Al Stewart, Clive James, Ian Macdonald, Ian Shircore, John Peel, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Pete Atkin, Robert Altman, Stacy Keach
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.