A century of song: part one

To mark the centenary of PRS for Music, we’ve scoured the society’s records to uncover British music’s most performed works over the last 100 years

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 6 Mar 2014
  • min read

Global hits, technological upheaval, piracy: ask anyone to name the biggest story in British music over the last decade and they’ll mention one of these headline grabbers.

But none of this is really news, as a quick glance through the PRS for Music archives reveals. The same factors have been shaping the industry for a hundred years or more, littering the past with amazing artistry, dizzying financial rewards and a few failed ventures.

To mark the centenary of PRS for Music, we’ve scoured the society’s records to uncover British music’s most performed works over the last 100 years. Through these songs - their writers, publishers and audiences - we can trace the resilience and ingenuity of the industry - and find familiarity at every turn.

Buried within dusty financial ledgers and fading songwriter pledges, a new history unfolds. We learn how the music business has been dogged by change, market struggle and artistic friction from the very beginning. We also discover how PRS for Music has adapted to meet these pressures.

Over the coming week, you’ll be able to read the stories behind these songs.

Below you will find our list of the most performed works and learn about the songs from the 1910s to the 1940s.

DecadeSong titleSongwriter/composerPublisher
1910sPack up your TroublesGeorge & Felix PowellFrancis, Day & Hunter
1920sSong of HiawathaSamuel Coleridge-TaylorNovello & Company
1930sLove is the Sweetest ThingRay NobleRedwood Music
1940sCoronation ScotVivian EllisChappell
1950sLiving DollLionel BartLakeview Music
1960sShe Loves YouJohn Lennon & Paul McCartneySony/ATV
1970sNight FeverBarry, Maurice & Robin GibbUniversal Music Publishing
1980sNever Gonna Give You UpMatt Aitken, Mike Stock & Pete WatermanMike Stock Publishing, Sony/ATV & Matt Aitken Publishing
1990sLove is All AroundReg PresleyUniversal/Dick James Music
2000sCan’t Get You Out of My HeadRob Davis & Cathy DennisUniversal/MCA Publishing
2010sRolling in the DeepAdele Adkins & Paul EpworthEMI Music Publishing/Universal Music Publishing

(These works were determined to be among the most performed works in each decade, according to PRS for Music membership and licensing information, performance data, accounts, and historical events)

1910s: A songwriters’ dud goes viral
Pack Up Your Troubles by George and Felix Powell
Published by Francis, Day & Hunter (most performed, 1916)

Just a few months after PRS had formed, two English songwriting brothers revisited their drawer of discarded material - marked ‘duds’ - in the hope of reviving a ditty. It was the dawn of the First World War and US publisher Francis, Day and Hunter was offering £100 for the best marching song to amuse the troops.

George and Felix dusted down their piano ballad Pack Up Your Troubles, gave it a new, faster rhythm and sent it off for scrutiny. The revamp worked and they bagged first prize in 1915. Soon after, their melody spread around the globe, exported via British troops and helped by civilian word of mouth. As the Great War dragged on, the British army hired Felix to sing the song to troops along the Western Front and by 1918 it had crossed No Man’s Land to be sung by German soldiers too.

Back at home, PRS was operating from two small rooms in Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

It was gearing up for its first ever royalty distribution of £11,000, which went to 270 songwriters and composers, and 16 publishers in 1917. One of the society’s main sources of income was cinemas. The public went mad for the silent movies of Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin - and new picture houses were springing up all over the country. Each film needed a pianist who would perform licensed classics and ‘mood music’. Around that time, PRS was also collecting income from bandstands, hotels, cafés and a few corporations too.

Among publishers, the rampant piracy of sheet music was biting business, while a new recorded music industry was fledging. Thomas Edison introduced his innovative Diamond Disc Player in 1913, immediately replacing the old cylinder system. This prompted Columbia to issue its first music discs.

1920s: Crossing boundaries
Song of Hiawatha by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
Published by Novello & Company (originally written 1900, most performed 1923)

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a trailblazing composer, way ahead of his time. Dubbed the Lennon or McCartney of the early twentieth century, he was barely out of his teens when he began writing music that would define an era.

As a classical composer of British-African descent, he could have quite easily slipped into obscurity, given the pervading social values of the time. But his Song of Hiawatha trilogy of cantatas crossed all boundaries. The piece took the English-speaking world by storm when it was finished in 1900 and its popularity soared until the start of the Second World War.

It’s one of the British music industry’s great scandals that Samuel died penniless in 1912, aged 34. His death helped instigate the creation of PRS in 1914 and Samuel’s wife joined the society soon after, collecting royalties on behalf of his estate.

In the wider entertainment business, big change was afoot. PRS issued its first radio licence to the BBC in 1923, covering the corporation’s eight new regional wireless telegraph stations. Meanwhile, the film industry was undergoing massive change, marked by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 thriller Blackmail, which became the first ‘talkie’ to be screened in the UK. Throughout the decade cinema provided a large chunk of PRS royalties - around 45 percent of all income - with dancehalls, hotels, tea rooms, skating rinks and church halls making up the rest.

Records show that PRS’ public houses tariff was charging up to £5 per year for live piano performances (the equivalent of around £1,285 in today’s money). There were also separate charges for a growing number of ‘amplified’ and ‘gramophone’ performances - ranging from six farthings to 10 shillings per night. Very few pubs were licensed back then, but within four decades, all that had changed.

1930s: The radio revolution
Love is the Sweetest Thing by Ray Noble
Published by Redwood Music (most performed 1933)

By 1930 there were five million radio sets in the UK and demand was fierce for dance bands and jazz. The BBC had a monopoly back then, but by 1938 the plucky pirate station Radio Luxembourg was muscling in, bringing non-stop ‘light entertainment’ and ‘pop hits’ to front rooms across Britain.

By the end of the decade it claimed to be attracting 45 percent of the Sunday listening audience while the BBC was pulling in only 35 percent.

Ray Noble was one of those all-round entertainers who were synonymous with the era and purpose-built for both radio and the stage. He could compose, arrange, sing, lead bands and act.

He penned many of the dance band hits of the thirties and did his bit to stand up to the American musical invasion, even though he himself moved to New York in 1934.

Love is the Sweetest Thing was a massive hit for Ray on both sides of the Atlantic, earning him his first US number one. Its success brought him a few Hollywood acting roles, where he played alongside Fred Astaire and Joan Fontain in the 1937 film A Damsel in Distress.

But it wasn’t all roses for the entertainment industry. The Great Depression sent sheet music sales into headlong decline, made worse by the plunging demand for records too.

Radio had revolutionised home entertainment, making music more accessible and cheaper than ever. People ditched their parlour pianos in their droves and replaced them with wireless sets.

PRS, and the rest of the industry, had to act quickly. Recorded and broadcast music were taking over old traditions and there was money to be made if the industry moved fast enough to keep pace.

Licensing and collecting fees had always represented two huge tasks for the developing PRS. But by the thirties the situation was starting to get tricky - the society had become so successful at collecting money from all the new performance avenues that were opening up that distributing it became the next big problem. So, during this time, the organisation mushroomed.

1940s: From songbook to sync
Coronation Scot by Vivian Ellis
Published by Chappell (most performed 1948)

Renowned songwriter Vivian Ellis joined PRS back in 1926. Shortly after, he wrote a string of successful musicals and pop songs. But he doesn’t register in our most performed list until the forties. The reason? Vivian scored a lucrative sync in 1948.

His song Coronation Scot, which was penned 12 years earlier, was picked up by BBC Radio for the hugely successful Paul Temple murder series.

The song had been inspired by the 'clickety-clack' of a famous express train that Vivian used to ride from his holiday home in Taunton to London Paddington, and provided an atmospheric accompaniment to a suspense-filled crime thriller.

Vivian later went on to become a PRS director in 1955, before taking up the post of president in the eighties. During his career he created more than 60 stage musicals and was behind a clutch of popular songs both before and after the Second World War.

In the wider industry, there’s no doubt the war and its repercussions dominated the forties. The dawn of the decade brought regulations that massively constricted the music business. Venues suffered a 6pm curfew and BBC Radio was reduced to public announcements and a limited supply of gramophone records.

Luckily, regulations didn’t stick around for long. In fact, the war sparked a boom in all kinds of entertainment - particularly music - and sowed the seeds for the lucrative rock ‘n’ roll era that was to come. The only exception was television, where service was suspended for the entire duration.

The forties brought massive changes to the way people lived their lives and music became more integrated than ever before. The huge influx of workers into factories - especially munitions plants and food processing units - increased the demand for musical light relief.

Over at PRS, this helped income to grow but power supply problems were hitting the society’s so-called ‘innovative electric calculating machines’ and disrupting royalty calculations.

While PRS was picking up its old threads after the war - and spinning a few new ones - its members were also getting more organised. The Composers Guild formed in 1944 and soon after the end of the war its 200 members included some of the best known composers of the time.

Part two coming next week….

Read our news story on the launch of the PRS for Music centenary and visit the centenary website.