Podcast 006 : 11 mins
Monday 6th April 2009
It was in 1990 that I began to notice whistlers. Of course they had always been there, I just hadn’t been so tuned in to them before. Over the next few years I started to write down every whistled tune I heard. There was the man who used to pass every morning on his way to work and whistle a different tune every day, the young guy who whistled One Day I’ll Fly Away in the lift at Covent Garden, the technician at college who whistled whatever he had heard that morning on Radio 1, the city worker in a suit who walked past whistling the theme tune from Steptoe and Son...and many many more. I tried to record these encounters, but whistling is often too fleeting to capture; by the time I had grappled for my recorder the whistler had either vanished or stopped.
One night while working late at college I stood in the empty art school corridor and whistled the Beatles tune Yesterday (see Grrrrrrradio Podcast 005), it sounded so beautifully melancholic in the deserted echoey space. I really wanted other people to hear what the space sounded like with no-one but me whistling in it, so I recorded myself whistling and the next day set up hidden speakers connected to a tape player in my locker. The tune played on and off on a loop throughout the day, I think most people thought it was a workman. As with the whistlers I had tried to record, it was a communication without words; unannounced and in this case unidentifiable. After Yesterday I wanted to find a tune that no-one would know and began to set up various devices to make musical scores from chance actions like paper arrows blowing in the wind, this led to me making a whole series of new melodies.
Around this time I discovered the great Ronnie Ronalde. Ronnie Ronalde was a British musical hall performer and famous whistler, yodeler and bird impersonator. In the 1950’s he was a multi-million record selling artist. I decided that I wanted Ronnie to whistle one of my tunes for my final show at college. Ronalde had made some amazing recordings of complex tunes ranging from Bach’s Air on the G String to Stauss’s Tritsch Tratsch Polka, so I knew he was perfect for the job. It took months (pre-internet) to find Ronalde but I eventually tracked him down, living in New Zealand in a place aptly called ‘The Whistlers Lodge’. When I called him up on the telephone he was very friendly and said he would look at the score and see if he could do it. Sometime later I received a letter from Ronnie saying he had received my score but that my tune was too complicated for him, he was very sorry but he couldn’t do it. This seemed strange as it was quite a simple tune compared to Johann Strauss, but I didn’t pursue it, and in the end I whistled the tune myself. WHISTLE was my first recording pressed onto vinyl.
I still write down the whistled tunes I hear but there doesn’t seem to be nearly as many as there used to be. I have a theory that this is largely due to mobile phones. Whistling is usually a thing you do alone when you’re in your own world; just thinking, pottering, walking or traveling. Nowadays it seems for many people those ‘lone’ moments are taken up by talking on the mobile phone. I think it’s time to switch off the mobile and start whistling....
Extracts from the title sequences of 'The Whistler', the 1940’s American radio mystery series which ran for 13 years.
The murderer (Georgie) in the psychological thriller Twisted Nerve (1968) eerily whistles a tune as he follows a woman in the street.
WHISTLE, recorded in 1992 and pressed on 45” vinyl record. The melody was made by placing a musical score over an image of paper arrows blowing in the wind on Euston concourse.
A medley from the oeuvre of the great Ronnie Ronalde...
The child murder Hans Beckert (played by Peter Lorre) whistles Edward Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King before he strikes in Fritz Lang’s M (1931).
The vampire whistles Strangers in the Night before he strikes in Fright Night (1985) .
Running down the stairs while whistling Strangers in the Night, recorded in 1999.
Fred Lowery ‘The Blind Whistler’ on the Vincent Lopez show in 1939.
Man in the city waiting on a corner and whistling the theme from Steptoe and Son, recorded in London, 1997.
Muzzy Marcellino whistles the theme tune for the film The High and the Mighty (1954)
Humphrey Bogart’s ‘Steve’ wolf whistles after Lauren Bacall’s ‘Slim’ says, “You know how to whistle don’t you...just put your lips together and blow” in To Have and To Have Not (1944)