Further to my post a little while back about Pete Atkin and Clive James, I’ve been playing a lot of their stuff on guitar recently. It’s challenging for a rank amateur like me because Atkin uses a lot of obscure chords and jazzy rhythms. Even so, there is something satisfying in, for instance, the transition from Em9 (020002) to A9 (xx2132) in the first line of “A King at Nightfall”.
But the curious thing about playing the same songs over and over again is that at first you lose the sense of the words because all of your concentration is on the chords. Then, suddenly, the words click back into focus and you start to see them in fresh ways.
The thing is, I’ve known and loved the songs of Atkin and James since I first encountered them in the early 70s. So I’ve got used to thinking of the lyrics simply in terms of their cleverness, their complex wordplay, the mass of cultural references that James jams into so many of the songs. But seeing them anew as I relearn the songs in a different way I’ve realized how slangy James’s writing could be (“Tomorrow’s men who trace you from the field will be in it for the bread”), and more significantly how full of contemporary social observation that is simply taken for granted. So much so that I think some songs would probably be almost incomprehensible to a modern audience without a gloss.
Take, for example, the second verse of “Laughing Boy”:
A kid once asked me in late September for a shilling for the guy
And I looked that little operator in her wheeling-dealing eye
And I tossed a bob with deep respect in her old man’s trilby hat
It seems to me that a man like me could die of things like that
It’s a verse that has always delighted me, and for anyone my age, it’s probably perfectly clear. For anyone half my age? I haven’t seen any kid asking for pennies for the guy for years, probably for decades. So the resonances in this verse are going to be missed.
Bonfire Night is on 5th November (or, more commonly, the closest Saturday to that date). This is a pre-Christian festival of light that was adopted to celebrate the arrest of Guy Fawkes and the prevention of the Gunpowder Plot. The practice was to make a guy, a figure made of old clothes stuffed with straw or something else combustible, which would be burned on top of the bonfire. During the week or two before Bonfire Night, children would take their guy around the neighbourhood collecting pennies for the guy; the pennies would then be used to buy fireworks for the event. That the girl in the song is asking for a shilling (12 pennies), twelve times the going rate, is therefore a sign of her entrepreneurship. And that she is asking for money in September places it around a month ahead of the usual time. (That it’s a girl is possibly also significant: collecting money for the guy was more often associated with boys.)
I tossed a bob (a slang term for shilling) in her old man’s (old man could mean husband or father, in this context it is pretty clearly father) trilby hat. In the late-60s/early 70s when this song was written, men didn’t often wear hats, they had fallen out of fashion, so they tended to be rare and expensive. The girl has probably stolen the hat, and may well, at the end, put it on the head of the guy to be burned.
So in a few lines we learn an awful lot about the characters in the song and about their milieu, but all in terms that have lost their meaning, their social context, over the nearly 50 years since it was written. That sort of particular observation is common in Clive James’s lyrics, but I am suddenly wondering how transparent they might be to a modern audience.