Thursday, November 08, 2007

In praise of Pete Atkin

Most popular music is written by one person. Even when the credit goes to a duo (think Lennon and McCartney), the song is largely the work of half of the team. It is very rare for a partnership to split the words and music down the middle - one writer taking (and sticking to) each half for the duration of their career. Rarer still if such a career blossoms for a decade, dissolves amicably, and then picks up 25 years later as if nothing had happened. Here is one example.

Pete Atkin met Clive James in the mid 1960s at Cambridge University. If the name Clive James reminds you of a portly Australian with a penchant for travel programmes and laughing at the Japanese, then you have the right man. James also wrote some of the most memorable (and often hilarious) TV criticism of the 1970s, a subject to which we may return at a later date. They were both members of Footlights - the university drama club - and quickly started to write together. James' musical talent was more or less non-existent; fortunately Atkin's more than made up. Atkin's lyrical skills are not bad (as anyone who has heard "Ballad of an Upstairs Window" can confirm) but James' are simply superb. Take, for example, this extract from "Payday Evening", a song about a man drinking alone:

Concerning us there will be no fables
No brilliant poems airily discarded

Just liquid circles on formica tables

And silence, perhaps too closely guarded

During the early 1970s, Atkin made six albums that set James' lyrics to music. The first two have a lovely, fresh folk-rock atmosphere; instrumentally they are similar to Sounds-of-Silence-era Simon and Garfunkel. The music is always characterful, particularly in the brilliant "Girl on a Train", where the accompaniment carries the song along just like the train does its hopeless passenger. Atkin's voice is clear and, whilst he's never had the greatest vocal talent, he puts enough in to the songs to allow them to fully speak for themselves.

The third album - "A King at Nightfall" is perhaps the best containing a very strong set of songs. Some of them have a harder 1970s rock edge to them, one or two (e.g. "Thirty Year Man") hark back to an earlier pre-rock era. One of the most striking is "Carnations on the Roof". James' subject matter here is a cremation (never let it be said that he lacks range); instead of the moribund musical setting one might expect to complement this, Atkin wrote a catchy Motown-style number. And it works a treat.

Lyrically, a lot of the love songs from the first two albums are beautifully written but express sentiments that people like to think they left behind in the 6th form - although, to be fair, "Beware of the Beautiful Stranger" is more about the tendency of half the population never to leave such sentiments behind. Later on, the love lyrics are more mature, seasoned with experience, and often depressing (if highly impressive in their own way). But James can also celebrate music and musicians ("Thief in the Night", "Wristwatch for a Drummer", "Sessionman's Blues"), write songs that tell great stories ("A King at Nightfall") and laments for the tragedies of his generation ("Driving through Mythical America" - a song which alludes to but never explicitly mentions the 1970 student massacre at Kent State).

The fourth and fifth albums are patchier, though still containing some great songs such as "Secret Drinker" and the aforementioned "Payday Evening". The sixth, a parody album, was really a product of its time although "Black Funk Rex" still retains its bite for anyone who has seen clips of Marc Bolan perform and wondered what all the fuss was about.

And there the story stopped, for a long time. By 1975 it was clear that commercial success was never going to happen. James went further into television and the mainstream literary world. Atkin eventually became a senior producer for BBC Radio 4 (responsible for, among other things, This Sceptered Isle). But he would still very occasionally play gigs and around 1997 Steve Birkhill travelled half the length of the country to see him - the songs can inspire that kind of loyalty. Birkhill promptly set up a fan site with Atkin's blessing, and from out of nowhere hundreds of former fans appeared, each of them thinking that they were the only ones to remember and treasure the records from a quarter of a century ago.

Sensing an opportunity, See For Miles records reissued the original six albums. Atkin started touring (a little) more often and in 2001 released a double album of songs that had never previously been recorded. A tour with James followed in 2003 during which they started writing again, and the first album of entirely new material for nearly 30 years was released a year later. Sadly, See For Miles was wound up at about the same time and due to complicated licensing arrangements the original records are unlikely to be reissued again.

This year Atkin has re-recorded some of the best of the 1970s songs and put out a new CD called "Midnight Voices". It's available via, and is well worth investigating. Some of the songs are fairly straight retreads of the original material, but others take the music in new directions - the versions of "The Hypertension Kid", "Touch has a Memory", and (especially) "Thief in the Night" are in my view superior to the earlier recordings. The whole disc has a great semi-acoustic sound - much more appropriate than the rather glossy feel of the 2001 and 2004 records - and benefits from some highly intelligent piano playing from Simon Wallace. It has to be said that Atkin's voice lacks the power that it once had, and occasionally shows signs of strain. But what do you expect? He's 63 now and still a potent performer - if you see an appearance advertised anywhere near you then get to see him before he dares to retire.

1 comment:

bethnoir said...

Elton John and Bernie Taupin have written together (exclusively Elton doing the music and Bernie doing the lyrics) since 1967, but I guess that they're an exception to the rule.

I've never heard of Pete Atkin, but he sounds worth checking out.