Herbert Kretzmer, initially from South Africa, was a journalist and the theatre critic for Daily Mail for many years. He is a superb lyricist and he has written many songs with Charles Aznavour as well as the English lyrics for Les Miserables. This interview was broadcast in On The Beat on BBC Radio Merseyside on 12 March 2005.
SL: You’re known as a lyricist but did you ever want to write the music?
HERBERT KRETZMER: When I began my life as a songwriter in South Africa at college, I fancied myself not only as a lyricist but as a composer. I wrote a few songs for a university show and I wrote a couple of songs for a revue which was put on in Johannesburg at the Library Theatre. The illusion, no, delusion, that I could write music pursued me all the way to England where I came to settle in the mid-50s. For the first time in my life, I started to look very seriously at what kind of work was being turned out by current songwriters in England and I came to the conclusion very quickly that there were 1,000 better composers living in my block alone. It was ludicrous to carry through that delusion from childhood into adulthood. I made up my mind that whatever talent I had as a lyric writer might be successfully exploited but I gave up any thought of composing and I never have again. It was banal stuff I was composing.
SL: And journalism and lyric writing are both using words.
HERBERT KRETZMER: Yes, journalism and lyric writing are compatible professions. They both depend upon the manipulation of the English language under very compressed conditions. You couldn’t negotiate with a bar of music to get in a devastating rhyme that will amaze every other lyric writer – if it doesn’t fit the music, if it doesn’t fit the beat, you have to throw it out. Equally in journalism, especially in my day which was the hot metal approach. Every word you wrote became metal within a few hours and then the metal was transfixed and transmitted on to paper through various means. You had to fit the metal’s measurement which was also unyielding so there is a similarity. You have to seek your freedom in both songwriting and journalism within a tight system which will not yield. The bar in the music is well named: you are behind bars.
SL: There is now such an interest in South African music. Have you been involved in that?
HERBERT KRETZMER: Not at all. I have been away for so long but I still speak both the official languages of my youth – English and Afrikaans. I keep a close eye on how things are out there, but I was never involved in the South African scene as such . When I was there I was trying to make my mark as a straight journalist. Songwriting was a hobby, a dream which was put aside for years at a time while I went on being a newspaperman. Then I became involved with Charles Aznavour who demanded a new album every couple of years and you knew that at the end of the labour, there would be a record.
SL: In 1960 you wrote Goodness Gracious Me for Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren. It might be thought politically incorrect, but nevertheless the phrase was used for a comedy series featuring Asian performers.
HERBERT KRETZMER: Yes, at that time, if anybody wanted to imitate an Indian accent they would usually use that phrase. What it wasn’t yet was a song title. The song has now become part of the national fabric as an example of Indianness. I can’t believe when I wrote She that it was the only title of that name. You would have thought that there would have been a glut of She’s. I suppose I can claim to have invented Kinky Boots. I have seen the phrase over and over again in fashion magazines and so on. That was used for a record by Patrick McNee and Honor Blackman.
SL: Had you written it for them?
HERBERT KRETZMER: No. Kinky Boots was done in half an hour. It was written at the time of That Was The Week That Was, the satirical show that took the country apart on Saturday nights. Ned Sherrin had commissioned some shots of King’s Road on a Saturday with girls wearing thigh boots and high skirts, which was the fashion of the time. It was a two minute film and the whole thing was shot from the waist downwards, a montage of pretty long legs in boots and miniskirts. Ned wanted a tune to go with it as he didn’t feel that it needed a spoken commentary. The little song would be disposable and never heard of again. Some years later we did another song for Patrick McNee and Honor Blackman called Let’s Keep It Friendly, which was a terrible little song in the Avengers personae. They needed a B-side and Dave Lee reminded me of Kinky Boots from several years earlier. Honor Blackman was the girl with leather boots in The Avengers so we brought it out of the trunk, and the rest is mystery.
SL: And yet it took many years to become a hit.
HERBERT KRETZMER: Simon Mayo heard it and thought the recording was terrible, but the whole thing tickled him. Patrick McNee was certainly a very stiff participant in the proceedings. It made for a very odd record and Mayo said, ‘Let’s make it number one.’ It was one of those bets that disc jockeys make with each other. It almost worked. It was popular with schoolchildren for some reason and some people are far more impressed that I wrote that than Les Miserables. You know, ‘Wow, that’s really something.’ They tend to be very young but one must take one’s fans where one can find them these days.
SL: Have you always enjoyed writing novelty songs?
HERBERT KRETZMER: Yes, I have enjoyed everything I’ve written but always when it’s done rather than when I am writing it. The process of writing is always agonising and I never feel that I am embracing a song; I always feel that I am facing a song almost in an adversarial way, I am dealing with something that I may not be able to beat, that is the attitude that I have. Sometimes you have a piece of music and someone wants lyrics and you don’t know what it is going to be about. Then you have to listen to the music until a song suggests itself. Certain sounds sit well on certain musical cadences. It is chaos and out of this chaos you have to fashion and discipline yourself to produce finally, maybe 12 or 16 lines of short and tight English words. You are battling chaos and finding order but it may beat you.
SL: But what of the comedy songs?
HERBERT KRETZMER: I have always enjoyed writing comedy songs and one of the songs I most enjoyed in Les Miserables was Master Of The House. It is my favourite song in the show as it is the one song that makes people laugh and that is a very welcome sound, especially during Les Mis which is not rich in laughs, even though it is rich in uplift. Some of my comic songs have come off quite well thanks to Peter Sellers and Rolf Harris. Rolf Harris did some comic songs about animals which at the time was going to be a bigger project than it turned out to be.
SL: In what way?
HERBERT KRETZMER: Dave Lee and I decided that we should do an alphabet of children’s songs using all our skills, not silly children’s words but the themes would be childlike. We decided to do an alphabet of children’s songs: A for Aardvark to Z for Zebra. Peter Sellers heard many of the songs and said that he would do it, so we worked specifically around him. We played him the songs in a flat with a grand piano near the Royal Albert Hall. He was fidgety and kept looking out of the window. I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and he replied, ‘I have double-parked.’ I said, ‘You have come to hear something that we have worked on for a year and you haven’t got enough time to settle back and hear it. Your mind is on how soon you can get out of here and not how well these songs are written.’ This was typical of him. He was a great 24 hour enthusiast, but his enthusiasm would dry up. Luckily I didn’t need him in my life even though I liked him as a friend. The publisher then sent Rolf Harris round and he picked up a few of the songs but we never got that project going and it remains a dated idea. Kids today are so far ahead of the game. The vision of children sitting quietly and listening to songs about zebras and owls and dodos has more or less disappeared from our society.
SL: So many of Aznavour’s songs were about ageing, which is so different from a British songwriter.