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David Morgan
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Important songs?
« : 29.08.06 at 18:34 »
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This post originated on the Gigs board (thread: Sussex gig on 24 July), as a response to the thoughts of Martin Snodin (MC at the gig) and Pete Atkin on whether the Atkin/James songs can be described as ‘important’ (Martin says Yes, Pete modestly says No). After some thought I decided that I was in Martin’s camp.
 
Many MVs may have missed the post, deep in a rather old thread. I feel quite strongly about this point, so decided I’d bring my thoughts to wider attention on the most appropriate Board. Ironically, one of the people who did catch the original post was our moderator, Ian Chippett. Ian pretty clearly disagreed with me in his reply, so I hope he won’t be too annoyed to find the lengthy repeat over here! Our disagreement lies at least partly in interpretation of the word ‘important’, by which I (and I’m sure Martin) do not mean over-serious, portentous, influential - any of those things. We simply mean ‘of very high quality, worth remembering and passing on to rising generation(s)’.  
 
If enough MVs are of similar mind, I think there are things we can & should do about this view, some taking advantage of events coming up. But for now, would readers please take a look at the post, copied below, & let me know whether Martin & I are a minority of two! (Cross-references are to the original ‘Sussex gig on 24 July’ thread.)
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I'd like to take issue with the modest Mr Atkin’s rejection of Martin Snodin's 'Important' descriptor for his songs (post of 31 July). Pete's modesty is genuine - I saw him wince when Martin used the I-word, and at the time I was also a little surprised to hear it. But the theme has kept rattling around my head over the past month, and I’ve arrived at thinking that 'important' may be quite right. So in the interest of a good controversy I’ll try to explain why: apologies for the length of what follows!  
 
My view is of course deeply subjective, but then importance, like beauty, must at least begin in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. I'm one of those for whom songs are the most potent art form, because great magic happens when a good lyric and melody blend to produce a result that's worth more than the sum of the parts. This heady brew can engage mind and emotions and force them to spark off each other like almost nothing else that I've found on this planet. This is a large claim, of course, but I suspect that MVs will know what I'm talking about.  
 
So clearly I think that songs are important - my life and many others would be immeasurably poorer without them. But of course some are more important than others, and at the objective level Pete's probably right that only those individual songs which somehow contribute to historical change can truly justify the description. It’s hard for songs to become important: after all, many people have cloth ears, and even those who appreciate songs have widely varying tastes and speak different languages. Another obstacle is that any one song is a small thing: this is a disadvantage for any art form.  
 
But let's give this some context. Let's think about songs written in English during the last half-century, and about people who care about those songs. I think that in this frame we can talk meaningfully about what’s important, and that I can support an at least semi-objective argument, so - slings and arrows be damned! - here goes.  
 
By now I think it’s widely accepted that the songs of Bob Dylan, as a body, are important. After all, several of them probably even qualify on the basis of the 'contribution to historical change' criterion. Dylan of course also showed the way to the range of themes that could validly be explored in popular song, and brought a perhaps unprecedented poetic quality of language to his songwriting. I’m quite sure that many of the results will long outlive the wizened old grump himself.  
 
I would argue that you can count virtually on one hand the writers who have been capable of carrying on Dylan’s baton over (necessary test - one song is small) a sizeable body of quality work, where the lyrics consistently have something significant to say, say it in original and arresting ways, and are given full force by strong and memorable melodies. Leading candidates in my semi-objective book - no room for the justifications* here, I’m afraid - would be Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen (yes, the Conman himself: I said there’d be controversy!), Bruce Springsteen and…of course, James & Atkin.  
 
I imagine that many people would suggest adding Lennon & McCartney, but I can’t get excited about L&M’s lyrics in most cases. The Beatles were great performers, and their recordings are carried primarily by those performances and their fine pop tunes. Performance is also a major prop for numerous others, such as Neil Young, Van Morrison, Richard Thompson….genius performers all, whose work I love dearly, but I would argue that they’ve not produced large written bodies of words and music in the class of Mitchell’s, Newman’s etc.  
 
The writers in my premier league are generally fine performers themselves, and this has probably acted to limit the number of alternative performances and recordings of their songs to date. Bob Dylan is of course the exception – whether because he’s the best writer or the worst singer I’ve never been sure! But the key point about all these writers is that many of their songs can stand alone, independent of the original arrangements and performances, on sheer quality of lyrics and melodies. Strip any number of songs down, look at them and judge for yourself which ones from the last 50 years are worth preserving for future generations of performers to reinterpret. I think you’ll see that these premier league writers score over and over again.  
 
The fact that all my chosen songwriters (except young Springsteen) started out in the 1960s may have a lot to do with my age – but I wonder how much. I’ve kept in touch with what’s happened since: on the basis of pure songwriting track record, which newer arrivals would be candidates for the list? Elvis Costello? Well, if Clive James invented show-off lyric writing, Costello certainly took it to new levels! Morrissey and Marr? Very talented, but not quite premier league, in my view. Damon Albarn? Ray Davies did it better in the 60s, I would say. But of course I’ll be delighted to hear that I’ve completely missed someone wonderful.  
 
So, given all of this, what about that word ‘important’? We’re still only in 2006, and I think that more time is needed to reveal the real importance of the premier league writers’ songs. Maybe they’ll all soon be forgotten, though I genuinely doubt it. These people have discovered a new range of potential for literate songwriting in or around the despised pop idiom, and I believe they’ll get their due in future reviews of artistic achievement from the late 20th century onwards. Enlightened critical opinion these days acknowledges that ‘pop’ does not have to mean disposable ephemera, so Pete and Clive’s ambition ‘only’ to write pop songs (I guess Bob Dylan would make the same claim) no longer implies an automatic ticket to the garbage bin of history. Rather, the writers of the best pop songs since the 1950s should be seen as having provided the most vital channels of expression for the hopes, fears, loves, hates and yearnings of a generation or two, and the best and most timeless of their songs can potentially do the same for younger generations.  
 
This, in my book, makes these writers’ songs important, or at least in with a chance of getting there. That Atkin and James have so far been relatively overlooked commercially is irrelevant to the fact, which I believe should be clear to informed critics, that their writing stands in this top-quality group and has its own set of unique nuances that are every bit as exciting, satisfying and, yes, important(!) as those of the other premier leaguers’ work. Patriotic Brits & Australians should also note that without A&J we’ll have handed the game entirely to the North Americans (and no, I don’t think that E John/B Taupin are a good substitute, no matter how many records they’ve sold!).  
 
So there, Pete – I hope you’re blushing once again. But even if the semi-objective argument above turns out to be garbage, the subjective one holds – many of your songs have been very important to me for over 30 years now. And thanks for the newer ones as well!  
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*Note about the absent ‘justifications’:  
 
I’m sure that most readers will disagree with at least some of my ‘semi-objective’ assessments: this post is already too long, so the justification arguments are missing. It’s certainly hard to be even half-objective about something as emotive and personal as the impact of songs, but I can argue (at length!) the case for rating, for example, Randy Newman above Neil Young as a songwriter, even though I listen to Young’s recordings more often. Don’t encourage me, would be my advice! Rather, we can perhaps agree that, whoever the top 5 or 6 writers are, A&J are up there with them.  
 
If this is the case, and the Atkin/James songs are potentially important but in danger of being widely ignored and forgotten despite Steve B’s best efforts, is there something more that MVs as a group can or should do about this? (I think there may be.) Or maybe Pete and Clive are happy with obscurity for their joint endeavours: if so, I’ll shut up at this point!
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Ian Chippett
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Re: Important songs?
« Reply #1: 29.08.06 at 19:16 »
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David wrote:" Ironically, one of the people who did catch the original post was our moderator, Ian Chippett. Ian pretty clearly disagreed with me in his reply, so I hope he won’t be too annoyed to find the lengthy repeat over here! Our disagreement lies at least partly in interpretation of the word ‘important’, by which I (and I’m sure Martin) do not mean over-serious, portentous, influential - any of those things. We simply mean ‘of very high quality, worth remembering and passing on to rising generation(s)’. "
 
I go along with that all the way except perhaps the word "influential". If a songwriter influences another who produces equally good stuff, then it's fine by me. The Beatles were about as important and influential as they come but so many of the influenced just copied as best they could what they were knocked over by on the Beatles' records. Most good songwriters (no, spit it out, ALL good songwriters begin by copying somebody else. I'm (relatively) sure Pete would agree here: the key moment comes when the copier finds his own voice. Or, alternatively, how about replacing "important" by "good?"
 
Ian C
 
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David Morgan
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Re: Important songs?
« Reply #2: 01.09.06 at 18:20 »
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Thread reader numbers are building, but no replies since Ian’s. Views might range from general agreement, via boredom to ‘This bloke’s clearly nuts’.
 
So I’ll blithely assume that some readers share my concern about important/good (Ian’s masterly understatement!) songs being forgotten. Sadly, these songs will escape the notice of future opinion formers unless they somehow achieve a higher profile. Here’s a call to action, therefore, possibly worth discussing at ThOD, which is itself key to my suggestions. I can’t be there, unfortunately, but will be glad to hear of any thoughts on these or other initiatives that could help to stir a wider Atkin/James revival.
 
ThOD is a moment to be seized, I believe. It should be a newsworthy event, given all the history that’s led up to it: this could be used, together with suitably targeted reminders of leading critics’ praise for the early Atkin recordings, to gain some renewed press attention. Any such initiative would need some imagination & rapid planning, of course, which I’d be glad to help with: the present time is not a golden era for songwriting, which should make the task of attention-grabbing relatively easier. And a further prod should come from the upcoming publication of Unreliable Memoirs Volume IV, with its coverage of the early Atkin/James years. More broadly, also, it should be possible to leverage the independent fame of that Aussie geezer harder than has been done to date.
 
Of course, this all assumes that Pete and Clive still want to reach a wide audience beyond the (small, though perfectly formed) ranks of the Midnight Voices. I’ll wait to hear any views!
 
Footnote: Mississippi John Hurt
 
Late rises to fame have happened in the past. The relevance of the story of another of my favourite musicians - Mississippi John Hurt - occurred to me the other day.  
 
Born in 1903, Hurt was a farm labourer in Avalon, Mississippi, who evolved a unique guitar style and wrote strong, unusual folk-blues songs. He was briefly ‘discovered’ in 1927, and in 1928 even travelled to New York to record. But sales were poor, and Hurt returned to rural obscurity, playing only for gatherings of friends – much smaller than XoD events! No Internet or Steve Birkill for him.
 
Then, 35 years later, came rediscovery, on the back of the folk music revival. A sensational appearance at the Newport Folk Festival was followed by US tours and several new recordings, many of them reworking Hurt’s old songs from the 20s. These 60s records – try Today or the box set The Complete Studio Recordings – are wonderful: the polished technique and warm mature voice of the older Hurt reveal whole new depths in the best songs. (I’m pretty sure that Pete, whose singing voice has similarly benefited from ageing, could also re-record his 70s songs and get even more out of them.)
 
Today, John Hurt’s place in the pantheon of blues greats is secure. So you see what can happen 35 years after a first recording!  
 
On a personal note, it also occurs to me that the same person introduced me to the music of both Hurt and Atkin, back in 1974. Lindsay North – if you’re out there, many thanks & please get in touch!
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Andy Love
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Re: Important songs?
« Reply #3: 01.09.06 at 22:35 »
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on 01.09.06 at 18:20, David Morgan wrote:
It should be a newsworthy event ...  

 
Hi Chorus, Hi David
 
Midvodia's expert in public relations doesn't keep watch on this Forum (unless you've popped in just now, Mel?) but I'll alert her to your post in case she has a moment or three to spare and thoughts to offer.  
 
ThoD's a bit too close, I fear, for something really useful to be plotted. Unless a music paper has someone relatively near who rapidly could be persuaded to fill one of the two empty seats?  But I'm more-or-less certain that Pete, Steve & Carole wouldn't want that in any case.
 
It'd be cool if PA were to do a spot at a Summer festival somewhere, though. Let's see how stern of purpose Chillout Festival-goers really are, for example!  
 
A.
 
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Re: Important songs?
« Reply #4: 01.09.06 at 23:51 »
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I don’t think there is any doubt that the oeuvre of our heroes is very important for many of us.  There are words there that I will carry to my grave (and possibly put on my headstone), there are words that have made me laugh and cry and given me shivers.  There are words I have used (and still use) in my sigs on other boards.  There are words that describe my life and my relationships.
 
But is that enough?  To be significant in a broader sense, the words and songs have to reach a large enough audience to influence events.  They might well have influenced my small corner of the universe, but alas, they never reached enough people.  I personally consider this a tragedy of the first order, but I am afraid it is true.  How many people in the States know what I mean when I ask “have you got a biro I can borrow?”.  In fact, how many people in UK would follow my train of thought?
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Re: Important songs?
« Reply #5: 02.09.06 at 23:45 »
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Important? To us, inwardly and personally, no doubt. To music / the world / that bloke on the Sheffield supertram? Alas no. To any one of us considering the outside world, again I believe no. Importance as a parameter sits uneasily, I think, on popular culture: a continuum, but at some not-too-well-defined point the popular has diverged totally from the classical -- perhaps it's its age, or lack of it, that does it, though there's also the serious / frivolous axis. Any way, it's not really fair to compare Lloyd Webber with Mozart, McGough with Dante, or even Milch with Shakespeare -- they're different kinds of thing.  
 
I find myself agreeing with much that David says. Yes, Dylan is a special case and few would dispute the application of the 'I' word to his work. But it's hard to find another it fits so well. It's not as if, as IC reminds us, his work is all that good in absolute terms -- it just seems to have been, like that of the Beatles, the right thing at the right time. There are many, several of whom David mentions, who have written better words or music, performed better, and whom I (for one) enjoy more, but no one seems quite to have attained Zim's status. It's one of the few things the subjective collective seems to agree upon, but that doesn't make it objective.
 
Objectivity is a hard one: to adopt the angel's-eye view in these relativist times is to invite heated disagreement or total apathy: most are most willing to discuss their own likes and dislikes, but shy from absolutism. I think this is the main difficulty with the 'Important' assertion -- it's seen by many as a pompous notion, which makes it deeply unfashionable.
 
I don't agree, by the way, that performance functions as a 'prop' for many of these songwriters -- most I'd guess write for themselves to sing and play on record and stage, with little thought of cover versions. But that's another topic.
 
While David is seeking a perspective taking in the last 50 years of popular music, I think Martin is measuring the songs' importance in relation to the smaller universe of today's acoustic music scene. Alas, here again I fear we fail the 'I' test, even when that 'I' stands for 'influence'. Guitarists, fiddlers, pianists and singers can all name their influences, but songwriters? -- well, mostly it just happens, doesn't it? Who beyond a handful of English chansonniers would cite Atkin and James?
 
So I'm with Bogus on this: we can't claim Importance in the absence of fame, or better, recognition. If that Biro's just a ballpoint and the queue just happens to wind down the corridor, who cares?
 
But if you ask me whether the work deserves recognition then that's a whole 'nother story. The very reason for Smash Flops and Midnight Voices, today as it was 10 years ago, is to prevent these songs being forgotten. At first it was hoped we'd just gather a few of the 10,000 or so who bought the LPs in the 70s, to see Pete play again and (we hoped) introduce us to the few songs even we dedicated followers missed. I had no great hope of success: to me it was vindication indeed to hear, with a select group of proto-Voices, Pete at Monyash in 1997 singing Canoe, History and Geography, Search and Destroy. New (to me) songs! And to duet once again with Julie Covington for the first time since (was it?) 1970. When See For Miles reissued all six albums (seven if you include Julie's) on CD, well, we'd made it -- the songs and their performances were saved from worn vinyl and oxide-shedding masters. And that was before the new material started to come through.
 
In those gentle early days we'd blamed the reach of the Internet for our limited following: surely there was an unwired majority out there with no way of accessing the good news; a few public concerts, with press coverage, would rectify that and bring about a full-scale revival. In 1998 we played Buxton Opera House (just up the road from Monyash), and we were able to add Clive to the bill. With press plugs in Derby, Sheffield and Manchester and mentions, maybe even the odd interview, on local radio, surely it would be a sell-out. As it happened we accommodated (IIRC) 600 or so, most of whom I'm sure came expecting to hear Clive demonstrate the kind of rehearsed wit he'd made such a hit with on television, and not really caring about the guy singing the songs, or indeed their words.
 
It's now ten years on from that 1996 'shall we stage a revival?' moment, and we've had two full-scale 'Pete and Clive' tours of the UK and one of Australia. They've played the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, for goodness' sake, and the Bridgewater in Manchester. And everyone who'd understand the songs now has Internet access in one form or another. But here we stay, with 360 signed-up members.
 
I'm not arguing, David, with your proposal that we should be making one last big push to get the songs known and widely appreciated for the magical body we know them to be. Perhaps they could even begin to look Important. But don't underestimate the chances they've already been given and failed over the past ten years. Result: a handful of mentions in radio interviews and in the press, a few airings on BBC radio, the printing of name cards for CD browser racks in Virgin and HMV, and a few more Google hits than the original zero. No TV commercial used a song, no high-profile artist made a cover version. Clive has been generous in his mentions of the songs, something it's not easy to steer a TV interview onto. Pete makes time to do a gig pretty much whenever and wherever he's asked, for a fee which in many cases barely covers his travelling expenses, let alone his time. To ratchet things up to a higher level needs radical moves, and those need to go beyond some rookie local newspaper reporter covering a 'fan-club' gig and writing about the 'grey-haired faithful' or some such crap. Or indeed an also-ran spot on a festival stage somewhere.
 
The QEH gig, or something similar, might have been an opportunity for some orchestrated publicity. But that needs investment, both of the artists' time and the cost of mounting any kind of campaign. Let's face it, both the SFM and HRO publicity machines were pretty low in the horsepower stakes. Pete and Clive would have to care as much as we do about making it happen, to the extent of setting aside time from their ongoing careers, and someone would have to put up the money. Maybe even re-record the songs which worked so well in 70s rock band arrangements, but in a style more up-to-date -- a huge undertaking. I'm not sure the potential returns can be shown to justify the effort at this stage, especially given the unpredictability of the market, and who could we trust to do a feasibility study? My guess is that even with total confidence in the quality of the artists and their work it might not look capable of paying off.
 
As you note, Clive's profile is due for raising this autumn, and no doubt his songwriting period will be adequately represented in the book. It would be opportune timing for any new push, but I for one don't know how to make the breakthrough. I don't believe ThOD is the forum to discuss this, especially since we've configured it as a concert rather than a full-day social event as some previous *oDs have been. But if anyone has the ideas and the energy to respond to your call for action I'm more than happy for MV to be the channel which facilitates it. Keep the thread alive!
 
Steve
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Re: Important songs?
« Reply #6: 03.09.06 at 18:53 »
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Thanks to Steve and the internet (but mainly Steve) the Atkin/James songs have been spread around again, and as he says, there have been few takers.  But in terms of important songs it is possible the sixties were a unique time-slot that will not come again.  There was worldwide ferment, especially amongst the youth, even though much of it was quiet in the UK.  There were hundreds of thousands of American kids in Vietnam, there was communism on the wane, there was the massive baby boom generation just beginning to make itself felt, there was the first movement of drugs into the mainstream, there was a feeling that anything was possible.  Life seems different now.
 
One’s youth was always a different time, but I do wonder if that was an era where people were ready to consider songs important and influential, and today is an era where it is not so true.  As an example, one of Dylan’s major influences in his early work was Woody G.  We have had releases of Woody’s unknown songs, TV programs, concerts, the lot.  But really, they made almost no impact.  What did make the impact was looking back to Dylan’s early work.  It seems there is no great perceived need for “new” important songs, even if they are old ones that people have not heard.
 
And it makes me sad
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David Morgan
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Re: Important songs?
« Reply #7: 05.09.06 at 22:00 »
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Thanks to all for your thoughts. Steve’s reply brings home how difficult it is to convince the world that a bunch of songs is worthwhile: I share his disappointment in where we are today, ten years on from the revival and even via the Queen Elizabeth Hall (that was news to me!).
 
Steve is also right to point out that there’s no sense in a grand project to convert the ignorant at this point: nor are we interested in the Sheffield Telegraph reporting on a fan club event. But I still argue that we have a great story to tell to leading music & arts journalists for the national and specialist press, and that the near-coincidence of ThOD and Clive’s new book provides a hook on which to hang such a story. A concerted contact campaign by a few of us, based on a good script, could be more effective than the efforts of any record-company PR machine: we would at least be relatively unusual!
 
A rumble of commentary about lost jewels just might ensue, and such rumbles can (very occasionally) turn into roars: look at what happened to Nick Drake’s reputation years after his death. You don’t need to be dead - see the Mississippi John Hurt story above - but you do need a big slice of luck. That’s something long overdue hereabouts, so maybe it’s our turn….
 
I hasten to add that when I mentioned discussing these ideas at ThOD, I wasn’t suggesting a heist of the event: a horrible thought! Rather I imagined a few like minds gathering in the pub, and perhaps agreeing to write letters & make phone calls. Of course, it would be extremely helpful to have Pete actively involved, & even more so if he could persuade Clive to undertake another (short) joint tour to which media contacts could be directed. I’m assuming that 2005’s ‘At It Again’ was both fun and mildly profitable: otherwise forget this last idea!
 
A final point about the dread word ‘Important’: clearly it has negative connotations for Pete, Ian and Steve, and probably also for others. So, less ambiguously, let’s rather say ‘Unique, high-quality, well worth keeping alive for more people and for the future’: that’s what I really feel about the songs of Atkin and James. Renewed critical attention achieved wide notice for the unique music of Nick Drake and John Hurt, so it should still be possible for our two heroes as well.
 
Meanwhile, I wish all ThOD-goers a great event. The rest of the world goes on missing out on such delights!
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