Nostalgia, that secret motivator of so much in contemporary society from innocuous consumer choices to massively destructive political missteps, is both dangerous and, at the same time, inevitable and unavoidable. We look back at our various pasts, we hold on to what’s dear, we imagine moments in our lives that, when compared to our current situations, seem simpler and more immediately pleasurable. Even when, perhaps especially when, we know that at the edges of that frame of memory other storms were brewing in the narratives of our lives.

In this maelstrom sits the music of Gladys Mills, who died in 1978 and remains revered to this day by certain sectors of English society—how else to explain the 2003 reissue of The Very Best of Mrs Mills by EMI Gold. Mills, who was signed to EMI in the early 1960s, released a veritable avalanche of albums through to the mid-1970s, all under the moniker Mrs Mills and all based around the honky-tonk stride piano technique she mastered and used to great effect on such classics as It’s Party Time!, Mrs Mills’ Party, Come to My Party, Another Flippin’ Party amongst many others. Put simply, the work of Mrs Mills was a one-woman industry in golden age-ism, a working-class celebration of itself designed to be endlessly consumed by the very audiences it celebrated.

The Very Best of Mrs Mills, then, is an odd beast: 31 tracks long and a mix of classic working men’s club singalong hits, live recordings and a couple of pieces that are given the Mrs Mills treatment but which fare less well in translation. Album opening “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” is the ideal Mills track to introduce all that she became known for: the left hand striding up and down the lower register, the right hand relentlessly striking-each-note-with-deliberate-mechanical-precision while the backing band hover innocuously in the background. Occasionally, different instruments dart forward in a vain attempt to make a difference, but the piano simply will not be stopped and carries on regardless. “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” is a live recording and includes a fulsome audience sing-along, matched by the album’s other live tracks including “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” and ”Bye Bye Blackbird.” “Can Can” is a slightly surreal live number to include, given that the sung accompaniment consists entirely of various “la la”s and “da da”s chanted in time while the audience clap joyfully along. Tellingly, the live recording of “Knees Up Mother Brown,” that perennial music hall favourite, includes the audience mistaking the song’s introduction for the first verse, thereby revealing that even the key demographic for these songs need to be schooled on how to best perform those key moments in British popular culture.

“By the Light of the Silvery Moon” features Mrs Mills singing along, which is very sweet and includes a charming staccato vocal performance over what sounds like someone playing the spoons while the Joe Loss Orchestra’s strident and up-tempo “March of the Mods” is slowed and simplified, wheezing unsuccessfully along to the bass notes of a trombone. Pleasingly, The Very Best of Mrs Mills also includes a dance-hall version of “Yellow Submarine,” yet, in a slightly more baffling move, the album finishes with an instrumental version of “We’ll Meet Again,” as opposed to some rowdy audience-filled paean to the kind of Great British Empire-building spirit that sits as a fantasy at the center of this album, and which continues to haunt the barely United Kingdom to this day.

There is, of course, a tribute band, the Mrs Mills Experience, who, much like the many yacht rock ensembles that haunt popular music’s nostalgia fringes, appears to have started in irony and, at some point, become slightly overwhelmed by the problematically non-ironic appetite for the kinds of fantasy Mrs Mills represented. They note that while they might be “made up of an unlikely combination of Brixton-based dance DJs and punk musicians, united by their improbable love of piano-thumper extraordinaire, Mrs Gladys Mills,” they seek nevertheless to deliver “a variety pack of authentic, working-class singalong tunes…unleashing a salvo of good-time music for these austerity stricken times.” Here the most dangerous word would be “authentic.”

Our individual nostalgias are seldom dangerous, sometimes leading towards a particularly focused existence but rarely more significant than that. National nostalgias, on the other hand, are immensely problematic, especially when the “way back when” they seek to reclaim both never existed and can only be brought into being at the expense of those not included in the fantasy itself. Mrs Mills produced a particular kind of nostalgia that was dated at the point of origin and which spoke to a celebration of austerity that, tellingly, now becomes a selling point for the tribute band. For this album to be reissued so recently speaks volumes to the kinds of discourse that would, in time, give rise to Brexit, an insidious fascination with a fantasy of national identity as a governing factor in that country’s engagement with the rest of the world. Thankfully, while Mrs Mills might be gone, we still have Morrissey to hold the torch for myopic visions of history and nationhood.

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