Songs For London – Music Hall to Rock n Roll

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Andy Royston puts on his titfer and whistle and wraps his britneys around some ding dongs. I should cocoa…


Music hall songs are London’s folk songs. This is easy music, delivered in language as familiar to the elderly as to the child in the streets. Themes are interwoven with songs learned in the playground and the Sunday Schools, and delivered in the voices of the street barker and the barrow boy. They’ve borrowed from Shakespeare’s plays and Dickens’ stories and are full of ale and spit and sawdust.

Since medieval times London’s pubs and taverns had provided entertainment, and by the 1800’s London was awash with saloons – offering variety acts and booze to all comers. The ‘Penny Gaff ‘- a temporary temporary theater housed in a disused shop put on crude minstrel shows and bawdy entertainments. “Never did the scum and refuse of the streets so liberally patronise the entertainment as when deeds of violence and blood were the order of the night” wrote one J. Ewing Ritchie.

By the 1830s London’s more enterprising publicans had rooms dedicated to entertainment, bringing the venues up against the strict and complicated laws about performance. The rooms were all the rage. West End toffs slumming it with dockers and porters, shop girls and prostitutes. A rowdy atmosphere prevailed within the clouds of cigar smoke and the glow of gas lamps.

Then came the Theater Act of 1843. The government decided to scrap all previous laws concerning public performance and bring it all under one bill, consolidating a licensing system that meant that all plays had to be vetted and approved.

MusicHallPosterThe new law removed the distinction between patent and non-patent theater. It read in part that no person was “to have or keep any house or other place of public resort in Great Britain for the public performance of stage plays without authority of Letters of Patent or license from the Lord Chamberlain.” Now all sorts of reasons could and would be used hold the music halls in check.

To avoid issues with the law performances of all kinds were developed – full of innuendo and double-entendre.  The law was intentionally vague, and it took leading lights of 19th century theater led by George Bernard Shaw to fight for clearer wording in this law, which remained in place well into the 20th century.

In the pubs and music halls performances were full of insinuation and sarcasm. Seemingly innocent lyrics would take on a much more colourful hue in the flicking gaslights. And none were better at this than “The One And Only, the Beloved Queen of the Music Halls” Marie Lloyd.


Marie Lloyd When I Take My Morning Promenade

Marie-Lloyd-227619Marie’s performances were frequently considered to be offensive by the manner in which Lloyd performed. Adding winks and gestures, and creating a conspiratorial relationship with her audience. she had a knowing ad lib style such as Whacky Whack, and Tiggy Vous, and When you Wink the Other Eye. When yanked up before the Theater’s Vigilance Committee she famously presented a Tennyson poem, Come Into The Garden Maud laced with inuendo, to show that obscenity is entirely in the eye – or ear – of the beholder.

“Her brazen vulgarity, and impudent good humour her vitality and good sense were transferred without modification from the gutter to the stage. The double-entendre of her lines wittily paralleled the crudity of Cockney speech, and her pronunciation was uncontaminated by finesse.” William Matthews: A Short History of the Dialect of London


Harry Champion Any Old Iron

H_ChampionChampion was the epitome of the working class Londoner; beery, red-nosed and loud. Like Marie Lloyd he was a master of the bawdy gestures – songs like I was holding Me Coconut, The End of Me Old Cigar and Never Let Your Braces Dangle.

On stage the words shot out of him like bullets from a gun. He rattled off several songs in a monotonous voice, whirling his arms about with his foot tapping at the same time… He appeared grotesque, but it was the embodiment of the spirit of the poor parts of London. W.J. Macqueen-Pope

Champion had made his debut on the stage way back, and for a time performed black-face. But by the turn of the century he’s amassed a fine repertoire of songs that he rattled off at breakneck speed, including Boiled Beef and Carrots, Henery The Eighth and of course Any Old Iron. When war broke out Champion rustled up a new verse :

Give old England all you can, be generous and kind. 
Before you go to be tonight just see if you can find. 
Any old iron…


Noel Harrison Knees Up Mother Brown

noelHarrisonThis song dates back to the great war and armistice night, and,  being anonymously written, the song is a bugger to nail down.

Some place it as pre-Edwardian but as likely as not it goes back to the heart of music hall and folk dancing In London a knees up is a party or a dance – The whole  knees up, spoons on the knee, arse kicking attitude goes right back to Morris Dancing. In London boozers it became a rowdy version of the Can-Can and   generally brought the house down. All together “Oh no, what a rotten song…

Looking around the net this version of the song -by Rex Harrison’s son Noel, and British singing star Petula Clark, captures the best of it.


Elton and Caine Bull and BushMaybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner

eltoncaineAs music hall days gave way to variety, the old London songs became known across the country, yet many of the songs most associated with the capital were written under the shadows of war. Popularised by the popular duo Flanaghan and Allen, the Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner proved to be a great morale booster in the early days of WW2. Its writer, radio star Hubert Gregg reckoned it only took his twenty minutes to write whilst watching the doodlebugs flying over his home.

Down At The Old Bull and Bush is another cockney standard written for turn of the century music hall star,  Florrie Forde. It was blatantly adapted from an American song Under The Anhauser Bush and was one of the first songs of that era to make it onto gramophone.

Both these songs became sing-song standards. On the Michael Parkinson chat show, Michael Caine and Elton John show their cockney roots with a good old sing song. Elton in particular seems in his element.


Fred Astaire A Foggy Day (In London Town)

fredFred Astaire and George Gershwin go way back – Astaire (with his sister Adele) were part of Gerswins longest running broadway success, and it was the promise of writing for Fred that drew Ira and George Gerswin to Hollywood. Their first collaboration, Shall We Dance, had They Can’t Take That Away From Me, and “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” steal the show.

A Foggy Day (In London Town) was written for a second movie, A Damsel In Distress which starred Fred and Joan Fontaine. It’s been beautifully covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Norah Jones.

 “The refrain was born in under an hour, and the whole song was finished two days later. Verse, chorus, and lyrics possess the relaxed, conversational fluency which characterized the Gershwins’ work in this final springtime — a winsome, worldly casualness all the more persuasive for being the less insistent.” Adrian Corleonis : All Music Guide

I couldn’t not include this version, sung by Judy Garland to the cad and bounder himself, Terry-Thomas.


Noel Coward London Pride

cowardThis song was Noel Coward’s pithy response to Germany’s pilfering of an old London lavender seller’s song to create Deutschland uber Alles (he’s wrong, it was written by Joseph Haydn but you get the idea). Using the same tune he crafted this passionate peice while sitting on a bench at Paddington Station in the Spring of 1941 after another night of heavy bombing. The spirit of the Blitz shing through.

Coward – born in modest circumstances in the London suburbs was a self-created celebrity who  rose to hob nob with royalty. His wry songs and monologues were perfects vignettes on class and status.

London Pride has been handed down to us,
London Pride is a flower that’s free.
London Pride means our own dear town to us,
And our pride it forever will be.


Vera Lynn  A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square

veraDuring the war no one quite captured the heart of both the fighting men and the folks back home as Vera Lynn. The song, though tinged with Gershwin style melodies was written in a French cafe just months before the start of the second world war.

In the United States Americans made it a smash simply because it was a wonderful song. In London it was Vera Lynn’s version that people first heard, as German bombs rained all around. To British ears the song was intense and romantic. Variety wrote that its popularity was because “it brought a touch of light, warmth and charm into London homes. Glenn Miller and later Frank Sinatra brought it Stateside, but in the shadows of the the blitz the song meant so much more.


Stanley Holloway With A Little Bit of LuckI’m Getting Married In The Morning 

stanley-hollowayMusic Hall monologist Stanley Holloway was well known to British film audiences thanks to his involvement in Ealing comedies like Passport to PimlicoThe Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt.

But his Broadway turn as Alfred P. Doolittle brought the house down and he got to reprise the role in the George Cukor musical My Fair Lady. You can take your pick from With A little Bit of Luck and  Get Me To The Church on Time. (Skip to 4:00 for the song in the video clip below). The idea of turning George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion into a musical must have had the old bugger turning in his grave, but Stan kills it anyway.

Col. Pickering: Have you no morals, man?
Alfred P. Doolittle: Nah, can’t afford ’em. Neither could you, if you were as poor as me.



Ron Moody Gotta Pick a Pocket or Two

708full-ron-moodyThe big star of London west end musicals in the 50s was Lionel Bart, born Begetter to a family of galician Jews in Stepney. So when he was called on to turn Dicken’s Oliver Twist into a stage musical (Oliver!)he was the perfect man for the job. The original play was considered anti-semitic by some, but with Bart at the helm the Jewish characters in the story became much more sympathetic.

Best of them all was Ron Moody’s portrayal of Fagin. He took the role from its West End debut to an Academy Award nomination for the movie adaptation via good run on Broadway.

“So Fagin was a crook – but why paint him in such evil colours? Bart’s lyrics and music have already gone a long way towards humanizing the old goat, and I will surely be up there hoofing alongside him on the peaks of merriment!” Ron Moody : A Still Untitled (Not Quite) Autobiography

Dick Van Dyke Chim Chim-enee

Don’t even think about it. It never happened.

Lonnie Donegan My Old Man’s A Dustman

lonniedonegan1_2398941cDonegan was one of the most influential musicians in English history, thanks to his ‘skiffle’ reworks of old American folk and blues songs. Later in his career Donegan moved  more towards a music hall style with songs like My Old Man’s a Dustman co-written with his then manager Peter Buchanan.

The music hall style was a great fit with his young working-class audience looking for something lively and exciting. For the price of a cheap guitar they too could join in the fun, and the likes of John Lennon and Keith Richards did exactly that.


Max Bygraves Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be

maxMax Bygraves here shows how the music hall style was still alive and well into the rock n roll era. The song is a Lional Bart number with snappy lyrics, and Bygraves delivers it with gusto. Slipping into the Cockney was easy for an entertainer born and bred in Rotherhithe’s docklands. He was already crossing the Atlantic to appear on Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny, and Jackie Gleason shows.  He wasn’t very rock n roll though…

What Bygraves shows here is that the London accent was now perfectly acceptable to use in polite society. Fast talking comic Max Miller had done the ground work between the wars, and the likes of Charlie Chester, Kenneth Williams, Tony Hancock and Sid James had brought the London accent onto mainstream British radio.


Tommy Steele Flash Bang Wallop

steelTommy Steele was Britain’s first teen idol rock and roller, but he fell for the pressures and pleasures of Tin Pan Alley (Denmark Street, Soho) just as his stateside rivals did. He recalled he was paid around 4p a single in those days when there were no marketing departments. Entertainers were firmly in the hands of variety agents who would book singers alongside magicians, dancers and comics. Pantomime shows were about the most glamorous gigs in England.

From nervy rocking beginnings (see here) he quickly moved back into variety shows (he’d been a star since he was a little kid)  and a glittering career on the musical stage.

Tommy did it all – lavish, orchestrated TV specials- Half A Sixpence, Sining In The Rain – and Hollywood movies – Happiest Millionaire, Finian’s Rainbow in between record runs at the London Palladium theater.


newleyAnthony Newley Once In a Lifetime / Gonna Build A Daydream

One of the forgotten stars of the rock and roll era, Newley had a dozen top forty hits including two number ones. He wrote Feeling Good (made famous by Nina Simone) and the James Bond theme Goldfinger. Like Tommy Steele he moved easily into the London West End theatre and Broadway theatre stage, to Hollywood films and Las Vegas.

In 1963 he married film starlet Joan Collins, who famously described him as “A half Jewish Cockney git”. Newley’s trademark cockney delivery has been so influential, with the likes of Davy Jones (Monkees) and David Bowie citing his influence.


Part Two

Enough of the variety acts. In part two of Songs For London I’ll be in the jazz clubs, coffee houses and dive bars looking for swinging London. Behave…





Andy Royston is a designer, artist and photoblogger based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is one of the world’s best known mobile photographers and his work has been exhibited across the UK and Europe. He is the winner of the 2014 Mobile Photography Awards ‘Nature and Wildlife’ Award. Veteran of the London 1980s music scene, where he designed record sleeves for all kinds of rock stars and indie heroes he is a bottomless pit of musical trivia. Still looking for the next big thing he’ll be dropping into JAQUO.COM to write an irregular column on the musicians he’s most excited about.

Author: Jackie Jackson

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