Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage


This article was written on 18 Apr 2017, and is filled under Uncategorised.

In praise of Al Bowlly

In the thirties, opera was out of reach of most people. The grand, beautifully overblown gestures, the music that soared to a crescendo and the vaulting emotion were experiences that were for the social elite and for a precious few who were intimate with the music already. For people that were much further down the social food chain, there could still be music that elicited some of the same emotions and carried with it echoes of a rarified, refined world they could only dream of, but it came from dance bands and their singers. And a man called Al Bowlly was one of the very best.

I blundered over his music a few days ago while mucking around on iTunes and realised by happy chance that the songs I liked from that era were mostly sung by the same man, in a distinctively weary sounding voice that was heavy with longing and regret. And because the thirties are an era that seem to attract me like a fat, stupid, moon-headed moth to a flame, despite the fact that I was born in 1973, the era of beige wallpaper, polyester shirts and flares when the concerns of the so-called Long Weekend between the wars were very far distant, I was quickly pulled in. Reading about him on Wikipedia was my gateway drug and secondhand CDs on Amazon by dealer, so now, I fear, I am hooked.

What I’m trying to avoid is finding out too much about him so that my knowledge stands between me and the music, which is what happened with Elvis and Jackie Wilson. You can know so much about venal record companies, about shady business deals and about decline and inevitable early death that it ends up casting a pall of gloom over your CD collection such that to hear a track is to think ‘Ah yes, he recorded this shortly before his overdose’ and end up imagining what that might have looked like.

Instead, I know the minimum, which is Bowlly’s birth in Mozambique, his life in South Africa and his picaresque progress to Britain via Germany. He made a breakthrough in England, and travelled to America, where he came preciously close to making a breakthrough as well, before returning to England and recording again. A vocal wart nearly ruined him and made him to travel to the US for surgery, paid for by friends as Bowlly was not the most fiscally prudent, and he resumed his career. He had lost ground, though, and wider social changes meant that he was out of favour. His career had a brief renaissance with Jimmy Messene in a show called ‘Radio Stars With Two Guitars’ before he was killed in an air raid. The blast wave of a parachute mine exploding outside his house blew a door off his hinges, it struck him on the head and he died without a mark on him.

Such are the details. As a book by music writer Peter Guralnick said, after the stories about Elvis have faded, all that will be left of him will be the music and the same is true of Bowlly. His legacy, because he recorded a lot of songs, sometimes because he needed the money and sometimes for the exposure, is an amazing body of recordings. He seldom came back to a a song once it had been recorded, the exception being songs such as ‘Any Broken Hearts To Mend?’ recorded about two weeks apart in 1938, and all were set on 78rpm singles in a time before albums were a Thing. There is crackle and buzz on most of them, even the ones that have supposedly been digitally remastered, so to listen them is, figuratively, to be standing by a gramophone in some small and dingy flat long ago, pining for a lost love.

Bowlly himself was on the outward edge of his own adoptive world. Being born in Africa to Greek and Lebanese parents might have made him beautiful, but it also placed him squarely in the louche and slightly disreputable world of the time. Dance bands might have been broadcast live on the BBC from the Monseigneur, but this was an us and them world. They were up on the stage, you listened to them and your paths never crossed because that would be vulgar and they were show people. Women, though, liked Bowlly a lot, perhaps because of this, perhaps in spite of it, because transgressors are always sexy, and he was, like the rest of us poor sods, on the outside looking in at a largely imagined but very glamorous world all the same. The gap between him and the people who followed him was not as great as might be supposed.

The part of a documentary on Bowlly that really cuts through is the posh daughter of a dance band leader of the time, interviewed only a few years ago, saying that no, of course she hadn’t been to the funeral of Bowlly as she’d have been to too many funerals. Her voice, however, makes it clear she saw him as being one of the staff, no more than an entertaining hired hand. And if your butler keeled over, well, of course you wouldn’t go to his funeral as that’d be quite Wrong. Bowlly then, was an outsider to the end, from the moment he got off the boat in England to the moment he died. Even in the US, where the musicians’ union had teeth and used them to hole him below the waterline, he would have been the little English guy who was trying to take on Bing Crosby at his own game and, ultimately of course, would have to lose. Even the night he died, he was travelling back from a gig at the Rex Cinema in High Wycombe which was unlikely to have been wildly glamorous. He was, then, the outsider to the end.

Download some of his songs, buy a CD, but listen to him. Every single syllable is sincere and every moment invested with a complete and total desire to render the song in the truest way for his listeners. It’s impossible for me, a hopeless old buffoon, not to be touched by him crooning ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’ into the microphone or adore every moment of ‘Penny Serenade.’ Many of the titles tell their own story of sentiment heavily ladled on, such as ‘Love Is The Sweetest Thing,’ ‘Isn’t It Heavenly’ or ‘My Melancholy Baby,’ which is particularly lovely, and his friends said that Bowlly could sell a song so convincingly to his audience that he often turned away from the microphone with tears in his own eyes. This feels apocryphal, to my cynical old mind, but I’d like it to be true.

In the novel, ‘Brave New World,’ the popular culture of these songs and singers is mercilessly derided and made to seem inconsequential, no more than machine-made, syrupy, throwaway nonsense. With sentences like ‘a thousand sobbing sousaphones.’ Huxley was taking a pop at the music of the thirties, at the dance bands and perhaps Bowlly too, but it seems that he was missing the point.

This is music for people like me, low-class people with small dreams and narrow horizons who wanted some beauty in their lives and some emotion, some sense that there was or is something else beyond the cheap drudgery and sham. You don’t need opera, although it is indeed beautiful and much more accessible than it previously was. Instead, you can listen to Bowlly sobbing out his romantic woes in ‘Rip Tide,’ all within three minutes, or be transported to distant America in ‘Hang Out The Stars In Indiana’ or ‘Moonlight On The Highway,’ or listen to that weary, tender voice telling you, with your bruised and tender heart, that ‘It’s A Lovely Day Tomorrow,’ all clipped in at two minutes and 22 seconds. These are symphonies or arias for us and, as such, they are completely and utterly timeless.

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