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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