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Richard Benny
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A symbolist manqué ??
« : 23.05.13 at 13:38 »
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As a very keen, longstanding Atkin/James fan, I've been worrying away at the following over many years. I wonder if any MV member can help me with it?
 
Quote:
 
“A symbolist manqué, an unreconstructed Romantic without even the consolation of a rejection slip from The Yellow Book, Clive James could be longing for vermouth and oysters, rather than a tube of Fosters and a dish of prawns.”
 
This is from, I believe, a review of the Atkin/James album, The Road of Silk, containing the song ‘Payday Evening’ and, in particular, a review of Clive's lyrics. The review appeared (again, from my recall) in The New Statesman some time around 1973 or so, at the time of the album's release. I remember that the review touched upon Clive’s elegiac tone, the yearning quality apparent in this lyric (and others, of course) for something like a return to a better period, or, at least, to an era in which, “the styles” had not “gone to seed”. Clearly, the song has an achingly nostalgic air about it: “The poetic age has had its day.” I’ve always liked this Jamesian stance, looking with a clear focus at the dissonance between modern life (much reduced, diminished in many senses) and the vision (or possibly the  revisionist view) of an age which held literary expression and, I suppose, the creative arts generally in higher regard.  
 
Can any MV member help me to either (i) get hold of a copy of this review, at best, or (ii) trace it, at the very least?
 
I know that the digital archive for The New Statesman goes back only as far as 1998, so this review is probably not accessible digitally.
 
Richard Benny
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Re: A symbolist manqué ??
« Reply #1: 28.05.13 at 11:12 »
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Hi Richard - In the '70s I used to keep press cuttings with a meticulousness that that these looks obsessive and unduly self-regarding to the point of embarrassing, but it does mean that I can locate the review you refer to.  It was indeed in the New Statesman in the 7 June 1974 edition and it was written by Charles Fox, an eminent jazz critic and contributor to Radio 3 in those days.  And congratulations on recalling it almost precisely.  The review was indeed prompted by the release of The Road of Silk but it also takes in the three previous albums, although it doesn't mention them in any great detail.   It'd probably be favourite if I were to scan it and post it.  Anon anon.
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Re: A symbolist manqué ??
« Reply #2: 28.05.13 at 12:22 »
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OK, here's the piece.  I have preserved a couple of small errors and the punctuation except for an inconsistency in style between song titles and album titles.   Several thoughts occur to me after all this time, but I'll pass for now at any rate.  Mostly what occurs to me is how much an interest in the craft of songwriting has dwindled over the years.  It's hard to imagine a piece like this being written now.
 
-----
 
New Statesman
7 June 1974
Pop Songs
 
Charles Fox
 
Home, James?
 
Pete Atkin:

The Road of Silk RCA LPL1 5014 £2.18
A King At Nightfall RCA SF 8336 £2.18
Driving Through Mythical America RCA SF 8386 £2.18
Beware of the Beautiful Stranger RCA SF 8387 £2.18
 
Words are the only certain good.  Was it Yeats, or Auden, who handed down that pronunciamento?  Its arrogance, however, is shared by most writers who consider language to be more than a set of building bricks.  And nothing brings this arrogance out more nakedly than collaboration between poets and composers.  Yeats could be particularly vehement.  ‘The concert platform has wronged the poets by masticating their well-made words and turning them into spittle,’ he wrote in 1937.  Yeats even went on to repeat demands made 400 years earlier by Cranmer and Calvin – and after them by the Puritans – that songwriters be permitted only one note to each syllable.
 
Poems have their own rhythms, their own interior music, and words that vibrate on the page or inside the skull can be sabotaged by being turned into songs.  Similarly, lines that seem banal when written down are capable of taking on freshness and an emotional tang if set off by a musical line.  In other words, the song needs to be judged in action.  Clive James put this point of view quite forcefully in an essay he published in The Review in June 1970, and subsequently in a series of articles about pop songwriters in the magazine Cream.  None of those pieces has been reprinted in The Metropolitan Critic, which Jonathan Raban reviewed in the NS last week.  Perhaps James is getting together a book about the art of the lyric writer (if so, hurry on the day); or maybe he is worried about that gap between preaching and practising.
 
For although these LPs are devoted to performances by Pete Atkin, the real éminence grise is Clive James.  On the sleeve of the first three records (they are listed in reverse order of issue, by the way, with the newest at the top) his picture appears smaller or else he is standing at the rear, but on the latest one, significantly enough he and Atkin sit facing each other.  For James is the man who sets the pace, writing the words, then passing them to Atkin to turn into a song.  The practice is hallowed enough.   One imagines Brecht handing Kurt Weill his stint for the day – which helps to explain why Weill changed his style so much when setting the work of other lyric writers.  So did Richard Rodgers, the sentimentalities of Oscar Hammerstein uncorking different juices to those released by the dry wit of Lorenz Hart.  There have been loners, of course: Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, as well as latterday singer-composers like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman.  And there is Billy Strayhorn, who may be only a one-lyric man, but that song, ‘Lush Life’, is properly idolised by Clive James as the ideal mingling of words and music.
 
But what James and Atkin produce between them seems to have more in common with the poetry-and-jazz concoctions of the late 1950s than with Strayhorn’s cunning fusion.  In their songs the words are definitely on top (poets were always keener on p-and-j than jazzmen), the composer’s skills being largely spent on reinforcing the message rather than flighting a melody.  Atkin happens to be both a good singer and a clever arranger, but he does appear to be a bit too awe-struck by James’s muse.  Which is silly, because Beware of the Beautiful Stranger  contains two songs of his own – words as well as music – that illustrate how tightly sound and sense can interlock. It’s revealing to compare Atkin’s ‘Original Honky Tonk Train Blues’, lyric fitting inside the rhythms of the music, with ‘Our Lady Lowness’ (LPL1 5014), where James’s attempt at a blues is lamed by cuteness and over-writing (the rot begins setting in with the third stanza).  Yet James’s ambitions are broad;  he tries to accomplish much more than the average pop-song writer – even if it is sometimes only a matter of notching up cultural cross-references.  (‘Driving Through Mythical America’ stands head-and-shoulders above Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ partly because the nostalgia is better-class, flattering the listener who knows about Rosebud and Moose Malloy.)
 
A good few of the tunes that everybody whistles deal with the exploits or self-pity of swinging adulterers.  (Johnny Mercer’s ‘One For My Baby’ is a stunning example of the genre.)  Cole Porter transformed the tittle-tattle and catch-phrases of a narrow clique into brilliantly enamelled songs.  Head-on attempts at greater social significance have always proved tricky.  (Randy Newman is probably the most convincing exponent around today;  sardonic, able to assume a variety of personae.)  As soon as Clive James tries too hard it can be embarrassing:  ‘Senior Citizens’ (LPL1 5014) begins with a doleful catalogue of OAP’s ailments that might have won 10 out of 10 from Chris Searle.  When James scores it is with a tangential thrust or a metaphorical distancing.
 
Happily the newest LP is full of songs of this calibre.  In ‘An Array Of Passionate Lovers’, about the retreat of the flower children (‘They all wear blood knows in their hair’), music and words cohere to suggest the unease of disillusion.  And elsewhere, alongside the smartness (‘He couldn’t tell a wa-wa from Akira Kurosawa’), there is an elegiac air, a stylish melancholy, surfacing most purely in ‘Payday Evening’, lamenting the collapse of love as much as our 20th-century squalor, its despair somehow closer to Dowson or Arthur Symons or John Davidson that to the image of that wide-awake Aussie, that over-bright TV reviewer.  An unreconstructed Romantic, a Symbolist manqué, without even the consolation of a rejection slip from The Yellow Book, Clive James could be longing for vermouth and oysters rather than a tube of Foster’s and a dish of prawns.
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Rob Spence
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Re: A symbolist manqué ??
« Reply #3: 28.05.13 at 19:06 »
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Thanks for posting this, Pete - what a joy to read such a literate and thought-provoking piece.  And £2.18 for an album!
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Ian Chippett
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Re: A symbolist manqué ??
« Reply #4: 29.05.13 at 12:43 »
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<<Yeats even went on to repeat demands made 400 years earlier by Cranmer and Calvin – and after them by the Puritans – that songwriters be permitted only one note to each syllable. >>
 
This was till the rule in the era of musical comedy except the music usually came first. I read somewhere that the lyric of "Tea For Two" was just to give the writer a basic set of syllables to go on as he'd never be able to recall the tune when he got home. In fact, they used the original though maybe with revison.
 
Ian C
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