Last week our home town football club AA Gent crashed out of the quarter-finals of the EUFA Europa Conference League at the hands of West Ham United. The anthem of this London-based Premier League club is the American song Blowing Bubbles, originally written in 1918.
The music was co-authored by John Kellette and Jaan Kenbrovin, a collective pseudonym for James Kendis, James Brockman and Nat Vincent.
The song became a big hit in America and in the early 1920s made its way into European music halls where it was performed by major singers and bands.
If one would argue that graphical quality —or illustrative DNA— is very different for each country (or more simply said, that each region in the world has its own more or less unique illustration style) then the various covers shown here for the same song around the same period perfectly illustrate this point.
The official version of how West Ham fans came to adopt this song revolves around a schoolboy and a soap ad for Pears in the early 1920s. But this dubious claim cannot be proven as the first recording of West Ham fans singing Blowing Bubbles was not before 1940, when West Ham won the Football League War Cup Final.
In 1980 the English punk rock band Cockney Rejects reimagined the romantic Boston Waltz into a thuggish raw Oi!-version to celebrate their beloved club winning the FA Cup Final.
Their mimed performance for Top of the Pops with the lead singer clad in the West-Ham colours (claret and sky blue) ended with the teenagers running around the BBC building and causing mischief. Following this incident the BBC banned the group from performing, some calling it an unfair punishment.
The group was closely affiliated with the team’s notorious hooligan firm and they provoked violence wherever they performed. According to the Guardian a Cockney Rejects’ 1980 performance in Birmingham was “the most violent gig in British history“, which also meant the end of their career as a live band.
Anyway, I’m sure our Gent players, aka the Buffalos, were not happy to hear this song in the stadium… Oi, sorry mates!
I’m forever blowing bubbles, Pretty bubbles in the air, They fly so high, They reach the sky, And like my dreams they fade and die!
According to the singer Charlus (1860-1951) he recorded no less than 80.000 songs which earned him the nickname ‘slave of the phonograph’. Charlus (pronounced Charlusse) was a performer who’s versatility led him to succeed in Paris in many genres, largely between 1888 and 1914. Towards the end of his long career he was a director at Pathé in Paris, and later in Marseille, responsible for the recordings of the caf’ conc’ repertoire. Today, we get an impression of his artistic talent by this recording of the ditty ‘La noce d’un chef d’orchestre‘ (The wedding of a bandmaster).
Nosing about Charlus’ career, I learned a surprising —and hard to believe— fact about the first commercial recordings at the end of the 19th century. But first let me tell you a little about the early phonographs to better understand the challenges for recording artists.
The first phonographs (1877), courtesy of Edison, recorded the sound on tinfoil wrapped around a hollow hand-cranked cylinder. Tinfoil, the predecessor of household aluminium foil, was soft enough for sound waves to be etched into its surface, yet hard enough to be traced over with a needle to play back the sounds. A cylinder could record sound for up to two minutes. But after a few playbacks the foil either had ripped or the sound quickly deteriorated. The cover above shows us the French operatic soprano Marie Roze singing Home Sweet Home into such a phonograph at Steinway Hall, New York in 1878. So for the first time, the famous soprano could sit in the audience and hear herself sing.
People, eager to see and hear the magical talking machine, were flocking to public exhibitions held throughout America. These exhibitions got promoted with The Song Of Mister Phonograph: “It is just long enough to be sung into one sheet of tinfoil and is admirably reproduced”.In Paris the phonograph was introduced at the International Exposition in 1878.
It took Alexander Graham Bell and his colleagues seven years to improve the crude sound recording of Edison’s first phonograph. They introduced wax as the recording medium, and used engraving rather than indenting tinfoil. Edison then further refined the recording technique by replacing wax-coated cardboard tubes by all-wax cylinders. From 1889 on professionally made pre-recorded wax cylinders were commercialised. By stripping away the top layer of wax, cylinders could be reused and phonographs were even sold with an attachment that let customers record their own audio at home.
Now back to Charlus. He was one of the first artists in Paris to make recordings on cylinders from the mid-1890s on. What I didn’t know previously is that each cylinder had to be individually recorded, one by one! Moreover, the machines didn’t pick up sound very well so one had to shout into them. All in all an exhausting experience.
Around 1900 in the studios of Pathé Frères, Charlus recorded Le Muet mélomane of which 500 cylinders were made. This meant for Charlus that he had to repeat the same song 500 times! Charlus recorded an average of 80 songs a day, 40 in the morning, 40 in the afternoon. Some time later Pathé Frères used three cylinders at the same time. But as by then sales had increased, the artists had to work even harder. Thus Charlus had to interpret the song L’ Aventure espagnole more than 1.500 times in order to create 5.000 cylinders. No wonder his nickname was ‘slave of the phonograph’.
Charlus in ‘Lecture Pour Tous‘, January 1934: “I sang duets with Mrs. Rollini, who had an excellent voice. You would have laughed at our posture while recording these duets. In order to stay close to the horn which was hardly more than 25 centimetres in diameter, we had to hug each other; she held me by the neck and I held her by the waist! We couldn’t move. When there was a need to imitate the sound of a kiss, ouch! .. I stuck it on her cheek: it was a natural kiss.”
As a tribute to the pioneering work of Charlus more than 120 years ago, we gladly bring here a performance by Van Morrison, the king of endless repetition.
The woman on this cover is holding a key while threatened by scary hands around her. She is the Danish dancer, actress and singer Charlotte Wiehe (1865-1947). Charlotte was first married to the celebrated Danish silent actor, Wilhelm Wiehe, whose name she kept after their divorce. She made her first successes in comedy and light opera in Copenhagen. According to the press of that time “she was a singer of ability and a graceful dancer”. Charlotte Wiehe remarried with the Hungarian violinist and composer Henri Berény.
Together they moved to Paris and started an international career. Around 1900 Charlotte took up a new line of performance: mimodramas (pantomime acts with dance and musical accompaniment) written and composed by her husband Berény. Two of his mimodramas (L’Homme aux Poupées and La Main) were successful on the Parisian stages andwere later adapted for the cinematograph in 1909 by Le Film d’Art.
The mimodrama L’Homme aux Poupées is based upon a book by Jean-Louis Renaud, beautifully illustrated by Jean Veber. It tells the strange obsession of a man in love with his dolls. The eccentric has only eyes for his dolls and not a blink for this woman, an actress he met one evening at the opera. Since nothing helps to draw his attention, she undresses in front of him. But even that has not the desired effect. Vindictive, she tears the man’s dolls to pieces under his bewildered eyes. Then, seized with remorse, the actress turns herself into an automaton, a mechanical doll. What a great opportunity for Charlotte to show her miming skills.
Charlotte Wiehe in L’Homme aux Poupées, illustrated by Cheret. From L’Illustration, December 1900. Charlotte Wiehe and the hand of Max Dearly in the film La Main by Film d’Art. Source: Jeux de mains, by Ariane Martinez (2008)
The mimodrama La Main is the story of a burglar who gets into a dancer’s dressing room to steal her jewels. But as the young woman returns into her room, the thief hides behind a curtain. And after removing her costume and standing in her negligee before a mirror she sees the presence of his hand in the folds of her curtain. Ooh la la, quite alarming…
Charlotte Wiehe having seen the hand of the burglar in the mimodrama ‘La Main’ . The Sphere, November 1900. Source: eBay.
We spare you the rocambolesque end of the plot in which the key —emphatically shown on the sheet music cover— plays an important role. Far more interesting is that Charlotte Wiehe was the muse of Jules Chéret, the master of the belle-époque poster art.
‘‘You know that this exquisite actress was nicknamed Chérette.Indeed, graceful and mischievous, she seems to be the dream model of the famous ‘maitre de l’affiche’ “. In Journal Amusant (26 January 1901).
They really have a point.
Posters by Chéret with Charlotte Wiehe as his model. Source: eBay.