Lives of the great songs: These Foolish Things: The classiest tear-jerker

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SOME list songs are sad songs, guaranteed to strike a chord in anyone who has enjoyed nursing a broken heart while pretending to ignore it. The main strain compiles the list; the middle - variously known in the trade as the bridge, channel or release - extrapolates, generalises, draws conclusions. The pattern occurs in 'Thanks for the Memory' (where the bridge summarises 'many's the time that we feasted, and many's the time that we fasted') and it seems endemic to songs of regret. The paradigm is 'These Foolish Things', music by Jack

Strachey and Barry Link, lyric by Holt Marvell.

Those are not household names, and one of them isn't a name at all. Holt Marvell was a nom de plume for Eric Maschwitz, who in the 1930s was a scriptwriter for the BBC. In urgent need of a song for a radio revue, he ground out the words one Sunday morning and read them over the phone to Strachey. (As for the mysterious third name on the credits, the missing Link: Harry Link was an American whose name also crops up as co-composer of Fats Waller's 'I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling'. Presumably he had something to do with sprucing up 'These Foolish Things' for the US market, though it's hard to tell what. Maybe he was just good at royalties.)

Perhaps it's hindsight, or hindhearing, but the tune sounds as if it were dictated by the words in more than the literal sense. It's a compelling melody but repetitious: compelling

because repetitious. The principal task is to provide a long, wistful line to accompany each of the foolish things and -

what Strachey does best - to build to a climax, philosophic or

despairing as the singer chooses, on the final 'oh, how the ghost of you clings'. Strachey never wrote another tune as resonant but Maschwitz, who went on to great success as a BBC executive, has some claim to be considered the leading

British lyricist of his era. Two of his songs - this one and the

contrastingly happy 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square' - have become nostalgic shorthand for old Mayfair.

'These Foolish Things' attracted little attention on its radio debut, and not much more when it was sung in a 1936 West End revue called Spread It Abroad. Still unpublished, it was discovered - as a manuscript on a piano, according to Maschwitz - by the singer-pianist Leslie A Hutchinson, alias Hutch.

Hutch, born in Grenada, professionally blooded in New York and Paris, was English society's pet exotic, exposed to a wider audience by records, radio and the last gasps of the music-hall. Right into the 1950s he remained the living definition of a certain idea of sophistication. There is a controlled ardour about his performances that is rather intimidating. Hutch served his public by reflecting, as in a shiny chafing dish, their own grandest conceptions of wit and high romance. Mostly he used American material - he was London's most reliable conduit for the songs of Cole Porter - but in 'These Foolish Things' (HMV 1936, reissued on Hutch at the Piano, World Records) he found a native work that suited him to perfection. The words with which Maschwitz unfolds his roster of regrets may not be greatly witty, but they are evocative. The first image is enough to create a feeling and a world: 'A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces.'

So it's a shock to find that that line doesn't figure on Hutch's classic recording. Maybe it was written in later, after the song took off; maybe Hutch simply preferred other bits of the lyric. He had plenty to choose from; the song, copious as a list song should be, boasts three choruses, of which he sings two.

He also sings a verse: one that begins, after a brief snatch of muted trumpet, with the blunt inquiry 'Oh, will you never let me be?'. It goes on to set up the song with a reference to 'those little things . . . that bring me happiness and pain'. Most singers have tipped that balance in one direction or the other. Hutch keeps it exquisitely poised; he suggests that he has the heart for grief but would never dream of wallowing in it. His voice, famously, throbs; but it throbs with dignity. He is

suffering greatly, but he knows how to live with it. His cut-glass diction, with its outlandishly elegant vowels, actually contributes to his haunted sound: the upper crust of soul. He must have sensed that in this still obscure song he had found a perfect showcase. He sings it as if it were already a standard.

In place of the opening cigarette, he offers us a more rarefied commodity: 'gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow'. Maybe the explicit sexuality of that image alarmed the publishers; subsequent singers, if they have used the line at all, have pushed it way down the song. It goes with 'wild strawb'ries only seven francs a kilo', a rhyme that Hutch's accent makes more plausible than most have managed. This, we are being told, is a lusciously cosmopolitan affair, the kind we would all like to be regretting. Another key memory is 'the Ile de France with all the gulls around it', again somewhat dubiously rhymed with 'the park at midnight when the bell has sounded'. Maschwitz was not always scrupulous in the way he combined his images, but he was a whiz at picking them.

The sights and scents are well enough, but what have always struck home are the sounds. For happiness, 'the tinkling piano in the next apartment'; for pain, the universal ache of 'a telephone that rings, but who's to answer?' - a brilliant blow below the belt, real chanson noire. Hutch serves them all up polished and gleaming, at a pace noticeably faster than later generations would think proper for a ballad.

In New York in 1936 pianist Teddy Wilson, in a model of understated swing, set an even jauntier tempo to usher in a single chorus from the 21-year-old Billie Holiday. She brings a new note to the song: disappointment verging on anger. Hutch sang of loss; Holiday sings of betrayal (Brunswick 1936, reissued on The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol 2, CBS). When she refers to 'those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant' she isn't congratulating herself on her own bashfulness, she's asking how she could have been such a fool. Indeed, on her lips the title sounds less affectionate and more bitter than on any others. She injects acid into the regrets, and erotic pain as well, gilding 'a fairground's painted swings' - one of the more hackneyed items on the agenda - by italicising 'swings' with a vocal shiver.

Most striking is what she does with the bridge. 'You came, you saw, you conquered me . . . ' Hutch sang that melodramatic observation from the heart, which in his case seems to have been the site of conquest; Holiday is unmistakably

physical. The song's middle interrupts the catalogue to offer a comment. Musically, too, it makes a break; Strachey abruptly offers a new, if foreshortened, musical idea.

In 1961 the song turned up on the Frank Sinatra LP Point of No Return, the last of the six great ballad albums he recorded for Capitol. Each of them had its own distinctive mood; this one, following on the sustained angst of Only the Lonely and the bleak hopelessness of No One Cares, settles on a plateau of acceptance, lost love recollected in something

approaching tranquillity. 'An airline ticket to romantic places' is the line most savoured; the ghost of you still clings, but it

imparts a glow rather than a chill. Forsaking the deep cello timbre of his previous laments, Sinatra sings here with a light, burnt-out quality and with an unexpected casualness of

tone. When he is not on his best behaviour vocally, when the vowels get broad and the consonants sibilant, he can sound

surprisingly like the late Sid James.

I suppose the best-known of recent versions is Bryan

Ferry's (on his solo debut, These Foolish Things, Island 1973). It's also textually the fullest. Ferry, who seems to have his mike turned way down low at his entrance and only becomes fully audible at the end of the first line, is a broken man. He sings out of tempo, in traditional verse manner, but he's backed by a piercing trumpet and exaggeratedly docile piano: a Brecht-and-Weill combination. The jazz critic Francis Davis describes the record, approvingly, as 'fiendishly syncopated'; to my ears, certainly on first hearings, the reggae beat to which Ferry

submits the bulk of the song is remarkably foursquare, flattening out melodic shape and verbal nuance. But coming back to it, I can hear more.

There is a point in each of the song's long lines where the tune turns a corner; Ferry pounces on and isolates each of these moments, almost regardless of what the lyric might be doing at the time. We get 'the winds of March that make my - heart a dancer' and even 'first daffodils and long ex-cited cables'. The equivalent pause in 'but - who's to answer' makes obvious dramatic sense, though, and nobody could accuse Ferry of swallowing the words. They all come out clear if somewhat odd; the park at evening becomes 'the park a tevening', reminding me of Ken Tynan's comment on an especially eccentric performance by Ralph Richardson: 'a mode of speech that democratically regards all syllables as equal'. My very favourite item - 'the sigh of midnight trains in empty stations' - seems to appeal to Ferry too: he is momentarily gleeful, while 'the smile of Garbo' makes him come over all knowing.

All the elements of the song are laid out - the elegance, the nonchalance, the driven misery - but dislocated and jumbled, so that Ferry seems simultaneously to be commenting on traditional pop style and re-enacting it. In this he was a harbinger. Davis calls him 'the British postmodern crooner', and he seems to enjoy tipping his hat to Bing. (That's on the line 'the song that Crosby sings', which, if you'll follow me into the hall of mirrors for a moment, 'These Foolish Things' had actually become. He recorded it in 1955, though without the self-reference. The Groaner reserved his postmodernism for jokey duets.) The most disconcerting thing about Ferry's performance is its persistent refusal to honour the final resolution of Strachey's melody; the foolish things sound as if they are going to be around for a while yet, all three choruses of them.

Ferry's sweet-sour version might be the one I would play on my Platonic ideal of a radio programme. But if I were simply going for the best post-war recordings, I would have to choose between a pair of chartered cabaret singers, one old, one young. Mabel Mercer, the doyenne, sang 'These Foolish Things' in concert at New York's Town Hall in 1969 (Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short Second Town Hall Concert, Atlantic 1969). She was 70 and had a cold; her delivery was husky and very conversational. But she still had power in reserve, and it is fascinating to hear when she decides to unloose it. There is a definite sense as she proceeds of the song taking her over.

She sings two choruses, both rubato, easing in on the 'cigarette' line before the inevitable applause of recognition. At the mention of 'romantic places', her voice begins a steady climb up to the first climax of 'still my heart has WINGS'. Mercer, renowned for her treasuring of a song's lyrics, had one especially cunning method of illuminating them. She rarely stressed an adjective; she knew that they would do their own work. So she sings 'THESE foolish things and 'those stumbling WORDS'; treating the descriptive words as functional, she makes them all the more striking. It isn't an inflexible rule; she lingers irresistibly on 'LONG excited cables', though it's still the noun that brings out the wonder in her. And there's yearning in there, reaching a tantalising peak unscaled by other singers in the hushed rapture of 'silk stockings THROWN ASIDE'. At the close her voice breaks, and it hardly matters whether that's an emotional effect or a technical defect; it's moving anyway. Mercer enjoys some of the memories, cherishes all of them, but finally arrives at a grief as wrenching as Billie Holiday's and rather nobler. Hers is the most balanced account of the song since Hutch's, and a lot more approachable.

A more extreme treatment is Andrea Marcovicci's. Marcovicci is an actress turned singer, and when she sang this (it was released in 1990, on What is Love?, DRG, but I think recorded earlier) her voice was flawed. But she overrides her imperfections in an insistently on-the-beat treatment that rarely isolates a phrase (though she does highlight 'the waiters whistling as the last bar closes', a late and especially magical item that less patient singers never reach) and drives through on a controlled arc of intensity.

When she has finished, her accompanists take the tune out: piano, sax and violin in a shrill chamber-music frenzy. This echoes a possibility already raised by Marcovicci's escalating stress on the thrice-repeated 'oh, how the ghost of you clings'. She may be coming to terms not with an unfaithful lover but with a dead one. No previous singer has made me take the words that literally. I doubt if the writers did. But after all these years of harmlessly foolish things it makes startlingly good sense.

] Adapted from 'Lives of the Great Songs' (Pavilion, hardback, pounds 14.99), edited by Tim de Lisle. The book comprises all

23 articles that have now appeared in our series, plus 13 more. It is in the shops now, but readers can order it by post at no

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To hear 'These Foolish Things', tune in to Virgin 1215 at 9-9.30am today. Virgin is between 1197 and 1260 kHz MW, and in stereo on satellite and cable TV.