On the seventh of August 1965, Herman’s Hermits had a Billboard number-one hit with ‘I’m Henry VIII I Am.’ It is a profoundly lazy, minimum-viable-product of a song. The freeze-dried remains of a once-vibrant musical style, the music-hall charm of Harry Champion’s 1911 recording is stripped back to nothing but the chorus—
I’m ’Enerey the eighth I am
’Enerey the eighth I am, I am
I got married to the widow next door
She’s been married seven times before
And every one was an ’Enerey (’Enerey!)
She wouldn’t have a Willy or a Sam (no Sam!)
I’m her eighth old man, I’m ’Enerey
’Enerey the eighth I am!
—sung in Peter Noone’s mockney squawk. The most affecting moment, that smug proclamation of “Second verse, same as the first!” is an open admission of creative lethargy; three choruses, a cheerleader spelling-out of H-E-N-R-Y, a few perfunctory guitar licks, and that’s your lot. One minute and fifty seconds. That’ll be four dollars, please.
And I do mean dollars. Because ‘I’m Henry VIII I Am’ is the kind of superficial crap that British artists have been selling to Americans for decades now. The tourist-friendly historical allusion, the pre-modern comedy subject (the lusty widow archetype is far older than Henry VIII), but above all Noone’s cartoon Londoner delivery, all bouncy diction and dropped aitches. He’s not quite as bad as Dick Van Dyke in the previous year’s Mary Poppins, but he’s still not fooling anyone who’s ever spoken to an actual Londoner for longer than it takes to ask the way to Big Ben.
It’s worth reflecting on the ersatz Londoner as the face of British cultural exports. Just as, colloquially, a ‘British accent’ usually means received pronunciation, i.e., an upper class southern English accent, a phoney version of the London proletariat appears in the American imagination as an easy shorthand for the loveable British everyman. The regional and class identities of several nations are collapsed into a caricature of the Greater London upper classes and a caricature of the Greater London working classes. And this framework can be exploited even if, like Noone, you’re actually from Manchester. It’s so easy, tempting even, to write the song off as a piece of UK kitsch; the sort of plastic tat I constantly brushed past on my commute through King’s Cross Station; a snowglobe Buckingham Palace full of whiteness and carcinogens.
But to do so is to ignore some important context.
This sort of transatlantic pandering was genuinely new at the time. Herman’s Hermits were among the most commercially successful of the British Invasion bands of the mid-1960s. (Indeed, substantially more successful than better-remembered acts like The Who and The Rolling Stones—at least at first.) Prior to 1964, British artists had scored precisely four US number ones, ever. (And two of them were instrumentals, meaning no room for those all-important accents.) Between 1964 and 1966, there were thirty-one, beginning with the hat-trick of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ ‘She Loves You,’ and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ in early 1964. Most of those number ones went to The Beatles, of course, but Herman’s Hermits had both ‘Henry VIII’ and ‘Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter’ in 1965, part of a straight run of US top-five hits. Herman’s Hermits were not just cynically exploiting American Anglophilia; they were also helping to create it.
Another reason not to denigrate ‘I’m Henry VIII I Am’ as a British record cynically sold abroad is more straightforward: it isn’t one. The song was never released as a single in the UK.
Continue reading “On Anglophilia”