s 1981 wasn’t so bad. But consider: Adam and the Ants had the No. 1 album. The deeply bizarre “Shaddup You Face” was the hottest single in the country for almost an entire month. And the year kicked off with that hepcat favorite “There’s No One Quite Like Grandma,” as performed by the Saint Winifred’s School Choir.

And you wonder why Jennifer and Charlotte are a little twitchy.

Listen to the songs



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