Music

The British Dance Band Phenomenon of the 1930s

I have long been a fan of the dance band music of the 1930s. I am particularly happy if that music is accompanied by the singing of Al Bowlly or Elsie Carlisle (above with Rudy Starita). I can’t claim the expertise of Michael Ondaatje’s Almasy, the burnt and bedridden English Patient who combined a love of Herodotus’s Histories with an encyclopaedic knowledge of 1930s popular songs, but ownership of many of the 1000-plus Al Bowlly recordings indicates the pathetic depth of my obsession. If Irving Berlin was the American Jew whose “White Christmas” defined the season for gentiles, Al Bowlly was the South African Greek-Lebanese whose gently rhythmic rendition of songs such as “The Very Thought of You” captured the sweet and melodic style of British dance music.

As with any true obsessive, only specific music from that era meets my approval. The cultural and musical influence of the black and creole jazz that came out of New Orleans can hardly be overstated, but it holds little meaning for me. Nor does “cowboy music”, as country and western was originally known. This grew to prominence in the 1920s as the powerful transmitter in Nashville carried it nationally to the new-fangled radio sets, but all that moaning and whining that she done gone and left me lonesome every night gives me nothing but a headache. Get over it: she wasn’t that into you.

The 1930s have been aptly described as the “golden age” of the dance band, with, as Derek B. Scott has written, an “enormous attraction … for the majority of people in the United Kingdom between the two world wars”. In Going to the Palais (2020) James Nott insists that dance band music during the 1930s “occupied a pivotal place in the culture of working- and lower-middle-class communities in Britain”, with some two million people going dancing each week in 1938.

Scott asks whether that golden age reflected lowbrow quantity rather than quality. The supply of dance band music was large. There were many songs with “moon in June” lyrics that richly deserved the epithet “wonderfully awful”. The perfect riposte is that Vaughan Williams showed his respect for one of the leading dance band conductors by titling the third movement of his Partita for Double String Orchestra “Homage to Henry Hall”. There were also many popular songs of genuine value. Anyone even casually aware of Dennis Potter’s television drama series Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective knows that the music became—to use that overworked word—an icon of British life in the 1930s, instantly recognisable as the soundtrack to the era.

It is the combination of dance band and song that marks the popular music of that era. “Friday night at the Palais” played a major role in the culture of working-class life, but large numbers also enjoyed dance music through the “wireless”, “talking pictures”, sheet music, and the recordings whose quality had vastly improved since the echo-chamber sound of earlier technology.

It is a story of paradox. Despite being one of the most popular cultural and leisure activities of working people, the dance band era has been neglected and even despised by those writing about working-class culture during the 1930s. American influence was profound, but A.J. Abra goes so far as to suggest that popular dance culture in Britain distinctively “suggested specific ideas about what it meant to be British”. While the dance bands of the thirties were ubiquitous in the ballrooms of London’s swish hotels and restaurants, dance music catered overwhelmingly to working-class participants, with some 20,000 dance halls around Britain.

It would be easy to think that there is nothing left to say about British working-class culture during the 1930s. Written in the wake of the Great Depression, George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) is a bleak documentary about the appalling conditions of life and work in industrial Britain. In the post-war era, the laments by Richard Hoggart (The Uses of Literacy, 1957) and Raymond Williams (Culture and Society, 1958) for the alleged role of mass culture in bringing about a diminished quality of working-class life were hugely influential in spurring the outpouring of “cultural studies”.

We might expect that we could turn to this literature in the confident expectation of learning about working-class leisure and culture from those who had experienced it directly as working-class boys growing up in the 1930s. The single most quoted comment from Williams’s Culture and Society was to define culture as “a whole way of life”. Culture is not just the high arts of literature or painting. Culture is ordinary, in every society and every mind. The working classes participate in culture through their own institutions and meanings as the “product of a man’s whole committed personal and social experience”.

The irony of this beautifully expressed concept is that nowhere does Williams relate it to the substance of working-class culture. It is all abstraction. During the 1930s the major cultural activities of the working class were radio, cinema and dancing. Williams had almost nothing to say about any of these.

Nor do we learn much about the substance of working-class culture from Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy. His vivid evocation of working-class neighbourhood life is a delight. I was taken back half a century to evenings spent drinking Newcastle Brown (well under age) with my grandfather in the local working men’s club in Grimsby. The only cultural activity that Hoggart covers in any detail is the displacement by commercial popular music of the working-class songs that were sung communally in those clubs. This alleged cause-and-effect cannot be correct. Hoggart acknowledges that “the finest period in English urban popular song seems to have been between 1880 and 1910”. In other words, the decline in the quality and popularity of home-grown club songs started many years before the influence of radio or the commercial impact of Tin Pan Alley.

As for dance bands and music, Hoggart thought this was nothing more than “successive hops at the ‘Palais’, the ‘Mecca’, the ‘Locarno’ or the Public Baths”. (Hoggart evidently had enough familiarity with dance bands to know that during the non-swimming winter season municipalities often planked over the pool to create a dance floor.) Cinema, that transformative leisure pursuit of the early twentieth century, doesn’t even warrant an entry except to disparage it as filling “the space between leaving school and marriage [with] thrice-weekly visits to ‘musicals’ and ‘romantic dramas’ at the pictures, with fantasy love stories”. Hoggart dismissed mass entertainments in general as belonging to “a vicarious, spectators’ world; they offer nothing which can really grip the brain or heart. They assist a gradual drying-up of the more positive, the fuller, the more cooperative kinds of enjoyment.”

Even Orwell, who was not a working-class boy turned academic and was neither handicapped by a senior-common-room literature-centric approach nor blinkered by a rosy view of socialism, was not completely free from that sort of tosh:

in a healthy world there would be no demand for tinned food, aspirins, gramophones, gaspipe chairs, machine guns, daily newspapers, telephones, motor cars … Meanwhile, the machine is here and its corrupting effects are almost irresistible.

This all comes perilously close to the attitudes lampooned in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, in its own way also highly influential as cultural commentary. The “identification of work with craft [by] the home-made pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd” was little more than pretentious folklore hankering for “the instinctive culture of the integrated village-type community” in a pre-industrial Merrie England that had never existed.

The light-hearted tone adopted by Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island (1995), his amble around Britain, does not diminish the more balanced evidence he provides about cultural life. In Ashington, a coal-mining village near Newcastle:

it is quite astonishing … to realize just how rich life was, and how enthusiastically opportunities were seized … in the years before the war. At one time the town boasted a philosophical society … with lectures, concerts and evening classes, an operatic society, a dramatic society, a workers’ educational association, a miners’ welfare institute with workshops and yet more lecture rooms, and gardening clubs, cycling clubs, athletics clubs. The town had a thriving theatre, a ballroom, five cinemas, and a concert chamber called the Harmonic Hall.

There is no reason to think that the thriving cultural life of Ashington was unusual. Robert James, in Popular Culture and Working-Class Taste in Britain, 1930–39 (2010), examined working-class leisure pursuits in South Wales, Derby and Portsmouth during the 1930s and found ample activity. The South Wales Miners’ Institutes answered many of the social, cultural and educational needs of that region’s communities. Raymond Williams was born in South Wales and the institutes met Williams’s own definition of working-class culture to perfection. Yet their contribution to the cultural life of the region received no mention in his work.

There is no avoiding the conclusion that the disparagement of 1930s popular culture tells us more about the commentators than the culture. The standard explanation is that both Williams and Hoggart followed a literary approach grounded in the academic discipline of English. Only later in the development of “cultural studies” was it understood that a “high art” perspective derived from a literary discipline was not an appropriate means of understanding popular cultural activities. Whether that development made any genuine improvement in the field of “cultural studies” remains open to debate.

The explanation about the limits of a literary-centric approach is conventional but cannot be the whole story. How is it possible to exclude and even disparage working-class cultural activities such as dance music as the product of a phoney mass culture if you haven’t analysed those activities by checking the evidence? In seeking to affirm “authentic” working-class culture against the onslaught of mass culture, writers such as Williams and Hoggart had nothing to say about the substance of working-class culture in general or dance music in particular. They simply assumed what they should have tested, that those activities lay “outside the spectrum” of authentic culture. If two million participants in 20,000 dance halls does not amount to authentic popular culture, what does?

It comes as no surprise that the end of the First World War brought a frenzy of celebration and pleasure-seeking to Britain, but both the type of celebrations and their scale were astonishing. People danced, and they did so in numbers that could only be described as a dance craze. In January 1919 the Daily Mail referred to dancing as “the mania of the moment”, further noting that “society men and girls dance, businessmen and girls dance, working girls and men dance, every sort and kind of girl and boy dance; all have been caught up in the enveloping wave of dancing which is sweeping over the country”.

Expressing relief that the slaughter in Flanders was over did not mean returning to the same old pre-1914 dances. Already in those pre-war years there had been a shift away from sequence dancing such as the military two-step, in which all dancers proceeded around the ballroom as a choreographed cohort (“stately as a galleon”, in Joyce Grenfell’s memorable imagery). By 1919 there had emerged a freer style of informal dancing, faster, with “freak steps much in evidence”, energetic improvisation, and no two couples dancing alike.

The clichés of the jazz age and the roaring twenties should not be tossed around too liberally, but the frenzied dance culture that emerged in Britain after the First World War had little to do with any national tradition: the musical and dancing styles drew overwhelmingly from influence that was both new and international.

The tango arrived from Latin America via Paris, but the main source of dances and music was America, and often black America. Ragtime, developed by African-American musicians in the early 1900s, had arrived from the United States in 1912. It is characterised by strong syncopation, which is the concept of playing rhythms that emphasise the offbeats, creating an irregular, propulsive effect for the music. The Charleston was an American import emblematic of the jazz age, given impetus in British popular dancing by the arrival of American troops (including many African-Americans) after the United States entered the war. The foxtrot is thought to have originated with American vaudeville performer Harry Fox. The modern waltz started life as the Boston Waltz. There were also many short-lived novelty dances, such as the Black Bottom and the Turkey Trot, which typically had their origins in black American jazz joints and honky-tonks. American businesses were prominent in the ownership of British dance halls. Music in the new dance halls was often supplied by touring American bands. It speaks volumes about the style of music and dancing in the early twenties that the Hammersmith Palais opened with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band from America, soon followed by American jazz musician Sidney Bechet.

The carefree optimism born of victory faded as the economic reality of declining industry, heavy unemployment and national debt became clear. Awareness of a shifting balance between Britain and the United States showed itself in grumbling about foreign influences on popular culture and taste, often crudely racialised and anti-American. The enjoyment of dancing was no longer quite what it had been. The imported dance styles, typically played by American bands, were often played at a fast tempo unsuited to a crowded dance floor. The looser style of jazz-based dancing encouraged a variety of lifts and dips and unconventional steps that worsened crowding on the dance floor and allegedly lowered the standard of dancing. Moralists harrumphed that these uninhibited dance styles were a byword for sin, inconsistent with the refinement and graciousness expected of British dance culture.

And then something both interesting and unexpected happened. Out of mounting discontent at this heavily Americanised influence—in which only the consumers (the dancing public) were British—there emerged later in the 1920s a culture of dancing and dance music that could be characterised as authentically British.

The objective was nothing less than creating a British dance culture appropriate for the so-called national temperament. This was to be achieved by defining and teaching what became known as “the English style”. For the four standard ballroom dances (foxtrot, quickstep, waltz, tango), steps were codified, the more complicated and informal variations eliminated, the dances made easier to learn, and each dance was played in strict tempo.

Where dancing led, dance music quickly followed. British music became more structured and less open to improvisation. It was also seen as more elegant and sentimental than the syncopated American rhythms. English bands soon produced what Ross McKibbin has described as “a suave, mellifluous and technically polished” sound to accompany the new “English style” of dancing with its emphasis on restraint and elegance.

It is far from clear how that claimed British culture of melody, elegance and refinement was identified. It takes only cursory online searching to find repeated claims that by the late twenties British dance bands were playing melodic, elegant music that maintained a British sense of rhythm and style inherited from the music hall tradition. While it lingered into the television age, music hall as a cultural force was spent by the First World War. Nor is it clear how the often bawdy songs of music hall should morph into a distinctively melodic rhythm and style. With writers such as J.B. Priestley constructing a vanished but almost totally imaginary past of romanticised British history, the newer style of dance music seems to have been compiled from a combination of nostalgically imagined British identity and the negativity of adopting whatever was not American in musical style.

Although labelled “authentically British”, it was a strange sort of home-grown identity that emerged. The new style was achieved not by excluding American content but by modifying it to suit British tastes. There remained much exchange between Britain and America. Many of the songs performed by British bands still originated in the United States. Carroll Gibbons and Roy Fox were American musicians who led their own bands, played in the newer British style, and were successful in London. In the other direction, Al Bowlly and Ray Noble’s band performed in New York and Hollywood. The recording by Al Bowlly and the Carroll Gibbons band of “Night and Day”, written by American composer Cole Porter—and there is no room for debate here—is one of the best versions of one of the best popular songs ever written. It is the perfect example of the new style of dance music in Britain.

In the United States, music and dancing continued to evolve in a less discontinuous fashion, with the jazz age easing into the era of swing and big bands during the thirties and forties. If Pennies from Heaven provides the soundtrack for Britain in the thirties, the radio constantly playing swing music in Woody Allen’s Radio Days provides the same service for the USA of 1938.

From the perspective of the fifties, cultural commentators such as Hoggart and Williams bemoaned the loss of home-spun British culture, but popular dance and music in the thirties were not imposed through a top-down process of commercial mass culture. Dance professionals (dance teachers, the dance hall industry, exhibition and competition dancers) were self-evidently the primary “producers” of dancing, and they led the way in propagating the English style, the strict tempo, and the mellower and structured dance music. But it is not accurate to describe the dancing public as passive “consumers” who had commercially-driven culture imposed on them.

The key to understanding this is A.J. Abra’s insight that popular dancing can be distinguished from many other popular cultural forms. In the case of film, cinema audiences have little direct agency in determining the messages conveyed on-screen. In popular dancing, by contrast, the dancing public often becomes a producer as well as consumer of dancing. Efforts by the profession to shape the content or performance of a person’s dancing may come to naught the instant the dancer sets foot on the floor. Dancers can follow their own preferences, from not complying with the prescribed steps to dancing at their choice of tempo regardless of the music being played. Through the physical act of dancing itself, much of the power of cultural production becomes embodied in them.

The dancing public therefore had a major influence on the creation of the “authentically British” dance culture of the thirties. The dance professionals played a critical role in instigating the new direction, but the vast popularity of that direction in dance bands and dance music could not have taken hold without becoming an authentic mass culture based on “bottom-up” participation.

The conclusion that the dance music of the 1930s was a genuinely popular culture would be inescapable were it not for a nagging concern. Many of the nationally known bands were based in, and took their names from, the big “society” hotels in London. Like many Australians of the time, Brian Lawrance came “home” to Britain to find success, and his Lansdowne House Orchestra played at the Lansdowne House Restaurant in London. Ray Noble and his New Mayfair Orchestra; Ambrose and his Orchestra at the May Fair Hotel in Berkeley Street and subsequently at the Embassy Club in New Bond Street; Sydney Kyte and his Piccadilly Hotel Band; and Jack Payne and his Hotel Cecil Dance Band in the Strand are only a few of the names recalling the era when top-league bands were “house bands” playing dance music in swanky hotels and restaurants. Michael Thomas’s dance-band website lists more than 1100 bands playing dance music in London hotels and restaurants in the inter-war years. No doubt some of these were short-term contracts and short-lived bands, but that astonishing total highlights the importance of dance music played for toffs in tails in swish ballrooms. Paddy Scannell has suggested that dance music was enjoyed by all social classes—two million people a week regularly went dancing in 1938—but with severe social stratification: “the nobs danced to the top radio bands of the day in smart West End London hotels and restaurants while the masses crowded onto the dance floors of the Hammersmith Palais … and the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool”.

Food and dancing have long been happy partners and it is not possible to give a precise date when London hotels and restaurants became venues for dancing. “Tango teas” became a feature in fashionable hotels after that dance arrived in 1912. Credit for starting the concept of an evening dinner-dance seems to belong to the Savoy Hotel, which laid a dance floor to cope with enthusiasm for tango dancing.

What can be said without exaggeration is that the concept of dinner-dancing grew with explosive speed from 1919 onwards. Both the growth and the type of music played were consistent with wider dance hall and dance music developments throughout Britain, with jazz influences of the 1920s giving way to the softer and mellower style of the thirties for which they are best known.

The experience of dancing in a smart and expensive London restaurant was obviously different from the Blackpool Tower Ballroom, but difference did not necessarily mean worse. There were without doubt many bands outside the bigger towns playing a dismal standard of music. There were also many factors working to carry London standards to the provinces and it is not accurate to suggest that there were two separate cultural systems.

The major bands were not cocooned in fashionable London but often carried out provincial tours. In 1929 Jack Hylton and his Orchestra played over 700 performances in 365 days and travelled over 63,000 miles on tour. After his time as musical director of the first BBC Dance Orchestra, Jack Payne embarked on an extensive touring schedule. Sydney Kyte embarked on a national tour after five years at the Piccadilly Hotel. Most of the “name” bands also had a touring schedule.

The resident band in a provincial dance hall might not enjoy national prominence like the bands of Ray Noble or Jack Payne but still be nonetheless of comparably high quality. Contrary to Scannell’s put-down, dance band music at the Blackpool Tower was not so bad. Bertini and the Blackpool Tower Dance Band were not only well-regarded on the dance floor but had an extensive program of broadcasting and recordings. Billy Merrin and His Commanders played live at the Nottingham Palais de Danse and were also active in recording. Reginald Williams and His Futurists Dance Band were based in Weston-super-Mare. They are little known today, but they were considered good enough to record. Those recordings are still available, including some with vocals by Al Bowlly.

The third factor prominent in disseminating quality dance music was the role of broadcasting. The BBC initially had an ambivalent relationship with dance music, as its first director Lord Reith insisted that the words of the BBC charter to “inform, educate and entertain” should be implemented in that order. Jack Payne became director of the BBC Dance Orchestra in 1928, and Henry Hall took over in 1932. The BBC Handbook of 1929 acknowledged the importance of dance music on the radio and called it “the voice of something very typical of ourselves”. Radio dancing lessons were all the rage. The BBC also had late-night dance music programs, featuring the better-known bands (not always London-based) from Monday to Saturday (never on Sunday). Once started, the broadcasts of dance music were so popular they proved hard to stop: in various guises Henry Hall’s dance band broadcasts ran on and off for the best part of twenty years.

In these ways, the music of the London bands was disseminated across the country, and audiences outside London knew what to expect and require from the band at their local palais. The “name” dance bands in London hotels defined the era. Those bands were the symbol of British dance music in the thirties, but they contributed to the dance band culture practised and enjoyed by many millions of working people around the country. In between the frenetic jazz-driven era of the early 1920s and the emergence of swing and big bands during the wartime years, the 1930s in Britain found a “sweet spot” of rhythm and style in melodic music to accompany the newly refined “English style” of dancing. That sweet spot of the thirties would have gone nowhere unless it expressed the wishes of the wider dancing public throughout Britain. The London bands played an active role in building and supporting those wishes.

The Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers dance movies embodied the notion that dance music was linked to fashionable ballrooms and there is an old joke that Ginger gave Fred sex appeal and Fred gave her class. That joke can also be a metaphor for the role of the London hotels in providing a model of style, musical quality and yes, some sensual pleasure, for the palais de danse around Britain. They did not do this by being culturally distinct.

In pre-Covid days a tour company in London offered a walking tour of hotels and restaurants where the dance bands used to play, including locations associated with Al Bowlly. The tour included the apartment block where Bowlly was blown up by a German bomb in 1941. No doubt the damage has long since been cleared away, but gawping at his death site is carrying fandom too far even for my tastes. The legacy of his 1000-plus recordings is sufficient. “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” said Amanda to Elyot in Noel Coward’s Private Lives, and it is so.

Ken Gannicott lives in New South Wales.

2 comments
  • David M Bennett

    Thank you for this fascinating tracking of, what is for me, the irresistible music and dancing played in Britain, and in Australia,until it was put to death by rock and roll.
    I used to enjoy having a girl in my arms, and the pleasure of moving together to delightful melodies and rhythms.
    Suddenly, I found that dancing to the sweeping rock and roll meant that rather than embrace my partner, I had to push her away, The romance of dancing and the lyrics accompanying it had gone.
    David Bennett

  • Doubting Thomas

    I’m a bit young to have heard much of the British dance music being discussed, although “The Very Thought of You” has long been one of my favourites. I’m more familiar with the likes of Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine and that generation whom I admired greatly. I’m surprised, however, that the author seems to have dismissed the American big bands of the swing era and the “Great American Songbook” with such a few words of faint praise. The Gershwins, Hoagy Carmichael, and a host of their contemporaries were at the very least every bit the equal of the “best of British”. hile rock and roll certainly bedazzled my generation and its successors, I really don’t think that British “working class culture”, surely somewhat oxymoronic then and since, was ever sufficiently attractive back then for it to travel far beyond its roots. Of course, The Beatles and the Stones changed all that, not necessarily for the better.
    As the scion of a very classically trained musical family, I grew up surrounded by such a degree of unmitigated musical snobbery that made me a lifelong fan of all forms popular music, including low-brow jazz and, dare I say it, even country and western.

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