The Onions

I’m not going to make excuses. This is a piece of pure nostalgia.

We had this old record in the house when I was a little kid. It was quite an innovation at the time. Most of the jazz records my dad had collected were on 10″ shellac discs to be played at 78rpm. This was a very limited format in that you could never get more than about 3 minutes on each side. They were also extremely fragile. Most of the ones we used to have ended up broken into pieces.

But when Humphrey Lyttelton’s band did a concert in 1954 at the then very new Royal Festival Hall in London, the Parlophone label decided to release four tracks on a vinyl EP (extended play). This allowed them to get a longer playing time but also meant that the actual discs  survived a bit longer than 78s used to.

I was born in 1963, about nine years after the record was released but I distinctly remember as a kid sitting in our house in Benwell with this record playing on our little gramophone. I never seemed to be able to shout “Onions” on the right beat in the little two-bar interval left for the purpose. But, then again, neither did many in the audience.

Humph himself (who died a year ago) does the announcement in that instantly recognizeable voice of his. The whole band plays wonderfully too, but I’d like to single out the clarinet of Wally Fawkes for special mention. In case  you didn’t know,  Wally Fawkes  is actually a pseudonym for the award-winning cartoonist Trog. Anyway, on this track he gives an object lesson in how to build a solo: starting off in the smoky lower register then gradually building up steam until just after 2 minutes in he steps on the gas, switches to the upper register and wails like  a banshee. He never plays anything very complicated and I must have heard that moment hundreds of times over the years but it still gives me a buzz!

They sure don’t make them like this any more.

5 Responses to “The Onions”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Unfortunately they don’t! This was the last period in which jazz was music either of sheer exuberance, or came deeply from the heart (reflecting the tough lives lived by its black pioneers and their ancestors). Around this time it changed from being heart music to head music, ego music, for performers – although in an era of cultural degeneracy the new stuff soon became the mainstream. You can see the same in 20th century classical music, art (Jackson Pollock…) and poetry. Only conscious revivalist bands now play this lovely stuff, but Duke Ellington was right: “It don’t mean a thing if it aint got that swing.”

    Anton (curmudgeonly)

    • telescoper Says:

      I think we’re never going to agree on this!

      For me jazz is a wonderful continuous tradition that encompasses its New Orleans roots and modern jazz in all its uncompromising complexity. I can just as easily enjoy listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy as Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet or Humph.
      In fact, Duke Ellington was a great admirer of John Coltrane and in fact they recorded a lovely album together.

      Humph was also a fan of modern Jazz, if you look for Jazz 625 on Youtube you can see him introducing many modern artists with great knowledge and enthusiasm. He gave me an appetite modern jazz (which my father hated) through his radio programme, and I’ve remained a jazz omnivore…

      Anyway, in most people, the head and the heart are more connected than they’d perhaps like to admit.

  2. Thomas D Says:

    ‘Cultural degeneracy’?! Those words were pretty popular in certain countries during the 1930’s, so far as I remember. That’s another sort of nostalgia, if you like.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Head and heart have been culturally at odds for a very long time: the rational Enlightenment spawned the Romantic movement in reaction. (Not that unity of head and heart is enough: Hitler had his head and heart pointed in the same direction.) Further back, in mediaeval Catholic Europe everybody believed with their heads that Jesus of Nazareth was who the Bible claimed but not many of them committed their hearts to his way of peace, for the continent was as racked with conflict as it had been in pre-Christian days.

    Stockhausen and Jackson Pollock are two accurate representatives of modern cultural degeneracy. Compare the cacophany and chaos they create with Bach or Beethoven, Vermeer or Rembrandt, who combine beauty, power and technique. But there have always been charlatans; what worries me is that today they are accepted as the mainstream. That is why I speak unashamedly of cultural degeneracy. They have just one thing in common with great artists of the past: while going about their art they unconsciously and deeply express the zeitgeist. I have suggested elsewhere on Peter’s blog that our civilisation may not have long to go (anybody like to claim it’s in great shape?) and you can see or hear it dying in the recent history of its arts. Architecture is even more eloquent, because you don’t have to go to art galleries or concerts or listen to the radio, but you can’t avoid seeing the concrete brutalist horrors by which postwar modernist architects inflicted more damage on our towns than Hitler’s bombing ever managed. It is not just impersonal (like postmodernism), it is antipersonal – unlike all previous architectural styles.

    Anton (still curmudgeonly)

  4. […] already drawn attention to Wally Fawke’s excellence as a clarinet soloist with the Lyttelton band on The Onions at the famous 1954 Festival Hall Concert so it seems apt to pay tribute to his skills as both a cartoonist and a musician by returning to […]

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