Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What Is Too Silly To Be Said Must Be Sung: Harry Secombe: "This Is My Song"

What to make of a song that no one wanted to sing? "This Is My Song" was written by Charlie Chaplin to be included in his movie A Countess From Hong Kong, a throwback to the shipboard romance movies of the 30s. He wanted Al Jolson to sing it, but, convinced that Jolson was dead only by being shown his tombstone, he decided he wanted Petula Clark to sing it. She didn't want to sing it in English (she sang it in German, Italian and French first) but she recorded it off-handedly with The Wrecking Crew while in Los Angeles and it was a hit. (She didn't want to sing "My Love" either, for that matter.)

It is hard to know just why Harry Secombe did the song; perhaps because it suited his noble Welsh tenor. The fact that another version was released so soon is itself a throwback to the 50s, when two or three versions of a song would crowd the charts. (Chaplin's "Terry's Theme" from Limelight was #2 in 1953, as you'll recall.) Secombe had trouble keeping a straight face while recording the song (he found the lyrics to be "risible" just as Clark thought them quaint and not for her), breaking out laughing at the line "I care not what the world may say." (No wonder Petula sang it in other languages first; no wonder it went on to be a hit for various European singers.)

It is a measure of how much things had changed in popular culture that two people - not counterculture types but those totally part of the mainstream UK all-around-entertainment world - didn't want to record this song, as it was so hokey. The 60s were supposed to be where the UK public sprang from the sappiness of the 50s, after all - that sweet, cloying string section-with-backing-singers aura had been around long enough, and any vestige of it was...passe. But not to a large segment of the public, who obviously were perfectly happy with a stolid song of love, perhaps as a reminder of a past they cherished, or as an old-fashioned SONG that may be a bit kitschy but has a TUNE they can whistle, just like in the old days.

That Secombe was part of the transition from post-WWII culture - with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan - as part of The Goon Show makes this record more of a straight-faced song from that show than anything else. The show rose out of the group's experiences - awful and absurd - during WWII, helping to bridge that traumatic time so that a fresh start could be made in the 60s, free of any hang-ups or errant nostalgias*. Thus this is something of an oddity - a man of one generation determinedly bringing something back, and two singers of the next generation complying, out of respect if nothing else. The escape from the past that the 60s in part tried to be was beginning to fray, with almost the entire top ten being Light Programme-friendly tunes that challenged nothing and (some would say) were the real 60s - not the far-out experiments and friendly forbears we have seen so far. Have the 60s run out of steam? What on earth comes next?

(*If there is one historical event the UK psyche cannot seem to escape, it's WWII. In some ways it as if everything that has happened since is a mere footnote...and there seems to be a disconnect between the whole 'vintage' style that is popular now and what was happening when said style was not vintage, but current. But I digress.)

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