Henry the Eighth, I Am, I Am by Herman’s Hermits…Song #16/250: Reader’s Choice
Just a quick note on spelling of today’s song. Today’s song was originally written and recorded using a Cockney-style spelling of the name, “Henry”. Thus, when referring to the original song, I will use the spelling of “Henery”. When the song was covered by Herman’s Hermits, they anglicized the spelling so as to appeal to a broader audience. Thus, when referring to their cover version, I will use “Henry” as the spelling. Just so ya know. 🙂
I was born in 1964. By the time I came into the world, the British television show, Coronation Street, was already on the air. One of the cast members of that show at the time was a teenage boy named Peter Noone. Peter Noone had ambitions that extended beyond the reach of Coronation Street. The year prior, he had joined a band as the lead singer. That band was initially named Herman and his Hermits. They had a hit right off of the bat with a song called “I’m Into Something Good”. With that hit in tow, they rode the British Invasion wave and became a worldwide success story. By the time they struck with their second hit, their name had been shortened to simply Herman’s Hermits. Peter Noone’s popularity rivaled the lads from Liverpool as far as being considered the face of British music. That second hit was a song that at first blush seemed like a novelty song, but, in reality, was actually a song with deep cultural roots in British entertainment history. That song was the cockney-inspired “Henry the Eighth, I Am, I Am”. This song went to #1 in the UK, knocking “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones out of the top chart position. “Henry the Eighth, I Am, I Am” went to #1 in the U.S., as well as starting a string of musical successes in America that actually out matched their achievements back home. While The Beatles and the Rolling Stones emerged as the top acts from the UK to ride the British Invasion wave, Herman’s Hermits were always considered to be in that same peer group. One of the reasons for their success lay in the fact that the members of the band understood where they stood in terms of the history of entertainment in Britain. This knowledge was best reflected in their song choice of “Henry the Eighth, I Am, I Am”. British audiences immediately recognized this effort as being a history lesson that had nothing to do with royalty, but, in fact, everything to do with how English commoners got their musical entertainment throughout history. So, grab a pint, sit back and get comfy because this post is actually a history lesson as told through song. Enjoy.
As long as there have been people who have gathered together, there have been songs and storytelling and the sharing of food with good company. Hundreds of years ago, formal gatherings were the purvey of royalty and/or those who were in power, such as Popes and Archbishops. Music for the masses was a relatively rare affair unless, of course, those in power sought to have a village-wide celebration for some reason. The first formal music and entertainment festivals took the form of Fairs held in the countryside. The most famous example of this would be the Fair that inspired one of the 1960s greatest hit songs, Scarborough Fair. These fairs were the original Renaissance fairs and served to bring poets and minstrel acts and other entertainers into a public setting where ordinary working people could see them. As time rolled along, buildings known as “Public houses” began to appear along the thoroughfares that connected the number of growing towns and cities in England. These public houses…or pubs, as they came to be known…were basically homes that were open to the traveling public to stop by for a drink and a bite to eat. As public houses established themselves, they started adding musical entertainment. This practice began causing crowds to swell, profits to soar and was the beginning of a sort of star system for entertainers in the UK. As the owners of public houses got wiser, they realized they could increase the size of their customer base by being able to hire permanent entertainers, and then promote the appearance of said entertainers so that customers would know that if they showed up at a certain public house on a certain day, they were guaranteed a show by someone they enjoyed seeing, as well as a good drink. This was the start of entertainment advertising. It was, also, the beginning of the commodification of entertainment as a business. As business practices were refined, public house owners began to realize that their pubs were often too small to accommodate the ever-increasing crowds that clamoured to see their favourite entertainers. So, these owners started taking some of their profits and began building larger venues that became known as music halls. Music halls were often two story structures in which there was a balcony around the perimeter of the upper story, with the main floor being open for a stand-up crowd or else, most often, as a space filled with tables so that a dinner theatre experience could be had by those who paid extra to sit below. Because there was a formal stage area at one end of the main floor, music halls functioned like small theatres. There was room for entertainers to store props and musical instruments backstage. Because of the increased room to maneuver, the types of entertainment offered began to transition into what we would now call Vaudeville and/or burlesque type shows. Much of what was performed in British music halls by the end of the 1800s would be considered ribald or bawdy humour. The audience was mainly working class citizens. The subject matter of these shows often was reflective of the lives of the audiences who came to enjoy themselves. Thus, singers and comedians typically sang songs about drinking, about food, as well as poking fun at those who swam in upper class social waters. One of the big stars to emerge during the music hall phase of British entertainment history was a man who went by the stage name of Harry Champion. It is at this stage of this history lesson that the story of today’s chosen song begins.
Harry Champion was a well known, much beloved music hall singer and comedian in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of the songs he sang were about food and the act of eating. He always sang in a very comedic, slapstick manner. Physical comedy was his strength. Audiences of that era lapped up what Champion served up on stage each night. For a while, he was one of Britain’s biggest stars. As the years went by, Champion continually added to his repertoire of material so that, in 1910, when he announced that he was debuting a brand new song, people were excited to hear this new work. That song was “Henery the Eighth, I Am, I Am”. As many of you may know, one of the most famous kings in English history was named Henry the Eighth. Well, this new song by Harry Champion was not about the king but was, obviously, a play on his famous name. In fact, Champion’s Cockney-inspired tune was about a woman who had been married eight times, each time to a man named Henry! As Champion sang the song, he did so as the 8th Henry to marry this woman. Audiences roared with laughter and Harry Champion had himself a hit song. Unfortunately for Harry Champion and for many music hall performers like him, the start of World War I signaled the end of an era for music hall-style performers. As the War ended, radio began to be introduced on a wider scale. By the end of the 1920s, most homes had their own radio receiver. The BBC began to assume the role of the nation’s broadcaster. This was to be the case until the 1950s when television began to take its place as the primary means of obtaining information and entertainment. If you have ever paid attention to the Queen song, “Radio GaGa”, you will know that it is a song about the history of radio in the UK and the importance of it as a conduit for news and entertainment even to this day. In any case, the death of music halls as a primary means for common folk to enjoy entertainment meant the end of their career for entertainers like Harry Champion.
So, in 1964, when young British bands were preparing to embark on careers that would end up revolutionizing the music business, Peter Noone and his bandmates in Herman’s Hermits wanted to wave the flag of their homeland in a very intimate manner. They did so by covering Harry Champion’s hit, “Henery the Eighth, I Am, I Am” for a new generation of listeners, as well as for audiences in countries around the world who could listen to their song and learn a bit about British entertainment history if they wished to do a bit of research on their own. By honouring those who came before them, Herman’s Hermits showed a level of respect that helped them stand in good stead with record buyers and with those who came to see their shows in person. So, while “Henery the Eighth, I Am, I Am” may seem like a silly song when you first hear it, it actually is a throwback to a time when performers stood on small stages in public houses and music halls and brought humorous respite into the lives of common, hardworking folk. The song is a history lesson unspoken.
Today’s Reader’s Choice post is dedicated to my in-laws, Bruce and Sheila Davis. They are good folk and I am lucky to have them as family members. They are a full generation older than I am. Why that is important is because the timeline of their lives places them as teenagers when the British Invasion was in full swing. They dated in an era when going to dances was more of a thing than it seems to be today. Even though they have reached their seventies, they still like to dance together. They take great delight in putting record albums on their stereo and dancing up a storm in front of my daughters (their grandchildren) as a way of introducing them to the music of their youth. During one of our last visits, Poppa (as the girls call him) was very excited to show us all his latest thrift store find. It was a copy of Herman’s Hermits Greatest Hits still in the original cellophane! Poppa asked the girls if they knew who Herman’s Hermits were and when they said no…well, it was showtime once again. Gramma and Poppa danced like young lovers in the living room while Poppa sang “I’m Into Something Good” and then, “Henery the Eighth, I Am, I Am”. The girls expressed embarrassment and delight in equal measure. Gramma and Poppa laughed and hugged. I am fairly certain that when the girls read this post, the image in their minds won’t be the story of British entertainment through the ages nor will it be the original singer of this song, Harry Champion. Instead, the image that my girls will take with them is of their beloved grandparents singing and dancing together to a song that sounds quite silly in actual fact. But the real lesson here is that love is all that really matters. If you can mesh music into your heart in a way that it becomes synonymous with feelings of love then music becomes more than simply notes and chords. It becomes the soundtrack to lives lived with love. Whether that love is between two people or between a band and the country of their birth….love is all that matters.
The link to the video for the song, “Henry the Eighth, I Am, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits can be found here.
The link to the official website for Herman’s Hermits can be found here.