Thursday, November 10, 2005

Formby Comes Alive!

The four leading jokes are nakedness, illegitimate babies, old maids and newly married couples…
– George Orwell on the “saucy postcards” of Donald McGill

When I picked up that 3-CD set of George Formby’s Golden Greats a little over a month ago, little did I dream what kind of Pandora’s Box I’d opened.

Or Pandora’s Box Set, I should say.

Not only did I find Formby’s style of winsome, music hall double-entendre completely beguiling, I immediately hungered for more.

It turned out that modern reissues of Formby’s work were varied and many, with a haphazard look to them. It was hard to know where to turn, until I happened upon the folks at JSP Records.

Not only had they released a 5-CD chronological overview of his early work last year entitled England’s Famed Clown Prince Of Song, but a second box of 5 discs completing the story of his recording career, The War And Postwar Years, was due at the end of October. The source recordings themselves, from the collection of a longtime fan, had been remastered and were described as possessing “dazzling clarity.” This was surely the way to go, so I put in my order at Amazon UK.

Well, they arrived the other day and you can consider me dazzled.

What a job they’ve done with these. There’s no comparison between these and the sound I was used to on my previous set. These sound like someone removed a blanket that had been hung over the record player. Of course, there’s not much to be done with the earliest tracks, which date from 1926, but the sound soon improves as we get into the 30’s and 40’s that were Formby’s heyday.

The boxes themselves aren’t any fancy material, appropriately enough, just glossy cardboard that won’t take a lot of punishment. But the attention is lavished on what really matters here, which is to say, the music. There are session dates provided for every track, as well as informative liner notes with each disc. And considering what you get, the price is remarkably reasonable. I’ve gone from being the possessor of 60 of his songs to 250.

Formby himself was Britain’s most popular star for a while, with movie and recording careers that reinforced each other. Beloved by the public, his films, which usually featured him as an ambitious innocent who won the girl in the end, usually came in for a critical drubbing, but they made a fortune anyway. Following in the footsteps of his father, also a music hall entertainer, George Jr. took to the stage while still in his teens with an act that featured him singing comic songs while accompanying himself on the ukulele (technically, his trademark instrument was really a “banjolele,” a cross between a uke and a banjo).

He found his greatest success performing songs that often, but not always, used low comedy to wink at the audience about the topics George Orwell mentions above. Often likened to the “seaside postcards” of Donald McGill and others, the lyrics to a Formby song often contained innuendo that would have been unthinkable in popular music in the United States during the same period:

Now lots of girls I’ve had to jilt
They all admire the way I’m built
It’s a good job I don’t wear a kilt
When I’m cleaning windows

His wife Beryl was supposedly a show biz tyrant who cut George’s business deals for him and flew into a rage if any of his leading ladies were too pretty. Formby, whose health problems had forced him off the stage by the early 1950’s, only survived her death in 1961 by two weeks.

Although he didn’t create the template, Formby’s naïve but triumphant Everyman proved to be an enduring creature and thousands lined the streets for the funeral of the “cheeky chappie” with the plaintive Lancashire accent. The jokes in his songs, often about his native Wigan (a town which had become a British punchline), fly past you so quickly that their giddy momentum simply carries you along with them. And he hasn’t been without influence – leaving aside the well-known fact that George Harrison was a tremendous fan, using Google’s new Print Search I found no less than three quotes that compared the songs of The Kinks to Formby’s, including Dave Davies admitting that Dedicated Follower Of Fashion was influenced by him.

Me? They just make me smile a lot.


Blogger Miss Templeton said...

Ralph Shaw, who might actually be the only person in British Columbia to play a ukulele, gave a workshop on George Formby's Strum at the Santa Cruz Uke West Fest, 2004. Let me tell you: what GF could do with an uke was no joking matter! That 'strum' of his was something beyond complexity.

Enjoyed the post! Cheered me up no end.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005 11:22:00 PM  
Blogger Count Screwloose said...

It sounds like simplicity itself, too, like you could pick up a uke and instantly get the same sound out of it, until you realize how many flourishes are being thrown in almost lightning-fast. I've seen tapes that purport to teach you the "Formby Strum" as well.

If I do jump in and get a "fluke", I think I'll have to be satisfied with a simple layman's strum.


Wednesday, November 16, 2005 1:39:00 PM  

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