What a Marvellous Find

I like going to the pictures on my own.

I like sitting quietly in tea shops.

And I like Le Fabulex Destin d’Amélie Poulain.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough be able to combine all three.

‘I like to turn around in the dark to see the faces of the people’

Nestled safely into a large armchair, down in the basement of Nottingham’s Lee Rosy’s Teashop, equipped with a pot of Assam tea and a slice of lemon meringue pie, I waited patiently for a somewhat amateur, but charming, screening to begin.  I love the film Amélie, in my teens I watched it daily; repeated viewings have never tarnished its warmth or humanity.  The soundtrack was playing in the background and the crisp sound of Yann Tiersen’s piano was replaced by a crackling drawl, a beautiful yet faintly haunting sound that captured my attention instantly.  Despite my devotion to Amélie, I must confess I have never listened to the soundtrack in full, so it was the first time I had heard Al Bowlly’s song ‘Guilty’.  During the film I realised it is played in the background during a scene in the Café des Deux Moulins but I had never noticed it before.  This time however, I could not get his voice out of my mind.

Listening to Al Bowlly conjours up nostalgic visions of 1930’s dance halls, smokey sepia toned images of men in suits and women with pin-curls pressed against each other, the mix of perfume, hair lacquer and cigarettes. They are bathed in the innocence of courtship and dancing the First World War away, ignorant to all that lies ahead.  Of course, since this is idle nostalgia it is almost certainly patently false imagery, but the way Bowlly’s voice has become a shorthand for the period can be seen in its use in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’. All it takes is the opening of ‘Midnight, the Stars and You’ and an old photograph for the audience to just get ‘it’.

Al Bowlly’s own life story plays perfectly into the ‘British Golden Era turns sour’ narrative.  Born in Mozambique in 1898 and brought up in South Africa, Bowlly arrived in London in the late 20’s. After an initial hit with the wonderfully chipper ‘If I had You’, he was reduced to busking after the Great Crash of 1929.  In 1931 he married, only to find his wife in bed with another man on their wedding night, which perhaps explains the almost overt sincerity in his voice; this was a man who had really felt heartbreak.

Bowlly’s success grew throughout the early 1930’s and he became the first real ‘pop star’, being billed as the star of the show rather than the somewhat depressingly anonymous ‘vocal refrain’ that was the common billing for a singer. A move to America saw his career flourish until an abrupt and mysterious return to London in 1937 (rumours at the time suggested a run in with the mob!).  On the 17th of April 1941, Al Bowlly turned down the offer of a hotel room after a performance at the Rex Cinema and returned to his flat in London, to be fatally injured by a bomb dropped in the night. Bowlly’s rise, fall and tragic death at 41 closely follow the trajectory of his period; his life mirrors the boom, bust and premature death of the early 20th century.

Lyrically the songs betray those second hand memories of chaste innocence that have been embedded into the groves of the dance hall 78’s from the inter-war years.  Inevitably as a generation disappears, those that follow romanticise, twist and change the stories left to them and create a collective history, an almost universally accepted précis of each historical period; the stiff-upper-lipped Victorian, the tragic 17 year old WWI soldier or the cocaine addled flapper girl.  When Bowlly sings jokingly that ‘love is a question of mental suggestion’ and claims it to be ‘strictly cerebral’, you find yourself smiling a knowing smile.  Perhaps those sepia toned imaginings of silent cheek to cheek courtship should be revised.

Ultimately Al Bowlly’s charm lies in immense appeal of his voice, it’s sincere and controlled, yet it’ll glitter with excitment or overwhelm with disappointment at just the right time.  Sandwiched between two bursts of instrumental music Bowlly’s voice never gets lost, you always anticipate its beginning and mourn its end.

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