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.
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?
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…
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).