The Infinite Jukebox: Julie Covington’s ‘The Standards of Today’ & ‘For Instance’

At the risk of seeming overkill, having only recently featured two Julie Covington songs from her first album, consisting overwhelmingly of songs written by Clive James and Pete Atkin, and produced by the latter, I want to look at two more tracks from the same record that caught my attention from the first time I heard them.
Like ‘The Magic Wasn’t There’ and ‘My Silks and Fine Array’, this pairing treads the same turf, that of the failed relationship, the love that didn’t go where at least one of its participants wanted. This is hardly surprising: in commenting about the album once, James made the point that love which went bad was far more interesting to write about than love which worked. As he so often was, James was right about that, but it would be a poor world if all we had was songs about heartache and unhappiness, much as they seem to attract me.
On the other hand, when the other side of the coin includes such classics as ‘Silly Love Songs’, the thought of misery can become very compelling.
I wanted to draw a distinction between ‘The Standards of Today’ and ‘For Instance’ and the pair of songs I’ve already posted about. The first two have the same element in common, both describing the singer’s response to a one-sided love that never began because the other person never accepted them. These two may well reach the same ending, but they are different in being songs about a relationship that existed, that was fully sexual, but which did not last, because the other person, who we implicitly think of as male, brought things to an end.
The reason for things going west, as we used to say, isn’t given in either song. We draw our own conclusions from what lines we do get in the essentially static pictures each song paints of Covington as the abandoned lover, reflecting on where she now stands, on how her love still survives and dominates her head, whereas his is already forgotten, too casual for words.
That’s the underlying theme of ‘The Standards of Today’. It’s a simple, short (three verses) story, painting the impliedly ended affair as something in keeping with the casualness of the times, a state endorsed by him without ever once thinking whether she really took it all as unimportant as him (another reason to implicitly think of the other party as male). By all the standards of today, Covington sings, keeping it light, keeping it clear and open, and explaining for the benefit of those who are not sure that this means easy come and easy go, play it cool and keep it gay (one of the last few occasions on which the word could be used in its original meaning).
Yes, by those standards they were in love the only way the free can be, free love, without commitment or conviction, take what thou wilt shall be the Whole of the Law. But there’s a catch, one he never realised might apply: do you realise what you meant to me?
The answer to that is very obviously no, or perhaps it may be more accurate to say that he deliberately excluded from his mind any thought that she might consider what they had to have any greater depth than a puddle. I mean, she acknowledges that he was honest with her, that he never tried to lead her on, and anyway her eyes were open all the way, and really hardly ever shone. But now he’s come and gone (I bet he did) it feels unreal, which she, perhaps not entirely convincingly, puts down to there being something wrong with her.
You could write an entire thesis on that line alone and the exact level at which we’re supposed to take it seriously or otherwise and what it implies, but this is still not the end of the song, for Covington is confessing that she’s not surprised at the outcome, and admitting she’s being awkward by crying after the event. And again she draws the blame down to herself, but this time without the same degree of ambiguity, announcing that it was her nature, that she never had the temperament for less than everything he might have been to her.
Such a short song, and a simple one, yet such a well of misery and pain beneath its light surface, and such a universal subject instead of something that might be thought to be confined to just two people whose problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world, or rather the one we had in 1970.
‘For Instance’, which is actually the preceding song on the album, says more or less the same things, not that these are things that do not bear repeating. Musically, it’s even simpler, the same three verse structure, without a chorus or middle eight, simply a statement of how things are. It’s over, he’s gone, yes, even more so this is he, she’s left on her own picking up the pieces in much the same way.
But the difference now, despite the beauty of the plain, light melody, is that Covington is angry at how she’s been treated, though only angry enough to be ironic with him. Or maybe for once we can concede a point and describe it as sarcastic. For instance, Covington opens the song by reflecting how she’ll always keep in mind his generosity, and how remarkable how much he’s left behind, such as a front door key, looking almost as if it belonged to her.
That’s the weight at which it’s pitched, her pretended gratitude for what he’s left her with, what he forgot to take, like not having left her with any broken limbs (the inference being that it is not the exterior that was broken) and how he didn’t burn her house to the ground.
Yet this is still 1970, and we haven’t quite got as far as the true, righteous anger this ought to arouse. Covington can manage sarcasm, she can manage pointedness, she can stick a sharpened needle into his heart, yet she cannot commit to the violence that he deserves from her. Her parting shot is overly subtle. There’s just no end I fear to your boundless charity, she announces, there’s no end of stuff that should not be here, there’s all manner of junk, there’s all kinds of gear. But the last line only stings instead of wounds fatally.
For instance, there’s your memory.
The songs bracket each other. They’re exquisitely wrought, they’re beautifully sung, but they don’t quite manage to reach the depth they should to be what they mean to be. Nevertheless, I love them, and like so many other Atkin/James songs I wish they were so much better known, so that they might take the places they belong in British Musical History. At least I was lucky enough to find them.


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