This is the 52nd post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song was posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Following the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, the newly formed Republic of Turkey changed the name of the city of Constantinople to Istanbul. The city had been called many things over the years, but this marked a chance for the newly formed country to pick one, standardized name.
But many people across the world still clung to calling it “Constantinople.” To get the rest of the world to adopt the new name, the country enacted the Turkish Postal Service Law of March 28, 1930, which stated that any mail addressed to Constantinople would not be delivered anywhere in Istanbul.
Twenty-three years later, that name change was then memorialized in a song. With lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy and music by Nat Simon, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” was first recorded in 1953, by Canadian quartet The Four Lads. Incidentally, that year was also the 500th year anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire.
The song combined the style of swing with instruments associated with Middle Eastern music. Lyrically, the song was not so much driven by plot as it was by multiple repetitions of “Constantinople”:
Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul not Constantinople
Been a long time gone
Old Constantinople’s still has Turkish delight
On a moonlight night
Every gal in Constantinople
Is a Miss-stanbul, not Constantinople
So if you’ve date in Constantinople
She’ll be waiting in Istanbul
Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it, I can’t say
(People just liked it better that way)
Take me back to Constantinople
No, you can’t go back to Constantinople
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks’
On the one hand, the repeated utterance of the name Constantinople in the song seems mocking considering that the country of Turkey no longer wanted to recognize the name. Sure, the song recognizes the name change, but it’s done in a way akin to a kid who will stick his finger a millimeter from your skin and repeat, “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you.” On the other hand, the song is a pretty good PSA for the Turkish Postal Service Law of March 28, 1930, reminding the world that the city should be called Istanbul, not Constantinople.
The Four Lads’ “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” first reached the Billboard charts in October 1953, eventually peaking at Number 10. It became the group’s first gold record, as well as the most well-known song about the city. Previously, that honor belonged to “C-O-N-S-T-A-N-T-I-N-O-P-L-E,” recorded in 1928 by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra, a song that song think inspired Jimmy Kennedy and music by Nat Simon to write “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”
That same year, Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald recorded a version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” for the radio. The two singers traded off lines on this horn-driven big band version. It later appeared on Crosby’s “Swingin’ With Bing!: Bing Crosby’s Lost Radio Performances” and the joint Fitzgerald/Crosby album “My Happiness.”
English singer Frankie Vaughan reached Number 11 on the UK charts with his version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” Vaughan’s was a fuller version, playing up the horns and Middle Eastern flourishes. Backed by what sounded like an army of backup singers, Vaughan deliberately sang “Con-stan-ti-no-ple” as if it were five separate words.
By the mid-1950s, at least three versions of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” had been recorded in French: one by Turkish polyglot singer Darío Moreno…
…another, by French singer Marie-José…
…and yet another, by French orchestra conductor Jacques Hélian.
The French covers sounded similar, distinguishable from the other versions only because of the language change. By the end of the 1950s, upwards of 10 versions of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” had been recorded. Some had more of a big band sound than others, but most of them were in the swing style of The Four Lads’ original version. Additionally, there was even a Finnish version, by Olavi Virta.
Instrumental rock duo Santo & Johnny recorded a surf rock version of the song for its 1962 album, “Around The World With Santo & Johnny.” Santo & Johnny’s “Istanbul” did not jettison the horns completely, but rather made them secondary to the guitar. The result was a song that sounded less like a ’50s big band tune and more like the soundtrack to a ’60s spy movie. (A movie we’d totally watch, by the way.)
Bruno and The Gladiators recorded a jazz-infused, Latin-flavored surf rock version, called “Istambul,” in 1963. On paper, those genres might seem like an odd mixture, but the instrumental cover worked very well, sounding like a mix of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” and The Champs’ “Tequila.”
Italian singer Caterina Valente injected a bit of jazz into her big band cover “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” improvising some scat vocals throughout the song. The song appeared on her album, “In London,” which featured recordings from 1963 and 1964.
In February 1976, Bette Midler performed at the Cleveland Music Hall as part of “The Depression Tour.” That performance was recorded and turned into an HBO special, “The Bette Midler Show,” and a 1977 double album, “Live at Last.” Among the songs was “The Vicky Eydie Show,” a mock lounge act medley of songs from around the world. “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” was one of the songs included in the over-the-top performance, during which Midler sang the “turkey of a tune” while flanked by backup singers in silly hats. As one does.
Throughout the 1980s, They Might Be Giants performed “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” at live shows, using nothing but echoboxes and John Linnell’s accordion. By 1989, when the band recorded its third album, “Flood” Linnell and John Flansburgh had run out of new songs to record. They decided to include “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” but they were unsure of how to translate their rendition of the song into something that would work on record. Ultimately, they took an experimental approach, using the song as a way to learn the intricacies of Casio FZ-1 synthesizers. “We sampled blowing over a soda bottle, which can be clearly heard as the three-note chord on ‘even old New York,’ and did a lot of other home-brewed experiments on that track,” Flansburgh said.
The techniques paid off. Released in 1990, “Flood” has become They Might Be Giants’ best-selling album, having gone platinum in the US and gold in the UK. In addition to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” the album contained two of the band’s better-known songs: “Particle Man” and “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” failed to chart in the US, but it peaked at 61 in the UK.
Saxophonist Chris Potter and pianist Kenny Werner recorded a jazz version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” for the 1994 album, “Concord Duo Series, Vol. 10.” Coming in at more than five and a half minutes, this instrumental version used Nat Simon’s original arrangement as only a rough guide, as Potter and Werner went on many tangents throughout the song.
Surf rock band The Phantom Surfers released “Istanbul” as a 7-inch in 1996. The group’s instrumental track was more laid back than the previous surf versions of the song, as The Phantom Surfers focused solely on guitar and ditched the horns.
That same year, another surf band — The Halibuts — recorded a version. This one, though, had more texture.
The song appeared on a 1997 episode of “Muppets Tonight.” Throughout the episode, a group of singing rats popped up to sing lines of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” starting with the beginning of the show, when host Clifford said “Muppets Tonight” could be seen “from Istanbul to Constantinople.”
That same year, swing revival band Lee Press-On & the Nails included a version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” on its self-titled album. It sounded like a lot of the swing revivals of the late ’90s: big band enough to have the retro sound, but more polished and produced.
The Trevor Horn Orchestra — featuring Trevor Horn, formerly of The Buggles — recorded a version for the soundtrack of the 2003 movie, “Mona Lisa Smile.” The version sounded faithful to The Four Lads’ original, as the movie was set in 1953.
Ska Cubano is a London-based group that, as the name implies, draws upon both ska and Cuban influences. The band’s “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” from its 2005 album, “¡Ay Caramba!,” replaced the Middle Eastern sounds of the song with flourishes more associated with Caribbean music. Additionally, the group changed some of the lyrics.
They Might Be Giants recorded an updated, electronic version in 2011. As experimental as the “Flood” version was, this update was even more experimental. It was also weirder, especially because it included what sounded like a possessed Speak & Spell.
Of all the versions of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” since The Four Lads’ version, the most common genres have been swing or surf rock. Which is probably why They Might Be Giants’ cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” has stood out and become the standard-bearer. Of course, there are a few other reasons why They Might Be Giants’ cover would be the enduring version. Other than Bette Midler, Bing Crosby, or Ella Fitzgerald, They Might Be Giants is probably the most recognizable act to have performed the song. And that’s probably being generous toward Crosby or Fitzgerald, sad to say.
One of the recurring themes I’ve found with cover songs that were recorded many times over many decades is that people don’t necessarily associate a song with the first version recorded, but the first version they heard.
On previous posts, I’ve discussed how some songs have definitive covers that overshadow all other versions. This was particularly true with Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”
Then there were songs that had more than one high-profile cover: “Always On My Mind,” “I Say A Little Prayer,” “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” and “Take Me To The River.” For those songs, there is no one standard-bearer. As is true with all songs, the version one is most likely to associate with the song depends on personal experience: what version a person heard first, or most, during one’s formative years.
In the case of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” there are several versions to choose from, but only a handful from artists that today’s casual pop culture fans would recognize. They Might Be Giants’ version is probably the best known version among people in their 40s or younger, but that probably has little to do with how well these people know Bette Midler’s or Bing Crosby’s back catalogs. Even the biggest music nerd in his 30s probably heard They Might Be Giants’ version first, because that version was everywhere: radio, MTV, and “Tiny Toon Adventures.”
And even “The Simpsons.”
It was almost ubiquitous. Almost. There’s one place it was definitely not: Constantinople. (But it was in Istanbul!)