Lyrics Workshop Transcript -- see reportage

Lyrics Workshop

Garden Party, Monyash, Saturday 17 July 1999

Panellists:  Roy Brown, Andrew Long, Leslie Moss, Sylfest Muldal    Chair:  Mel Powell

Mel:   Thanks very much for that introduction. For those that I haven't met before, my name is Mel Powell and this bit has been known so far as the Lyrics Workshop, where with my panel of experts, we're going to attempt to answer any questions from the audience about aspects of the lyrics of Clive James and Pete Atkin. Just in case the questions aren't forthcoming, we've prepared some in advance.

I have to say first of all that it takes a very brave person to follow up a session by Pete, particularly one as successful as the one he's just played it takes a hell of a lot of bottle. In my case, it was probably about three-quarters of a bottle of red wine which I'd drunk on the evening I saw Cary's email suggesting that someone, possibly Mel, should think about doing this workshop so if it doesn't work out, Cary, part of the blame is on you.

Fortunately, I've not been left to languish alone. Four gallant gentlemen have stepped in to save me from having to stand up and deliver what I feared might have had to become the annual Clive James lyrics lecture. I'd like to introduce the panel for those who don't know them yet: Leslie Moss, Sylfest Muldal, Roy Brown and Andrew Long, whom you haven't met so far today because he's the only non-Band member on the panel.

As I've said already, the panellists will be ready to try to answer any question from the audience on the lyrics of Clive James and Pete Atkin. Don't be too disappointed if we have to pass: nobody has a totally encyclopaedic knowledge of the whole canon of lyrics, and it may be that your view on your particular lyric is better informed than ours anyway.

To get us going, I've promised one audience member in particular that we'll look at one lyric today. Ages ago, Stephen Payne requested that we should look at History and Geography at the workshop today, and before we do anything else, I'm ready to accede to your wish.

First of all, members of the panel what is History and Geography all about? What's the general import of the song?

Sylfest:   I think it is one of the saddest songs that Pete sings, and it seems broken right from the beginning. It seems to be the narrative of a person who is probably clinically depressed, who is so much into his sadness that he knows every nook and cranny of it. It's a study of his life, and he's so wrapped up in it that he's become a bit of a sad expert on his own sadness. I think that the first line is a tremendous set-up for what's to come. Something I don't understand is the geographical references he puts in the Point of Tears, the Pinnacle of Happiness and all that sort of thing there's an echo here of something else, but I don't know what it is.

Roy:   John Bunyan.

Sylfest:   Pilgrim's Progress. I'd criticise this lyric because there's very little History in it, there's more Geography. Apart from the dates of broken bubbles, there's very little history in it at all. (That would be the South Sea Bubble, I suppose the speculation crisis.) It's all geography, isn't it?

Stephen Payne:   The bit where it gets confusing is where it starts quoting Shakespeare. Could you read that verse out for us?

Mel:   Without a home, without a name, a girl of whom to say, this is my sister For I am all the daughters of my father's house, and all the brothers too I comb the rubble of a shattered world to find the bright face of an angel And say again, and say again, that I have written this, this is for you.

The quotation "For I am all the daughters of my father's house, and all the brothers too" comes from Twelfth Night. It's said by Viola who, as is often the case in Shakespearean comedies, is a girl dressed up as a boy. The context of the quote is that she's recently been shipwrecked on the coast of Illyria, and she believes that her twin brother Sebastian has drowned in the shipwreck , leaving her as the only representative of her family. We've got a sister who is effectively dressed as her dead brother, talking about the sister that she never had. By using this quotation in the context of the song, the narrator is saying "I feel like a castaway as well. I'm coming down on the plane to the place that I call my homeland, but unlike Viola, I don't even have a brother to look back on, or a sister." It's a roundabout way of explaining the narrator's loneliness at that point.

It's the ideal listener that he's looking for, I think. He says: "I comb the rubble of a shattered world to find the bright face of an angel". I suppose it's the ideal love to whom all the songs would be written.

Andrew:   That knocks onto an interesting theme throughout the work. When there's a 'you' or some word like that, it often doesn't mean a particular individual. It's a generic term that can actually change in meaning throughout the course of a song, so that we look at our peril if we try and concentrate too much on finding the the actual specific person.

Audience:   A lot of the lyrics of the songs in the repertoire are unrequited love songs. This one might be like that too, or it might be a rather more desperate stage.

Mel:   Yes, it's a good point, and ties in well with Sylfest's feeling that this lyric is really the epitome of depression.

Sylfest:   To look at it in an analytical way, instead of solving his problem, the narrator seems to have fallen inside it. So it has a kind of dusty schoolroom feel, like History and Geography lessons. The narrator is haunting an old schoolroom here: he's just not moved on.

Leslie:   I don't know when the song was written, but for me it has resonances of Thirty Year Man, which is also about a man who is in the world, but in some sense out of it. The musical side of both songs is quite similar in many respects. They're both written in a major key but they're quite slow and they're not particularly upbeat. This one in particular is not a minor key song: there's a degree of optimism in the music and it seems to me that there's almost a false pessimism in the lyrics. I don't know if that's being a bit unfair, but it seems he's almost writing it to make the point of depression, without being depressed when he wrote it.

Audience:   I'd like to make Pete's earlier point that the setting does reflect the pronunciation and the feel of the lyrics.

Mel:   Yes, very much so. The music mirrors the way you pronounce the words so well that it works together beautifully. Roy, you haven't said much about this so far.

Roy:   I think one point on looking at "This is for you" is that there isn't necessarily a particular 'you'. What he's saying is 'I'm looking for an angel, so that I can say "This is for you"' And in the last line verse, "Those angel faces flame their last, and flicker out into the night". In other words, he's not finding anyone to say it to. I think the depression there in many ways is the deepest, and I think in many ways he recognises that it's self-inflicted. For example, "From the Heights of Arrogance". It's something that he does: he knows that he's destructive, he knows that he drives people away. In a way, he knows that what he is looking for is what he himself is most likely to drive away, to make 'flicker out'. For me, it's a very black song.

Mel:   I'm glad that you've pinpointed those final lines, because I find them particularly haunting. I'll just read them for the audience:

"And from the Heights of Arrogance, across the steps that later I regretted I see those angel faces flame their last, and flicker out into the night."

And Roy, you think that that's because through his arrogance, he's alienated perhaps the very person that the song could be for. What about the rest of you how do you read that final image? Do you think it is about the narrator losing his chance of understanding, or are we looking at a more general image of destruction than that?

Sylfest:   I think he clearly sees that he's on a course of destruction. I think the idea of looking for an angel is an obvious loser right from the start that the 'flickering out' is as much a flickering out of hopes which he'e deluded himself into up to this point where he sees just how bad it is. With regard to the real pessimism of this, which I find is very strong, I've tried singing this and it's actually quite hard to sing. Although it's got a lovely melody line, in which the first line is echoed in the third, the fourth line ends up almost muttering, it's so low and so quiet that it's almost as if he's giving up in the fourth line and that's unusual for Atkin/James songs.

Leslie:   Can I just comment on something else which has come to mind just looking at the lyrics? A couple of lines in the second verse

"But all I seem to see and hear is something I'm unable to remember The flowing speech that stuttered out, the pretty song that faded on the air."

That to me suggests that this is not simply a comment on his inability to find the right person, but that he almost found the right person in the past, and the speech stuttered out, the song faded on the air, as though he blew his opportunity.

Ben Coulson:   With regard to the point Roy made that the narrator's depression is probably self-inflicted, the guttering-out of the angel faces is a plural, which is an underlying theme and a pattern. He's been looking at a target, one person he's been making into an angel, and meanwhile all these others that it could have been he's just passed by and then with the loss of faith, when he finally gets within reach of this angel, he finds it's not what it seems to be, so that's the destruction at the end.

Mel:   I think that's a very interesting interpretation of the flaming-out and flickering into the night.

Audience:   Perhaps he never gets, in fact, to the final person.

Mel:   That's a good point: this idea of a whole succession of loved ones, similar to Beware of the Beautiful Stranger, when of course the final one is Death. Here you've got the succession of angel faces finally flickering out into the night, which is another image of final destruction. The same sort of idea crops up in the works of Thomas Hardy, where the Well-Beloved seems to migrate from person to person in the novel of that name, she reappears as women across three generations of the same family. The fact that this happens is the main character's curse, in a way that love doesn't incarnate itself in one particular woman for any period of time.

Audience:   But it's not a series of loved ones, it's a series of fantasy figures and no-one meets his idealisation of women and that's why no-one can meet his expectations. That's true of many of the songs, especially Beware of the Beautiful Stranger. I'm very interested in Clive's attitude to women it feels unreal, it feels idealised, and that's where the plots of many of the songs occur.

Mel:   I'm very pleased that you've made that point, because that's one of the issues we were planning to discuss later. I think it's a good opportunity to slide seamlessly into that topic.

Roy:   Before we do the one verse we haven't touched on is the third verse, and that's a re-reading of The Prince of Aquitaine. It's the same theme he's coming back in an aircraft but in that lyric, the highway lights of sodium were cut and set like gems, and he was reasonably optimistic, although there was bad stuff down there. Here, the scene is laid out like a kit of instruments. He doesn't say what instruments, but one imagines them to be surgical instruments or a dentist's instruments. Again, he's seeing a scene that he's seen in a different song, but he's seeing it blacker, through a depression.

Leslie:   Just to hear the last line of that verse which has to be one of the most depressing lines in any music, I think "I know that nothing lives which doesn't hold its place more worthily than I". That's a fairly depressing statement.

Sylfest:   I think that's a very brave line to write, actually. I was very pleased to see that because that's what the song is about.

Audience:  The subject matter of the song is black and serious, whereas the title of the song is almost corny. This is a curious mixture (inaudible)

Sylfest:   The mixture actually happens again and again. Perfect Moments goes the opposite way. You get this wonderful set of great things, the perfect things, and then at the end it dives the opposite way, into depression. People were saying earlier how the music jumps from one extreme to the other: I think the lyrics do as well.

Leslie:   There's almost an irony in the opening line. "The History and Geography of feeling less than wonderful is known to me", and then the rest of the song is about anything but 'feeling less than wonderful' feeling suicidally depressed. It's a very understated opening line.

Ben Coulson:   I think the title is about every time and every place. He's considered every time and every place but has found no happiness in any of them.

Mel:   I think what the idea of History and Geography does for me, and how it ties in with the kit of instruments is that you're looking at a mood being delineated with almost surgical precision. 'Feeling less than wonderful' is a very general phrase. Talking about being depressed and being able to pinpoint, just as accurately as that kit of instruments could, the exact times and places at which you started to lose your idealism, where things started to go wrong that's what makes the song for me. It's the precision of knowing exactly where the slide started and where the mistakes were. That's what makes it for me not a general song about depression, but a very specific song about the loss of faith.

Ben Coulson:   Sylfest said there was a lot of geography but not much history. For anyone who's looking back on their life, the times and dates are very difficult to remember. Places and locations are a lot easier to remember than times.

Sylfest:   I was really joking about the history I don't think it's an important flaw. I think it was put in to crystallise the phrase, but it isn't all there in fact. But it doesn't matter at all the geography is much closer to the emotional truth.

Audience:   I'd just like to take slight issue with the statement about a certain line being a very brave line to write. What you're saying is that these are actually the feelings of Clive James, whereas when you consider a song like I See The Joker, you don't think that he's some sort of drug baron. He's actually writing a song here, but I don't think we should assume that these feelings are personal to him.

Sylfest:   I agree with you there. I guess the word is not brave: I think it shows the integrity of the lyric.

Audience:   You have to remember that these are narratives they are stories.

Mel:   I think the distance between the author and the narrator is a very important point to make. I feel that the distance is variable that in some cases, the narrator is closer to Clive than in others. I suppose probably because of the use of the imagery of being on a plane, which crops up in several of the songs as well as in his poetry, it's difficult not to feel that Clive is perhaps a bit closer to the narrator in this one.

I'd like now to move on from History and Geography, to pick up on the topic that Andy introduced, because it's one that Sylfest also came up with when we discussing what we might look at in advance of the workshop this question of how far women are idealised in Clive James' lyrics. Andy, would you like to start us off by expanding a bit further on what you were saying?

Andy:   I think they are idealised. They're called 'girls' or 'ladies', they're all beautiful, they're all impossibly unattainable, which creates a tension between them and his own wordiness which sets them apart. It creates a sort of false emotional landscape where he can be self-pitying and inadequate. It also renders actual relationships an impossibility. So he's stuck in a series of fantasy figures.

Noam:   Isn't this close to what goes on in medieval love poetry, with poets creating the lady who is hard to approach, where his love is very distant and impossible to attain?

Mel:   Yes, very much so. The idea that the loved woman should be more or less completely unattainable was central to the ideal of courtly love, which informed the medieval poetic tradition from which later poetic tradition developed. So perhaps there is an element of that in a lot of literature. I'd like to go over to the panel at this point Leslie, what do you think? Are the women in Clive's lyrics impossibly idealised?

Leslie:   Yes, I think there's a lot of that. I think there are also songs in which he displays a more mature attitude, but the women is still unattainable for instance, in The Flowers and The Wine, where the narrator is invited to dinner with the girl he secretly loves. I don't think there's very much idealisation there, but the love is still very much unrequited, and in a way, the lyrics have more integrity because of the realistic setting. My understanding of Clive's situation when he wrote these lyrics is that he was in his late 20s he wasn't a star-struck 19-year-old. And I understand he's had a long and happy marriage he's not this person who you would think from the lyrics had a completely false image of women. I'm not sure to what extent he was trying to create a courtly love situation for artistic purposes or whether it reflected his true feelings: it would be interesting to find that out.

Mel:   Could I go over to you, Andrew?

Andrew:   I struggled with this particular area, and I wondered how far it was set in fact in its own time. Clive was writing from the late 60s to the mid 70s, and it's difficult to think ourselves back there. The nearest I could find was getting out my old videos of Monty Python, and seeing that at that time, the people who were taking part were the six principals, who were all men. The only women that you got were Eric Idle and Terry Jones dressed up as women, or Carol Cleveland coming on in a role that mocked the stereotypical woman. In something that was regarded quite highly in its time, it was actually quite common to depict women in a stereotypical way.

Roy:   Let's not forget Clive's depiction of Uncle Seabird, modelled on Ralph J Gleason, that this was somebody who by being Uncle Seabird 'could get all the fresh young poon-tang he wanted'. This isn't exactly an idealised version of women. I tend to incline towards the view that you have to be careful in your interpretation. Firstly, the lyrics are often not about the author: they are reproducing the experience of someone else. Secondly, again, you have to be careful about the type of song he's written. 'Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity'. Maybe Clive at 25 was writing about Clive at 19, when he wasn't handling things very well in that kind of area. I think a lot of it is paralysed by inertia for example, Girl on the Train. "To boldly encounter this creature was not in my power". For a lot of people, it would have been in their power they'd have spilled a drink down her front or something. There's this passivity.

Now the interesting thing about that is, Clive's still doing it today, in an awful lot of his television programmes. It's a joky persona, but basically he just comes up to people and says: "Tell me what you do, because I'm a complete fool. Why would you possibly be interested in me?" He knows that we're all interested, and he knows that we're all hanging on his every word, but it is the way he comes over. I wonder if once he really felt that way, and he's learned to keep it going. A lot of these songs come from that time. It's not that the women were unattainable in a technical sense, it's just that he hadn't quite got the bottle to get the hell out there and hook himself one.

Ben Coulson:   I think one side of the problem makes the other side worse. For instance, Girl on the Train. If she hadn't been so gorgeous, he'd have been able to go over and speak to her perfectly normally. But he's thinking of her as some beautiful creature. That's the problem he'd have to have a very good reason to talk to her, and as he thinks of the problem more and more, it just makes it impossible.

Roy:   If I can put a plug in for the next Changers set, there'll be a fascinating textual deconstruction on this issue that I know you'll all enjoy. (Note: This unashamed plug was for Gargoyle on a Drain!)

Sylfest:   I think it's dangerous to say, because it's the stock-in-trade of many lyric writers that women should be unattainable and idealised. But I think out of the many songs that Clive's written, the absence of fully-rounded central female characters suggests to me that he really does have a problem here. The one that really stands out to be as being utterly gob-smacking and it's a favourite song of mine is The Double Agent, because here he seems to twist the thing round in a quite pathological way. She's perfect and then he blames her for the troubles of the world. "How dare you be perfect, when they're starving over there?"

The first few lines are very difficult to sing. There's a lot of ten-dollar words that are quite difficult to get out there, and what are they?

"Your manifest perfections never cease to drive the day-long terrors out of mind They are the lights the darkness hides behind"

That would have to be his darkness at this point, surely.

"Allowing satisfaction its increase beyond the petty boundaries designed To keep us well aware the world's unkind And still your eyes proclaim a reign of peace."

But there's something rather strange here. For a start, she's perfect. And secondly, she's so perfect that there must be a trick here. She must be a double agent for the dark side. I'm impressed by the virtuosity of making that argument so beautifully in the lyric, but what an argument to make. "A million people get it in the head" and it's your fault.

Mel:   I've never read the question of fault into that lyric. I've simply seen it as part of the theme that crops up in the books as well as the lyrics of 'terrible simultaneity'. It's like what's happening in Care-Charmer Sleep: it's simply the switch that an intelligent, aware person makes when they're aware that part of their consciousness is being clouded by love. They're not seeing the world quite so clearly. Because she's so beautiful and he's in love, he's blinded temporarily to the fact that things are going dreadfully wrong elsewhere in the world. But I've never actually read moral blame into it

Sylfest:   I take that view mainly because of the title The Double Agent.

Roy:   There's a lot of support for Sylfest's view in the second verse, in one of those million destinies the ruined man who falls sideways far away.

"Supposing he was here Or she was there. My lover's mouth has not a word to say To stanch the flow or slow him on his way"

If you take that as meaning that even if she were there, she would have nothing to say in other words, that all those actions are of complete inconsequence to her, I think that supports Sylfest's reading.

Mel:   To round this one off, as the woman on the panel, I have to say that I think that the view of impossible romanticism about women in the lyrics is justified, but it would be a mistake to think that this is the only thing the author can do. He frequently undermines his own romanticism, as in You Can't Expect to Be Remembered, in which he undercuts the whole poetic tradition of immortalising ladies through verse. The phrase 'half-remembered ladies swathed in yearning', which seems to summarise the way in which a lot of women are described in the lyrics, is actually uttered by The Shadow and the Widower the figure of Death which appears and taunts the romantic lover with the insignificance of what he feels in comparision with the inevitability of universal death and destruction. Of the unromantic women in the lyrics, just look at the 'ladies with pink rinses' in Apparition in Las Vegas, who, knowing they've been deceived by the idea of romantic love and sexual glamour which Elvis represented, are still desperate for another nostalgia fix. For me, that's a totally unromantic image of women and a very poignant one.

Audience:   I've been reading the autobiographies, and actually he was rather a successful bit of a bastard where women were concerned. I'm just wondering to what extent he wrote these lyrics as a way of chat-up lins, or as a bit of a technique. (Laughter)

Leslie:   The lyric I've got in front of me is Tongue-Tied. Throughout the song, what you learn about is not the girl, but the feelings of the man. The girl is almost a cipher, and I think that in many of these songs, you, the listener, can put your own idealised person into the frame. I think if you're trying to make the song universal, it's difficult to avoid this type of idealisation. I think that what makes the songs so good as songs is partly their failings as social comment.

Audience:   Tongue-Tied can't possibly be about himself, particularly the bit about 'hearing the wits' winning ways' he had them all himself.

Mel:   And possibly that's a clue as to what's going on here. Romantic success does tend to spell the end for romantic poetry. If you're romantically successful, you tend to get married, have children and stop writing poems of unrequited love. Whereas if your imagination is fired by seeing a girl disappearing on the train or say, the girl in the gold silk jacket, a range of other life possibilities crops up, and with them, a range of new artistic possibilities which could be the clue to what's going on here.

Audience:   Can I ask what it's like for women to hear these kind of songs? I wonder if it's just an irritation, or if they have something they do that makes them enjoyable, in a different way from a bloke would do?

Mel:   Oh, in our own way we think equally silly things about blokes. I think we all romanticise in our own way.

Sylfest:   Commercial Traveller is a lovely encapsulation of real life around a romantic image. It's after the guy has come down with a bump.

Leslie:   Before we leave the subject of women, I'd like to hear what you have to say about the songs they wrote for Julie Covington. They had to place themselves in a woman's persona in order to make those songs work. Certainly some of the lyrics feel less contrived and less idealised than some other songs like Beware of The Beautiful Stranger, which were written at the same time.

Ben Coulson:   I do think the male persona comes over in some of those songs, for instance, The Beautiful Changes where 'the loveliest creatures that God ever made/have all picked a partner and joined the parade'. This picks up on the idea of unrequited love and not being where you want to be from the romantic point of view.

Mel:   Interestingly, I didn't see this as being a particularly male perspective. I thought it simply meant the beautiful young pairing off, which once you get into middle age you tend to view with an indulgent eye. I think it's simply about the beautiful young getting together, and being sucked into the need to go out and make a living.

Stephen:   I think the song which fits most interestingly with the themes we've been discussing is If I Had My Time Again, which puts into a woman's voice the idea of NOT being hard to get.

Leslie:   Stephen, isn't that the only song on the album which is definitely a woman's song? It's the only one that jumps out at me.

Sylfest:   Having heard Julie, they sounded great, especially things like F'r Instance. But I'm not sure I think of F'r Instance as being a woman's song any more.

Mel:   To me, most of the songs on that album seem to transcend gender and to sum up the common experience of humanity. That this should happen in a set of songs that were written for a woman to sing I find particularly interesting.

Sylfest:   It must have been quite an inspiration to Pete and Clive to have had Julie there to sing what they had written quite a spur to the song-writing. If, as been suggested by some of the Voices, Pete and Clive had continued as career songwriters, where would it have taken them? I know Ian Chippett once talked about musical comedy and writing those. The thought of those two writing for a broader audience I think it would have been terrific.

Mel:   Anyway, Steve is smiling at me, so it's time to bring this session to a close. I'm absolutely astounded at how quickly the time has gone I was convinced we'd run out of material, and instead we've over-run. It only remains me to thank the panel Leslie, Sylfest, Roy and Andrew thank you for being such a good audience, and finally, a special thank-you to Steve for making the lyrics so much more accessible, so we can have this kind of discussion even on unpublished material. Thank you very much indeed.


See also Leslie Moss's Review of Pete Atkin's evening set.

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