And Julie Was Her Name – Listening To Old Music

Whenever you choose to fix it, the birth of Rock is a barrier, like a wall built in time. We on the other side look back to the times before and can’t touch them somehow, can’t imagine those records actually being released, being new. Was there ever a crackle of excitement when Round Midnight or Julie…At Home came out – did anyone queue at the counters on the first day, did anyone even notice? And on the other side of the wall we live in a perpetual present, where every old record is sold to us because of how now it suddenly sounds, and where nothing ever ends. How can you seriously suggest the Beatles broke up when their serene cartoon faces gaze down from every bookshop and record shop in the land, still bigger than Jesus, history and death?

John Lennon’s death is played out again and again – reading a lot about music I think I probably see a reference to it every single day of my life. Julie London died and most people I know thought she was dead already: ironically for a singer who had the best timing in pop, it seemed as if she missed her cue. The BBC website showed her acting a nurse in a TV show, but they showed her at least: I didn’t see much on any other sites, or many obituaries, but then I couldn’t tell you when she made her last record even. You would find her records in the ‘Oldies’ section and shiver, because that was part of why you were buying them: as something old, something classic, from before the mad whirl of Rock started up.

We buy all those old records now – Julie and Peggy and Frank and Dean – because of what they represent as much as what they are. It’s a vote for a smoother, wittier, more stylish world than the one we’ve landed up with: the chink of glass against glass, the sharp flare of trumpets, the devastating couplet and the clutch of hand on hip. But it’s also a safe vote, for a world that can’t come back, which is why these records are so often seen through the prism of kitsch. I’d hazard a guess that there aren’t many people now for whom Julie London records are a central part of who they are, rather than an elegant mixer for their more everyday tastes.

In a way, we’ve forgotten how to listen to them. We like our records, sometimes, to seem distanced, but when we play Magnetic Fields or Pet Shop Boys albums we’re so aware of context – that these records are somehow oppositional, that they’re distancing themselves from something (the great howling mass of Rock, generally). That’s how we try and use Julie London records, too, but Julie’s records aren’t in the least ironic, can’t be because they come from a time before any of that mattered.

What are they, then? They’re reserved, I suppose – you don’t get much grainy vocal emoting from Julie: even something as apparently straightforward and serious as “Cry Me A River” is delivered with a minimum of grandstanding and a maximum of sangfroid. Even so it sounds desolate and cruel. But the emotional idioms built up over forty years of rock singing are quite absent, and it’s only the ballads you can really ‘read’ emotionally in the way you’d read a record by Aretha or Madonna.

The uptempo songs, the swing numbers, are much harder to figure out. The crucial thing I think is to try and relate to them as performances, not as ‘works of art’ in the way we’ve been conditioned to think of albums as being. When rock musicians go into the studio now, they keep the audience in mind, but it’s an atomised audience, not a group audience. The recordings on the new Radiohead album, say, were created with individual consumption in mind: a single fan, in a bedroom or office or living room, taking meaning from the record as best they can. But the songs Julie sang were standards, intended to be sung as part of a programme, to a small or medium sized group of people.

That’s why the emphasis in these songs tends not to be on their direct emotional content, but on funny or elegant or unexpected rhymes and lyrics, and their delivery. It’s easier to evoke laughter in a group situation, after all. So the home listener finds themselves curiously adrift with a Julie London album, cut off from the performance-context of the songs. Even on Julie…At Home, an excellent album which pivots on the conceit that Julie has asked a recording set-up into her house to hear her play, this context is king: Julie is inviting them, and you, to a private, intimate performance. Compare this to the Rock era’s Basement and Bedroom tapes, where the emphasis is generally on the artist needing to retreat into a private realm before true creativity can be unlocked.

This disconnection ends up being something pleasurable, too, something refreshing after the emotional peaks and wracks which so much Rock tries to put you through. It accounts I think for why I find these ‘oldies’ records so charming and sly. (It accounts also for why I find stuff like Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore so exhilarating, but that’s another story). And in the meantime you can concentrate on the phrasing, the timing, the laughter and sex in songs like “Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend” or “Everything Happens To Me”, or just let their singer bow gracefully into the background and wash yourself in the craft of it all.

But still Julie London is dead. We won’t see a biopic because her life was a happy and private one, but we will see more compilations, eventually. Maybe we’ll find things to do with her music that make it less peripheral to the general buzz of things, or maybe the wall between the now music and the old music will remain impermeable. It doesn’t matter: as long as there are quiet nights and dancing, as long as we need music that captures romance as well as love, her songs will be played.