Tuesday, 19 April 2016

#LondonSongs - London Pride

With the launch of The Rolling Stones Walk on the 5th May 2016 and the return of the Rock'n'Roll London Pub walk on Wednesday nights from the 4th May 2016 the London Walks summer programme 2016 will feature no less than FIVE regular musical-themed walking tours.

To mark the occasion, April is Music Month on The Daily Constitutional!

DC Editor Adam writes… During Music Month I'm collecting London music to shape The Big London Playlist. Get in touch with your faves!

Sir Noel Coward on the wall of Rules Restaurant as spotted on the Inside Covent Garden walk

Adam writes…

The years I spent working as a theatre critic coincided with something of a sea change in British drama: a revival in the fortunes of the generation of British dramatists working before the theatrical revolution of '56 and Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court Theatre.

This always set me at a disadvantage: I never much cared for mid-20th Century English plays. I was frankly glad that John Osborne and co had seemed to rid me of the need to sit through them ever again.

Amid this swingeing criticism, I might set Terence Rattigan slightly to one side – the gay subtext of his plays, in an era when homosexuality was a crime in the eyes of the law in this country, adds a depth to such piecess as Separate Tables and The Deep Blue Sea that I always struggled to find in the works of his contemporaries.

Noel Coward as a playwright was always a particular bugbear. I always found Coward's plays to be smug. Facetious, flimsy, shot-through with a venal snobbery.

There. I've said it now.

In mitigation, I truly believe Noel Coward to be one of the world's premier writers of pop songs. For me, this is where his true genius lies.

As a composer of memorable melodies he can hold his own with Gershwin (If Love Were All is a great example, esp in Garland's version); his lyrics are every bit as good as Cole Porter, and often much funnier (he even makes a wisecrack about Porter in the lyric for Nina From Argentina). And better than both, he performed his own songs with a delivery as special in the realm of popular singers as those of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

Coward could be waspishly critical of other musicians and would not, I'm sure, thank me for the last two comparisons. If he found The Beatles to be "completely devoid of talent" (!), then I shudder to think what he would have made of Dylan and Cash.

The business of compiling a Big London Playlist would be incomplete without Coward's great love song to this city…

Inspiration for London Pride struck Coward at Paddington Station in 1941 as he watched Londoners going about their business in the aftermath of an air raid. It is said that he aimed, in terms of melody, to repatriate the tune "borrowed" by Joseph Haydn for Deutschlandlied, the German national anthem almost always incorrectly referred to as "Deutschland Über Alles". According to Coward's biographer Sheridan Morley, Coward believed the original melody to be an old English folk song (although others claim it is Croatian in origin).

Whatever the origin may be, the combination seems momentous to me: the moment of inspiration in the depths of London's darkest hour; the age-old melody pressed into patriotic service. It's a song with a story with a story all its own – in other words, a London folk song.

Coward's version (see above), with that clipped delivery of his, is doughty and embattled, dignified and tentatively hopeful. Not only is it a folk song. It's a London blues, too: a melancholy tune that lifts the spirits. Rare is the patriotic song that strikes a note of uncertainty, of beautiful frailty, of nuance beyond the sentiment My Country Right Or Wrong. Coward's London Pride is that song. Complex, understated, haunting, simple yet sophisticated, of his life's work - plays, films and songs – this for me is his masterpiece.

Given the context of the song it will come as no surprise that the great wartime star Vera Lynn also recorded a version, and a very fine one, too. But I'd like to point you in the direction of my second favourite version of the song. London Pride leads the London Sequence from the "greatest hits" show Cowardy Custard (surely due for a big revival), staged at The Mermaid Theatre in the City of London in 1972. I'll be returning to The Mermaid in a post about Lionel Bart, my other great London songwriting hero, very soon here on The Daily Constitutional. In the meantime you can listen to London Pride - and many more Coward gems on the original cast album from Cowardy Custard…

If you have a favourite London song or piece of music then get in touch!

A London Walk costs £10 – £8 concession. To join a London Walk, simply meet your guide at the designated tube station at the appointed time. Details of all London Walks can be found at www.walks.com.

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