Celebrate the tunes behind a century of trouble

It was a good evening, Monday at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington. Something Happened, ably assisted by Victoria Hart, launched its show TABOO-BE-DO! Hits and Misses from the Politically Incorrect Songbook to a sell-out crowd. No one walked out in disgust at our un-PC songs, from the past century although there were one or two shaking heads and dropping jaws at certain points of the evening. Apart from two small items of self-censorship – one by Victoria, the other by me – all went to plan.

Our hearts are full of inappropriate music and we hope soon to return to the King’s Head. In the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote for the Evening Standard for the day of the gig.

Trouble-making music and musicians are never far from the headlines. Over the past few weeks, the life of Ian Dury, whose song Spasticus Autisticus was once banned by the BBC, has been celebrated in the film Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. Also out of the doghouse is Serge Gainsbourg, formerly a byword for Franco-sleaze, now an icon of sexual liberation and the subject of a French documentary Gainsbourg (Vie Héroique).

On the negative side, a Tibetan singer Taski Dandhup has just been jailed for a year by the Chinese for singing “subversive songs” and a CD called Listen to the Banned, a collection of more musical subversion across the world, has just been released.

If you want to know what is really happening in a culture – its fads, hang-ups  and prejudices – then a good start is to listen to the songs which at that particular moment are deemed shocking, scandalous or morally unacceptable. It was that idea of exploring the tunes that have caused trouble over the past 100 years which lay behind the show Taboo-Be-Do! Hits and Misses from the Politically Incorrect Songbook which is launched today at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington.

Soon after I joined up with guitarist Derek Hewitson to form the duo Something Happened – the name is a shameless steal from Joseph Heller – I discovered that many of the songs we wanted to sing from the past were, shall we say, tricky in an average gig.

They might be funny, interesting and swing like crazy, but often they reflected attitudes which today risk causing offence. Time has not been kind to that old Sophie Tucker favourite Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, for example, while another 1920s hit, Chong, He Come from Hong Kong, is somehow not as popular as it once was.

The politically incorrect songbook is a mighty archive but, when we approached the King’s Head with the idea for Taboo-Be-Do!, we found we had a problem. Some of the best and most cheerfully inappropriate songs needed to be sung by a woman. The 1962 Carole King/Gerry Goffin celebration of domestic violence He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss) somehow loses its point when sung by a male voice.

Enter Victoria Hart. Thanks to Peta Boreham at the King’s Head, we were put in touch with the singer who, by the age of 21, has sung for George Clooney and Brad Pitt, toured with Russell Watson and is clearly a major star in the making. The gods of politically incorrect music were smiling on us. Victoria turned out not only to be the perfect singer for the show – funny, sexy and with an amazing voice – but, as importantly, she immediately understood what we were doing in the show and was contributing song ideas.

Our musical journey through the taboo tunes of the past is occasionally bizarre, frequently eye-opening but never solemn. Although our launch is a benefit for English PEN, the writers’ charity which campaigns for freedom of expression across the world, the evening has no political message. It simply celebrates the right of musicians to stir things up in a gloriously disgraceful way.

           Evening Standard, Monday 15th Februray, 2010.

A couple  of songs from the show:

Makin’ Whoopee

Teacher’s Pet