Last refrain of a tuneless age: Benny Green, musician and broadcaster, on why they don't write songs like they used to

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The Independent Online
MICK HUCKNALL of Simply Red asked on Radio 4's Today programme last week why no one was writing good tunes: 'stuff that the window cleaner can sing'. Over a 15-year stint delivering a weekly radio show devoted to the art of the songwriter, I must have received about 30,000 listeners' letters, and the calamitous decline in the quality of popular song is by far their most frequent lament. Why don't they write songs like that any more, what has happened to the tunes of yesteryear, where did all the good songs go?

The anguished cries get louder, postulating not one theory but two. First, that the popular song has indeed declined, and second, that a vast army of potential customers prays nightly for its revival. So what answer can I give? A simple one. No, the popular song of genuine quality cannot return, because the fortuitous combination of circumstances which brought it into being has long since been usurped by a new combination just as accidental. New York and Hollywood have no more chance of nurturing a new 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' than Vienna has of producing another Merry Widow.

The dilemma can be boiled down to a simple conundrum: who is the most successful Russian composer of all time? The answer is neither Tchaikovsky, nor Rimsky-Korsakov, nor Stravinsky, but Irving Berlin, who was born in Siberia in 1888 and came with his parents to New York when he was four. Berlin's experience was duplicated by the families of George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw among others. Add to the fleeing citizens of unholy Russia the millions of Irish sailing west from starvation and exiles such as Mack Gordon (Warsaw), Al Dubin (Zurich), Lorenz Hart and Gus Kahn (Germany), Harry Warren (Italy), and William Saroyan (Armenia), and the bewildering pedigree of the popular song begins to emerge.

For those with little time for the history of the music they have lived and loved by: Gus Kahn wrote Winston Churchill's favourite American song, 'Making Whoopee'; Dubin and Warren wrote all the songs in their posthumous triumph, 42nd Street; Mack Gordon wrote the words to the songs in the two Glenn Miller movies.

But none of this would have happened without one vital ingredient: the outlawing of slavery after the American Civil War and the great black exodus north. The standard popular song is neither African nor Irish nor Jewish nor Russian, but the upshot of the cultural collision between all these factions with the black vitalising element. This included Edward Kennedy 'Duke' Ellington, perhaps the greatest American musician of the century; Thomas 'Fats' Waller, who sold songs to white composers at dollars 250 a throw; his partner Andrea Paul Razafkeriefo, known as Andy Razav, nephew of the Queen of Madagascar; and Eubie Blake, who is reputed to have said at his one-hundredth birthday party: 'If I'd known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself.'

Two alien forces overturned this empire. The first of them was television. In 1952, Arthur Freed, songwriter turned producer at MGM, announced, 'TV will never replace the movies'. 'Never' turned out to be five years, by which time the Hollywood studio system had been destroyed. In the three years from 1937 to 1939, 138 musicals were churned out by the studios. Between 1972 and 1979 I reviewed films for Punch. In that period I reviewed two musicals. Television has never shown any real interest in the popular song, and has much to answer for in the propagation of musical gibberish and false statements. There are those who still try to inject some interest into the industry, but it must be apparent after so many years of musical barbarism that the cause is lost.

The second great destroyer has been the rise of a new consumer group, much younger than any before it. My first realisation of this new army of buyers came in 1958 when, being short of ready money, I became a founder member of a hideous musical conspiracy called Lord Rockingham's Eleven. Each Saturday we would slink into the Hackney Empire, be televised in a show called Oh Boy], take the money and run. One evening I made my exit through the stage door and was confronted by a huge mob of schoolchildren waiting for the show's stars. Their average age could not have been more than 12. In no time at all, the entertainment industry was feeding off this new, vulnerable, uninformed audience. The effect on popular music was disastrous. This child-audience, too immature to follow the entrancing labyrinth of 'The Song Is You', settled for 'Tutti Frutti' and 'Jailhouse Rock'.

And there we stand. Today the popular song has so declined that it is no longer the most powerful selling point in its own cause. We have the video, in which the song is rendered visual, and subordinated to nebulous issues of fashion, cosmetics, body language and morality. The only hope of an escape from this deathtrap is a body of songs from a society untrammelled by the same cultural woes as our own, as happened in the early 1960s with the irruption of the bossa nova from Brazil. We have only ourselves to blame. Societies get the songs they deserve.

(Photograph omitted)

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