Life & Culture

Do these 22 songs tell the story of Anglo-Jewry?

From the sublime Amy Winehouse, to the ridiculous Matt Lucas, Jonny Brick picks the pop songs that best represent Anglo-Jewry's musical legacy


GLASTONBURY, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 22: Amy Winehouse performs on the Pyramid Stage at Worthy Farm, Pilton near Glastonbury, on June 22 2007 in Somerset, England. The festival, that was started by dairy farmer Michael Eavis in 1970, has grown into the largest music festival in Europe. This year's festival is the biggest yet and will have headline acts including The Who, The Artic Monkeys and The Killers. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

The teacher and cultural critic Jeffrey Boakye has published a book called Musical Truth, a history of Britain via 28 songs which were all made by black artists who make up the Afro-Caribbean diaspora.

But there’s another diaspora who made music away from their ancestral homeland. Although Jews are most associated with Broadway and Hollywood, those Jewish families who chose to settle in the UK have contributed so much to their adopted culture. Assimilation is the name of the game, to quote some Swedish gentiles. Here, taking inspiration from Mr Boakye, I present a musical history of British Jewry.

Monty Noserovitch is still with us at 93. As Monty Norman, he wrote the words for the musical Expresso Bongo but his main claim to fame is the James Bond theme, which is a nice little earner. Julius Stein, the son of Ukrainian Jews, made his fortune to the west of the Atlantic as Jule Styne. You can hum so many of his songs from musicals like Funny Girl, Gypsy and Bar Mitzvah Boy. Take your pick: I choose Everything’s Coming Up Roses, sung in an understated way (!) by the divine Bette Midler.

Donald Blackstone from Hackney wrote the lyrics for Bar Mitzvah Boy. He was the manager and sort of A&R guy for the singing bus driver whose velvet voice wowed the baby boomers. You’ll know him as Don Black, the writer of the lyric to Matt Monro’s hit Born Free, which Don’s nurses sang to him when he left hospital in 2020, having been admitted as Mr Blackstone.

On the subject of musicals, there is no more zeitgeisty show than Six, Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow’s setting of the lives of Henry VIII’s wives to a poppy soundtrack. Because Marlow is Jewish, any song from the show can make the playlist. My favourite is the opening number Ex-Wives, which introduces the queens with humour and panache.

Away from the stage, let’s head to the hit parade. Peter Sellers’ mum was Jewish so the man who sang Goodness Gracious Me with Sophia Loren in a time where funny accents weren’t castigated makes the list. The rhyme of ‘beriberi/dysentery’ is in the tradition of the great Jewish wordsmiths and (fun fact) were penned by Jewish lyricist Herbert Kretzmer, renowned for Les Misérables. The best line in the song, of course, is the catchy ‘boody-boom’ hook, which helped the song reach number four back in 1960.

Around that time, Helen Shapiro, the teenage popstar from Bethnal Green, was actually supported by The Beatles: they had zero hits while Helen was Walking Back to Happiness. “We skipped the light fandango” begins A Whiter Shade of Pale, the Procol Harum chart-topper of 1967. The lyric was written by Keith Reid, whose father had escaped Vienna after being arrested on Kristallnacht.

Hackney-born Mark Feld was a schoolfriend of Helen Shapiro’s. As the chameleonic Marc Bolan, he had a slew of glam rock hits in the 1970s after a brief period as a folk musician. Get It On, a dirty shoutalong by his band T-Rex which was also a hit in the USA, was more or less pinched by Noel Gallagher for Cigarettes & Alcohol. Three members of 10CC are Jewish and their song Art for Art’s Sake is a satire on the commercial nature of creativity (“money talks”).

The late Pete Burns said You Spin Me Round (like a Record) on the Dead or Alive number one; Pete’s mum had escaped persecution in Germany and met a Scouse soldier in Vienna.

Alexei Sayle, meanwhile, was the pioneer of alternative comedy who stomped around on Top of the Pops in 1982, miming his ‘tune’ ’Ullo John! Gotta New Motor? It defies analysis but it’s jolly good fun. Far more tuneful and no less fun is On My Radio by The Selecter, sung by Pauline Black who was born to a Jewish mum in Romford as Belinda Magnus then adopted.

In the past few decades, there have been a handful of Jewish popstars. Jess Glynne has a crowded mantelpiece full of statues for songs like her first solo number one Hold My Hand, while Jessie Ware has grown from humble beginnings in these very pages to an act with critical and commercial acclaim. Her biggest hit Say You Love Me was written with Ed Sheeran.

Alex Clare was a bedroom producer who didn’t want to get Too Close on his 2012 hit. The song was synched to soundtrack a commercial for a well-known computer company. He made aliyah in 2015. Craig David still inspires people who meet a girl on Monday, go for drinks on Tuesday, have a busy week then ‘chill on Sunday’ thanks to his smash hit 7 Days.

Anthony Costa was a boy from Edgware who eventually represented the UK at Eurovision as a quarter of Blue, whose debut single All Rise was set in a courtroom. He may not have become a lawyer but he did sing ‘You’re on the stand with your back against the wall’. Rachel Stevens, meanwhile, helped S Club 7 to Reach “for the stars, climb every mountain higher!”

The late Amy Winehouse famously said “no, no, no” to Rehab on her classic album Back to Black, but my choice is her modern standard Love is a Losing Game, as interpreted by George Michael, a song which reaches back to soul and r’n’b of the golden era. Produced by Mark Ronson, every part of the song works: a three-verse structure, a singer who feels that she’s “laughed at by the gods”, Ronson’s jazzy guitar paired with a rich string section.

Finally, some silliness. Matt Lucas rose to prominence when he turned his ditty Thank You Baked Potato into a pandemic exhortation to ‘wash your hands and stay indoors’. Cult surrealist Ivor Cutler had fans in John Peel and The Beatles and so his ballad Beautiful Cosmos makes the list. Can I include Mike & Bernie Winters (Weinstein, actually) and their vaudeville pastiche I Like It!, a mostly instrumental track full of bonhomie and horns?

I don’t see why not.

Do you agree with Jonny Brick’s picks? Let us know

Listen to the playlist on Spotify here 


Monty Norman – James Bond Theme

 Bette Midler – Everything’s Coming Up Roses

Matt Monro – Born Free

The Cast of Six – Ex-Wives

Peter Sellers & Sofia Loren – Goodness Gracious Me

l Helen Shapiro – Walking Back to Happiness

l Procul Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale

 T-Rex – Get It On

 10CC – Art for Art’s Sake

The Selecter – On My Radio

Jess Glynne – Hold My Hand

 Jessie Ware – Say You Love Me

Alex Clare – Too Close

 Craig David– 7 Days

Blue – All Rise

S Club 7 – Reach

Amy Winehouse – Love is a Losing Game

Matt Lucas – Thank You Baked Potato

Ivor Cutler – Beautiful Cosmos

Mike & Bernie Winters – I Like It!

Dead or Alive – You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)

Alexei Sayle – ’Ullo John! 
Gotta New Motor?

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive