Posts Tagged ‘Clive James’

The Atkin-James song book

12 February 2017


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.
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“We did him in up country”

28 March 2016

Since it’s Easter Monday, it seems appropriate to share the lyric of “Search and Destroy“, words by Clive James, music by Pete Atkin, in which the Easter story is reimagined as a laconic report about the end of a successful 20th century counter-terrorist operation.

James, who is an outstanding lyric writer, has written better songs than this, but there’s something to admire about the way the final stanza locates the story conclusively and then punctures it decisively:

The faithful talk some wishful-thinking cock/ About a spook who rolls away the rock/
At which point golden boy walks out alive/ We’re bumping them all off as they arrive.

One can imagine the likes of Brigadier Richard Clutterbuck being delighted about the way things turned out here.

Search and destroy

I'm glad to say we're mopping up up here
I'm sending you today's report in clear
Security's no problem now at all
You just pick up the phone and make a call

     We should have done all this back at the beginning
     And never let the clowns think they were winning

We took a month to crack their second man
But when he talked the strudel hit the fan
He named eleven leaders who we shot
And then the top guy's girl who we've still got
The chick was tough and held out for a week
But spilled a bibful when we made her speak
We picked his mother up and worked on her
He came in on his own and there you were

     We should have nailed the first ones when we found them
     Before all the mystique built up around them

We never gave the local heat a chance
To get him on their own and make him dance
We did him in up-country, bombed the cave
And made the whole damn mountainside his grave
The faithful talk some wishful-thinking cock
About a spook who rolls away the rock
At which point golden boy walks out alive
We're bumping them all off as they arrive

     And that winds up this dreary exhibition
     A total waste of time and ammunition

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‘The Cavalry incident’

Of course, Clive James is in good company here. The radical journalist Claud Cockburn recalled in his memoir I Claud rewriting the Easter story in the early 1930s as a parody of The Times’ Berlin reporter Pugge, who tended to see the streetfighting going on in Berlin in somewhat simple terms. This is how Cockburn described it in the book:

It was a level-headed estimate studded with well-tried Times’ phrases. ‘Small disposition here,’ cabled this correspondent, ‘attach undue importance protests raised certain quarters result recent arrest and trial leading revolutionary agitator followed by what is known locally as “the Cavalry incident”.’ The despatch was obviously based on an off-the-record interview with Pontius Pilate. It took the view that, so far from acting harshly, the Government had behaved with what in some quarters was criticized as ‘undue clemency’. It pointed out that firm Government action had definitely eliminated this small band of extremists, whose doctines might otherwise have represented a serious threat for the future.

The youtube clip at the top shows Atkin—who is currently, thankfully, recovering after being hit by a bus in Bristol—performing “Search and Destory” solo in Sheffield.

The recorded version is on the Pete Atkin reord Lakeside Sessions Vol. 2, which is available as a CD online or via iTunes. Or if you want to play it yourself, the chords are here.

The Prince of Aquitaine

14 November 2010

I don’t fly that often, but I did last week, and when I come back into London after dark it always reminds me of ‘The Prince of Aquitaine‘, a song written by Pete Atkin and Clive James (yes, that Clive James) which I must have first heard thirty years ago.

It captures two things: both the ‘thrill of fear’ of the landing, and the privilege of the flying classes. The anticipation first:

I flew home into the city after dark and in the clear
With a seat beside the window and the usual thrill of fear
When the spoilers send you sliding down the drain.

Spoilers? They reduce lift.

Flying, even now, is the prerogative of the better off, and in the 1970s, when the song was written, this was more true. This theme runs through the song, well, like whisperlines. For example:

The highway lights of sodium are cut and set like gems
They run like this in whisperlines until they reach the Thames
Their afterimage wealthy in the brain
Beneath the bridge’s footway in the shelter of the stair
A cripple plays harmonica for pennies from the air
While the river proffers answers to his pain.

And, of course, it’s exemplified by the chorus: “And to the ruined tower came the Prince of Aquitaine”.

The line comes initially from El Desdichado, a poem by Gerard de Nerval (“Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie”) though Clive James says he borrowed it from an extract that T.S Eliot included in The Wasteland. We know this because the record that The Prince of Aquitaine is on, Driving Through Mythical America, having been out of print for a while, was rescued last year by Demon, those fine curators of mislaid music, and reissued with notes by James and Atkin. (He used the previous line of Nerval’s quoted by Eliot as the inspiration for another song, The Shadow and the Widower).

I think that Driving Through Mythical America is probably their best record. On the vinyl version the second side is one of those rare “perfect sides”, one of those pleasures that has disappeared with the advent of CDs and downloads. But that’s a post for another day.

The picture is an engraving by Henri-Georges Adam, featured in a post on Adventures In The Print Trade, which includes a series of seven variations of English translations of The Prince of Aquitaine. There’s also an interesting essay by Richard Sieburth on the difficulties of translating Nerval’s dense allusive poetry.

Jazz drummers

23 June 2009

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There’s a showbiz joke, probably put about by guitarists, about the groupie who was so dim she went home with the drummer. But the joke is about rock drummers, and as we know, jazz drummers are a different creature entirely. They can do in their sleep things which rock drummers can only dream of. This, at least, was my train of thought while I watched Dave King, the drummer with the trio The Bad Plus, as they opened for the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra at the South Bank on Saturday.

King was an astonishing presence on stage, completely at the heart of the band’s sound, sometimes driving it along with a complex mix of rhythms and sounds, sometimes amplifying the mood by adding particular percussive effects, sometimes doing all of this at once. The musicians’ position on stage underlined the importance of all three members of the trio, all at the front, rather than the rhythm section supporting the pianist from the back.

In jazz, unlike rock, drummers are honoured – as in the affectionate (and tongue in cheek) tribute by Pete Atkin and Clive James, recently reissued, “Wristwatch for a drummer“:

The Omega Incabloc Oyster Accutron 72
Without this timepiece there’d have been
No modern jazz to begin with
Bird and Diz were tricky men for a drummer to sit in with

Max Roach still wears the watch he wore when bop was new
Elvin Jones has two and Buddy Rich wears three
One on the right wrist, one on the left
And the third one around his knee.

Jazz drummers have led bands and recordings – and still do (one thinks of Seb Roachford and Polar Bear). Not surprising that drummers such as Bill Bruford and Charlie Watts returned to jazz after doing time in rock bands.

The clip below shows Dave King doing a breathtaking solo introduction to The Bad Plus’ version of Smells Like Teen Spirit, where he manages, deliberately, to be out of time with himself.