Reasons Not to Play George Formby Songs

A couple of weeks ago the BBC aired Frank Skinner’s documentary about George Formby. You watch the full documentary on YouTube and it’s well worth it. I’m a fan of Formby, enjoyed it and learned a fair bit too.

In the clip at the top, Frank visits Karauke in London to find out why modern ukers don’t play Formby songs. And it’s certainly true that most of the ‘new wave’ don’t play his songs. So I thought I’d go into some of the reasons why I think they don’t.

1) The Songs are Outdated

Comedy songs tend not to age too well and Formby’s songs haven’t aged well at all. What you could and couldn’t say then is very different what you can and can’t say now.

Now you can be as sexually suggestive as you like in a song so the sexual innuendo doesn’t really work. Whereas some of George’s songs lack the cultural sensitivity you’d expect today. It’s clear from the documentary that George wasn’t racist, but right thinking people today aren’t comfortable singing lines like, “If you’ve got a chink in your window/You’ll have another one at your door,” with a wink and a grin.

2) We’re Sick of George Formby Already

If Formby is under-appreciated, he certainly isn’t under-acknowledged.

It’s impossible to find an article in the UK press about – or even mentioning – the ukulele that doesn’t drop the F-bomb at one point (usually the first paragraph). There’s no getting away from it no matter how far removed the music is from Formby. Take this piece on Eddie Vedder and this one on Amanda Palmer.

And then there’s the stream of requests for When I’m Cleaning Windows that ukulele players get.

All of which get very tiring and pushes away all but the most ardent Formbyites.

3) He Wasn’t That Great A Player

This is the argument Frank puts forward in the clip: that some Formby solos are great. And they are. George did one thing and he perfected it. He played rip-roaring solos packed with split strokes. But there’s not a lot of emotional range in Formby’s playing.

His solos are a lot of fun and no doubt challenging but that’s not enough for him to stack up against the truly great musicians that have played the ukulele.

4) Imitating Him Is Missing the Point

The great thing about Formby is that he was one of a kind. The Formby fans love him for his unique and individual playing and singing style. Which is why they try to be exactly like him.

I think one of the reasons Formby songs sound so outdated is that they’ve never developed. No one has reinvented Formby songs and made them sound new. Or brought out hidden depths in them. They’re always sung in exactly the same way they’ve always been done.

Examining the minutiae of solo and trying to recreate it is interesting and worthwhile. But at some point you have to break away from that and do things in your own unique way if you’re going to make music worth listening to.

The natural heirs to George Formby aren’t the impersonators but, comic actors and singers of sexually suggestive ukulele songs, Garfunkel and Oates.

So if you don’t play George Formby songs, why not? And if you do, why? Leave a comment.

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68 Comments

  1. Caroline Robson July 31st, 2012 1:37 pm

    Utter rubbish. Why do so called modern ukulele players think they have to feel ashamed because of the Formby connection? He played a darn site more than a split stroke.
    Too many heads up own backsides on this site.

  2. William deveney September 2nd, 2012 4:32 pm

    I think people who were born after the second world grew up with george,we loved him we were only kids and didn’t realise the sexual innuendo in his songs.

  3. sgt pepper September 17th, 2012 10:34 pm

    “winkles November 9th, 2011 6:54 pm ” you said
    “….Swimming with the Women …..was ‘filth'”

    here’s the lyrics – were you joking WINKLES ??

    [Lyrics edited out. You can read them here.]

  4. Almost a Genious November 4th, 2012 3:41 am

    I think there are many silly comments here. I am not a G. Formby expert but it simply seems to me that he was an entertainer, comedian, actor, etc. and musician came much further down his priority list.

    His songs or maybe more accurately “little ditty’s” are part of the history of the times they were written and if performed they should probably be couched in that context.

    I can understand that some might get tired of his recordings…they are a little repetitive in form but he did write so many and if you talk to any truly dedicated song writer/ singer it is very hard and tiring to write original hits one after another. My suggestion is to pick your favorites and create a single CD or Playlist and forget most of the rest of his portfolio.

    Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery but if you do it wrong it is the biggest insult and yawn. So the point is , paraphrasing Mike Bloomfield…If You Love These Ditty’s, Play ‘Em As You Please.

  5. mark November 14th, 2012 1:02 pm

    I agree with whoever said that saying Formby “wasn’t that good a player” is massive sour grapes. He was incredible. and this whole article tries too hard to be controversial and stir up a debate.

    like it or not he was a superb player, and not everyone HAS to owe a debt to him or anything like that, ( not everyone who plays the uke plays like him) but god guys grow up.

  6. John Hubbard November 18th, 2012 7:19 pm

    Ive got a good reason not to play George Forby songs and that is I cant. This takes into consideration that Im loving the uke after years of the guitar and I can just about get my head and hands around most uke arrangements albeit with a lot of work. This must say something about his style or my limitations . I will say that its not going to shatter my world for the reasons others have given but continues to be a challenge
    John H

  7. Peter Keane December 10th, 2012 6:12 pm

    I left my home town of Wigan 32 years ago but the Wigan accent and the wit of those people still cracks me up when I visit. George Formby may have had a privileged up bringing that may be presumed by many but he was tuned into the sharp wit of industrial Lancashire and even when he was being portrayed as a fool, it was George who was getting the last word in.

  8. john Radford December 23rd, 2012 1:47 pm

    Ukelele Kris,

    Hi Kris.. wierd i thought,, george does it best,, no offence mate,,,, john

  9. john Radford December 23rd, 2012 2:04 pm

    Well,i just listened to george playing & singing ,
    “our sargent major

    great playing, nice personality, do not deride him
    he was a great personality, & a wonderful uke player

    it brought a smile to my face, & a few chuckle,s

    John

  10. Dean Lawson March 25th, 2013 9:54 pm

    Playing ukulele and not playing Formby, is like playing reggae and not playing Bob Marley. it’s just absurd.

  11. Martin March 27th, 2013 5:40 pm

    Hello there,

    My 2 cents here is that arguments for and against Formbys legacy are all subjective and a matter of personal opinion, luckilly no-ones forcing anyone to listen to or play anything.

    And given no-one’s pointed, the whole double-entendre thing is even in use as the name of this website ‘Uke-Hunt’.

  12. Jim Munro May 27th, 2013 10:39 pm

    It was brought up in Warrington and used to see George passing through on the way to Blackpool in his chauffeur driven Rolls. He was very entertaining and certainly make us northeners laugh at ourselves, but here in Santa Cruz, California we have Uke songbooks with 600 songs, none of which are Formby songs. It would be fun to play his stuff sometimes…..

  13. Horse Badorties January 20th, 2014 7:37 am

    All Formby all the time. A chap named Johnny Depp is planning to play Formby in a feature film about his life and music. So if you’re sick of Formby now, wait till Depp play When I’m Cleabning Windows on the Tonight Show in about a year. Be warned.

  14. MarmiteFan March 8th, 2014 10:27 am

    You can breathe again – the Johnny Depp movie thing is just an urban myth!

    I’m not a huge fan of Formby, I’m more of a Tessie O’Shea girl myself. But I still go along to the local George Formby Society meetings, I still laugh at the saucy lyrics and I still marvel at the amazing strumming techniques and glean tips and wrinkles from the old boys that play them.

    Maybe the pressure is off me a little bit – after all, I’m female and clearly can’t do the Formby voice and I’m not from the north of England so imitating the accent would sound wrong. However, I can still get pulled up for not playing a chord a certain way, or skipping a split stroke or two.

    To some people George Formby is the God Of Ukulele, and nothing less than a perfect facsimile is good enough. Well, that’s ok because impersonation is the highest form of flattery. But I wouldn’t dream of being scathing about them for their lack of individuality – if that’s what they want to do then good for them.

    For me, it’s all about delighting in watching people doing something they really enjoy, and learning more of the skills involved in getting the most out of this versatile little instrument.

    You could argue that every ukester has to have at least one Hawaiian song under their belt; I guess the same applies to Formby. As a classical guitarist I was always asked to play John Denver, so it’s swings and roundabouts!

  15. Woodshed March 8th, 2014 10:45 am

    MarmiteFan: Thanks! I should have known not to believe anything the Daily Star says.

  16. JohnWillie March 14th, 2014 7:24 pm

    +1 MarmiteFan. In 30 years I have never been without my Uke, even when I was not well and the trials of life threw its inevitabilities at me, my UB2 always allowed my life and those around me, to have a brighter outlook. I never shun away from playing our George and I’m always asked to, “bring the banjo,” when attending weddings and get togethers…

    Guess it was very similar for our soldiers back in the day. George just took the edge off of the uncertainty of war and probably more important, made the combatant look at life in the same lighthearted sort of way. The Mr Wu’s and Hindoo Men in Georges day and his lyrics, made for cheeky songs that really never went any further than a giggle. But that was 70 years ago. Times have changed now and if George was doing his stuff today, it would be in the same vane. I reckon our current day politicians/public affairs would feature in a lot of his lyrics.

    On a side note. According to Ted Formby, George and Beryl wrote a lot of the lyrics for the songs, the music was contracted out to various musicians of the time, but the overall tunes were adapted from George and Beryl on the fly so that they could be written. A lot of this can be seen in Georges notes, given to the Society when Ted died. Beryl always made sure that Georges name appeared on the music sheet also, that way royalties would be paid. This was normal practice back then and is still exercised today. No? Take a closer look at X Factor or any indie songwriter for that matter. Nothing wrong with it, its only business.

    Great thread and some great comments and comparisons. I love everything about the Uke/Banjolele. When I feel down, it never ceases to cheer me up. I have three ukes, a Gibson UB2, a Keech (tenor) and a small cheap Kala (soprano) that I love. As well as Georges songs, I also play 20’s, – 60’s tunes and never tire of the various sounds that can be rendered with a little practice.

    “Goodnight Little Fella, Goodnight” – Thank You George…

  17. Gill April 21st, 2014 1:36 am

    Well I rarely feel like responding but this slate against George got me thinking, I’ve been mastering or trying to the split stroke and the triple and it’s a great challenge and a real discipline ,,I find George formby and all his followers refreshing from all the bearded hipsters and their 30 something tedious mates playing boring non consequential pop song on uke .
    I love lots different music styles, George formby he is part of music history for a reason, he will love on long after the Tweens the hipsters have moved onto the next trend,, George is Teflon shit don’t stick to him.

  18. Woodshed April 21st, 2014 7:04 am

    Since no one’s engaging with the question here I’m closing comments on this post. To be clear: I like George Formby.

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