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Take off your face, we’d like to see the mask

I don’t write much about music, but I have been immersing myself once again in the music of Pete Atkin and Clive James, so I thought I’d break the habit this once.

[Truth to tell, I’d originally envisaged this post as like one of Adam’s, punctuated with youtube clips, but I’ve only found this one:

from the period in question, so you’ll have to make do with that.]

Allow me to present myself, my ladies
And gentlemen of this exalted age
Before my creatures take the stage
For I am the Master of the Revels
In what appertains to mirth I am a sage.

Pete Atkin and Clive James apparently met in the Cambridge Footlights during the late 1960s, and started writing songs together almost immediately. James wrote the words, Atkin wrote the music (except, of course, for ‘The Original Original Honky Tonk Night Train Blues’, words & music Atkin:

Because this is where the driver opens up the regulator valve han–
dle, the steam becomes alive again and goes back through the boiler or can
which I call it only ’cause I’ve a shortage of rhymes ending in -an

I’ve always loved the way really clever writers like Cole Porter would break a word for the rhyme, and to give a little cognitive shock to the listener. Ah, but back to the story …)

During their time at Cambridge they got Julie Covington (also in the Footlights at the same time) to record one of their songs and they produced a couple of limited edition privately released albums, but it was 1970 that saw the release of the first commercial Pete Atkin album, Beware of the Beautiful Stranger. This was followed over the next few years by five more albums, which attracted the enthusiastic support of people like John Peel, Charles Shaar Murray, Charlie Gillett, and a few morose student types like me, but success eluded them. By the mid-70s it was obvious that they weren’t going to become pop stars so, after the release of the disappointing Live Libel (the only album jointly credited to Pete Atkin and Clive James) they quit. By this time Clive James was already reviewing television for The Observer, and was cropping up on the box as an acerbic commentator on all sorts of things. He would go on to make a name for himself as poet and memoirist among other things. Pete Atkin became a producer on BBC radio (I remember after some of the best shows hearing the producer credit and wondering, is that the same Pete Atkin?). When he retired a few years ago, the two got together and started recording and performing again. I saw them in a gig at Canterbury (was it really five years ago?), they were incredibly good and the bits of new material they played sounded interesting though I haven’t yet investigated that further. For now, though, and for the last 40 years (?!?) the most persistent earworms I’ve ever known have been Pete Atkin songs.

At some point in, I presume, 1971 or 2, probably as a result of hearing a track on the radio, I picked up Driving Through Mythical America. That was my introduction, and I was hooked. In 1973, when Beware of the Beautiful Stranger was re-released (with a slight change of content, ‘Touch Has A Memory’ being replaced by ‘Be Careful When They Offer You The Moon’, which is, I think, a far better song), I picked that up also, then in rapid sequence as soon as they were released, A King at Nightfall, The Road of Silk and Secret Drinker. I played them constantly, probably more over the years than any other album, until the words were drilled into my memory. Drop a casual line from any of their songs (particularly from the first three albums, which are the ones I probably know best) and I’ll automatically, unthinkingly, continue with the rest of the lyrics – and then I’ll probably have the song trapped in my memory for the next several days.

There are helicopters on the walls of Troy

So what is it about the songs that makes them work so spectacularly for me? The first thing to be said is that, with all due deference to Atkin’s music and singing, they are songs in which the lyrics come first. They are writers’ songs, full of casual allusion, intellectually flattering. They make you think, but they also make you think how clever you are for spotting all the references. (On Pete Atkin’s website there are annotated copies of many of the lyrics – some of which I’ve linked to here – and when I read those the geek in me keeps thinking, ah yes, but you still missed this reference …)

Having said that, as I noted in my report on the concert, at one point Clive James read ‘The Last Hill That Shows You All The Valley’ as a poem, then Atkin performed it as a song. The difference was memorable. As in the chansons of Brel and Brassens (other than Atkin and maybe Jake Thackray, we don’t really have a similar tradition in Britain) the music is generally fairly simple, designed to present the lyrics in the best way possible. Which is helped by Atkin’s superb diction, which means that even in the technically complex passages every word is clear. The simplicity, of course, helps to make them lodge in the memory more easily. But we shouldn’t miss the fact that there’s quite a musical variety in the work. In the notes accompanying the recent re-release of one of these discs Atkin complains that he kept writing music he couldn’t sing (specifically ‘Our Lady Of Lowness’ which really calls for a voice more akin to Joe Cocker), but still you’ll find echoes of folk and rock, of showtunes and music hall, and jazz. (In the notes accompanying the re-release of The Road of Silk, both Atkin and James are like star-struck kids when they talk about how they got tenor saxophonist Tony Coe to play on some of the tracks.)

The Lady in the Dark has shot the Lady from Shanghai
The Thin Man and the Quiet Man are comin’ through the rye
At Red Line Seven Thousand there’s No Highway In The Sky
The villains are the deepest but they plum refuse to die

Okay, from here on in, let’s talk about lyrics.

The title track on the second LP encapsulates several of the things that are unavoidable in Clive James’s lyrics. In the first place, there’s the political content:

Four students in the usual light of day
Set out to speak their minds about the war

This must have been written within days, at most weeks, of Kent State. But you see it elsewhere in their discography, also. “All The Dead Were Strangers” –

Just lying there were ladies so old they hardly bled
Thin kids who never needed a red hole in the head
We were all in this together
We were friends, but all the dead were strangers

– is a response to My Lai, or rather, to the fact that in September 1971 Captain William Calley was the only man to be convicted.

But alongside this visceral hatred for what America was doing in and because of Vietnam, there was an intense fascination with American popular culture, particularly American film. (Remember, James would go on to be a very knowledgeable film critic.) So the four students killed at Kent State, for instance, find themselves the victims the victims of Hollywood mythology:

Four students had to take it in their stride
And couldn’t feel the road beneath the wheels
Of the car they didn’t know they road inside
Across the set and through the cardboard hills

American popular mythology is something that keeps recurring in all these albums, for instance in ‘Screen-freak’ (quoted above) or ‘Apparition In Las Vegas’:

When the King of Rock and Roll sand in the desert
He didn’t seem to age like other men
To Vegas came the ladies with pink rinses
Agog to see the dreamboat sail again

But alongside this fascination with popular culture is an equal fascination with a more personal mythology, a sort of historical mash-up hinted at in the political references I mentioned earlier.

My favourite example of this is the title track of his third album, ‘A King At Nightfall’. Like so many other songs there are lines quoted from other writers: the line I’ve chosen as the title for this post is from ‘The Wall Of Death’ but quotes Oscar Wilde, ‘Tie the brush into my hand‘ in ‘Have You Got A Biro I Can Borrow’ is taken from something Jean Renoir heard his father say, and in this particular instance the title comes from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. It mostly seems to reference Charles II, but it is timeless in the way it invokes any change in the world order:

You’re gonna have to watch your manners now
And never let your face show what you’re missing
Don’t wait for them to bow
Stick out your hand for shaking, not for kissing

But more than a specific sense of history, mangled as it may be in songs like ‘The Last Hill That Shows You All The Valley’, or timeless in ‘Sunlight Gate’:

The Heroes return through the Sunset Gate
But their faces are never the same
I have no idea why their eyes go cold
And the young among them already look old

there is a sense of the past as a tenebrous, fragile thing that yet marks us for who we are:

His fondest memories have left their mark
For just so long as lipstick on a glass
The highway scatters jewellery through the dark
The circus leaves a circle on the grass

This is a sense that goes right back to their earliest songs:

You simply mustn’t blame yourself – the days were perfect
And so were exactly what I was born to spoil

And it often involves an intense social awareness. For instance, in ‘Carnations On The Roof’, a song about the funeral of a working man, after being told that ‘Forty years of metal tend to get into your skin’, we come to the moment of cremation:

He was used and discarded in a game he didn’t own
But when the moment of destruction came
He showed that a working man is more than flesh and bone
The hands on his chest flared more brightly than his name
For a technicolor second as he rolled into the flame

And I could keep going on, but ‘my story’s over in its basic essentials, the rest is merely overlaying’. But I would just like to mention a couple of songs that fit tangentially with all I’ve been saying and without mention of which nothing about Pete Atkin and Clive James would be complete. There’s the sharp characterisation, for instance the tetchy fortune teller in ‘Beware Of The Beautiful Stranger’:

‘That’s your lot’ said Miss Lee as she turned on the light
‘These earrings are hell and I’m through for the night
If they put up a booster not far from this pitch
I could screen you your life to the very last twitch
But I can’t even get the Lone Ranger
One last word from the beautiful stranger’

And there’s the fact that Clive James’s images are often just simply beautiful. Indeed it was this that first made me a fan. On that first album I bought there’s a song called ‘The Prince Of Aquitaine’ (yes another literary reference) that haunted me from the first moment I heard it. It still plays irresistibly through my head every single time I get on a plane:

The sky was full of London all around the tilting wing
I could have hooked a street out like a pearl and diamond string

But no, I have to stop. The only way to do justice to the songs of Pete Atkin and Clive James is probably to write down the lyrics for every single song, and this is too long anyway. But I’ve been listening to the albums again recently, and the songs are still as fresh and complex and absorbing as ever. So I do what I can to pass on the news.

Though I would just like to mention the thing on the front that always comes in handy when you want to catch cows …

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