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Music / Flanders and Swann

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Michael Flanders (left) and Donald Swann (right).

"The purpose of satire, it has been rightly said, is to strip away the blanket of comforting illusion and cozy half-truth with which we surround ourselves. And our job, as I see it, is to put it back again."
Michael Flanders, At The Drop Of Another Hat

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann were a duo who co-wrote and performed comic songs in the 1950s and 1960s. Unusually for the time neither performer stood during their shows, Swann being seated at the piano and Flanders confined to a wheelchair by polio (contracted in service during World War 2).

The two began their musical careers together at school but were drawn apart on the outbreak of the war. A chance meeting in 1948 led them to begin writing comic songs for other performers to sing before they decided to start performing for themselves in a show titled At The Drop Of A Hat. After touring worldwide they returned to Britain to open their new show At The Drop Of Another Hat and recorded a number of songs not heard in either show.

In 1967 they ceased touring together but remained friends until Flanders' death in 1975.

Their works provide examples of:

  • Audience Participation: "The Hippopotamus"
    Flanders: And tonight, by way of encouragement attendants will be passing among you. With rawhide whips.
  • Baths Are Fun: "In the Bath"
    Then there comes that dreadful moment, when the water's running cold.
    When the soap is lost for ever, and you're feeling tired and old.
    It's time to pull the plug out, time to mop the bathroom floor.
    The towel is in the cupboard; and the cupboard is NEXT DOOR!
    It's started running hot, let's have another hour or more.
  • Bilingual Bonus: "Je suis le Tenebreux" sung by Swann, is a genuinely moving French poem set to music with none of the comedy that the performance implied from the reaction to the line "I think translation rather spoils it."
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation:
    • "La Belle Dame sans Merci" - The beautiful lady who never says thank you.
    • Just after Flanders has emphasised that the song "Vanessa" is in no way autobiographical:
      It says "mf" at the top of the music. This doesn't stand for Michael Flanders. It is a musical indication, and it means the song should be sung "mit feeling".
  • Bravado Song: Downplayed in "The Spider Song". It's mainly a Fear Song about how Spiders Are Scary, but it also has lyrics about how the singer is not scared of other bugs.
  • But Liquor Is Quicker: "Madeira M'Dear" is built around this trope.
    Unaware of the wiles of the snake in the grass,
    Or the fate of the maiden who topes,
    She lowered her standards by raising her glass,
    Her courage, her eyes, and his hopes.
  • The Casanova: The man in "Madeira M'Dear" is a Casanova Wannabe at minimum, is described as "no stranger to vice", and when he scents success, secretly carves "one more notch/On the butt of his gold-handled cane", so he presumably has a record of success. However, he apparently employs booze rather than charm or looks for this purpose.
  • "Days of the Week" Song: "The Gasman Cometh", in which one tradesman calls after another, beginning with the gasman on Monday.
  • Disaster Dominoes: "The Gasman Cometh", in which the gasman causes a small disaster which has to be sorted out by another tradesman, right through the week.
  • Dramatic Drop: In the song "Madeira, m'dear", the young girl drops her glass when she recalls words from her mother:
    "Oh my child, should you look on the wine that is red,
    "Be prepared for a fate worse than death."
    She let go her glass with a shrill little cry.
    Crash, tinkle it fell to the floor.
  • Dreadful Musician: Spoofed in "A Song of Patriotic Prejudice", which contains the line "he sings far too loud, far too often, and flat", and the music suddenly changes to a flatter key.
  • Fear Song: "The Spider Song" is about an arachnophobic man who's afraid to shave because there's a spider in the bath.
  • Here We Go Again!: "The Gasman Cometh", "A Song of the Weather", and "There's a Hole in my Budget".
  • His Name Really Is "Barkeep": From "Greensleeves":
    He sent for a playwright friend of his and he said to him "Look, kid.." (audience laughs) That was his name: Kyd.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: "The Reluctant Cannibal" is about a young man who doesn't want to join the rest of his tribe in eating people. Being from 1956, it has a political edge to it, satirizing the Cold War. His father, "the chief assistant to the assistant chief", declares that refusing to eat people can only lead to even more disruption, like not making war.
    Father: Going around saying "don't eat people", that's the way to make people hate you!
    We always have eaten people, always will eat people—you can't change human nature.
    You might as well say don't fight people!
    Son: "Don't fight people"? [starts to guffaw] That's ridiculous!
    Father: [pleased] My boy!
    Both: Ridiculous!
  • The Ingenue: The young lady in "Madeira M'Dear" is evidently an ingenue.
    She was young, she was pure
    She was new, she was nice
    She was fair, she was sweet seventeen...
  • Insane Troll Logic: Parodying Neo-Luddites and their attitudes, Flanders said "If God had intended us to fly, He would never have given us the railways."
  • Job Song: "The Gasman Cometh" is a song about a whole series of tradesmen visiting the house of the singer to repair the previous one's damage, inadvertently causing damage themselves.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: The title character of "The Ostrich".
  • Least Rhymable Word:
    We were never able to come up with a rhyme for "Khrushchev" until he'd gone: "Did he fall, or was he putsched off?"
  • Life of the Party: "Twice Shy"
    When it's Ladies' Night at the Carlton Club,
    And a young woman comes in.
    Smoking a six-inch Burma cheroot,
    And playing a violin.
  • Listing Cities: "Slow Train", which specifically lists British communities whose rail services and lines had been closed by the Beeching Axe starting in 1963, to cut the heavy financial losses incurred by the UK's railways.
  • Multipurpose Monocultured Crop: "The Wompom" is about the world's most miraculous, all-purpose plant: not exactly an animal, but certainly more than a mere vegetable.
  • Napoleon Delusion: one of several psychiatric conditions the title animal feigns in "The Elephant".
  • Ostrich Head Hiding: The chorus of "The Ostrich".
  • Overly-Long Gag: "In the Desert" and "Kokoraki"
    Swann: I omitted eight verses!
  • Parking Problems: "Parking the Car" is about this. "You feel like Noah in the ark/Afloat o'er what is now Iraq/Trying to find/A place to park."
  • Patriotic Fervour: "A Song of Patriotic Prejudice" is a semi-Affectionate Parody of the mindset.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: The last line of "The Ostrich".
    Flanders: Here in this nuclear testing ground is no place. To. Bury. Your. Head.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: In At The Drop of a Hat, Flanders introduces the song "The Gnu" with a story about a car that always parks in front of his house, forcing him to park further uphill (thus making it an even bigger struggle to get between his car and his wheelchair) - a car with the registration number GNU 655. Apart from containing the word "Gnu", it has nothing to do with the song, as Flanders happily lampshades.
  • Spiders Are Scary: "The Spider" is from the perspective of a man who has defeated all manner of large predators, but is petrified by "the spider in the bath."
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: "Misalliance" (The tragic tale of the right-handed Honeysuckle and the left-handed Bindweed.)
  • Thrifty Scot: Possibly the least insulting stereotype used in "A Song of Patriotic Prejudice" (although the word they use is 'mean').
  • Translation: "Yes": "Songs For Our Time", in which an extremely long phrase has a simple translation of "no".
  • Trial by Ordeal: "Bring Back The Birch". The song was a satire on people who (when the song was written) wanted to bring back corporal punishment and hanging, and depicted people in previous historical eras wanting to bring back even older forms of punishment.
    Bring back the knout,
    bring back impaling,
    jus primae noctis and trial by ordeal...
  • Unable to Support a Wife: The singer in "The Youth of the Heart" wouldn't marry his sweetheart until he'd earned enough to support her... by which time, she'd married someone else.
  • The Unintelligible: On waiting for a plane:
    Finally, you hear a voice through the loudspeaker saying (unintelligible gibberish); so you do that.
  • Vanity License Plate: In "Sounding Brass":
    My car registration number's 1111 VIP.
  • Wheelchair Antics: Michael Flanders would often use his wheelchair as part of his performance, sometimes spinning himself around on the stage.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: "The Spider", in which they sing about a feared spider in the bath, making them afraid to enter the bathroom.
  • With Lyrics: "Ill Wind". Because Michael's French horn has allegedly been stolen, he puts words to the tune of the last movement of Mozart's horn concerto, and sings it, instead of playing.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: "Greenſleeves".
    At the bottom were several rows of very square but highly illuminated notes, and at the top it said: "Greenſleeves". Kyd looked at it and thought: it's a pretty unlikely title, for a ſong.