Perhaps it is because I have just had my first visit to the dentist in over two years, but I have found myself earwormed by Spike Milligan’s darkly silly song, “English Teeth” – “three cheers for the green, brown and black” – in the version recorded by, of all people, Cleo Laine. Now I don’t pretend to understand how the mind (or my mind, at least) works, because I never saw the incomparable Cleo in concert, but this earworm made me start thinking about the various concerts I’ve seen over the years.
The first concert I can recall was Al Stewart, during my first year, indeed probably my first term, at university. That would have been the autumn of 1971. I feel sure I must have seen some live music before then but if so I have no memory of it at all. At the time the New University of Ulster, as it then was, was pretty much a building site, so the concert took place in our one and only lecture theatre. Afterwards I remember walking back to my digs along the seafront at Portstewart belting out “it got to feel less like fucking, and more like making love” at the top of my voice. Since then I’ve seen Al Stewart way more than anyone else. One memorable concert was at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester when I was invited back to the dressing room in the interval. Well, to be fair, the whole audience was invited back, but only a dozen or so of us actually went.
The loudest concert? No contest, it was Horslips in a ridiculously small room above a pub in Portrush. I was deaf for three days afterwards.
Best concert? Barbara Thompson’s Paraphernalia, in a chi-chi little lounge in a hotel here in Folkestone, with the audience ensconced in well-upholstered chairs. The band was electrifying from the first note.
Biggest concert? That would be a toss-up between Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Wembley, or, a little later, the Human Rights Now concert at Wembley with Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and Youssou N’Dour.
Oddest concert? I remember a concert by Renaissance where the venue decided that because they were a “rock” band the audience would want to dance, to they took out all the seats. And there was the time I saw Ralph McTell supported by Bert Jansch during which Jansch couldn’t seem to get off the stage quick enough after his set. Turned out there was a big football match on that night, and periodically during McTell’s set Jansch would turn up in the wings to announce the latest score. But really the oddest was at the Dominion in London. The first half was a wonderful punkish set featuring Terry and Gerry, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and The Pogues. Then, during the interval, the audience seemed to change completely, and for the second half we had Fairport Convention.
Highest concert? Sitting up in the gods at the Royal Albert Hall to see Jackson Browne, which did my fear of heights no good at all. Thank heavens I wasn’t high in any other sense.
Best surprise? I had long given up any hope of seeing Pete Atkin; he had effectively given up music to become a BBC producer. But when he retired, he started performing again and we saw him, and Clive James, together in Canterbury. A glorious evening.
I am as unsure about the last concert I saw as I am about the first, but I’m pretty sure it was the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and if I get another chance I’ll be there to see them again.
There was a television drama series, back in the late-1960s, called Take Three Girls. Remember it? No, I don’t, not much (it was apparently the BBC’s first drama series in colour, though I doubt we actually had a colour TV by then, and anyway I suspect that what I do remember I’m getting confused with the slightly later series, Rock Follies, which starred the wonderful Julie Covington who had, incidentally, produced some pretty good covers of early Pete Atkin/Clive James songs, but that’s taking me down a rabbit hole I don’t want to explore right now …)
Where was I? Oh yes, Take Three Girls. There is one thing I remember about the series to this day: the theme music. It mesmerised me. I found out, after a while, that the song was called “Light Flight” –
Let’s get away you say find a better place Miles and miles away from the city’s race
– (quoted from memory probably ten years after I last heard the song) and the song was performed by a group called Pentangle. I went out and bought their most recent album, Basket of Light, which also happened to include “Light Flight”. That album became easily the most played record in my collection for the next 20 years or more.
It would be wrong to say that Pentangle was my introduction to folk rock because a) the term hadn’t been invented yet, and b) Pentangle was really more a sort of folk jazz. The rhythm section, Danny Thompson on double bass and Terry Cox on drums, were both jazz musicians who had played together with the great Alexis Korner. Up front were the guitarists and flat mates, John Renbourn who was into folk played with a baroque style, and Bert Jansch who was, right up to his death in 2011, one of the greatest and most influential of all blues and folk guitarists. To complement Jansch’s rather growly vocals, they brought in Jacqui McShee, who ran her own folk club and who had a hypnotically clear voice but who was so nervous of performing that she had to sit down for all their appearances.
For just five years following their formation in 1967, Pentangle did extraordinary things with traditional songs, adding complex guitar parts up front and varied rhythmic patterns behind. What Danny Thompson does with the double bass on their own composition, “Train Song”, is more like free jazz than anything traditional. And the interplay of Jansch’s and McShee’s voices made every song sound mysterious, sexy and enchanting. Folk music became something entirely other than the finger-in-the-ear, droning voices, and grudgingly-accepted acoustic guitar of most folk music to that point.
In his wonderful memoir, Beeswing, Richard Thompson says he was “fairly unenthused” by Pentangle. But for me they were the gateway drug, the necessary ear training so that I was ready for what came next. And what came next was Fairport Convention.
Oddly, Pentangle and Fairport were in lockstep in those early years. They both formed in 1967, and both released their classic albums, Basket of Light and Liege and Lief in 1969. But in my memory, Pentangle always came first, probably because I knew Pentangle before I heard of Fairport, and knew Basket of Light before I heard of Liege and Lief. In a way, I bought Liege and Lief because of Basket of Light, because Pentangle had shown me how inventive and exciting folk music could be so I was ready to try this other highly praised reinvention of folk.
Liege and Lief was nothing short of a revelation, a pounding, thrilling piece of rock music. A few years later, when I was at university, I got into one of those long, rambling, late night conversations at a party at a house way out in the middle of nowhere outside Portstewart. It started out being about Jacques Brel, whose work I loved when covered by other artists (I’m thinking particularly of Scott Walker) but whose own performances I barely knew. But it meandered on from there as such conversations have a habit of doing, and at some point came around to the inevitable question: “So, what sort of music do you like?” To which I answered that I was mostly into folk. Except I’m not sure that was true. I bought Transatlantic samplers, so I was familiar with the work of people like Mr Fox, and I had a few Steeleye Span albums, though other than Below the Salt I got tired of them very quickly. But I really didn’t have that much in the way of folk music. But I liked the people who had emerged from folk music, the singer-songwriters like Al Stewart, Sandy Denny, and, of course, Joni Mitchell; and I liked the groups who had made something fresh out of folk music, by which I mean (because there weren’t really that many others) Pentangle and Fairport.
Pentangle, of course, only lasted a few years, and I got every album they released though I never saw them live (when they were reincarnated with different personnel some years later I had no interest in them at all). Fairport I followed for a few years. I got the two albums that preceded Liege and Lief, What We Did on Our Holidays which is okay and Unhalfbricking which is excellent, and at one point I even had a copy of their first LP with Judy Dyble on vocals, but she never worked for me as a singer. After Liege and Lief I kept up with them for a while through their innumerable personnel changes. Though I didn’t see them live at this time, it was their live albums that were generally most interesting, including the original vinyl version of Live at the LA Troubadour which includes a version of “Matty Groves”, with Simon Nicol on vocals, in which he changes the line:
Lord Arnold struck the very next blow And Matty struck no more
to the rather more effective:
Lord Arnold struck the very next blow And Matty struck the floor
accompanied, if I remember rightly, by a thump on the drum from Dave Mattocks. Alas, when a retitled version of that album was reissued on CD they switched to another version of “Matty Groves” with the conventional lyrics.
But the departure of Sandy Denny was something that, so far as I was concerned, they never really recovered from, though the departure of Ashley Hutchings at the same time was no great loss because the addition of Dave Pegg on bass more than made up for it. But when Richard Thompson left as well … I think it was “Babbacombe” Lee when I realised I didn’t like the album anywhere near as much as I felt I should. After that, I bought Rising for the Moon because it was Denny’s temporary return, but otherwise I bought no more Fairport.
Years later, through Maureen Speller, I reconnected with Fairport, and we saw a later iteration of the group live a couple of times, and they were every bit as thrilling as you’d hope they would be. And I reacquired on CD several of their albums, but it is still the Denny/Thompson era that works best for me.
Post-Fairport I followed Sandy Denny through Fotheringay and her solo work (The North Star Ravens and the Grassman remains for me an absolute classic, though there are songs on each of her other three albums that I keep returning to). With Richard Thompson, for some reason, it was more hit and miss. I skipped Henry the Human Fly until quite a few years later, but I did get the albums he made with Linda Thompson, of which the first, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, and the last, Shoot Out the Lights, (an interesting circularity of titles there, given the rise and collapse of their relationship) are clearly the best. And I followed him intermittently into his solo work (the early compilation, (guitar, vocal) is essential), but I missed out on more albums than I ever bought. Even so, I continue to rate Thompson as one of the great guitar geniuses of our age, and a songwriter of rare power. (Have I seen him live? That’s the strange thing. I have a feeling I must have done, but I just couldn’t say for certain. I know I have seen his son, Teddy Thompson, in concert, but was he accompanying his father? Must have been, but the picture in my mind is blurred and fuzzy.)
All of which reminiscence is prompted by the fact that I have just read Richard Thompson’s Beeswing, his memoir covering the years from the formation of Fairport Convention to the break-up of his marriage to Linda Thompson. Beeswing, which is as elegantly and engagingly written as one might expect of Thompson, is subtitled “Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice”, as if the voice (by which he means his guitar playing rather than his singing) was in place by the time he went solo. What follows, a career that has so far lasted another 40-odd years, might generate the usual showbusiness anecdotes, but the story itself was essentially over. And he is right in that: the story lies in how he got going rather than in what he did when he got there.
It is the relatively narrow focus – a period of less than ten years taken from a career of over 50 years, and a life of over 70 years – that makes this book work. It’s like Dylan’s Chronicles in that respect. And those ten years contain all the dynamics, the interplay, the discovery, that we want to read about. Some of the stories are fairly well known, of course: how they were auditioning for a new singer and Sandy Denny ended up auditioning them; how she sang “A Sailor’s Life” in the dressing room before a gig in Southampton and they impulsively decided to include it in the set that night only for it to go down so well, both with the band and the audience, for them to invite Joe Boyd down to hear them play it again the next night, and how he then called on his mate Dave Swarbrick to play on the recording, thus essentially inventing folk rock. There’s a detail I didn’t know: I know that a guitar is tuned in fourths but I hadn’t realised that a violin is tuned in fifths, so it is physically impossible for a guitarist to match many of the chords that a violin plays, and vice versa, so the interplay between Swarb and Thompson on “A Sailor’s Life” and many other tracks involved them both developing new ways of playing their instruments. There are other well-known incidents that acquire a little more detail in the telling here. We learn that he barely knew the groupie Jeannie Franklyn when she attached herself to him, and after a couple of weeks together he seems to have been on the point of splitting with her when she accompanied them to a gig in Birmingham. That’s when the van crashed on the way home afterwards, and Jeannie along with drummer Martin Lamble were killed. The death of Lamble had a far greater effect on Thompson and the rest of the group. And then there’s stuff that is new, at least to me. I now know, for instance, why the magnificent “Sloth” is called that. Thompson and Swarb were making their first attempt to write songs together. They had two pieces of music they were working on, one was fast paced and one was slow paced. For convenience they called the fast tune “Fasth” (it would become “Walk Awhile”), and the slow tune “Slowth”. Only they never got around to deciding on a proper title for the slow tune, and “Slowth” mutated into “Sloth”.
And writing all that makes me want to just go away and listen again to “Sloth”, or “Meet on the Ledge”, or “Calvary Cross”, or any of a dozen other songs that are seared into my memory.
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.
Loose Canon by Ian Shircore is essentially a poor man’s version of Revolution in the Head by Ian Macdonald for the songs of Pete Atkin and Clive James. It’s a good book, don’t get me wrong, and I learned a lot from it. It has to be essential reading for any fan of perhaps the finest songwriting team of the late twentieth century, if only because of the dearth of other material. But it is a partial book, it doesn’t even pretend to cover all of their songs, and many of my favourite Atkin/James songs (A King at Nightfall, Driving Through Mythical America, The Prince of Aquitaine) aren’t even mentioned, and while there’s a lot of good stuff in Shircore’s book about the tropes and themes that recur in the songs, some of those themes, such as James’s habit of filtering the world through references to often obscure Hollywood films, do not get the depth of analysis I think they deserve. So here are a few other things about the music of Pete Atkin and Clive James.
I don’t remember how I came across them. Their music seems to have been an intimate part of my entire life, and in such circumstances there are no real beginnings. The first album I got was Driving Through Mythical America, which I must have picked up back in 1971 or 72 soon after it came out. I don’t know what the impetus was that made me pick it up, perhaps a song on the radio, but it was surely my happiest musical discovery. I only ever saw them perform live once, in 2005 (so long ago?) in Canterbury, two old men who had recently started performing together again after more than 20 years out of the business. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the reality was better, it was mesmerising. The songs hold up better than anything else from that era. In interviews, Clive James has said he is prouder of his songwriting than his poetry; I understand the feeling, but what makes the songs so good is that they are written with a poetic rather than a lyrical sensibility. Sometimes this shows through, as in Girl On The Train, for instance, in which “mouth” is rhymed with “earth”, a rhyme which works visually on the page but not vocally, but this is a rare exception.
The words were always written first, then Pete Atkin would spend days, sometimes weeks or even longer fitting music to them. In part because he sings with such clear diction that every word is always crystal clear, and because the music showcases the lyrics so well, I always used to think of Atkin’s music as fairly simple. It was only when I started trying to play it on guitar that I realised just how richly complex his music is. He uses a lot of complex chords that aren’t common in popular music, a lot of 9th chords, for instance (the shift between Em9 and A9 in A King At Nightfall, or the C9, F9, D9 progression in All The Dead Were Strangers, and Thirty Year Man has a G13b9 chord that I still haven’t worked out); and the rhythms vary constantly, from the jazzy C-Bb-C-Bb opening of Thirty Year Man to the more folky strum of Beware Of The Beautiful Stranger. There’s a fairly straightforward illustration of how adept Atkin was in mastering different musical styles in their 6th (and for a long time their last) album, Live Libel, which contains effortless parodies of about a dozen different forms of popular music, from country to heavy metal. It is not a great album – Atkin and James weren’t popular with the label because they simply weren’t producing the hits that were expected, and this was an openly derisory effort to complete and get out of their contract – but it is instructive in its way, and at times quite funny.
Why they didn’t break through to a mass audience is, of course, one of the great mysteries. They began writing songs as undergraduates at Cambridge, and there is always an edge of undergraduate cleverness about their stuff, but were they too clever? Yet at pretty much the same time Leonard Cohen was being equally clever in his lyrics. Was it the jazz infusion that Atkin brought into so many of the songs? But Joni Mitchell was being jazzy and popular at the same time. They had devoted fans, including people like John Peel, but it never translated into high sales.
My own theory was that the mood of the songs was at odds with what people wanted from popular song. The overwhelming mood evoked by their early albums is pathos: they were songs about failure, death, loss, often comic in effect but pathetic nevertheless. There were, for instance, no straightforward love songs. If there are love songs, it is about unrequited love for another man’s wife:
Another night I bring the flowers and the wine
Has slipped away There were only three to dine And two to stay
Or the object of affection doesn’t even notice the hopeless swain:
Apart from the chance of the driver accepting a cheque For crashing his loco so I could be brave in the wreck To boldly encounter this creature was not in my power So my heart mended and broke in the course of an hour.
James’s heroes can can look forward only to an endless stream of broken relationships, as the character granted the chance to see his future mistress in a crystal ball:
“Hello there” she said with her hand to her brow “I’m the one you’ll meet after the one you know now There’s no room inside here to show you us all But behind me the queue stretches right down the hall For the damned there is always a stranger There is always a beautiful stranger”
And this wasn’t just a characteristic of James’s writing; one of only two songs that Pete Atkin wrote the lyrics for concludes:
All I ever did while you were here was done for you Now through my tears I’m asking why All you ever said was goodbye.
And it is not just love that is imbued with this fatalistic tone. There are any number of songs about death and defeat:
You spun the crown away into a ditch And saw the water close The army that you fed now feeds the crows A king at nightfall
So yesterday they left me on the ice I could barely lift my head to watch them go The sky was white, my eyes grew full of snow And what thing reached me first, bears or the weather, I just don’t know.
Even a song about the dignity of labour, an expression of the left-wing sensibility that comes out in so many of James’s lyrics, turns into a song about a funeral:
He was generally respected, and the proof Was a line of hired Humbers tagging quietly behind A fat Austin Princess with carnations on the roof.
And one of the most syntactically convoluted sentences in popular song also ends in death:
When on the outskirts of the town Comes bumping cavernously down Out of the brick gateway From the faded mansion on the hill The out-of-date black Cadillac With the old man crumpled in the back That time has not yet found the time to kill.
[In a parenthetical aside: you go to the web sites of singers and songwriters and you will find the chords for their songs all very carefully transcribed. It’s a valuable resource for those of us learning guitar. But I wish they were as careful transcribing the lyrics. The transcription of The Faded Mansion On The Hill, for instance, has a line that the web site tells us is “The cemetery of home”, but the sense of the lyrics, common sense and a casual listen to the song will tell us this is really “The cemetery of hope”. There’s something similar on Al Stewart’s site, where the lyrics as given insist that the final verse of Electric Los Angeles Sunset includes the line “Movie queens diffuse into a cinerama haze”, where sense, internal rhymes and a listen will tell us the real line is “Movie queues diffuse into a cinerama haze”. And these people are supposed to be listening carefully to what is going on.]
Back to The Faded Mansion On The Hill, which appeared on the 1971 album Driving Through Mythical America, and I am convinced that the passage I quoted is a direct reference to the Stacy Keach character in Robert Altman’s 1970 film, Brewster McCloud. This, of course, is perfectly in keeping with James’s interest in the cinema, which would pretty soon translate into a film reviewing spot on TV where he would first come to popular attention. Film references constantly crop up in his work, most interestingly, to my ears, in Driving Through Mythical America.
This, again from 1971, is a direct response to the shootings at Kent State University:
Four students never knew that this was it There isn’t much a target needs to know Already Babyface had made the hit And Rosebud was upended in the snow
America is not a real place, but a melange of film references. The real urgent moral and political purpose that got the four students at Kent State killed is overwhelmed by the pretend America that is created by a diet of Hollywood movies.
Movie metaphors recur constantly throughout James’s work:
Through screens of memory you leave me Smile on the screen behind And then the screen behind the screen behind the screen But nothing alters what has been Nor do my eyes deceive me
And I’ve seen the Maltese Falcon falling moulting to the street He was caught by Queen Christina who was Following the Fleet And Scarface found the Sleep was even Bigger than the Heat When he hit the Yellowbrick Road to where the Grapes of Wrath are sweet
The problem with an exercise like this is that there is no limit. Clive James’s lyrics are so meaty you want to keep quoting them, in fact you want to cite the complete lyrics of every song, simply because they are so good, and because there is such intimate connection within the lyrics that the whole is always more than the sum of its parts. Of course there are problems, one of the things that makes the lyrics so alive is that they are of the moment as much as they are timeless. Would a reference to duty-free allowances in The Prince of Aquitaine –
I have brought them all the plunder of the international jets An envelope of sugar and two hundred cigarettes
– require an explanatory footnote nowadays? Is a line like this, in A King At Nightfall –
Tomorrow’s men who trace you from the field Will be in it for the bread There’ll be a price on your anointed head
– sound too slangy to a modern ear?And yet the songs work for me, probably better than any others. They make me laugh, they make me wonder; at times the writing is extraordinarily beautiful, at other times it is delightfully colloquial. I keep playing them over, on my music system, on my guitar, or just in my head. They do what the very best songs are supposed to do.