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1) The Songs are Outdated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I think one of the reasons Formby songs sound so outdated is that they’ve never developed.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.