PLAYLIST: 20th Century Pub

The Sackville Bar at the Thompson Arms, Manchester, in 1966.

When we’re writing anything substantial we often find it useful to put together a soundtrack. Here’s the one we made for our new book, 20th Century Pub, which is due back from the printers anytime…. now.

It’s a funny old bunch of songs, some chosen because we like them, others because they evoke a mood or period. We could easily have included 50 songs from the 1920s to the 1940s that we listened to endlessly while working on the earlier portions of the book.

You’ll find the full playlist on Spotify here:

And below there are notes on each track along with YouTube videos where we could find decent ones for those of you averse to Spotify for whatever reason.

The book should be shipping in the next week or so despite an official publication date of 15 September. You can order it via Amazon UK or ask in your local bookshop.

In the meantime, have a listen to the playlist by way of a trailer, perhaps as an accompaniment to The Pubs of Boggleton.

1. The Barley Mow

We wanted something to represent where the pub was at the start of the 20th Century and this traditional folk song, a kind of drunken tongue twister, is perfect. This BBC recording of George Spicer isn’t Victorian (have you ever tried to listen to a Victorian audio recording? Squawk squawk!) but it does sound almost as if it could be.

2. Arf a Pint of Ale

Gus Elen was a music hall star of the Victorian-Edwardian era who made some recordings in his old age. His voice is a bit Albert Steptoe by this stage but this is nonetheless a good representation of the era — ale for breakfast, dinner, tea and supper!

3. Please Sell No More Drink to My Father

We had to hunt high and low for an example of a Temperance anthem. They’re not fashionable and, frankly, not much fun, so there aren’t many recordings. Fortunately, Elsa ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ Lanchester saw a certain ironic appeal in this particular song and so gave it her best cockney urchin performance in 195X DN.

4. The Rolling English Road (poem)

G.K. Chesterton was vigorously opposed to Temperance and this poem is a famous paen to the glories of drunken pub crawling, here given a plummy dramatic reading by Dame Edith Evans:

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

5. Lloyd George’s Beer

This is a squawky, scratchy contemporary recording from World War I but catchy nonetheless. Lloyd George’s government regulated the production of beer to help the war effort leading to what what Ernie Mayne here calls ‘a substitute… a pubstitute’ — a brew that it was all but impossible to get drunk on. You can read more about Government Ale at Ron Pattinson’s blog.

6. Life is a Song, Let’s Sing it Together

This 1935 recording by Ruth Etting has nothing particular to do with beer or pubs except that it’s the kind of romantic tune we imagine might have been performed at the ballrooms of big inter-war pubs such as The Downham Tavern. There’s a particular oral history quotation in the book that we have in mind — see if you can guess which one when you read it.

7. It’s Time to Say Goodnight

This is a rare case of a piece of music that we know was playing at a certain pub in Bolton at a very specific moment in 1937, even if not in this specific recording. That’s because Henry Hall’s evening show on the BBC concluded with this every night and in this version we even get his characteristic sign-off. (Horror fans will know Henry Hall from his two appearances on the soundtrack of The Shining where this would also fit perfectly.)

8. The Biggest Aspidistra in the World

In what we gather is a wartime re-recording of an earlier song Our Gracie, the Lancastrian songbird, sings comically of the kind of potted plant that the Mass Observers identified as a signifier of class distinction between bars in the pubs of Bolton in the 1930s. She also gets in a dig at Hitler. And, as it happens, there is a bonus mention of a pub, The Bunch of Grapes where ‘father’s had a snootful’.

9. The Festival of Britain

This cod calypso represents the optimism of the post-war period and the lyrics actually provide a decent summary of the various attractions and the motivation behind the event:

The Government have really done their best,
I am sure the event will be a success,
And we must thank Mr Morrison,
For his amazing admin-i-stration…

Sadly, there is no specific mention of The Festival Inn at Poplar, East London.

10. Garden City

In the same vein, here’s a bit of ‘light music’ by Peter Dennis (Dennis Berry) from the 1950s that captures the spirit behind the New Towns, planned housing estates and ‘cities in the sky’. It’s impossible not to picture optimistic newsreel footage while listening to this — ribbon-cutting ceremonies, fresh tarmac, clean new brick.

11. Expresso Party

One big challenge to pubs in the 1950s and 60s was the arrival of the coffee bar, associated with hip young people and rock’n’roll. This is a track from the cast recording of the 1958 satirical musical Expresso Bongo (their spelling) written by James Kenney as manufactured heart-throb ‘Bongo Herbert’.

12. Wade in the Water

This is a nod to the architectural and cultural critic Ian Nairn who used it as the theme tune to his TV programmes. A great fan of pubs, he had mixed feelings about the modern pubs of the 1950s and 60s but found the odd one worthy of attention and even admiration.

13. Pub Crawling Blues

This distinctly British blues song by Guyanese immigrant Ram John Holder from 1969 is a tribute to the pleasures of crawling from pub to pub, drinking ten pints of bitter on the way. A reminder, at this midway point, that despite developments and trends not much had really changed in the world of pubs since Chesterton’s day.

14. Yellow Submarine

With this 1966 song The Beatles invented a sub-genre known retrospectively as Toytown Psych. Part children’s song, part musique concrète happening, it seems to us to echo the pop-art playfulness (or silliness, depending on your point of view) of the theme pub trend. It must also surely have been the specific inspiration behind the makeover of one Liverpool pub, The Dolphin, as a submarine, complete with depth charge seats and periscope.

(The video above is a promo for the film rather than a version of the song but, again, watch it and think of theme pubs.)

15. You Can’t Always Get What You Want

The Rolling Stones, and Mick Jagger in particular, were closely associated with Chelsea and the Kings Road by the end of the 1960s and this famous anthem actually includes a mention of the famous cutting edge pub, The Chelsea Drugstore:

I went down to the Chelsea Drugstore,
To get your prescription filled.
I was standing in line with Mr. Jimmy,
And man, did he look pretty ill…

16. The Village Green Preservation Society

A song from 1968 that foretold the coming of CAMRA a couple of years later, or rather commented on the existence of the Society for the Preservation of Beer from the Wood: ‘We are the draught beer preservation society…’ It also reflects the rise of heritage groups and campaigns. Whether Ray Davies of The Kinks approved of this kind of thing or was sneering at it is hard to tell — probably a bit of both, the awkward bugger.

17. Riot in Cell Block Number Nine

This 1976 live single from Dr Feelgood is an example of Pub Rock, the hard-hitting R&B influenced movement that emerged as an alternative to prog in the years before punk. It really did emerge from pubs, especially large Victorian or inter-war London establishments with plenty of room for performances and a vacuum left by a fast-disappearing local custom.

18. Gertcha

One offshoot of pub rock was the cockney rock — Rockney — of Chas & Dave. Steeped in nostalgia, their songs often evoke pub life. This tune was actually written for a brilliantly made black-and-white TV ad for Courage Best and then re-purposed as a non-branded 1979 single, rather than the other way round as we’d always thought.

19. Banned from the Pubs

We couldn’t resist this one — a late punk song (from 1982) by Peter & the Test Tube Babies which is specifically about pubs. Or, rather, about not going to pubs:

Banned, banned, banned, cos they don’t like punks,
Banned, banned, banned, they treat us like drunks.
Banned from the pubs, go on, I said go!
Banned from the pubs — can we have a drink ? No!


20. Everything’s Gone Green

A post-punk footnote to the optimism of post-war planning from New Order: by 1981, in Manchester at least, the once gleaming concrete had become a sign of dystopia, rotting away with mould and moss.

21. Guaglione

During the golden age of Guinness TV ads, when going viral meant being talked about rather than social media shares, this tune by Prez Prado from 1958 was an earworm. You wouldn’t have heard this in Irish Pubs in England, necessarily, but it was all part of the same idea: that Guinness and Ireland were suddenly hip, fun, youthful brands. (We could have included something from The Best Irish Pub Album in the World Ever here but… no.)

22. Dos Gardenias

There’s a very specific reason we’ve included this track from Buena Vista Social Club: we know for a fact that this album, once on every middle class coffee table and student CD rack in Britain, was part of the soundtrack at The Eagle, the first gastropub, ‘curated’ by co-founder David Eyre’s music-loving brother.

23. CAMRA Man

This song by Half Man Half Biscuit from 1997 revels in stereotypes of members of the Campaign for Real Ale and, in our minds at least, suggests the conditions that gave birth to both the micropub and Wetherspoon’s — eccentric, belligerent, conservative, revolutionary. (But it’s also just funny.)

24. Wrapped in Grey

This anthem by XTC from 1992’s Nonsuch is about optimism in the face of cynicism:

Awaken you dreamers,
Adrift in your beds.
Balloons and streamers,
Decorate the inside of your heads.
Please let some out, do it today
But don’t let the loveless ones sell you a world wrapped in grey.

If you listen to it while reading about community pubs in the final section of the book, and our thoughts in the epilogue, you’ll hopefully understand why it’s here.

5 thoughts on “PLAYLIST: 20th Century Pub”

  1. Each to his/her own obviously. Nobody’s selection will be the same. Personally, some mediocrity in this list needs replacing with “2 pints a lager and a packet of crisps please”. Exemplifies the zeitgeist AND the frustration of older locals getting preference at last orders.

  2. Both The Barley Mow (in a slightly different version – “…quarter-gill, nipperkin and the brown bowl”) and Lloyd George’s Beer are still being sung around folk clubs; a friend of mine does both. There are many more folk songs about beer – and contemporary folk songs about beer – to choose from. Miles Wooton’s song Public Bar dates back to the 70s, but you still hear it around from time to time.

    Where did you get that interpretation of “Everything’s gone green”, by the way? It had never occurred to me before. I’ve only been in Manchester since 1982, but I can’t ever remember thinking the place looked mossy – just boring old grey.

    1. General Guinness is a favorite:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlv49hH10kk

      And of course the one that your blog takes its name from!

      It’s harder to find songs that are really about the pub rather than being general paeans to boozing, though. Hurry Up Harry by Sham 69. Sally Maclennane, particularly in the context of the Irish Pub. Otherwise, hmmm…

      (Top marks to B&B for the inclusion of Half Man Half Biscuit, though…)

    2. Phil – good question re: New Order. We both recall reading the same article or book, probably in about 1998, that gave that interpretation, attributed to (we think) Bernard Sumner. He (we think) said something about how rain rots concrete, which was a particular problem in Manchester.

      But can’t find it.

      It works for us, though, in terms of mood. Elegy might have done the same job.

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