A BREATHER

The colder the climate outdoors, the warmer the soundtrack indoors – that’s what I’ve found, anyway. The convenient distraction of creativity when the world has typed ‘Hell’ into its handcart satnav has kept me busy during this uniquely awful year so far. I always have a musical accompaniment as I write and it’s always been as varied as my tastes, with whatever the mood of the moment dictates resulting in an eclectic songbook; but my subconscious response to 2020 seems to have been exclusively manifested as that which is often dismissively labelled ‘Easy Listening’, ‘MOR’, or ‘Light Music’. Yes, it’s extremely easy on the ears and is highly conducive to creating a relaxed ambience in which the creative juices can flow uninterrupted; but an umbrella label is misleading. The only thing I sense any of these tunes have in common is that they all belong to an era that spanned around 40 years, roughly 1930-1970.

Every twist and turn that popular music went through during what was, for the world beyond the stage or studio, a pretty tumultuous period is represented on this makeshift mix-tape. There are the big bands, there is Swing, there is Be Bop, there is Cool; there are the song stylists with the sweeping strings; there are the instrumentals – the themes from movies or Broadway shows; there are the upbeat Light Programme ditties that the housewives chose; there are the post-Rock ‘n’ Roll tunesmiths like Bacharach & David, who blended the contemporary with the classic; there are the Bossa Nova rhythms evoking a turn-of-the 60s sophistication for those too mature to Rock. To paraphrase Dr Johnson, there is all that life can afford in there.

There are the vocal giants – Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Julie London, Judy Garland, Doris Day, Nat King Cole and (of course) Frank Sinatra; there are the master bandleaders, arrangers and orchestrators of orchestras playing the ‘pops’ and steering a steady course through the middle of the road – Henry Mancini, Ray Conniff, Bert Kaempfert, Wally Stott; there are the exotic – Astrud Gilberto, Sergio Mendes, Francis Lai; and there are the wonderful home-grown cheesemongers – Geoff Love, Engelbert, the Mike Sammes Singers. This is the alternative 50s and 60s that music historians are prone to write off as something that only existed so that Rock ‘n’ Roll and the counter-culture had something it could react against. The official narrative of this history says the listener cannot listen to both; but the one place barricades should never be erected is on the musical landscape.

And it’s such a warm embrace of a landscape. There’s a comforting intimacy to the finest stylists that lends itself to a certain lonely hour when the rest of the world is lost to slumber and you can’t sleep. When Julie London lights her chanteuse’s torch with just a guitar and a double bass for sparse support, she’s the only person in the room with you, but she’s there for you – reaching out to give you the sultriest, most sensuous hug you’ve ever received. Similarly, when Sinatra steps up to the midnight mic, he’s shed of the swaggering shield he wears during the day; this time of night, it’s just you and him and he needs to tell you what a lousy day he’s had so you realise you’re not alone after all; he doesn’t share this vulnerable, human side with ‘the guys’ or the yes-men who are paid to massage his ego and tell him how great he is; when he joins you for one last nightcap, you’re seeing the man, not the caricature. He’s your buddy. For singers who learnt their craft with a big band behind them, the ability to tone it down and make it personal, so you’re not singing to the man at the back of the hall but the solitary night-owl a few feet away, is a skill in itself – and they all have it.

The Great American Songbook has a multitude of immortal standards that belong to the listener rather than the singer; only a handful of numbers have been owned outright by an individual vocalist, whereas some have taken the same song and done it so differently that you cannot choose which you love the most. I will never be able to decide whether I prefer Sinatra’s melancholy, tear-jerking take on ‘Night and Day’ or Ella’s joyously swinging interpretation; I guess which one I opt for depends what mood I’m in. The rise of the writer-performer in the 60s put paid to the dominance of Tin Pan Alley, and though it lived on through the likes of New York’s legendary Brill Building, the majority of singers were thereafter judged as much on the quality of the songs they’d written as the voice they sang them with. The singer and the song became one and the same. Even though someone like Sinatra could convince you he was singing his own thoughts when he interpreted another’s words, it was no longer regarded as authentic.

This is ‘grown-up’ music that refutes the adolescent view that growing up means growing boring; it’s music for people not interested in pretending to be teenagers or forever fruitlessly trying to recapture their youth; it has dignity. Its writers, arrangers and producers look like bank managers; and its most photogenic performers look like they’ve lived. Frank Sinatra looks like a man, not a boy; Julie London looks like a woman, not a girl. You know they’ve had their hearts broken just by looking at them, and if you’ve been there yourself, you get it; they speak to you in a way that some floppy-haired student with a guitar or some gyrating ingénue doesn’t. Yes, some of it wears carpet slippers and smokes a pipe, but the best of it still has something to say about that overlooked age in the middle.

The throwaway dirges aimed at youth are unashamed fashion statements, as irrelevant six months down the line as whatever stupid dance was all the rage on TikTok yesterday; this music, on the other hand, may have been made back when your grandparents had yet to go grey, but it has a timelessness that keeps it eternally relevant for anyone wanting a musical accompaniment that tells it like it is, one that is brutally honest but still has space to dream, if undoubtedly wistfully. This music and those who made it has maturity but not senility; it’s celebrating that criminally-ignored interregnum between the wide-eyed know-it-all and the infirm incontinent, the years that actually cover a wider span of our lives than any other. Why shouldn’t that span have its own soundtrack, one that sings of what it really means to be grown-up?

Like all good music, the contents of my mix-tape conjure up imagery in the listener’s mind; this specific imagery is both clichéd and charming, straight out of ‘Mad Men’ era Madison Avenue, but oh-so seductive in its corny innocence. It’s of night-clubs with tables, guys in dinner-jackets, girls in tight satin dresses with an abundance of cleavage; it’s cocktails and drinks that they don’t serve in your local pub; it’s a convertible heading towards a deserted beach that has been reserved for the impossibly good-looking couple in the car; it’s a candlelit meal on a balcony overlooking the ocean; it’s a handsome man and a beautiful woman, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn; and it’s a pianist providing an unobtrusive accompaniment in the background. It’s a world of old-world certainties that the new world doesn’t recognise.

© The Editor

6 thoughts on “A BREATHER

  1. A combination of maturing in the 1960s with the Beatles, Stones and Who and never being a music-buff but, as I’ve aged, I’ve developed a passing appreciation of Elgar, Glenn Miller, Nat King Cole and Sinatra amongst others.

    Maybe because it’s similar ‘easy listening wallpaper’, I don’t over-analyse it, but it is still pleasant background accompaniment to any turgid job or long road-trip – having just done 800 road-miles over the weekend alone, pleasant accompaniment counts for much, especially when the speech-stations are all beset by viral concerns. You’ll never catch Covid-19 from a bit of Nat King Cole.

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    1. For me, this was the kind of stuff I was introduced to during childhood holidays at my grandparents’ place; for my 60s parents, it was very much old hat and therefore not represented in record collections at home. I think I had to get to a certain age before it really began to make sense, and its enduring qualities seem indeed to have proved something of a musical paracetamol in recent months, without a doubt.

      That’s quite a journey, btw. Was it a round-trip to County Durham, by any chance?!

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  2. You do not mention Nelson Riddle, who did so much for Sinatra (and himself, obviously). I came to him in the early eighties via Linda Rondstad’s marvellous “What’s New?”, songs written in the 1910s, twenties and thirties, mostly. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What%27s_New_(Linda_Ronstadt_album)

    If you like oldies radio may I suggest https://www.internet-radio.com/stations/oldies/ ? All kinds of stuff, from old radio plays to Austrian operas performed in Turin in the 1920s as well as stations dedicated to only 1950s doo wop and whatever, – just flip channels when one palls.

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    1. Yes, Nelson Riddle definitely deserves a mention for rebooting the Great American Songbook in the 50s. His arrangements seem to have become the definitive ones ever since. I often think of his collaborations with Sinatra as being the pre-Rock era equivalent of George Martin’s relationship with The Beatles. And thanks for the tip, btw.

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  3. Thank you for that essay. You have a knack for telling me what what I subconsciously already knew.
    Ironically my appreciation of music is greater now than it has ever been, and being retired have the time to indulge myself but my hearing is failing. Not until a recent pre-(just)-lockdown test did I find out that my frequency sensitivity now matches that of the am medium-wave valve radio output that I listened to in childhood. At an age when I could hear bat chirp.
    Good luck Victoria, or M Lucas, or whatever your preferred nom is.
    All power to your elbow.

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