The Atkin-James song book

I have been a fan of the songs of Pete Atkin and Clive James for all my adult life, ever since a friend turned up at a flat I was living in in my late teens with a copy of their second LP, Driving Through Mythical America. It was obvious at first hearing that these were songs of a different order, from the very first song, ‘Sunlight Gate’, a lyric about the Vietnam war which never names it and manages, at the same time, to be timeless. And that’s not even one of the best songs on the record, by some way.

So I’ve been looking forward to reading Ian Shircore’s book, Loose Canon, on their lifelong collaboration. I wasn’t disappointed.

These lyrics aren’t a sideline for James: while I tend to think that his poetry is over-rated, the constraints of the song lyric seem to suit him well. As he said on the John Peel Show in 2000, “This is the work I’m known least for, but which is closest to my heart.” Atkin’s arrangements, which are given good consideration here, are often rich and subtle.

Close reading

How do you write about a 50-year partnership that has produced close to 200 songs, with few duds among them, but which are not well-known to many of those picking up the book? Shircore’s strategy is to build the story around a set of songs that repay close reading, both lyrically and musically. Unusually for a book about music, most of the chapters conclude with a full song lyric.

For example, take Canoe, which I heard Atkin sing in a folk club in the late ’70s but which didn’t appear on record until The Lakeside Sessions in the 2000s. The song connects a trio of Polynesians drifting in a canoe with the crew of the stricken Apollo 13, but leaves the listener to make the connection. Certainly when I first heard it the sudden realisation of what the lyric had just done was powerful–powerful enough for me to remember the song, unrecorded, for 20 years. Shircore says:

The Polynesians have missed the island. They are lost, adrift in the vastness of the Pacific, and their fate is sealed. What happens next iss extraordinary. The two lines that follow form a hinge pointt, facing both forwards and backwards and wrenching the song in a totally new direction.

‘The time had come for all of us to die/”She’s out a whole degreee” takes us straight from the canoe to the spacecraft.

Key changes

One of the strengths of the book is that Atkin, whose music is sometimes overlooked in the afterburners of Clive James, gets his dues here. Just one example: the way in which, in All the Dead Were Strangers, the song moves from F at the end of each verse to G at the start of the next one, something I’d understood viscerally without understanding the technicalities. All The Dead is about the My Lai massacre, and as Shircore notes, “there is a simple restrained arrangment, with subtle guitar and piano fills.”

I would have welcomed more of this about one of his finest songs, The Faded Mansion On The Hill, which gets a short discussion here, but Shircore’s brief observation is illuminating, that the tune for the verse, which follows “an unexpected key change,” and suddenly opens up into a heavily disguised 12-bar blues.

And of course, one can argue with some of the songs that Shircore has chosen to highlight. For my money, The Road of Silk is a better song about ageing than Senior Citizens, and Driving Through Mythical America uses James’ vast knowledge of cinema more meaningfully than the ‘catalogue’ song, Screen-freak. But some of these choices, I suspect, are about telling the story, as Salman Rushdie once said about Desert Island Discs.

Nearly famous

These are, in effect, Shircore’s highlights from a recording career that covers six records in the 1970s, and another four (or five, depending on how you count them) in the 2000s and 2010s. Only one, Live Libel — a “contract filler” for RCA — is misjudged. All of them are full of unexpected surprises and private pleasures, both musically and lyrically. Indeed, in the 1970s the NME writer Charles Shaar Murray included James and Atkin in a list of contemporary songwriters that also referenced David Bowie, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Lennon, McCartney, the BeeGees, Jagger and Richards and Cat Stevens. Ian MacDonald, who wrote the definitive book on the Beatles’ music, was also a fan.

So why are they not more famous for these songs? Shircore has a number of theories, all of which could be true. One was that they set out to write songs for others to record (which is why Beware of the Beautiful Stranger was recorded in nine hours and sounds like a demo), just as musicians were starting to write songs for themselves. Or that the clever lyrics were out of their time in another way, owing more to Broadway’s Golden Age than the spirit of rock’n’roll. Or that releasing singles with good songs on both sides confused DJs at a time when radio play was often critical. Another is down to the incompetence of RCA, which pressed too few copies of their third and fourth records when the demand was there. Their agent wasn’t ideal. Shircore also observes that they were obsessive about every aspect of the song-writing craft except their titles (Why An Array of Passionate Lovers, and not Troops of Love” or Children of the Dream?). And looking at this list, one’s reminded that most people don’t succeed in the record business, and the margins of failure are often wafer thin.

Pete Atkin and Clive James
In the ’70s: offered the moon

Budget constraints

I have a simpler theory: they didn’t want it badly enough, in the same way that Graham Parker was happy not to be a superstar. Atkin has always been a reluctant performer and James had too many other things to be getting on with. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way; the people who break through as stars are driven people, sometimes to the point of being sociopaths. Atkin hints at this when he says that he could have got a much better sound on the ’70s records had he overspent the recording budget like everyone else did.

The reason an album like The Road of Silk sounds the way it does is because it was done for tuppence-ha’penny. I didn’t realise it then, but it would have made no difference to RCA if we’d spent £150,000, rather than £10,000, on the studio time and musicians we used to make the album… Being over-cautious was a huge mistake on my part. RCA wouldn’t have minded… I should have spent their money and piled their resources in.

They were unlucky in other ways too, though Shircore doesn’t mention this. Demon, the masters of repackaging records, unlocked the legal issues around the ’70s recordings, and reissued them in handsome packages with well documented notes. The warehouse which held the stock was torched in the 2011 riots. It is not surprising that when the pair returned to making music, in the late 1990s, after discovering through the internet that they still had a fan base out there, that Atkin made sure he maintained control of the recordings.

Musical craft

If you know these songs, or even some of them, then Shircore’s reading of them here is a pleasure. If you don’t, many of them can now be streamed through Atkin’s website, and a selection of the records can also be found on Spotify. One of the critical tests of a music book is whether it lets you hear the songs in a new light, and Loose Canon certainly succeeds in this.

But even if you don’t know them, there’s much to enjoy here. The detail of the lyrical and musical craft involved in writing these songs is fascinating, and it struck me that “craft” was, in its way a theme of many of the songs. This might be the craft of the metal-workers in Carnations on the Roof, “With gauge and micrometer, with level and with rule/ While chuck and punch were pulsing like a drum/ He checked the finished product like a master after school.”

Or it might be the craft of the circus performers, in The Wall of Death, referenced but not discussed here, or of the guitarist in Thief in the Night, or of the session men involved in making many of the ’70s records, celebrated in the song Sessionman’s Blues. The telling of the recording of No Dice, in a single take by Herbie Flowers, Alan Parker and Barry Morgan is a revelation.

James, I realised, reading this, has an endless eye for detail, from aircraft spoilers to the height marks on a kitchen door to the piano player’s brindled crew cut to mob security to the exact names of the colours in The Colours of the Night. This extends to the detail — even the precision — of writing. Clearly Atkin does too, steeped in 20th century popular music, as he sifts through these lyrics (always written first) to find the best way to set them. I suspect that it is this shared love of exactness that has kept them collaborating together for 50 years, still, even now, full of admiration for the work the other brings to the partnership. And it’s rich technique and deep craft that make the songs endure.

Pretty much all of the Atkin-James songs can be streamed at his website. There is a  selection of the records on Spotify. The picture of the younger Pete Atkin and Clive James is from Rock’s Back Pages, and is used here with thanks.

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