The Extraordinary Gramophone Recordings of Pélissier’s Follies
Updated: Jul 18
By Anthony Binns
Between October and November 1909, The Follies recorded twenty-two songs and comic sketches with the Odeon Record Label - an extraordinary number in such a relatively short span of time. Typically of The Follies, they were audaciously satirical, touching on themes as risqué and diverse as jingoistic hysteria, substance abuse and contemporary politics; subjects that could have attracted censorship and which other artists might have considered taboo. These pieces have rarely, if ever, been heard in public since they first went on sale – six in June 1910, a further four in March 1911, and then finally another four in 1922. They came at a price of 4 shillings per disc or in a set of six at 24 shillings with a smart sleeve to contain them. Eight recordings, it would seem, never went on release.
I initially uncovered twelve in the British Library Sound Archive while researching my biography of H.G. Pélissier The Funniest Man in London. However, a half dozen more came into my possession when I was contacted by Everard Daniel, the grandson of former Folly Dan Everard. Dan it was who had inherited the Follies’ archive after Pélissier’s death in 1913; and this eventually found its way to the Theatre Museum, now part of the V&A. It was Dan’s son, Everard’s father, who made the donation, omitting it seems to include three double-sided discs. I’m happy to say that all 18 now reside in the safe keeping of the British Library. Four remain undiscovered.
Odeon - A German Company
Although a German company, Odeon had a recording studio in various cities around Europe, including London, and it was this location that The Follies would have used. The connection with Odeon may well have been through Herman Finck who, as well as being Harry Pélissier’s musical director and arranger, and based with the London Palace Theatre (a major music hall on the Charing Cross Road) was also house conductor for Odeon Records.
These recordings are quite extraordinary in a number of ways. Firstly, to have produced such a vast quantity of discs in such a concentrated period would have been extremely unusual, especially regarding works which were essentially in the idiom of popular entertainment and music hall. Harry Lauder had by this time recorded some fifty pieces, but over a far more extended period, while Marie Lloyd and Den Leno had recorded but a handful, and these on single-sided, not the more ‘cutting edge’ double-sided, discs. (More of that later).
Was this the first record ‘album’?
The Odeon catalogue for the issue of these recordings describes them as “A Complete Programme of a typical Entertainment by ‘THE FOLLIES.’” While it may be far-fetched to describe this as an attempt by the ever-innovative Harry Pélissier to produce a pioneering ‘album’ of their work, it certainly strikes me as a step in that direction.
In the first place, as previously mentioned, there is the sheer quantity of titles. Furthermore, the chosen works are not from amongst their most popular and longstanding pieces such as ‘A Dog Song’, ‘Mein Faderland’ or ‘If It Wasn’t for the Likes of ‘Huss’, but all quite topical, recently published either in 1908 or 1909, and very much representative of what they would have been contemporaneously performing at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. From this array of titles, one could buy any individual disc, or alternatively a collection of any six. Consequently, they did not feature in any particular order as with a conventional album. But The Follies rarely performed their repertoire in any particular order anyway; they improvised, rearranged and added material, often highly topical, on a regular basis. Hence, while this collection may not represent an ‘album’ in the conventional sense, it certainly strikes one as a bold piece of marketing.
This contention might also be supported by the simultaneous publication of the same pieces in two musical scores entitled ‘An Album of Songs’ (First Set & Second Set). Furthermore, the conductor Herman Finck and the London Palace Orchestra had around the same time recorded what is widely regarded as the first complete classical recording on disc, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker Suite’. Perhaps the ever-ambitious Pélissier, something of a classical composer manqué, had wanted to emulate this breakthrough as nearly as he could.
Cutting Edge Technology
A second rather extraordinary aspect of these recordings is that they should have been produced on double-sided discs. This technology was not entirely new. Berliner and Victor had released a few double-sided discs in the late 1890s and 1900 respectively. But it was around 1903-4 that this format really began to take off, and Odeon appear to have been in the vanguard. Such technology was certainly an advance on the earlier cylinder and single-sided recordings that had preceded it and was clearly intended for the burgeoning market of the very latest home gramophones. Pélissier, it should be noted, was an avid record collector himself, as was his lyric and sketch writing partner, Compton Mackenzie (who went on to found ‘The Gramophone’ magazine) and his actor and impresario father-in-law to be, Edward Compton.
Not Just Funny, But Genuinely Musical
The third remarkable feature of these recordings is what they reveal about The Follies in performance. While it is not possible to capture the improvisatory nature of their live shows, certain aspects of their style come across quite keenly. In the first place, it is very clear that while being essentially a satirical and comedic act, the musical element was very strong. The harmonic singing is disciplined and precise and rich in tone. As well as being extremely funny, The Follies were also genuinely musical. Along with the parodic sketches, one was treated to a concert party in the full sense of the phrase. While some of the lyrics are not easy to make out given the limitations of the contemporary technology and the passage of over one hundred years, the enunciation is often as clear as a bell; and the melodies, of course, as nearly always with Pélissier, are quite striking and original.
Pioneers of Style
Pélissier himself features on just one of the recordings. It is a satire on the current fashion for retreating from urban life to the countryside entitled ‘Back to the Land’. He comes across rather as an earlier incarnation of Michael Flanders of ‘Flanders and Swann’ fame, with both impeccable comic timing and clarity. It is not a song that would likely raise even a wry smile today given the historical nature of the references, but then neither would a typical Millicent Martin number from the TW3 of the 1960s or even a Mitch Benn parody from the archives of Radio 4’s ‘The Now Show’. Comedy frequently ages poorly, but especially that which is topical and laced with contemporary references – even though, at the time of course, it may have been among the sharpest and cleverest on offer.
Likewise, Ethel Allandale’s featured performances of ‘Contrary Mary’ and ‘Mother’s Maxims’ are laced with contemporary attitudes and references. However, what stands out once again is her assured timing and clarity of diction. Ethel was not a ‘trained’ singer like several of the other female Follies such as Muriel George and Effie Cooke. However, she had honed her skills through the entertainment ranks as a minstrel under the tutelage of her parents, and as a pierrette from the age of sixteen with The Follies. Her professionalism shines through. And in the context of satire, so does her delivery, half-spoken half-sung as though anticipating the sprechgesang style of Lotte Lenya and the Berlin cabarets of the 1920s and 1930s.
‘Contrary Mary’ while on the surface appearing to be a song about a gardener with exceptional skills, is in fact a satire on domestic alcohol and drug abuse. The eponymous Mary, it seems, liberally scatters leftover alcohol, cocaine and morphine on her plants in discarded cans of Phospherine and Mellin’s – products freely available at the time and containing the aforementioned ingredients, while also offering a sideswipe to consumerist nutritional products like Tatcho, Oxo and Anti-Phat. These are gags we would hardly appreciate today, but we can enjoy Ethel’s brilliant and increasingly manic drug-induced frenzy as she enthusiastically extolls her methods. No wonder audiences of all classes, sexes and backgrounds flocked to see The Follies. Where else at the time could one expect to find such flagrantly unconventional wit and bravado?
Likewise, the unabashed relish with which The Follies appear to get thoroughly stoned on some form of opiates in ‘The Hookah Song’. Note the increasingly drawn out slur of the words on “hubble-bubble….hubble bubble…” and the intoxicated discord at the climax. Outrageous fun.
Boldly Subversive in a Time of Intolerant Censorship
Perhaps even more striking in this regard is Lewis Sidney’s rendition of ‘That Makes My Dream Come True’. At face value and on first reading, this appears to be a straightforwardly jingoistic and reactionary song extolling the virtues of all things ‘English’ while at the same time denigrating not only most ‘foreigners’ but also that most ubiquitous of music hall targets, the Suffragette Movement. It is only when one hears Sydney’s droll, over the top, almost drunkenly excessive delivery that one realises this is a send-up. Then, taking a second glance at the score, one appreciates the full meaning of the sub-title: “A Burlesque Patriotic Song”. How brave and bold in the war-fever years preceding 1914 to come up with such a clearly parodic, anti-nationalistic number. While the conventional music hall was replete with the flag-waving songs of G.H. ’The Great’ McDermott', and while the cross-dressing Vesta Tilley and Clara Butt were about to don their finest military uniforms and encourage young men to sign up for the trenches, The Follies were providing this calming, rational but hilarious antidote. The song, ’That Makes My Dream Come True’, quite contrary to first appearances, is thus, in effect, anti-war and pro-suffragette. Surely most unusual for the music hall of the time? Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised as Pélissier had already been banned in the March of that same year for his parody of Guy du Maurier's ‘patriotic play’ An Englishman’s Home.
The Stifling of Satire
The fascinating broader point that this raises, is how many other pieces that seemingly bare some hallmark of nationalistic or reactionary attitudes were in fact delivered in a satirical mode? Had we more such recordings we might more easily judge, but as with so many aspects of The Follies, it would be a mistake to take them at face value. Satire often resides in the nuance of the delivery. Imagine Johnny Speight’s scripts for Till Death Us Do Part without the sublime comic acting of Warren Mitchell. If we stifle satire, we stifle the intelligence of the audience, indeed of our entire culture. Sadly, for a half century following the demise of H.G. Pélissier, that is precisely what we did, experiencing a second world war along the way.
In summary, when one takes into account the number of recordings, the cutting edge technology, the vision of the production, marketing and design, the audacity of the satire and the sheer quality of the music, it all further serves to underline just how pioneering and innovative a troupe The Follies were; and just how richly their reputation and achievements warrant fresh appraisal.
I would like to acknowledge the indispensable assistance given by Jonathan Summers, Director of the Sound Archive at the British Library in permitting access to The Follies recordings and in providing digital copies, as well as the Odeon catalogue information.
Thanks also to Daniel Everard for providing access to his own record collection and for his gracious donation to the British Library thereof. And thanks to Jolyon Hudson for providing invaluable and comprehensive information on the history of the Odeon label and early gramophone recording, especially regarding double-sided discs.