It is the weekend of St George's Day, England's national if somewhat officially suppressed holiday, and I thought we might as well enjoy one of the most English of songs, albeit written by a Welshman. We heard it in purely instrumental form at the end of Tuesday's Mark Steyn Show, which prompted Josh Passell, a First Weekend Founding Member of The Mark Steyn Club from Massachusetts, to write:
As one deservedly modest ex-radio DJ to a master of the form, I am always touched when you play out an episode with a song. Juliette Greco and Al Jolson come to mind as notable examples, but there are more. Today's string quartet selection was another. Very affecting.
Yes, it is, Josh. I exited instrumentally because I said that these days I found the lyric almost unbearably sad:
We'll Gather Lilacs in the spring again
And walk together down an English lane...
Does one, in fact, "gather" lilacs? Isn't gathering more for blackberries, or nuts in may? Ah, well, this song doesn't cast its spell on such a literally earthbound level. Here's Julie Andrews in fine voice, albeit with rather twiddly fills between the vocal lines:
Bit too delicate for your rock'n'roll tastes? Okay, here's the composer's fellow Welshman - well, Welshwoman - Cerys Matthews from Catatonia punking it up. I have no idea why anyone would want to do this to a song whose whole point is that there are moments of beauty and truth and simple pleasure in a hard and ugly world:
On Tuesday's Mark Steyn Show we got into "We'll Gather Lilacs" via Frank Sinatra. So we might as well let Frank set up the song as he did for listeners of the BBC Light Programme on October 21st 1962:
In arranging any album of British compositions, the name that keeps cropping up is Ivor Novello, whom I met some years ago before his untimely death. I didn't see any of his shows, but I understand they were really delightful shows. This song comes from Perchance To Dream, a show first staged in 1945 which starred Ivor Novello himself.
It seems weird to think of Sinatra meeting Ivor Novello: what would they have to say to each other? But apparently they did, a few months before the opening of Novello's last show, Gay's The Word (which it wasn't back then). In September 1950, Sinatra recorded one of the songs from the forthcoming West End score, "If Only She'd Looked My Way", which we heard on Tuesday's Steyn Show. It was released in Britain as a fund-raising single for the National Playing Fields Association complete with an introduction by the charity's president, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. As I said on the show, any serious Sinatra fan can name the record Franke made with Duke Ellington, but rather fewer, I'll bet, can name the one Frank made with the Duke of Edinburgh. Alas, I then implied His Royal Highness had made an error in thanking Ivor Novello and Carroll Coates, because "If Only She'd Looked My Way" was by Novello and Alan Melville. But it turns out I'd forgotten the B-side - Mr Coates's "London by Night", a number Sinatra absolutely loved and would record three times.
1951 was a tough time for Frank back in America, but Britain in general stayed loyal - including the younger members of the Royal Family. Two months earlier, during a successful UK tour, Lady Baillie threw a party for Frank - and Princess Margaret sat on a cushion at his feet as he sang her "If I Loved You" and "My Foolish Heart". A few weeks after that Frank'n'Phil charity single was issued, Ivor Novello was dead, at the age of 58. Sinatra's right: his death was certainly "untimely". He collapsed with a coronary thrombosis on March 6th 1951, a month after the opening of Gay's The Word and, even more dramatically, only a few hours after giving a splendid performance on stage at the Palace Theatre in his long-running musical hit King's Rhapsody.
King's Rhapsody is, in a certain sense, complete drivel: Novello played Prince Nikki of Murania, who is prevailed upon by his mother Queen Elana to leave his Paris mistress and return home to whatever the capital of Murania's called (I'm going from memory here) and marry Princess Cristiane, whom he's never met. She shows up in simple peasant dress, so he thinks she's a humble serving girl and thus far more his type than some stuck-up princess. Etc. And yet the finale - a post-coronation scene, in which Prince Nikki is seen alone at the high altar holding the white rose of his lost love - had audiences in tears, eight shows a week, all the way to the last night of Ivor Novello's life.
He had started out in Cardiff, born David Ivor Davies, before he decided to give himself a name as unique as his talents. Ivor Novello was an actor, playwright, composer, lyricist, producer, screenwriter, and the most successful writer of British musicals until Andrew Lloyd Webber came along. But even at the time he was old-fashioned. He liked Ruritanian plots, and operetta titles that sound like a third-rate marketing man's idea of a name for a sophisticated perfume - Glamorous Night, Careless Rapture... He was the star of Alfred Hitchcock's first hit film The Lodger, except that back in 1927 no one would have called it "a Hitchcock film", merely the latest Ivor Novello success. Here he is as the titular tenant. Would you rent a room to this guy?
Novello had been a matinée idol since 1919 when he was hailed as "the new Valentino". He wrote his first hit play, The Rat, in 1924 and then adapted it for the screen. He starred in his own musicals even though he couldn't really sing, and so mostly semi-talked the lyric portentously and then sat back and let the soprano or contralto blow the roof off the joint.
And everyone loved it. Everyone lhad oved everything he'd done, ever since, as a Welsh lad of just 21, he'd written the big hit of the Great War, "Keep The Home Fires Burning":
That was as the troops marched off in 1914. A year or so later, he met the great love of his life, a young actor called Robert ("Bobbie") Andrews, who kept Novello's home fires burning for thirty-five years until that coronary thrombosis intervened. They lived in an exquisite flat above the Strand Theatre where Garbo and Dietrich vied for space on the sofa with fetching young men. "Why, Ivor," said Dame Margaret Rutherford, disembarking from the poky lift, "you've made a fairyland up here!"
There were rare setbacks: In the early Thirties he was signed by RKO and set off for Hollywood, where they decided that on camera he looked a bit too sexually ambiguous for American tastes, so they gave him a Tarzan script to rewrite and he came up with the line "Me Tarzan, you Jane" and then sailed back to Blighty.
Other than that, he made just one mistake. During the Second World War, the government introduced petrol rationing and other strictures on non-essential motoring. Novello had been permitted the use of a car "for work of national importance". He was then discovered by the constabulary to be using it to tootle up and down between his West End flat and his country place near Maidenhead. Novello reacted to his arrest by attempting to bribe the officer, which only made things worse. Sentenced by Bow Street Magistrates Court to eight weeks in gaol, he found himself in a cell next to Mad Frankie Fraser, then a young man but already embarked on the violent criminality that would make him something of a celebrity in Britain until his death in 2014.
"The best thing or things that ever happened to me re prison was being released, for a start," Mad Frankie told The Independent, "and meeting Ivor Novello, the great songwriter. He was once in the cell next to me at Wormwood Scrubs. Great guy. Good to talk to. He should never have been there."
Mad Frankie, showing an unusually sensitive side for a career thug, bemoaned "the degradation heaped upon this finely tuned artistic Welshman":
I would tell him he had to stand-up to the bullying'screws, but he could not do it. At first I could not understand his inability to invoke this necessary self-preservation defence mechanism until it rudely dawned on me that no matter how much I might try I could not write wonderful music and poetic lyrics.
I have great respect for talented people, and I made it known to the other prisoners there were to be no liberties taken with Mr Ivor Novello.
And that would be Mad Frankie Fraser's only connection with popular music until George Cornell, a member of his gang, got shot in the Blind Beggar for calling Ronnie Kray "a fat poofter" and one of the bullets hit the jukebox and the needle got stuck on "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore".
Prison cost Ivor Novello a knighthood, but may, by way of compensation, have inspired one of his truest and loveliest ballads. When it came to his West End shows, he generally left the lyrics to Christopher Hassall. But this time he decided to write them himself. The melody is flowing and unforced, and the words are loving and unabashed:
We'll Gather Lilacs in the spring again
And walk together down an English lane
Until our hearts have learned to sing again
When you come home once more...
"The alluring 'We'll Gather Lilacs'," enthused Mad Frankie Fraser. "When you listen to this work of art you begin to truly understand the meaning in an aesthetic sense of the word beautiful."
Indeed. It wound up in the show Perchance To Dream where Muriel Barron and Olive Gilbert sang it in the midst of a tale of parallel love stories in the same house across the centuries. The sludgy recitative at the beginning is a hard slog, but we get there eventually:
To quote from the synopsis:
In 1945, Valentine's grandson Bay wins the hand of Melody, the girl who represents the love that he had lost in earlier generations. The romance finally lays the ghosts to rest.
Be that as it may, it was the ghosts of the world outside the theatre that enlarged the song and made it a hit. Perchance To Dream opened in early 1945, after more than five years of war and absence. Novello had found a way of expressing a universal longing - for all the simple pleasures that mean nothing without the one you love:
And in the evening by the firelight's glow
You'll hold me close and never let me go
Your eyes will tell me all I want to know
When you come home once more.
It's exactly what Noël Coward meant by "the potency of cheap music". This is an idealized, bucolic England - no dark Satanic mills of Blake, just a stroll down a lilac-perfumed lane before an evening in the glow of firelight and love. For the last war, a young Novello had hymned domestic contentment by the burning home fires. For this one, he kept the burning, and added real yearning. Ann Ziegler and Webster Booth sang it for decades, but with a curious vocal tic on Mr Booth's part:
It packs a lot of punch for what looks on the page a rather slight song: eight lines; 32 bars, although somehow it feels less - plus a verse that doesn't really add much. It's so English that it's rather tricky for Americans to sing. The first half of the lyric relies mainly on the pairing of "again" with "lane", which no longer rhymes in American. It did once:
I'm Singin' In The Rain
Just Singin' In The Rain
What a glorious feeling
I'm happy again...
But it's a long time since Americans sang "agayne" rather than "agenn", so most performers of the Yank persuasion dispense with the rhyme and stroll that layne agenn. But Webster Booth above is the only fellow I've ever heard sing agenn and then maintain the rhyme by perambulating down an English lenn.
By comparison, Frank Sinatra contemplates gathering lilacs agenn and walking down the layne and his heart singing agenn. This recording session in London came at the end of a grueling world tour, and Frank's voice was shot, completely exhausted. But, unlike some of the other songs on Great Songs From Great Britain, the intimacy of the tune suits the limitations of his chops and the intimacy of the lyric strikes a chord in Sinatra the interpreter. Robert Farnon provides a pastoral cloud on which Frank floats effortlessly: it has the ease that much of the rest of the set lacks. The second half of the chorus in particular is quite lovely:
And in the evening by the firelight's glow
You'll hold me close and never let me go
Your eyes will tell me all I want to know...
And Sinatra's tone on that big soaring "want" is what's missing on "Roses of Picardy" and the album's other tracks. Of course, on the out-chorus Farnon wrote his chart with a big broad surge to the finish line, and Frank can't quite deliver. But nevertheless this is a beautiful, sincere rendering of a lovely ballad.
You'll notice, by the way, that among the small acts of violence and vandalism Cerys Matthews from Catatonia perpetrates on the song above is a careless rendering of the penultimate line:
Your eyes will tell me all I need to know...
"Need" simply isn't any good there. You need that big open-voweled "want" that Sinatra lets rip with.
If you want to poppify "We'll Gather Lilacs", I prefer Simon May's way. Mr May is the talented composer of such telly themes as EastEnders and Howards' Way, but long before that eminence he recorded a medley of old Brit pop - Ivor Novello - and new Brit pop - the Fab Four. This was one of the first records I ever played as a professional disc-jockey:
I'm not sure either song does much for the other there, and, of course, the directness of Lennon & McCartney is entirely at odds with the stoic dignity of "We'll Gather Lilacs".
But then it's that kind of song, old-fashioned even when it was brand new - but the best kind of old fashion, like its absurd perfumed creator. In March 1951 Ivor Novello was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium, the first such in London, within whose walls are the ashes of so many British musical figures - my old chum Lionel Bart (Oliver!), Bud Flanagan (of Flanagan & Allen), Marc Bolan (of T Rex), Eric Coates (the Dam Busters March), Kathleen Ferrier (the operatic contralto), Keith Moon (of The Who), Kit Lambert (manager of The Who), Vesta Victoria (the great music hall star), Matt Monro (the British Sinatra)... But Golders Green has rarely seen a funeral like that of Ivor Novello, dead at fifty-eight. Seven thousand mourners showed up, less than a hundred of them men, the rest adoring women who subscribed to the latter half of Noël Coward's line that "there are only two perfect things in this world - my mind and Ivor's profile".
They sang "We'll Gather Lilacs" at the service, and tears welled, as they had at that last performance of King's Rhapsody a few days earlier. His ashes were laid under a lilac bush, with a small plaque bearing the words:
Till you are home once more.
Excepting ugly witless Catatonic revivals of his best song, Novello is all but forgotten today, aside from lending his name to "the Ivors", the annual British songwriting awards ceremony named in his honor. Still, I love this song. I think of it quite a bit these days, although in Boris's land of lockdown I have no idea when if ever I shall find myself once more walking down "an English lane". It suggests, as the original musical did, that certain things are eternal, like love and Englishness. But I'm not so sure about that, and the song appeals to me now as an elegy for a lost England. And we cling together in the firelight's glow because we'll never find it again.
On the other hand, as a final act of vandalism, here's a lovely voice, Katherine Jenkins, walking not an English but "a British lane". Is there such a thing? I can picture the particularity of English lanes, Scottish lanes, Irish lanes, Welsh lanes ...but what's a "British lane" other than a vehicular carriageway? Why not go the whole hog and sing of a Euro-lane or a multiculti-lane?
~If you enjoy our Sunday Song of the Week, we have a mini-companion, a Song of the Week Extra, on our audio edition of The Mark Steyn Show - and sometimes with special guests from Mark's archive, including Eurovision's Dana, Paul Simon, Alan Bergman, Lulu, Ted Nugent, Artie Shaw, Peter Noone & Herman's Hermits, Patsy Gallant, Tim Rice, Robert Davi and Randy Bachman.