Living the Thirties. Or in the Future. Really.

Writing about music usually kills it stone dead. However, given that all of the musicians in the broadcast are probably gone, allows me to vent some spleen.

It is often touted that the older days were gentler days and that the music was in some way softer and more harmless than our own days. Indeed I have spent many happy hours not only listening to the music of the old days but also spending a good deal of my professional life playing it too.

Youtube has allowed us to reassess opinions and facts that were formerly taken for granted and a wonderful thing it is too. The time is due for significant reassessment on all fronts.

Today, it is a broadcast of a complete programme from Thursday 13th September 1934 – more than eighty years ago.

And here is that broadcast.

The band in question is that of the Casani Club under its leader and pianist Charlie Kunz. This is a good band with a good leader and very good arrangements. But it is not appropriate to discuss personalities here, nor is it appropriate to discuss fashion of the time. I want to discuss the music and its effect.

The difficulty here is not that the music might be “bad” or “good” or that the lyrics might be either banal or “full of meaning” – for these things they might be to some ears – but No.

What irks most is the beat combined with the tempo – the unrelenting jolliness and the enforced happiness; the overall lack of comfort in the music.

It would be impossible to relax to this music, no matter how sweetly arranged – or played – it was. Perhaps it is the three minute arrangements that jar. Perhaps it is the angularity of the melodic lines. Perhaps it is the modulation in each petit reprise. Whatever it is, there is a definite problem with this music.

Of course we could not listen like this unless somebody had recorded it off site. And this is the remarkable thing. Because we like our nostalgia tidy; nipped and clipped and clean and in tiny tiny chunks. Presented here, as it was originally, for real and in its entirety, complete with gaps in the broadcast, it is truly shocking and it is dreadful.

This was music for the home listener, at his or her wireless. Maybe because it was scheduled at 5.15pm, few were listening as most ears and headphones would probably have been tuned to Daventry and the more gentle – and genteel – Children’s Hour – or the regional versions. But what about those who were listening?

This music nowadays speaks to us of opulence and plenty. Thirties plenty. Art deco plenty. Of relaxation and fun. Of big hotels and big clubs, plush and all and with big alcoholic drinks and shiny dresses and brilliantined hair. But I doubt if there really was that much of all that about at the time. And certainly not in the homes of the listeners.

Listening with your thinking ear, you can hear in the thudding and never ending dukdukdukduk of four-in-a-bar beat, the hard surfaces of 1930s domestica; the choking dust of a warm and dry mid-September afternoon; the stone pavements and roads; the whir and click of machinery; the unkind modes of travel and the hardness of the whole pattern of life at the time. This music was no comfort to anybody ever and contains no salve – not even in the flattened subdominant and supertonic chords.

The wailing singing – sometimes, barely in tune – so redolent of the milk a-curdle under its beaded fly-net in the jug on the table; the voices sometimes choking themselves in the Woodbine or Players Weights-laden air or the desiccated atmosphere of sun-cracked towns and villages at teatime (before rain of course) – sounds just a little panic stricken. It is as though some frightened young ingenue were just thrown before the microphone.

Unkind is this?

Not really.

I am very glad that somebody with far too much money and time on their hands managed to record part of the real soundtrack of the lives of those that really went before us. It has allowed us to see and hear those days for what they were.

This was the soundtrack to death from bacteria; no antibiotics; no National Health Service; hunger; poor food and worse nutrition; blinding poverty; social care from wealthier ladies and gentlemen of the church (if they could); prayer and eau de cologne as cures for sea sickness (and unwanted pregnancies); clean clothes once a week; no washing machines; tuberculosis rife; no vacuum cleaners; nits; fleas and lice; houses full of flies; no central heating; no heating upstairs; no hot water; five effective drugs; no television; restricted educational opportunity; high unemployment; wage reductions; homelessness; coal; soot and various filth…

Not nice.

At all.

Try and listen to the broadcast. All of it. But when I say listen, I mean listen – don’t just hear it. and don’t be just fascinated by the historical aspect. Notwithstanding the flaws of the recording equipment, it is mesmerising but also unhappy and uncongenial.

This is music written by unsympathetic big business and promoted by them too. For most people, this is all that there was.

After this period and the war which followed, there was a lot of Public Service Broadcasting and Public Service that we got right. What a pity that we now dismiss it so easily. We are made to laugh at it. We are about to ruin it and dump it all for ever. Shame on those in charge and those who make fun of it. We should be aghast. We are in danger of returning to those days again.

If we feel nostalgic for the sounds from ages of hardness and desperation when few could afford to care about general good and welfare (and those in power did not), what on earth will we feel when the general good and welfare that came after it and everybody worked so hard for is gone?

I expect we will all be remembering it (crying about what we had and lost) as when it was really good (but really good) (no truly good) (truthfully) (even for real).

Oh and the music was great too.

(but only in small doses).

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4 thoughts on “Living the Thirties. Or in the Future. Really.

  1. Oh, my. I gave this a go. Yep, I gave it a listen. By the time I “got through” half of “Tiddlywinks”, I just couldn’t take anymore. I really did listen with my best thinking intentions, and have thus come up with some sporadic thoughts in response. So, this is what I think:

    First of all, wasn’t recording of music at a very rudimentary level back then? I am hoping what sounds like an awful lot of slurring and poor intonation is due to the feeble sound recording methods being employed. Surely, no orchestra could play THAT out of tune….

    I did begin even with the first song, to notice a need on my part to sway and swing in beat to the music. Then, I noticed this is DANCE music, after all. This is a good thing, and I realized that if anything can be enjoyed from listening to the melodies, an audience might do whatever they are doing at home, in a happier way….such as dusting, polishing, folding and ironing. The music is rather mindless, but it does instigate movement. (more about this in a second)…

    Further ideas rolled into my brain having to do with the melodies themselves showing great potential for embellishment or at the very least, further development. But, it never came. A few horn toots interjected in syncopated style hinted to such possibility, but nothing substantial ever truly stemmed from this. Simply put: I ached to have more concepts unfold within the music, and it didn’t. Next thing I would notice after such an epiphany; the tune would abruptly end. Missed opportunity is what I heard.

    By the third song, the “drivingness” for lack of a better word, became monotonous. Ouch. Truly bad stuff. There was a brash piano that started in the first quarter of the song which had an enticing tinkling and trail of keys that perked my ears up immediately. But, then, it just fizzled out. Rather like a firework that proves to be a dud. Bummer!

    The announcer had an annoying way of breaking the spirit that was being attempted. I guess this was for the benefit of the radio listeners without any visual at all. It just seems a smoother way to do accomplish this could have been considered. However, this informant reminded me again, that this is Kunz’s DANCE music.

    That’s when it occurred to me that ALL this music is really meant for the vaudeville stage… tap dancers, waltzers, fox-trotters and silken sashayers. Their feet would provide the missing elements! Especially the songs that clearly were meant for tap dance such as the Tiddlywinks. I stopped and went back to listen to the “Jungle Fever” and vividly heard via my visual brain, the images of Charleston steps. I know the Charleston, and had danced it in high school for a skit routine, once. There it was, embedded in the song because my mind visualized it as a fill in for the missing notes. When I listened to the “Capri “song, the waltz was right there…and yes, I can see why the insistence of the male framing the female is so important because in this song, she might have fallen asleep on his shoulder! In the “Nasty” I heard the tango…again the music is so muted and devoid of flare…but that is for the dancers to showcase. Let’s hope they did! Even Fox-trot surfaced in my mind while listening. And true, the title on the recording says Dance Music, but, it did not really become evident until I listened for awhile, that this music was created just for dance, either at a theatre or in a ballroom. Not as a genre to be appreciated just by itself.

    Therefore, with poor equipment and the infancy of the sound recording industry, this music and recordings are rather pitiful, I agree. However, I did feel the lightness and fun in some of it, and the corny romantic in the words. I have no problem with this. One of the purposes of music is to be a diversion. A suitcase is packed and a jalopy is idling out in front, ready to take the humdrums and albatrosses away from one’s life. I know the thirties were severe times, even across the pond in America. My mother has regaled me of the gangster tirades and the meagre pickings that were a part of every day experience. This is why there was an exodus west to California, to escape it all. No matter what families needed relief from, (and I completely understand how you, Vox, have detailed those important needs); there is one salient fact. The 30’s musical effort was made to jingle and jostle away such troubles. Granted, it was made by obnoxious repetition, hammering rhythms, restricting bounce at times, shrieking trumpets and screeching violins….but, you know, it just may have accomplished a smidgen of relief after all. That era was all about sitting around the radio. It was all about visualization. It was all about imagination. and it was all about infectious toe tapping that ultimately led to getting up off the couch and wiggling solo or in tandem with a partner. Clearly, this, is what that rather “infantile” music inspired. Finally…just think, the thirties music was the fertilizer, (stinky but had some basic nutrients), for the rich and exciting sound of the forties. Perhaps, the music of the Benny Goodmans and Glen Millers may never have come along, without the crude “soil” of this bygone era.

    1. Hi Svenskaborschka,
      I am very interested in your comments here and I think that you just may have come to almost the same conclusion – although I see that you are more optimistic than I. You also very kindly point out the differences on both sides of the Atlantic, and I tend to agree with you – although, I must say that much American music was gentler and with less of the harshness that I found here.

      I do take your point about the recording techniques of the day. Alas, intonation is rarely distorted by recording techniques, so I think that there may well have been some sloppy playing. The music is certainly mindless. This is a very good choice of word indeed, as it fits the broadcast to the limit.

      The lack of embellishment is also a great mistake, and makes for unhappy listening. There is no leavening here; no salve.

      I see you also found and hit the hard edge of the pulse. It is relentless and would quite easily have led more than one person to advise another to “put a sock in it”.

      It is as you say, the musical equivalent of a cerebral valerian. However, I love your honest and deep perception (that I had not seen) that you say that this was the “fertilizer – stinky but with basic nutrients” for the later 30s and 40s. Thank goodness for the great arrangers (in both countries too) who came later.

      I have to say, that had I heard this at the time of the broadcast, it would have been difficult to do much but scrub away. I should think it would be a reasonable precursor to a prolonged bout of hysterical laughter, prior to removal by force to a “place of safety”. But even worse – imagine having to play this stuff day in day out! My goodness! It would be like living in purgatory!

  2. Oh good gravy! I really gave it the ole college try, but tonight the music sounded even worse. How on earth could composers compose such music babble? I mean seriously? Not a decent motif anywhere! The so called piano solo sounded more like when my son would be practicing a difficult part and have to bang away repeatedly to get his finger memory cemented. Well this piano solo had about as much luster as actual cement! Then the love song which followed was so far from alluring that had a person sung it to me, I would have immediately grabbed my car keys and driven off. Either that or just stare at the gent and try to keep my laughter suppressed. The song meant for a tango had about enough drama in it as a wet slice of bread. Feeling relieved the song was over, because the violin in that fated piece sounded more like someone was playing a handsaw! I hoped for something better. Then, instead a mealy-mouthed female attempted to sing another love song. Again-badly out of tune and just -ridiculous! My assessment is that everyone must have been on some heavy medication back then to have either endured, performed or having had written this claptrap. I always wanted to be able to use that word correctly and I think now is the time… I am rather sad for all those ears that had to put up with these attempts at music. To me, the whole lot is akin to a very sickly patient who needs some drastic surgical overhaul. I really thought this middle third would be pretty good, but boy was I wrong. I might…, and this is a rather weak “might”, I might listen to the last third tomorrow. I may need a strong liquified inducement in order to pull it off, though. How disappointing this music was, thus far.

    Methinks you know of what you speak, Vox!

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