I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The late Victorian and Edwardian periods were the heyday of British music hall entertainment. Audiences enjoyed jugglers, magicians, acrobats, and songstresses with romantic ballads. However, among the most popular acts were the comic songs.
1. “The Simple Pimple”
George Robey was one of the biggest stars of the music hall. He was known as the Prime Minister of Mirth and had a career on the stage that lasted six decades.
His pantomime dame was a crowd-pleaser and he even ventured into Shakespeare, playing Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1.
In the music hall, he wore a black frock coat, squashed bowler hat, and gave himself a red nose, as he stepped onto the stage to sing “The Simple Pimple.” Written in 1891 by E.W. Rogers, the song became one of Robey’s signature pieces. It told the story of Maria Brown, and the sheet music for it proclaimed it was “Sung with the greatest possible success by George Robey.” The opening verse describes the poor woman’s misfortune:
“I courted once a pretty girl dressed in the smartest clothes
She’d only one defect which was a pimple on her nose
I thought I was her first love, but my pals said, ‘Well, what cheek,
Old man, that girl of yours went out with three of us last week.’ ”
Harmless stuff by today’s standards, but a century or so ago it had them, as the saying goes, “rolling in the aisles.”
2. “I’m One of the Ruins Cromwell Knocked About a Bit”
Marie Lloyd was known as the Queen of the Music Hall and enjoyed a career that lasted four decades, with top billing for most of those years. Her songs were full of saucy double meanings as in “What Did She Know About the Railways?” that contains the line “She’d never had her ticket punched before.” Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.
Then, there is the chorus of “A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good”:
“I always hold in having it if you fancy it
If you fancy it, that's understood
And suppose it makes you fat?
I don’t worry over that
A little of what you fancy does you good.”
Such lewd lyrics caused her to be hauled before a committee charged with cleaning up the stage. The committee banned her from the royal command performance of 1912 for fear she might offend the aristocracy.
One of her most famous songs was “I’m One of the Ruins Cromwell Knocked About a Bit.”
She performed the tune while staggering about the stage as a drunk. The innuendo in it, for once, is not sexual, but rather a pun on the name of a pub called the Oliver Cromwell. In a bitter irony, it was Marie’s fondness for the demon drink that did her in at the age of 52 in 1922. The last performance she gave was of “I’m One of the Ruins Cromwell Knocked About a Bit.”
3. “When the Gorgonzola Cheese Went Wrong”
Now, there’s a title for a song. You know you’re not going to get a crooner banging on about the “moon in June and you my love.” You are forewarned that a comic song is on its way and it’s likely Harry Champion, the composer, who’s going to deliver it.
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Born in 1865, Champion was a Cockney comedian, singer, and composer. He was immensely popular in the music halls and many of the tunes he sang have come down to us today: “Boiled Beef and Carrots” and “Any Old Iron” are examples. Part of Champion’s shtick was that he delivered his songs at a fast tempo.
“When the Gorgonzola Cheese Went Wrong” (also known as “Oh! That Gorgonzola Cheese”) tells the story of a birthday celebration that was a bit of a disaster. The cheese had been bought at a bargain price and placed
“… safely in a drawer
A month went by or perhaps a little more.”
At the birthday party the cheese was brought out of hiding and that’s when we get to the chorus:
“Oh, that Gorgonzola cheese
It wasn’t over healthy I suppose
For the old tomcat fell a corpse upon the mat
When the ‘Niff’ got up its nose
Talk about the flavour of the ‘crackling on the pork’
Nothing could have been so strong
As the beautiful effluvia that filled our house
When the Gorgonzola cheese went wrong.”
One of the celebrants left, came back with a gun, and shot the cheese. This only made the pong worse.
4. “The Spaniard Who Blighted My Life”
In 1911, Billy Merson wrote these immortal lines:
“List to me while I tell you
Of the Spaniard that blighted my life;
List to me while I tell you
Of the man who pinched my future wife.”
Merson swears to have his revenge on “Alphonso Spagoni, the Toreador.” When he catches up with the philandering bullfighter it’s going to be nasty, for “I’ll raise a bunion on his Spanish onion …”
The song was taken up by Al Jolson and used in his show The Honeymoon Express. His recording in 1913 sold more than a million copies, but it seems Jolson neglected the small detail of securing permission from Merson. The songwriter sued and the tune was removed from the Jolson movie The Singing Fool.
- According to the Victoria and Albert Museum there were 375 music halls in Greater London alone in 1875.
- The opening of picture palaces showing movies was the beginning of the end for music halls. Radio and cheap phonograph recordings also helped close them down. There was a brief resurgence in the 1930s when stars such as George Formby got their start.
- Harry Champion had a huge success posthumously. In 1965, the group Herman’s Hermits made a cover of Champion’s song “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am.” It shot to the top of the charts, becoming the fastest-selling single at that time.
- “The Story of the Music Hall.” Victoria and Albert Museum, undated.
- “The Simple Pimple.” E.W. Rogers, monologues.co.uk, 1891.
- “The Songs of Harry Champion.” Mudcat.org, undated.
- “Marie Lloyd.” Victoria and Albert Museum, undated.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor