The Forgotten World of Pre-Rock Pop Music – Maddy Costa

Here is an article written by Maddy Costa for the Guardian newspaper January 14th, 2010. It makes for a good read and illustrates the vagaries of passing trends, musically or otherwise.

'When Bert Ambrose died, on 11 June 1971, he was down on his luck. He was the manager of singer, Kathy Kirby, whose ­career was in terminal decline, and his own heyday was buried in the rubble of the second world war. Once, he had been one of the highest-paid musicians in Britain, a pop star before such a term was coined. He performed every Saturday night on BBC radio, recorded countless singles, and was renowned for having an unerring ear for a hit. But by 1971, popular culture had ­forgotten him.

Ambrose and his contemporaries in the 1930s dance-band scene, such as Lew Stone, Jack Hylton and Ray Noble, were by the beginning of the 70s revered only by the nostalgic, and those for whom rock'n'roll and everything that followed it represented an unlistenable racket. They were beginning to receive appreciation from jazz fans; in the same year that Ambrose died, Albert McCarthy, a leading jazz writer of the day, published one of the first books to celebrate the dance bands. But these refined music-makers from an alien era had nothing to offer to kids raised on electric guitars. Nik Cohn wrote them out of pop history in the opening chapter of his scabrous book Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, published in 1968, when he was 22. Modern pop, he declared, began in the mid-50s and was raucous and wild, while the music of the 30s was "soft, warm, sentimental … snug like a blanket". It was old people's music, and it deserved to be buried in dust.
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It's true that the British dance bands of the 1920s and 30s don't conform much to post-rock'n'roll notions of what ­constitutes a pop act. They looked more like orchestras: a bandleader up front, often with a conductor's baton; musicians divided into sections of rhythm, brass, wind instruments, sometimes strings; singers who were essentially anonymous, their names only rarely credited on recordings. Yet they formed the soundtrack to British life, and helped to shape the pop industry that we know today.

Their existence coincided with the birth of both radio and record companies, which freed musicians from an existence confined to theatres and music halls – and allowed pop fans to experience their favourite songs at home without having to play them themselves on a piano in the front room. The dance bands quickly realised the commercial potential of these new media, and exploited it fully. One of the more lamentable results of this ­savviness was a preponderance of novelty songs in the dance bands' discographies, from The Teddy Bears' Picnic to Makin' Wickey Wackey Down in Waikiki.

Equally prevalent was the sentimental ballad, the quivering, lachrymose music that Cohn found so distasteful. It's true that songs like Goodnight Sweetheart or Love Is the Sweetest Thing, both written by Ray Noble, threaten to clog modern ears with treacle. But it's also remarkable how little the sentimental ballad has changed in the decades since singers like Al Bowlly, Britain's answer to American crooners such as Bing Crosby, learned how to negotiate a microphone. And these 1930s songs have a wonderful purity of emotion, ­comforting in its tenderness.

In between these two extremes, the dance bands adopted myriad styles and put their stamp on a preposterous number of songs. They worked almost ceaselessly: the leading bands performed once a week on radio, but also nightly in a West End hotel or nightclub, plus afternoon sessions in the recording studio, committing up to 12 songs at a time to wax. And dance-band life presented irritations at every turn. Playing live to high-society audiences, they had to play waltzes and foxtrots at a volume that was loud enough to dance to, but not so loud as to disturb anyone's ­conversation. It was "oom ching, oom ching, all night long", wrote Sid Colin, a guitarist with the Ambrose and Lew Stone bands, in a memoir of the era. Song ­publishers were in charge of the music industry, and controlled which band could record which song, and what they could do to it. Meanwhile, the BBC – directed by John Reith, who believed ­culture should provide edification, not entertainment – frequently betrayed ­misgivings at allowing pop bands so much airtime. Most strikingly, in 1929 the ­Corporation made the bewildering decision to ban announcements of song titles, and even the singing of lyrics that made the title obvious. Public outcry ensured that this edict lasted only a few months.

If more American songs from this era are remembered today than British ones, that's partly because so much of the dance bands' material was sourced from the US. It's in their attempt to assimilate American music – and particularly African-American music – that the dance bands most set a precedent for the decades of British music-making that followed their decline. They couldn't always pull it off: the Ambrose band's 1933 recording of the Johnny Mercer song Lazybones, with its deep south inflections translated into cut-glass English by singer Sam Browne, is just execrable. But at their best, the dance bands managed to marry an English restraint and sophistication with a more loose-limbed style of playing adopted from African-American jazz to create a music that thrilled "teenagers" two ­decades before they were identified as a separate tribe.

Some of the jazz-inspired recordings of the 1930s are startling for their modernist, even futuristic sounds – sounds that continued to reverberate, decades later, in surprising ways. Message from Mars, one of many electrifying instrumentals ­composed by Ambrose's reed-player and leading arranger Sid Phillips, contains whirring melodies that anticipated 1950s and 60s space-pop; the instrumentation in the Tornados' 1962 chart-topper ­Telstar may be different, but the sentiment isn't. Slicing through Lew Stone's arrangement of a Bing Crosby hit, My Woman, is a ­snarling melody that will sound familiar to anyone who knows Darth Vader's theme music in the Star Wars films; the same melody sampled gave a sinister undercurrent to a 1997 No 1, Your Woman by White Town.

The sepia-tinted spectacles through which the dance bands are viewed today wash out that modernity. We see the ­musicians impeccable in their evening dress, entertaining glamorous society crowds; we don't see them finishing a West End job at 2am and rushing to one of the underground nightclubs such as the Nest, a hangout for London's almost invisible black community, to passive-smoke pot and jam until dawn. To be fair, radio listeners of the 1930s didn't see them that way either: it was a widespread complaint among bands that the conservatism of audiences prevented them from being as musically adventurous as they would have liked.

That became a problem when American dance musicians began to rethink their relationship with jazz. Benny Goodman got the ball rolling in 1935, when his band performed some 1920s arrangements by the black musician Fletcher Henderson, and thus invented swing (the same process by which white singers in 1950s America appropriated black rhythm & blues songs and created rock'n'roll). Swing was brash, energetic, unfettered: by comparison, Sid Colin later wrote, British dance music sounded "effete and fussily old-fashioned". And swing ­heralded other ­developments, notably the schism between jazz and youth-­oriented pop: on the one hand, young black musicians, exasperated by this colonisation of jazz, evolved a more abstract music dubbed bebop; on the other, the singers who appeared with dance bands reacted against their accessory status and began solo careers.

British musicians wanted to respond to these changes, but as the 1930s ­proceeded,the rise of Nazism became a more pressing concern. The outbreak of war in 1939 didn't put a stop to the dance- band scene – people still needed entertaining, to keep morale up – but it did eradicate musical innovation. And even when the war ended, British pop remained in stasis. New bands came into being, notably that led by Ted Heath, previously a trombonist with Ambrose and Geraldo, and many musicians clung to this existence for ­several decades. But as the 1940s drifted into the 50s, the only thing that passed for change in the pop scene was the unassailable rise of the singer – and British audiences were not especially enamoured of British singers.

It's salient that when the American ­bandleader Tommy Dorsey – who had, in the early 1940s, helped to launch the career of Frank Sinatra – invited English singer Denny Dennis to join his band in 1948, Dennis's British career was in the doldrums. As far as the British were ­concerned, the one vocalist who ­compared favourably with his American contemporaries was Al Bowlly, and he had been killed by a bomb in April 1941. Week after week following its launch in 1952, the NME singles chart was packed with American names. The exceptions – Vera Lynn, Dickie Valentine, Lita Roza – had, like their American counterparts, chiefly started their career with a dance band. No wonder Bill Haley and the Comets' Rock Around the Clock had such a seismic impact on British teenagers when it arrived here in 1954: it was the first new sound they had ever heard. Even so, the next few years of rock'n'roll copyist British pop output were also dismissed by Cohn as "pure farce", sealing the impression that no British pop before the Beatles is worthy of attention.

Not everyone has shared this dismissive attitude, and much has been done since the 1960s to keep the dance-band sound alive. Much of that activity has been on the fringes of pop culture: there are still bands who tour the country ­performing this repertoire, plus several independent labels dedicated to reissuing dance-band material, and internet-based radio stations that play nothing recorded post-1960. But some of it has had a striking effect on the mainstream. During the 1970s and 80s, film-maker Dennis Potter did much to revive interest in the dance bands, notably with his 1978 TV drama Pennies from Heaven, where the dreamily nostalgic soundtrack of 1930s popular songs contrasted sharply with the dark and challenging storyline of adultery and murder.

A revival was in the air when Potter was working, and that was reflected by the BBC. From the early 1970s until 2008, 30 minutes of Radio 2 time each week were dedicated to the dance-band era, latterly in a Sunday night programme presented by DJ Malcolm Laycock. That ended when the Radio 2 producer with most responsibility for this music, Bob McDowell, decided it was time to integrate British dance bands into a bigger picture of ­international big band music. In keeping with the BBC ­tradition, established in 1929, of infuriating dance-band fans, this break with tradition has caused uproar among listeners, who have been petitioning furiously to have the programme reinstated.

In their way, today's nostalgia enthusiasts are as conservative as audiences were 80 years ago: it's hard to imagine a compilation of music by Lew Stone, or Ambrose, let alone the black British dance bands, topping a 21st-century album chart the way Vera Lynn did in August this year. Because the dance band scene atrophied while Britain was at war, the temptation to sentimentalise this "golden age" is ­irresistible. But the era contained more variety, and more excitement, than this sentimental picture gives credit for – and until that is recognised, the dance bands will remain separate from British pop ­history, buried in dust.'

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