Tuesday, January 29, 2013


One of my earliest concert memories (and I could barely see above the adults in front of me) is watching Michael Flanders and Donald Swann perform their satires and silliness. It was an unlikely sight; a portly, bearded gent in a wheelchair and a bespectacled eccentric spidering over his keyboard with amateurish enthusiasm. But Flanders was expressive even behind the whiskers, and lively despite suffering the limit of his confinement. Swann not only chuckled over every line he'd heard from his partner hundreds of times, but had a kind of Stan Laurel sense of hysteria about him that was infectious. How did these eccentric songwriters on a bare stage manage to become smash hits on the West End and Broadway?

Their "Drop of a Hat" and "Another Hat" revues (the first arriving in 1956; they amicably parted ways in 1967) probably would not have happened if not for earlier cover versions of their songs, especially from Ian Wallace. The duo, who had mixed credits in solo work, had been invited to write for such shows as "Penny Plain" (1951) and "Airs on a Shoestring" (1953). Audiences were amused by their songs as performed by cabaret favorites of the day including Max Adrian, Joyce Grenfell, and especially the influential baritone Ian Wallace, who in his years before turning up in these light comic farragos, was an opera singer, and a quiz master on radio (27 years for his "My Music" show). The first important vinyl promoting the names Flanders & Swann came from Wallace, via his ep of four animal songs, titled "Wallace's Private Zoo." You get them all below. And yes, it's Donald Swann at the piano. From there, the duo timidly used their fame to stage an informal evening where they could sing all their own numbers their way. They were practically an overnight success after that!

If the name Ian Wallace seems familiar to you (and it's not because you've heard of the new wave drummer by that name) then you may have been around here in October of 2009 when I posted about him with a version of the F&S classic "Transport of Delight" which appeared on another of Ian's ep (four songs on a 45rpm) releases.

The Ian Wallace style is quite dated now, and would be even if he was performing Gilbert & Sullivan, much less Flanders & Swann. He over-acts at times, and sings with all too great an appreciation for his own rounded tones. It takes a comedian, not a singer, to get a laugh with the gentle lyrics and amusing images involving a lovesick warthog, forgetful elephant, "bodger" faced rhinoceros or mud-loving hippo. Probably his funniest cover version is "The Warthog," as he imitates both the female and male of the species and can't help but get caught up in the combo of pathos-and-piffle that often characterizes Flanders and Swann's best work. For more on Ian Wallace O.B.E. (July 10, 1919 – October 12, 2009) you can go to the man himself, and read his books with the Hippo allusions in the titles: "Promise Me You'll Sing Mud" and "Nothing Quite Like It."

For Flanders and Swann, well, all their work is in print. Many albums are faithfully rendered on individual CD, and there are single-disc compilations. You can get a lovely "The Complete Flanders & Swann" box set, with excellent annotation. Did I say "Complete?" No, it was joined by a second box set ("Hat Trick") which rescues the original Drop of a Hat album (the men recorded the songs twice…a UK performance and later the US Broadway version) and fills up the other 2 CDs with rarities. This includes radio archives, mild and no longer relevant revue and topical material, and "bootlegs" (mostly of numbers edited out of the official West End "Hat" and "Another Hat" shows) made by family members…things the true "completist" would want to study (more than laugh at). Still, I don't regret buying it, and neither would you if you're the type that wallows in glorious Flanders & Swann

IAN WALLACE The Four BESTIARY Songs of Flanders & Swann

Instant download or listen on line, no porn ads, pop-ups, links taking you to spam or spyware, and no Nazi New Zealand Mr. Dotcom trying to trick you into buying a worthless "premium" account with not a dime going to the create artists, just to his slimy, millionaire parasitic self.

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