I mentioned over the weekend that I’ve been wanting to get better at writing about music, and the only way to do that is simply to write. We learn by doing. To that end, a blog series to spotlight some of the music I have in my personal collection seems the way to go, and since I’ve gotten some interest, welcome to the first in the new series — Just Listen: A Musical Spotlight.
I couldn’t really decide where to begin, so I decided to load up everything into a media player and pick by shuffle. The first track up, that’s the album I’ll talk about first. There are advantages to having digital backups of everything you own. This is one of more screwball uses, I admit.
Speaking of screwball, the first album for this new project series is a triple play cleverly titled Three Classic Elsa Lanchester Albums. If the name Elsa Lanchester doesn’t ring a bell, odds are good (if you watch classic monster movies like I do) you may know her face, especially in makeup as the Bride of Frankenstein, from the 1935 Universal Studios sequel of the same name. You may also have seen her as Katie Nanna in Disney’s Mary Poppins. Between those films, she not only did a number of other films, she recorded some… nightclub music, of a sort.
As said, this collection is a bundle of three albums, originally on HiFi Records, re-released by Stage Door Records in December 2012:
Songs for a Smoke-Filled Room (1957)
Never Go Walking Without Your Hat Pin
If You Peek In My Gazebo
When A Lady Has A Piazza
The Rat Catcher’s Daughter
At The Drive In
If You Can’t Get In The Corners
The Husband’s Clock
Please Sell No More Drink To My Father
Linda And Her Londonderry Air
Songs for a Shuttered Parlour (1958)
I Didn’t Know Where To Look
The Yashmak Song
It May Be Life
Faith, Hope And Charity
I’m Glad To See Your Back
My New York Slip
The Janitor’s Boy
The Ruined Maid
She Was Poor, But She Was Honest
Cockney London (1960)
Our Three Penny Hop
When The Summer Comes Again
Her Golden Hair Was Hanging Down Her Back
He Didn’t Oughter
Burlington Bertie From Bow
Put My Little Shoes Away
He Danced The Fandango All Over The Place
At My Time Of Life
When I Came To This House
Mrs. Dyer, The Baby Farmer
The Old Kent Road
Won’t You Buy My Sweet Blooming Lavender
The Fire Ship
The best way I can describe the music on this collection is impish, risque, and right on the border of bawdy, performed as shamelessly as possible in some cases for maximum comic effect. It’s the sort of thing that, while somewhat tame by our modern standards, would have turned heads and caused a few cartoon spit takes back in the late 1950s when these albums were new. For example, there’s a tune called “Linda and Her Londonderry Air.” If you don’t get it, give it a moment and let it click. If you still don’t get it, this collection is probably not for you. While Lanchester sang these at nightclubs, most of these songs would have been equally served in a back room speakeasy or even a bordello. Now that I think about it, they probably were at one time. These albums are one part nostalgia, one part high camp, and one part over-the-top lunacy. Some of the tunes are most definitely offensive in today’s politically sensitive climate, the sort of thing that’s so wrong that only comedy could get away with until very recently.
Lanchester’s husband, Charles Laughton, served as a straight man to her comedic stylings. If you think of Abbott and Costello or George Burns and Gracie Allen, it’s along those lines. For much of these songs, he provides a kind of formal, semi-disapproving introduction.
Lanchester’s vocal style is an acquired taste, and much of that is part of the act. The performances are just her and a solo piano. On some of these tracks you can tell she really can sing. On a number of them… quality is sacrificed on the altar of comedy, so it’s more a caterwauling than anything else. I’d directly compare it to some of the Monty Python skits where Graham Chapman and Terry Jones are doing the old woman skits. Give it a listen and see how far you can go with it.
By this point, you’re likely questioning my musical tastes, and maybe some of you have already unsubscribed from this blog, fearing for the future of this particular project. There are times when I question my tastes too, but I find that sometimes there’s just no substitute for a dive off the deep end. We live in an insane world, and sometimes a little insanity is the only sane response. Consider something like this next time you get caught in a sound war with your neighbors: there are other means of ammunition than bagpipes or Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Like I said, Lanchester is a bit over-the-top; Julie London she’s not, nor is she trying to be. If you can get used to the performances, the songs themselves have a habit of growing on you rather quickly. Like a fungus. Say what you will, she most definitely had fun recording these tracks. If you can latch on to that, these songs can be a lot of fun. In our modern era, however, I’m required by law to recommend limited exposure.