May 29th, 1453, Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire in Turkey, fell by the Ottoman Empire after a 53-day siege on it.
500 years later, in 1953, Jimmy Kennedy wrote the lyrics to the novelty song- “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”. It was performed by The Four Lads, with music by Nat Simon.
At the time the song was pretty popular-
It was recorded in August 1953, and after only two months it reached the Billboard magazine charts, topping out at #10.
It was even covered by many artists and bands which were all pretty popular:
Frankie Vaughan’s 1954 version reached #11 in the UK charts, and Cole Joye’s Joy Boys’ 1960 instrumental version reached #16.
But the most famous cover for this song was recorded by “They Might Be Giants” (TMBG), in 1990, and featured in their album “Flood”. It reached #61 in the UK charts in 1990, and appeared several times on TV:
-February 2nd, 1991- On the 51st episode of the first season of Tiny Toon Adventures.
-June 23rd, 1991- On MTV’s first season of Liquid Television.
-2019- On the first episode of the first season of Netflix’s “Umbrella Academy”.
So, how did a song about a city in Turkey become so popular in the United States and England, and even provide “The Four Lads” their first gold record? Why was it covered so many times? What made this song so popular then, and does it hold on today?
First, Why would an Irishman write a song about Turkey, a small and maybe insignificant foreign country?
The book “The Man Who Wrote The Teddy Bear’s Picnic” explains that in 1953, Jimmy Kennedy (who wrote the lyrics to “Istanbul(Not Constantinople)”) heard Nat Simon (who wrote the melody of the song) play an improvisation with an Eastern melody. At the time, it was trendy to play Eastern-themed music. A trend that started 20 years earlier, when Wilson, Keppel, and Betty formed a popular British music hall and vaudeville act that were based on Arabic and Egyptian themes.
This gave Jimmy the idea of writing a song with an Eastern melody, but why about Turkey?
Well, Turkey was very important in the West in the 1950s. Turkey joined the allied forces during the end of WW2, which started a period of strengthened relations between the US and Turkey. Turkey helped block Soviet influences in the US, and the US aided Turkey as part of the Marshall Plan.
In 1952, a year before “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, Turkey joined NATO and aided the Americans in the Korean War.
These strong relations materialized Turkey in the American pop culture. Hollywood made oriental-themed movies like “Arabian Nights” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”. Atlantic Records was formed by an American of Turkish descent, and Eartha Kitt recorded “Usku Dara”.
The rise of Turkey’s popularity in the West surely had an effect on Jimmy Kennedy.
But what made the song so popular in the West?
Well first and foremost, Turkey’s popularity in Western culture made sure that “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” was recorded at a period where Turkey was no stranger to the Western World.
Not only did they know about Turkey, but Eastern-themed music was already popular since the 30s.
Secondly, the song has a very Eastern intro, that gives, to me at least, the feelings of intrigue and mystique.
Their quartet singing is also very harmoniously synced, and it even has some hooks like the trumpet popping up here and there as well as the word “Istanbul”.
The song also tells a story. It tells about the changing of Constantinople to Istanbul, about how you can’t go to Constantinople anymore because it is now Istanbul.
But is it popular today? Youtube says yes!
The Four Lads’ version has 2.7 million views, while They Might Be Giants’ version has a whopping 9.9 million views!
What makes it popular today?
I believe that The Four Lads’ version is popular today thanks to TMBG’s cover version, but what made that version popular?
First of all, TMBG was already a popular band when they recorded Istanbul(Not Constantinople). Their song “Ana Ng” hit #11 in 1988, and three songs from their album Flood (1990) hit the charts in both the US and the UK: “Birdhouse in Your Soul” hit #3 in the US Modern Rock Chart and #6 in the UK Singles Chart, “Twisting” hit #22 in the US Modern Rock Chart, and of course, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” hit #61 in the UK Singles Chart.
Not only that, but their version was played on TV, both in MTV’s Liquid Television and in Tiny Toons Adventure, so both adults and children heard the song.
But today, when looking at the comments to either version, one name pops up as the cause for this song staying popular- “Umbrella Academy”.
The Netflix superhero series’ first episode ended with this song in an exhilirating fight scene, which made the song burst in popularity.
It is also, in my opinion, highly dancably, has easy enough lyrics to sing along to, and has a great beat and rythm.
In conclusion, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” has a lot of factors that made it popular, both in the 50s, and today.
-Turkey’s rise in popularity in the West in the 1950s made sure that people hearing this song knew what it was talking about.
– The 1930s trend of Eastern-themed melodies made sure that the music of this song was not a stranger to the westerners’ ears.
– The TV attention that this song received was astronomical, making sure that many generations heard this song.
– Its lyrics are pretty easy and straitforward, it has many hooks and is highly dancable (the cover version at least).