Pop/rock musicians in the late ’60s looking to expand their sound tended to draw from the music of idealized cultures separated by distance (Indian), time (baroque) or race (blues). For musicians with less serious aims, though, there was also a strain of pop that sought exoticism closer to home. After all, few things are as close in grasp but ultimately unknowable as what the world was like just before you were born. The dregs of the era may even persist into your early childhood, furthering the sense of having just missed out on something great. But the fact that the culture already belongs to a still-living generation blocks it off from personal access in a way that, say, medieval culture doesn’t (in that everyone approaches it from equal distance). On top of that, the fact it’s your own parents’ and grandparents’ era makes it unhip by association. The result is a complex alloy of irony, nostalgia and genuine appreciation, the precise balance of which can vary from person to person and song to song. (The contemporary equivalent may be the resurgence of the foggy synths and saxophone associated with ’70s/early ’80s yacht rock.)
For rock in the mid to late ’60s, this manifested as a sort of a fad for the similarly populist entertainments of a previous generation – namely, late-era music hall/vaudeville and the dance band jazz of the ’20s and early ’30s. (Being a hand-me-down cultural reference, the ’60s pop/rock version is more a loose jumble of old-timey signifiers than accurate historical musicology.) In the UK, this style of music progressed naturally from the trad jazz revival of the late ’50s and ’60s, with that era’s fetish for authenticity softened into more playful appeals to nostalgia. For Americans, it called to mind the peaceful era between the world wars – years that seemed especially rosy viewed from 1966.
Producer/songwriter Geoff Stephens assembled The New Vaudeville Band in studio as a vessel to record a pastiche of ’20s pop. “Winchester Cathedral” wasn’t the first vaudeville-flavored pop hit to break in the US. Herman’s Hermits’ tinny instrumentation and Peter Noone’s vocal mugging alluded to the variety tradition, a connection made explicit on their version of “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.” The Kinks scored Top 20 US hits with “A Well Respected Man” and “Sunny Afternoon,” which incorporated modified music hall song structures as a means of reasserting their Britishness while playing American-derived rock and roll. The Lovin’ Spoonful, whose old-timey inclinations tended more to street-level jug band music, broke out the soft-shoe shuffle for “Daydream” – there’s even video of the band performing it in vaudevillian boaters and bowties. What is unusual is how ahead of the curve a novelty single like “Winchester Cathedral” was, preceding more fondly remembered examples of the microgenre as The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four,” The Rolling Stones’ “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” and The Small Faces’ “Lazy Sunday.” The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the closest analogue to The New Vaudeville Band (and arguably the source of their whole shtick), wouldn’t even release their debut LP until the following year, at which point they’d begun to tone down their antique influences to avoid comparisons to the hit-makers.
Perhaps it helped that the New Vaudeville Band were more literal than the rockers. The touring iteration of the group included a horn section dressed in old-fangled costumes and a singer who sang through a Rudy Vallée-style megaphone. They even had the word “vaudeville” right there in the name, in case you needed a map. But for a pastiche of music descended from the sprightly likes of ragtime and dixieland, the pace of “Winchester Cathedral” is leaden and undanceable, the horns bulbous and gassy – though, to be fair, the garish production and dinky instrumentation are probably a more honest tribute to small-scale, low-end music halls than the rosy-hued rockers’ take. And to assure pop listeners that it’s not just a nostalgia trip for old fogies – though they are welcome to buy the record too – there’s a slack jolt of fuzz guitar as a vague gesture to psych rock. (The record’s only good joke was winning the Grammy for Best Contemporary Song.)
Oddly, the best thing about “Winchester Cathedral” may be the song itself. The lyrics are terrible, to be sure, but terrible in a plausibly vaudevillian novelty way. The melody’s catchy without being painful, familiar without being too predictable. Conversely, though, every cover version – and circa 1967, there were a lot of them, by everyone from Petula Clark to Frank Sinatra to Vallée himself – proves how superfluous the song is removed from its moth-eaten ’20s dress-up. What’s left is pure kitsch, ridiculing the past while stoking nostalgia for it – and, worst of all, not even getting what made it so appealing in the first place. 2
Hit #1 on December 3, 1966 for 1 week; repeaked on December 17, 1966 for 2 weeks; total of 3 weeks at #1
175 of 1025 #1’s reviewed; 17.07% through the H0t 100