Home Welcome Noël Coward? News What's On? Join? Bookshop Events Links Site Index Archive Members' Pages NCMI Administration
Return to Act2

Noël Coward's "Standards" by Dominic Valsto

Once upon a time – in fact, some seven or eight years ago now, in those distant and innocent days before the inception of the Noël Coward Society - I was trying to get something that was eventually called ‘The Noël Coward Music Index’ published as a book.  Over the preceeding years, in the course of researching the work, I had come to know Joan Hirst, whom I visited regularly to check the Estate’s music collection, and later also Graham Payn. We met from time to time during his London visits, and he was charmingly patient when asked to rack his brains for answers to points of arcane musical detail. Graham was unstinting in supporting the work, and at this point in my research he allowed me a unique insight into the commercial side of the Noël Coward music catalogue.

The problem was a simple one of mere curiosity: for the Index I thought it would be interesting to have a “popularity rating” of how much, or in what proportion, the various songs in the Noël Coward catalogue were actually being performed  today.  An impossible project, you might think, but I had an idea how it might be answered: my very first job, back in the late-Seventies/early Eighties, was as a music specialist for the UK copyright agency, The Performing Right Society (PRS), so I knew that the answer to this puzzle could well lie somewhere within the PRS royalty returns to the Coward Estate. 

This is how the system works:
PRS makes payments (with detailed statements) of royalties to UK copyright owners four times a year.  These PRS "Distributions" variously cover payments of royalties for broadcasts, recorded and live public performances of all kinds except stage performances, and film soundtrack uses of musical works. For any member of PRS (this includes Coward), they also cover both the UK market and all such performances overseas, where each country has a similar royalty collection society, all of which collect royalties on each others' behalf and which are then forwarded to the composer's “home” Society.  So the PRS statements for Coward’s music would give a truly worldwide picture of how much his music was being performed.
Thanks to Graham, I was allowed to examine the PRS returns over a four-year period 1993-1997 to the Coward Estate. The PRS statements deal in some detail with the precise origin and type of performance giving rise to each royalty payment, and the vast majority of such payments are clearly attatched to a particular title. One was often able to identify the precise circumstances of an individual song’s performance or broadcast, e.g. its date, location of performance premises, duration of broadcast, broadcasting station, etc, etc.

It was therefore not hard to arrive at a straightforward rank order of the “worth” of the Coward titles worldwide, simply by logging the performances and then adding up the total royalties earned by each individual title over the four-year period. For my own interest, I then “tested” a ranked list of titles on various friends with varying levels of knowledge of the Coward repertoire, and sorted the list into broad categories defined both by the works' earnings and their fame (or lack of it). There was sufficient demarkation between the totals of amounts earned by the “Top 28” titles for them to emerge into a precise rank order. 
The complete list now exists as Appendix 3 of The Noël Coward Music Index (see the Society website), but for here perhaps we can content ourselves with the “Top Ten”, those songs leading the list which have both become generally popular and which have consistently achieved good commercial returns over a period of time – what the music business would define as “a standard”:

1. Mad About the Boy (Words And Music, 1932)
2. I'll See You Again (Bitter Sweet, 1929)
3. Mad Dogs and Englishmen (Words And Music, 1932)
4. If Love Were All (Bitter Sweet, 1929)
5. Someday I'll Find You (Private Lives, 1930)
6. I'll Follow My Secret Heart (Conversation Piece, 1934)
7. London Pride (1941)
8. A Room With a View (This Year of Grace! 1928)
9. Mrs Worthington (1934)
10. Poor Little Rich Girl (On With The Dance, 1925)

How interesting that, for all Coward’s reputation as a witty wordsmith, the waltz genre leads the fold with three out of the ten, ‘I’ll See You Again’, ‘Someday I’ll Find You’ and ‘I’ll Follow My Secret Heart’.  Some of us may remember Steve Ross giving his opinion that “I don’t believe anybody, with the possible exception of those Strauss boys over in Vienna, ever wrote such beguiling waltzes”, and this opinion is shared by Benny Green. In his very worthwhile book about the great songwriters of the twentieth century, ‘Let’s Face the Music – the Golden Age of Popular Song’, Green identifies ‘I’ll Follow My Secret Heart’ as a strong contender to be considered “the loveliest of all Coward’s pieces, the perfect marriage of words and music, the ravishing upwards swoops of the melodic line matched by the deeply moving unspoiled sincerity of the words ... one of that group of Coward compositions which transcends its environment, its time and place, to become one of the great standard songs of the modern era, its musical beauty melting into the depth of its poetic emotion”.

“If ‘I’ll Follow My Secret Heart’ expresses the idea of romantic idealism at the outset of it’s long journey”, Green continued, “then ‘If Love Were All’ tells of the end of that journey, ending in defeat and loneliness but not quite complete disillusion.”  It is a song of controlled desire, Coward’s famous “heigh-ho, we must rise above it and press on with life” philosophy perfectly and poignantly expressed.  It may owe some of its popularity to the fact that it is the origin of all those ubiquitous ‘Talent to Amuse’ titles, and may rather too often be considered to be significantly autobiographical.  It happened, nevertheless, to be the last song which Coward himself ever performed in public (at Claridge's, in November 1972), thus becoming his own musical epitaph whether he intended it or not.

The two top comedy numbers are, I think, unquestionably Coward’s best, and therefore also the best of their general type: ‘Mad Dogs’ is the quintessence of affectionate mockery combined with complete mastery of the internal-rhyming comedy list-song form, and ‘Mrs Worthington’ shows a marvellously taut dramatic progression, from genuine politeness at the start to “tearing bloody rage” by the fourth refrain.   ‘A Room With a View’ is a simple, unaffected and elegant song (whatever Alexander Woolcott and Harpo Marx may have thought at the time!) with classic Coward elisions between the lengths of musical and lyric phrases.  ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’, Coward’s first genuine “hit” in 1925, is actually quite a moralistic diatribe, but it quickly became an iconic song of the ‘20s and one so difficult to sing in a flat, listless way that it is as if the composer has contrived somehow to build into the structure an invisible dynamo which impels the melody. Can there be much doubt that ‘London Pride’ is, simply, the single greatest musical contribution to the Second World War?  The song expresses the true rhetoric of deeply-held sentimental regard, and Norman Hackforth, who first performed it with Coward, thought it “one of the greatest patriotic songs ever written, gentle and understated, and however cynical you may fancy yourself to be, you can’t send this one up.”

The situation regarding 'Mad About the Boy' is that in terms of earnings before 1991 it sat fairly comfortably in the “somewhere in the second ten” category - not quite a “standard”, not “Top Ten” but certainly broadly-known and very regularly performed.  Dinah Washington’s recording of the song was licensed for use in advertising film soundtracks during 1991, and sudden pre-eminence was achieved during 1992 when the Levis Jeans advertisement had huge exposure worldwide, thus generating an entirely new stream of royalties.  Due to the success of that advertising campaign, other advertisements used the same song again, and it has also continued ever since to generate respectable amounts of royalties on the mechanical rights from all subsequent re-recordings of Dinah Washington's cover version.  More exposure of the song in these contexts also significantly boosted the subsequent level of live and broadcast performances by others.  At the time of compiling the information for the Index the song was earning at least four times as much as ‘I’ll See You Again’, the next highest number on the list which for over half a century had held undisputed sway at the top, and which might with justification be considered, over time, the “real number one”. 

I am led to understand that ‘Mad About The Boy’ was still maintaining its leading position in the PRS Distributions in 2004-05. During the summer of 2004, the song was featured as the subject for the lead programme in the ‘Soul Music’ series on BBC Radio 4, which may be said to reflect its current status as an iconic song – and that broadcast alone will certainly have helped it maintain its position.

The top ten works, with the slight exception of ‘London Pride’, all lie within a ten-year pre-War period. Does this mean that Coward’s best musical work was all pre-War?  I think not necessarily – it is just that all these songs help to encapsulate that particular pre-War era, and the tiniest snatch of any of them on radio or television, particularly if it features Coward’s own voice, lends an almost tangible flavour to the association of images.  Of all periods that he graced, Coward’s was the voice of the cynical, ‘Bright Young Things’ of those years and therefore became one of the period’s most effective musical reminders.
  Coward’s later musical work continues to operate at an astonishingly effective level and to encapsulate Coward himself, partly due to its continuing strong autobiographical influences and the trueness of his poetic voice.   On this evidence, however, there can be no doubt that had he not survived the war, he’d still have had his place marked for musical posterity.