Sunday, 12 February 2012

Pete Atkin

Mr Pickwick sat at first taciturn and contemplative, brooding over the means by which his purpose could be best attained. By degrees his attention grew more and more attracted by the objects around him; and at last he derived as much enjoyment from the ride, as if it had been undertaken for the pleasantest reason in the world.

Great Expectations? Pete Atkin has enjoyed a long and fruitful partnership with Clive James. There is something almost Dickensian about this duo’s ability to capture quintessentially English mores and picaresque characters. Not only that, it is an authentic voice that speaks to the heart as well as the head; at least it does if you are a man of a certain age, living a life of quiet desperation, perhaps as a session musician, secret drinker or a Mafia Don.  Lest I start making further, perhaps spurious analogies about Philip Pirrip and Abel Magwitch (I’ll leave you to decide who’s who) I’ll begin.

It begins, as a lot of music does, with John Peel. At least, this story begins for me with that champion of things brilliant but ill-considered. It was an album called Secret Drinker. Peel played it, several tracks, more than once.
Who were they? A latter-day Flanders and Swann or the progeny of Tom Lehrer, but gone to the dark side? Tom Waits or Randy Newman?
The lyrics, provided by Clive James were perhaps more along the lines of poems set to music. Or were they lyrical poems? Pete Atkin could write in any style from East Coast Soft Rock to a slidy, smoky tuxedo bourbon-stained jazz style. There were songs of love that could not fail to resonate with those who love, songs of paranoia for anyone who really does have people watching and waiting, songs of lament and elegy for the tiny dead of the concentration camp but also songs of parody and satire, largely about the hand that momentarily fed them. They were “eclectic” – but more on “eclectic” later. Their star shone for longer than might have seemed possible in the days when you had to have a deal and you had to have a hit. 


PA: With hindsight, I can easily see that we never did fit in, although at the time (late 60s, early 70s) I think we thought that we might be able to barge in and occupy an interesting corner. It's hard to remember now, but in those days the album was only just beginning to be thought of as something in its own right, something more than a collection of singles and fillers - thanks mainly to Dylan, even more than the Beatles.

One of the things that Clive and I had in common was a sense that pop songs could be about pretty much anything at all, certainly more than we were hearing most of the time - hardly a radical view, even then, but don't forget there was as yet no Randy Newman, no Tom Waits - and that there was no reason why the words shouldn't be just as interesting as the music. It may be our downfall that we have always written songs that needed to be listened to. I don’t think any of our records work particularly well as something that’s playing in the background. It’s always been a case of writing music that presents the lyric in the best possible way and makes the most sense of the lyric. That doesn’t always mean following the mood of the lyric. Sometimes it means going directly against it. Early on, in our early days of writing, Clive would hand me a lyric and say “I think this one is a this or that sort of song.” What it suggested to me rhythmically was something different, but if the rhythm works for the words it almost doesn’t matter what the tune and the harmonies do. An early example of me going against it was The Last Hill that Shows you All the Valleys. He handed it to me as a kind of lament and I thought, ok but when I started out looking into how I could work with it rhythmically it became something quite different – a heavy, R&B rhythm. Clive stopped making those suggestions after that point and let me get on with it!

The more our writing relationship went on, the more to and fro we got with it but usually we would start with a lyric and sometimes I would simply go away and write the tune and that would be that. I might suggest a repeat of a line or shifting a chorus or asking Clive for a middle eight. With the later songs there might not be a song at all – the shape of it was too raggedy, too irregular and then I would look at it and find that actually there was a song. Sometimes a lyric is a poem rather than a song because of the grammar and syntax. Or it might be just too personal to Clive and I can’t find a way into it emotionally. I have to imagine myself singing it.
I was never aware of writing in any particular style. It’s a bit of a handicap. It’s handy to be able to tell people what it is you do, but I treat each song on its own merits. That ends up being easy to describe as “eclectic”, which is often used as a pejorative term.
On the other hand, because of that our stuff was never trendy at the time. It never fitted in.
RL: Well it was critically acclaimed. Kenny Everett played it and John Peel played a lot of the songs and recorded sessions with you.
PA: We were on the verge of getting somewhere with it. We were very economical with recording. I knew early on that I was never going to command big studio bills. I knew I had to get the album done in four sessions.
RL: So did RCA just lose interest in you?
PA: Well the first albums were done through Essex Music and they leased them to Phillips and Fontana. Then A King at Nightfall was leased to RCA and that was enough of a success that they took on the re-issue of the first two. Then I signed direct to RCA for another three albums.
The Road Of Silk was my first (direct) RCA album and I put together a band and rehearsed and went on a month-long university tour only to discover afterwards that they hadn’t pressed enough copies so that they'd all gone in the first week and we were touring with nothing in the shops (it took 3-4 weeks to re-press LPs, unless you were Jim Reeves or David Bowie). RCA promised this wouldn't happen again, but exactly the same thing did happen again with Secret Drinker, the next album. (The re-recording of the single version of I See The Joker in order to re-promote it was RCA's kind of an apology.) And so I didn't believe their further protestations, and Clive and I decided not to give them our next bunch of 'proper' songs, but to record the jokey things that we'd been accumulating over the years (and which there was a certain amount of audience demand for, I have to say) as a kind of contractual fulfillment album. That did give the two of us the chance to tour relatively cheaply and to cash in a bit on Clive's growing media fame, but in recording terms and with hindsight it probably wasn't that great an idea.
We had all the songs ready for the next album and the idea was we would go somewhere else. This was 1976. Punk arrived like a hurricane. Punk had more of an effect on the record companies than we now remember. We were still in thrall to the record companies. You had to have a deal. They didn’t know what to do with anything that wasn’t Punk. Nobody could see what more they could do with our stuff than had already been done. That was coloured by the fact that what was happening was something quite different. Punk was a good thing, not only for the business but for music in general. Stiff put out material that still stands up today. It was a very much needed, huge infusion of energy. The rocky bits had become staid and lacking in imagination and safe. The general feeling was that something needed to happen.
RL: Your back catalogue has since gathered an enormous amount of interest, with copies of albums on eBay and hundreds of pounds.
PA: It’s frustrating that some of it wasn’t available so I was really pleased to see Demon records do such a good job on the re-issues but I can’t be bothered to put huge amounts of energy into keeping it available. I’m glad that it’s there but much more interested in now.
RL: Do you think we are on the cusp of a very profound change in the way people hear music?
PA: We’re not on the cusp, we are already there, I think. Our generation probably covers what will prove to be the only time in history where music was a primary source of home entertainment. I don’t think people sit and listen to recorded music anymore, the way they would have done twenty, thirty or forty years ago.  It’s not that people don’t do it, but people have music on, or they are listening on personal players, but the days of actually sitting in your living room and putting a record on as if you are in a concert, are pretty much gone. Music has receded to be a much smaller part of home entertainment.
RL: Vinyl is the only growth area in audio currently. HMV have said they are going to stock it again.
PA: I can’t believe that is going to be a major factor again. For most people, that doesn’t matter very much. At one time the industry was all about getting better and better quality, from 78s to LPs to CDs; it was all about increasing the quality. What the MP3 revolution has shown is that most people don’t care about that. We have reached a peak and we are sliding down the other side.
RL: Does that mean that performing live has become much more important?
PA: Performing live continues to be something that is different from all the other elements. There is still, I am pleased to say, an appetite for it. People still recognise that there is something special about it. In the broadest sense it is theatre and it is unique event and that sense you get of liveness and actuality is something you can never get from a recording. People respond to that. They don’t necessarily think about it in those terms, but the big stadium bands – the live gigs, that is where people make money now. There is no big money to be made from selling CDs. Plenty of bands give the things away at gigs.
RL: A while ago you did a live gig with Clive James at St George’s Brandon Hill, Bristol. How did that set the scene for your performance format of words and music?
PA: Clive and I did a sort of proto-gig there. I was on the board of trustees due to my BBC connection and managed to persuade them to let me and Clive do a gig. We’d done a few ad hoc things where I would give Clive a list of songs and he would introduce them and out of that came the two-man show. In those days he wasn’t doing any readings or anything. It was the reason we brought together some musicians and that led to the Midnight Voices album. It was great playing there with the trio, not the least because of how liberating it was not to have to sing and play at the same time. When I’m singing and playing I am neither quite playing as well as I can or singing as well as I can. It splits your attention. Classical pianists are amazed that anybody can sing and play at the same time and yet singing and strumming a guitar is seemingly one of the most natural things in the world.
For those who want to know more, this writer suggests getting “Clive James & Pete Atkin Live in Australia” or indeed “Secret Drinker” The first has readings from Clive and notes about the songs as part of a live performance. The second is a studio album. Not a word wasted and never a tune out of place. James and Atkin have secured their place in the rock legacy.

POSTSCRIPT: Although Clive James was unavailable for comment for health reasons, he has maintained an interest in this article and has linked to it on his own website. Clive, I wish you well; you are and always will be a writer whose phrases I plagiarise with glee.

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